The History of British Trotskyism to 1949

by Martin Upham


1938 – 1941

British Trotskyists, like the general labour movement, were increasingly concerned about war. During the peacetime years up to 1939 they were able to live off the traditional Bolshevik view of imperialist war, though there was already controversy about what this meant in practical terms. No Trotskyists supported the war when it finally broke out: all factions continued to maintain that it was an imperialist war. But a bitter and protracted dispute developed between the RSL, the WIL and the Fourth International over the application of the anti-patriotic line.

The general Trotskyist attitude to war was established as early as 1934. War and the Fourth International (1934) [1] declared that a future world conflict would be imperialist and called for opposition to patriotism in all capitalist countries. War was likely to threaten the Soviet Union and there it was the duty of the working class to seek defence. The support of socialist and trade union leaders in every country for their government in the event of war was predicted as a certainty. British Trotskyists vigilantly watched the rising threat of war which they saw as a political issue dwarfing most others. In 1935 it had been enough to reverse the policy of the Marxist Group. From that year also, part of the Trotskyist charge against communism was its willingness to support an alliance of anti-fascist powers, if such a project should be cobbled into reality. When Trotskyists speculated on war, they drew on knowledge of the Great War, the only precedent they had. In 1936 Groves forecast dilution, the skeletal emergence of strike-breaking machinery and the exclusion of “leftists” from war industry. He predicted a gradual loss of trade union rights and recommended resistance to conscription, which was likely to be introduced in peacetime. Only thus would democratic countries be able to match their national resources to those of fascist countries. [2]

Suspicion of war preparations led Trotskyists to oppose every step in that direction. Their difficulty was that if their response was confined to opposition of this kind they were doomed to impotence. The Marxist Group recognised the problem early on:

“While we must combine planning for protection with anti-war propaganda, and must make every effort to present the outbreak of another world war, we cannot neglect to face the possibility of that war, and meet the problems involved”. [3]

But that conclusion could be drawn only after a frank recognition that the international situation was deteriorating faster than Trotskyism was gathering strength. There was no widespread disposition to face the implications of this unpalatable truth. [4] When E.L. Davis argued within the Militant Group for penetration of ARP organisations [5] he was rebuked. [6]

Just as Trotskyists assumed that labour and trade union leaders would rally patriotically, they were also sensitive to signs of backsliding within their own movement. [7] This made it difficult to move beyond an abstract anti-war line. But the capitulation of socialist leaders had taken place, among other reasons, because of intense mass pressure. This was hardly a problem for Trotskyists to worry about, and time was to show that chauvinistic hysteria would not, in any case, recur. If Trotskyism was to break out of isolation, it needed something more than a formal programme, however well grounded in Leninist precept. The Transitional Programme of the Fourth International, the second major document of the movement on war, tried to reach beyond pacifism, arguing “workers must learn the military arts” [8], but it was also an optimistic document declaring that crisis would shatter all parties and the Fourth International must be available to rally the proletariat.

This strictly general guidance left Trotskyists in Britain and elsewhere in a formal argument. They faced a political environment which was utterly different to that whose precedents provided so much of their inspiration, the prelude to World War One. The political battles of the left about war and rearmament were fought not in 1939 but in the mid 1930s. Key events in shifting the Labour Party from a broadly anti-war position were the trouncing of Lansbury at the 1935 conference and the critical vote of the PLP in July 1937 to abstain on the Service Department estimates, reversing its earlier position of opposition. [9] British Communist policy had been unqualified as late as 1934 [10] but by a series of national and international changes its main thrust became a drive to make sure Britain was on the right side in a peace front. [11] This induced increased political loneliness which tended to reinforce Trotskyists’ views.

They rejected any involvement with war preparations. No fine distinctions between attack and defence were allowed to pass, even a zigzag trench. [12] For all the occasional doubts of individuals, there were no differences here between the factions. [13] The RSL conducted an internal discussion over ARP, which culminated in the executive declaring against it after being advised by Jackson not to stand on passing proletarian moods. “The workers”, he advised, “are in general backward and lag behind the necessities of history.” [14] ARP was another means of reconciling the civil population to war. This attitude contrasts strongly with contemporary communist policy. [15]

Early 1939 saw Trotskyism resigned to being swamped by chauvinism on the outbreak of war. [16] But its isolation did not spring from the anticipated patriotic wave. Conscription, an important step towards militarization, was introduced in April 1939 for the first time in peace. [17] Resentment was qualified, even among the communists. [18] In the battle against conscription and the National Register only Trotskyism, the still pacifist ILP, and Labour mavericks battled it out minus reservations. The RSL however was later to reject the policy it followed at this time, whereby it allowed its members to make conscientious objection at tribunals. [19] Faced with imminent war, Trotskyists consistently called for Soviet defence. The circumstances leading to the Non-Aggression Pact of August 1939 were criticised, but not the right of the Soviets to conclude such an agreement. But WIL did attack the way communists in Britain presented it. [20]

The Militant Labour League greeted the outbreak of war with a manifesto branding it as imperialist and calling for the overthrow of the British ruling class. At this general level there was no patriotic incursion into any of the Trotskyists’ ranks. Where the factions differed was in their expectations of what the first few months would be like. The Socialist Anti-War Front, partly through its activity in the No-Conscription League had some success in putting itself at the centre of a movement with support from trades councils. Reg Groves used the extra channels open to him as a Labour candidate to maintain a stream of criticism until official party policy changed. [21] The RSL [22] and WIL both expected heavy and immediate suppression, and WIL actually anticipated it by moving a centre into exile. [23] The RSL had a particular fixation with chauvinist hysteria and continued to believe it was rampant in the face of all evidence. [24] There was opposition to the war, but it tended, like support for it, to be low key, devoid of enthusiasm. Everyone had lived with the likelihood of war for some time, and for political activists there was also the comforting thought that Britain was at least in a war against fascism. [25] These two factors, one affecting the majority and the other the minority isolated all revolutionaries, some of whom misread unanimity for enthusiasm.

As for the form of objection to the war, this was a problem in itself. The Call of the SAWF publicised conscientious objection, but this presented theoretical problems for Trotskyists. Mere refusal to take part was simply pacifism. The RSL expelled SAWF participants for this very reason. But while their view was that arms could be taken up either to defend workers’ organisations or overthrow a capitalist government, this was of little help in the concrete circumstances of September 1939. Capitalism still existed: it had not been overthrown. On a basis of non-complicity in an era of growing militarization of life, it would be difficult to distinguish Trotskyism from pacifism. Trotskyism had a rich Marxist legacy to draw on. Liebknecht had argued that the enemy of the workers was in their own country. The Bolshevik slogan for the turning of the imperialist war into a civil war was well known. [26] Revolutionary defeatism was considered the duty of the Fourth International. Even before the war, however, Trotsky was trying to reach beyond these simple principles. He reminded the International, “An irreconcilable attitude against bourgeois militarism does not at all signify that the proletariat in all cases enters into a struggle against its own national army”. [27]

Trotskyism expected the CPGB to support the war. This had been the drift of party policy before 1939. When it was reversed a month after war began, the communists moved to a policy which was radical but not Leninist. The most radical phase of this policy fell between October and the Fall of France. [28] During this time the war was damned as an imperialist conflict by the party, with the main blame falling upon the British and. the French. [29] It did not call for the war to be turned into a civil war, but demanded the replacement of Chamberlain with a new government pledged to begin peace negotiations. [30] WIL regarded communist policy at this time as pro-Hitler, and this belief was a motive behind the revulsion of many on the left from the party. [31] The change in the programme of the CPGB did not make it more well disposed towards Trotskyism. [32].

But the bourgeoisie was no more inclined to civil war than the proletariat. The first nine months of the conflict, the Phoney War, were notable for relaxation at home, if anything, to the irritation of many in the labour movement. [33] This again conflicted with forecasts. WIL argued that the pliancy of labour leaders rendered a strong state apparatus superfluous and concluded that the National Government had a “firm hold”. [34] But elections continued, and offered an opportunity for anti-war candidates of various kinds to oppose it. In this phase of the war, the general absence of discontent was reflected in their low votes. [35]

The Fall of France shifted the balance of communist policy [36] and tilted WIL in a new direction. [37] If the much heralded patriotic wave had any substance it was during the period from Dunkirk to the start of the Battle of Britain. [38] This could only strengthen the convictions of the RSL. WIL concluded that this was the time to build on an anti-fascist mood. It still expected government repression but began to see an opportunity to differentiate between those who would and who would not fight a genuinely anti-fascist war. [39] But the RSL saw in responses to the Fall of France “a determination to make any sacrifices to help British imperialism to win”. [40] It continued to assume that the first sign of a move to the left would be war weariness. In the WIL and in the SWP, however, thoughts were turning towards a programme on which those participating in the war could stand. It was the beginning of a search for a “Military Policy” which would advance positive proletarian tactics for winning an anti-fascist war.

The Emergency Conference of the Fourth International, held in New York in May 1940, issued its own manifesto. [41] It did not treat Military Policy in any detail, though it affirmed it as the only programme adequate for the needs of the epoch. Military Policy, it suggested, was an approach, not a principle. The war was merely a theatre in which Trotskyists advanced their views: Just as in a factory, they shared the experiences of other workers. Since the proletariat had failed to prevent war, it must now seek to remove the ruling classes from leading positions within it. The RSL received this manifesto with considerable embarrassment, and published it with a partial disclaimer. [42] WIL’s reception was cordial and from 1940 Youth for Socialism carried its own military programme in every issue. [43]

What became known as the American Military Policy (AMP) rested on two principal texts: a speech by J.P. Cannon to the Chicago convention of the SWP in September 1940 and his presentation on behalf of several defendants at a trial for sedition the next year in Minneapolis. At Chicago Cannon called for public money wherewith the trade unions might set up their own military training camps. [44] He argued that the pre-war policy of the Fourth International had been sound but insufficient. Trotskyists had warned against war yet failed to prevent it:

“It is not quite correct to say that the old line was wrong. It was a programme devised for the fight against war in time of peace. Our fight against war under conditions of peace was correct as far as it went. But it was not adequate. It must be extended.” [45]

As Cannon recalled, Trotskyism was at a disadvantage when it lacked concrete suggestions as to how Hitler might be resisted. It had formerly argued for the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and then repulsion of the invaders. Now, he suggested, the two tasks must be telescoped. At the Minneapolis Trial of October 1941, Cannon went out of his way to reject sabotage of a war effort or. indeed any hindrance to it. He also opposed draft dodging. [46]

The RSL was to accuse WIL of lifting Military Policy from its American context, but there was stimulus enough for it in the last writings of Trotsky and even in some of his articles from before the war. Trotsky had been involved in a lengthy discussion with SWP members on attitudes towards war preparation. He advised against draft avoidance [47] and argued for using military training to acquire skills of arms. Military Policy

“... is revolutionary in its essence and based upon the whole character of our epoch, when all questions will be decided not only by arms of critics but by critiques of arms; second, it is completely free of sectarianism. We do not oppose to events and to the feelings of the masses an abstract affirmation of our sanctity.” [48]

What Trotsky advised was that the Fourth International should counterpose a genuine struggle against fascism to the “false fight” of the Petains. He also suggested that denunciation of war had not been the totality of the Bolshevik programme. While the Bolsheviks had won a majority between the February and October 1917 revolutions this was achieved chiefly, not by refusal to defend the fatherland, but by the slogan “All Power to the Soviets!” [49] The need for a positive programme in wartime made a deep impression on WIL and from the late summer of 1940 it tried to counter embryonic Vichyism with its Military Policy: elected officers, government-financed trade union-controlled training schools, public ownership of the armaments industry and a class appeal to German soldiers. [50] Trotskyists had to have a policy to meet every phase of experience of workers. Setbacks to the Allied cause in the spring and summer of 1940 apparently provided ample evidence for the WIL argument that a fight against fascism could not be won under the old ruling classes. Fifth column activities in Europe showed that there were people in influential circles who feared the workers within more than Nazism. [51]

The RSL, with the former Militant Group in complete control by the outbreak of war, drew opposite conclusions. The Fall of France had not led in its perception to war-weariness, only to grumbling, which had not been converted to a struggle against capitalism. [52] Coalition government resting on the patriotic mass provided for the present an acceptable substitute for fascism, but this would not prevent rapid deterioration of the political position at home. [53] Since revolutionaries were inevitably isolated under such circumstances, the RSL was not surprised that some should seek to break out by means of short cuts. These were opportunists however:

“The basic task of revolutionary socialists in such a period is not to seek opportunist ‘short cuts’ to the mass but to explain patiently the reactionary nature of the war .” [54]

The RSL thought some workers might support the slogan “Labour to Power” for the wrong reason, that it would bring a more efficient prosecution of the war. But it also believed that in the experience of seeking to make the slogan a reality, they would turn against the war itself. Trotskyists themselves, argued the RSL, had a guarantee against backsliding in the policy of revolutionary defeatism. The alternative was to end up like the WIL and the Fourth International. [55] Cannon’s Chicago policy was “in the spirit of Kautsky”, a “petty bourgeois hotch potch”. [56] WIL and others had failed to counterpose class features to nationalism, thus giving a left veneer to patriotism. Only in the case of the Soviet Union was it right for workers to assume a patriotic attitude. WIL was quite prepared to confront this argument. It saw positive features in popular willingness to fight fascism. People were willing to defend working class organisations, the true root of democracy. [57] It was sectarian to condemn defencism from an isolated position: analysis of war propaganda showed that the government sought support by projecting the conflict as a war for democracy against fascism. Far from abolishing workers” parties, the government leaned on their leaders to gain social support. [58] After a year of war the conviction that future political developments would favour the workers was a steady feature of WIL thought.

But neither of the two main Trotskyist factions was monolithic in its reaction to war. The RSL had always been under pressure from within against compromises with chauvinism. When RSL leaders dallied with the possibility of deep air raid shelters, the League branch at Leicester, where JL Robinson was the dominant influence, sternly reminded them, “Marxism remains the same in London as in Leicester”. In the view of Leicester, the heart of what was to become the Left Faction, no demands whatsoever on the war should be put. If one favoured a deeper shelter, why not a better gas mask, a more rapid firing machine gun, a faster tank? [59] If revolutionaries began to make concessions of this kind they might be led inexorably to improving the military efficiency of capitalism: they had to desire their own government’s defeat. [60] Hitler’s victory was preferable for the British workers; Churchill’s victory was preferable for the German workers. When the RSL Central Committee resisted Leicester’s critique the branch concluded that its “concessions” to chauvinism must be a tendency and that they should be removed from the leadership of the British Section. [61]

WIL also had a debate within its ranks where Haston led a minority of the EC He was not opposed to Military Policy as such, but argued that WIL had from early 1941 moved away from this policy as expounded by Trotsky and Cannon. WIL had, he asserted, shifted to making its main enemy the foreign enemy, and by reference to an alleged new popular mood. [62] WIL had argued for the distribution of arms to the workers who might then repel invasion [63], though it insisted its purpose was to separate workers from the bourgeoisie not to bring collaboration about. But Haston, like the Leicester RSL branch, thought Military Policy was being misused in Britain. [64] The formation of the Home Guard had been quite misunderstood: it was not a concession to the workers” desire for arms but the outcome of a full-blooded capitalist campaign. [65] Whereas WIL in the past had said that the best workers were against the war, it now said, “we want to fight Hitler but the bourgeoisie won’t let us”. [66] But when Healy answered Haston on behalf of the WIL leaders, he stated what was to be a major theme of its perspectives documents from now on – that all its arguments were directed towards demonstrating the need to take power. And he insisted that WIL based itself on the popular mood which regarded such bodies as the Home Guard as a defence against invasion:

“... the radicalisation of the workers is taking place at the moment not around the question of democratic rights as such but around the manner in which the bosses are prosecuting the war.”

Although Trotskyists were always projected as enemies of the Soviet Union, at least since the Moscow Trials, they had in fact consistently called for Soviet defence. Common ground among all [67] British Trotskyists at this time was that Russia remained a country where capitalism had been overthrown, [68] but they were not optimistic about its chances of withstanding a fascist assault. [69] They were faced with a rapid reversal of communist policy to a call for prosecution of the war to the full. [70] There was also far greater intensity in communist attacks on Trotskyists whom they accused of being dishonest in their calls for Soviet defence. The WIL argument was that Britain under a Churchill government must still be waging an imperialist war. Acquisition of a Soviet alliance could not, it insisted, alter this fact. The war could only become a just war if the workers of Britain took military and state power into their own hands. Otherwise all the criticisms made of the British government before Hitler invaded Russia retained their validity. [71] WIL did not propose inactivity in support of the Soviets but, like Tait and others in the ILP, called for all aid to be sent to Russia under trade union control. It began to see a road to workers’ power through a struggle over the handling of the war. Aided by quotations from Lenin it argued for a positive programme whereby the predatory war might be transformed into a just war. It argued that Lenin’s main drive in 1917 was not against war but for a workers’ government. Its own pre-conference thesis of 1942 was published under the ambitious title Preparing For Power. There it was suggested that military incompetence was a sign that the bourgeois system had outlived itself, and that it was leading workers to question the regime. [72] This provoked the RSL, which still insisted that a revolutionary mood could not possibly arise through a desire for more efficient prosecution of the war: WIL, it charged, was distorting the popular mood:

“When social explosions come, as come they will, they will not arise upon the basis of demands by the workers for a more effective prosecution of the war. No class struggles can arise on this issue because it is not a class issue as far as the workers are concerned.” [73]

Workers would be taking a class approach when they desired peace. WIL, charged the RSL, was concealing its own chauvinism behind revolutionary – sounding slogans which, in the wartime context, had a counter-revolutionary content. [74] When WIL replied, effectively, concluding the discussion, it was at its most unapologetic. It was against all occupations, but not to oppose the occupation of Britain would be to carry literal opposition to patriotism too far. It would be “inverted chauvinism”, supporting a foreign bourgeoisie while opposing one’s own. WIL agreed it had talked of an anti-fascist war, but claimed it had always explained that British imperialism could not wage such a war. [75] Exposure of social patriotism was not a live issue: revolutionaries now had to aim at workers’ power: “Our position towards war is no longer merely a policy of opposition, but is determined by the epoch in which we live, the epoch of the socialist revolution. That is, as contenders for power. Only thus can we find an approach to the working class.” [76]

Lenin’s task, reflected WIL, had been to hold an internationalist faction together in a patriotic time. Support would not come to Trotskyists who merely repeated his arguments. WIL reflected on the drift of Trotsky’s last article where he had argued that Fourth International policy did continue that of Lenin, but that “continuation signifies a development, a deepening and a sharpening”. [77]



1 The full text of this document, which was written by Trotsky, is in Writings (1933-34), 299-329.It appeared as a document of the IS.

2. R. Groves, Arms and the Unions (1936). This pamphlet was published by the Socialist League.

3. Fight, June 1937.

4. One of the Marxist Group recruits to the Labour Party opposed a purely negative attitude towards defence, raising the call for adequate protection, as far as possible under the control of workers’ organisations, (R.W., Air Raid Policy, Sept. 1936, Warwick MSS 15/4/2/15).

5. Quite early on Davis demanded “real protection” and called on the government to spend as lavishly on defence as on armaments, (Air Raid Policy, 27 May 1937, Internal Discussion Bulletin, June 1937, H.P., D.J.H. 2a/2, 7-10).

6. By Robinson, Nicholls and, (later), Bone.

7. Gould, an SWP delegate to the 1938 international conference, was alive to the fact the patriotism was not a danger for the Trotskyist movement (Minutes of the Founding Conference of the Fourth International, Documents, 294-6).

8. Military Training by the labour movement, the thesis advanced by the Transitional Programme, had respectable socialist antecedents in the armed wings of the Austrian and German social democrats. The RSL of 1938 had delegates present at the discussion of the document in the first session of the Founding Congress. In 1940, however, the RSL was to argue that a transitional demand for workers” arms did not have timeless application and certainly could not be advanced in a patriotic period where it might be used by imperialists for recruiting purposes.

9. C.L. Mowat, Britain Between the Wars 1918-1940, 1955, 632. For the evolution of Labour policy see J.F. Naylor, Labour’s International Policy, (1969), 261-92.

10. R.F. Andrews’s often quoted Labour Monthly article of 1934 which demanded that British and French workers should “under no circumstances” support an attack by their governments on fascist Germany, even if that country attacked the U.S.S.R, was well known to Trotskyists (See Workers Fight, Oct. 1938).

11. Following Hitler’s march into Austria R.P. Dutt reviewed communist policy since 1933 on the danger of war (Notes of the Month, Labour Monthly, April 1938, 195-219).

12. “While it may be true that a trench of itself is not an aggressive measure, when it is seen as means to continuing an Imperialist war, then it is obviously as important a part of the Government’s war plans as the construction of bombers” (Militant, Oct. 1938). ARP was also condemned, incidentally, as unlikely to work.

13. “‘Defence’ cannot be separated from offence. The gas-mask is the counterpart of the poison-gas bomb, air-raid shelters are the counterpart of the bombers. To tolerate the one is to tolerate the other, and the revolutionary must implacably reject both” (Voluntary Conscription, WIN, Dec. 1938, 1-3).

14. A central committee statement of 27 October 1938 was followed by a brisk discussion on ARP in which Robinson was sharp and intransigent on patriotic concessions and Hampstead declared the committee ultra-left, (RSL, Special Internal Discussion Bulletin, Nov. 1938, H.P., D.J.H. 13a/5, 5-8). At the February 1939 conference of the RSL only five votes were cast against the executive position on ARP Within the Labour Party ARP was something of an immediate issue because it was raised by local government representatives. This meant the RSL needed a policy (interview with J. Archer, Nov. 1973). WIL, also in the Labour Party, took a similar point of view: “No support for the National Register, no support for ARP , no support for capitalist ‘defence’ – these must be our slogans” (Voluntary Conscription, WIN, Dec. 1938, 1-3).

15. The communists had been agitating for deep shelters in London since 1936, and with some success, (P. Piratin, Our Flag Stays Red, 1978 edit., 64-7).

16. “It must be remembered that on the outbreak of imperialist war we, as revolutionaries, will at first be politically isolated from the masses who will turn to ‘National Defence’ and class collaboration”, (Draft Resolution on the Policy of the RSL on the Outbreak of Imperialist War, 12 Jan. 1939, H.P., D.J.H./391, 4.)

17. Chamberlain announced conscription for twenty and twenty one year olds on 26 April 1939. It was extended on the outbreak of war.

18. “Give us our ideals to serve, give us a policy worth serving, give us the means to fitness, and we will show what latent strength there is in our democracy, and how unitedly we can shoulder our responsibilities to defend it:” (J. Gollan, Youth Will Serve For Freedom, [1938], 11). WIL predicted that communists would support conscription once Chamberlain was out of power.

19. It later regretted its involvement with the Socialist Anti-War Front and, on 11 March 1940, its executive rescinded the decision on conscientious objectors. For the SAWF, see Chapter X.

20. J.R. Strachan, The War Crisis – The Way Out For Workers (1939). “J.R. Strachan” was a pseudonym, possibly for Ralph Lee and Grant.

21. For Groves and the SAWF see Chapter X.

22. For some time before the war the RSL had devoted time and space to “special” (i.e. illegal) work.

23. In an obscure episode Haston and Healy with seven others moved on the outbreak of war to Ireland, (Interview with J. Haston, July 1973). James Maxton fought a parallel tendency in the ILP, (J. McNair, James Maxton: Beloved Rebel, 1955, 286-7). R. Barltrop, The Monument, 1975, 101-22, contains an interesting account of how the S.P.G.B. reacted.

24. A Mass Observation Survey of 2 September 1939 unearthed 2% of those interviewed who would be glad if there was a war, 34% who preferred anything to war, and 43% who would rather get it over with (Mass Observation, War Begains at home, 1940, 35). The predominant feeling seems to have been sullen acquiescence. “The declaration of war brought none of the excitement, none of the ‘ebullitions’ as the Observer put it, which had marked the August days of 1914: no rounds of cheers, no dancing in the streets yet ‘the sense of moral release’ was inexpressible” (A. Marwick, Britain in the Century of Total War, 1968, 257). See also the comparison of public perceptions of the two wars in H. Pelling, Britain and the Second World War, 1970, 325-6.

25. “But for the ordinary men who fought it, was this war much different from the first? If there was perhaps less passionate dedication there was probably a greater feeling of inescapable purpose: war resistance was a negligible factor this time “ (A. Marwick, The Explosion of British Society, 1914-62, 1963, 105). Gallup found a majority behind Chamberlain from October 1938, which grew from the outbreak of war (H. Pelling, ibid., 38).

26. In 1914 Lenin had described this as “the only correct proletarian slogan” (The War and Russian Social Democracy, Collected Works, 21, Moscow 1964, 32-3). But Lenin was seeking to draw a definitive line between revolutionaries and social patriots which by 1939 was well established.

27. Trotsky argued that the true meaning of revolutionary defeatism was that defeat of one’s own imperialist government was a lesser evil than political prostration of the proletariat within national unity. It may have been significant that it was WIL which published this argument (Learn to Think, WIN, Aug. 1938, 4).

28. The war was “not a people’s war, but a war in the interests of the big capitalists against the people”, The Trade Unions and The War [1939?], (This was a resolution of the party central committee). For the period 1939-41 see H. Pelling, The British Communist Party, 108-119.

29. London district committee (of the CPGB), Workers Against The War, [1939?], 9-10.

30. W. Gallacher, The War and the Workers, [1939?], 16.

31. Gollancz wrote that the CPGB had adopted the policy consistently held by the ILP (Where Are You Going?, in V. Gollancz (ed.), The Betrayal of the Left, 1940, especially 6-7). The Russian invasion of Finland sundered the close observation of communist policy by Tribune (W. Jones, The Russia Complex, 1977, 50).

32. Trotskyism, with pacifism, belonged among those political tendencies “which confuse and disrupt the growth of working class opposition to the war” (Workers Against The War, [1939?], 7).

33. Rationing, for example, began only after four months of war and then limited to sugar, butter and bacon. Nor had conscription reached beyond the twenty five year olds by April 1940. At that date there were still more than a million unemployed (H. Pelling, Modern Britain: 1885-1914, 1974, 164).

34. The Ballot Box Test, WIN, March 1940, 6. But WIL also believed that “sober discussions” about state repression had taken place in ruling circles immediately before the war. It deployed the evidence of army manoeuvres and the text of insurance policies (which excluded civil war from the list of covered hazards) in support (Slump, WIN, June 1938, 8).

35. See the results for 1940 By-elections in C. Cook and J. Ramsden (4), By-Elections in British Politics, 1973, 372.

36. On 7 July 1940 the People’s Convention movement, an initiative of the CPGB, first met in public to open a six-month campaign. D. Childs, The British Communist Party and the War, 1939-41, J.C.H., Vol.12, 1977, 237-53, leans too heavily on D. Hyde, I Believed, 1953, to explore communist policy with any thoroughness. R. Black, Stalinists in Britain, 1970, 131-59, is a Trotskyist account.

37. “B. Farnborough” (Brian Pearce) dates WIL’s Military Policy from the Fall of France, (Marxists in the Second World War, Labour Review, April-May 1959, 25-8). The RSL believed adoption of such a policy at such a time was proof that it was a defencist concession.

38. A government call for the suspension of holidays, an end to absenteeism, and long working hours received wide backing, but only temporarily, (A. Marwick, Britain in the Century of Total War, 1968, 295). Pelling concurs but stretches national unity into 1941 (Britain and the Second World War, 1970, 29).

39. In June 1940 WIL spoke ambiguously of an imminent threat to workers’ rights (Workers’ Fight, WIN, June 1940, 8); in July it thought the bourgeoisie would not “pounce” but that the main threat would come from “the Stalinist machine and the Labour bureaucracy”, both more politically astute and the latter now in government (The Lesson of France, WIN, July 1940, 12).

40. The Electoral Tactics of the Workers’ Vanguard, 1940, H.P.

41. Imperialist War and the Proletarian World Revolution, Documents, 311-50. Although this was a manifesto Trotsky had warned before the war that a binding policy could not be imposed on all sections of the Fourth International because of national differences (Learn to Think, WIN, Aug. 1938, 5).

42. See appendix to Imperialist War and the Proletarian World Revolution, in Marxist Discussion Bulletin, Aug. 1940, 2 (H.P., D.J.H. 6/5). The RSL remarked that the section entitled “workers must learn the military arts” might be opportunistically misconstrued. When consciousness was low, calling for arms for the workers had a reactionary effect. The League wrote to the IEC asking for clarification.

43. This included demands for the election of workers’ officers, full trade union and political rights for soldiers, etc.

44. J.P. Cannon, Military Policy of the Proletariat, WIN, Jan. 1941, 4.

45. J.P. Cannon, Our Military Policy, WIN, March 1941, 10.

46. WIL published his evidence as Smash Fascism – End War. The case for socialist revolution. An A.B.C. of Trotskyism. The testimony of J.P. Cannon in the U.S. Labour frame-up Trial, WIN (special volume), 1942, 1-40.

47. “If he is draftable, let him be drafted. I do not think he should try to avoid the draft – he must go with his generation and participate in its life” (Some Thoughts on American Problems, WIN, March 1941, 1).

48 Another Thought on Conscription, 17 Aug, 1940, Writings (1939-40), 119

49. Leon Trotsky’s Last Article, WIN, Feb. 1941, 9. The RSL later attempted, somewhat unconvincingly, to counter this argument. “This is not to say that the masses can be won to the banner of the Fourth International on the slogans of “turn the imperialist war into civil war”, etc., “but slogans which are evasive and ambiguous with regard to the proletarian attitude to the war are a betrayal of Socialist International” (Attitude of the Proletariat towards Imperialist War, H.P., D.J.H. 6/12, 3 ).

50. An uncritical account of WIL’s opposition to the war is W. Hunter, Marxists in the Second World War, Labour Review, Dec. 1958, 139-146. “B. Farnborough” (Brian Pearce) tried to put right the omission from this article of any treatment of Military Policy (Marxists in the Second World War, Labour Review, April-May 1959, 25-8), but did not cover the dispute between the RSL and WIL. D. Parkin, British Trotskyists and the Class Struggle in World War 2, Trotskyism Today, No.2, March 1978, 27-30, criticises both Leagues.

51. The Lesson of France, WIN, July 1940, 12.

52. The Electoral Tactics of the Workers’ Vanguard, 1940, 1-2.


54. ibid., 7.

55. By 1941 the RSL had concluded that the FI was in the hands of “defencist” tendencies, brought to the fore by the fear of the proletariat in Britain and America of losing their privileged position.

56. Attitude of the Proletariat Towards Imperialist War, H.P., D.J.H., 6/12, 1.

57. A. Calder (The People’s War, 60) doubts that ideological motivation against Nazism was common. One atypical exception was George Orwell (W. Steinhoff, The Road to 1984, 1975, 102). Orwell thought socialist renewal the only policy likely to bring Britain victory.

58. WIL, Reply to the Political Statement of the Revolutionary Socialist League, 1941, 2.

59. Bolshevism and Defencism, May 1941, 10

60. “A revolutionary class in an imperial war desires the defeat of its national army in order to utilize the situation of humbling of its masters to overthrow them irrespective of the nature of the enemy” (Brief Notes on the History of the Left Faction, [1960?], 2; interview with J. Goffe, July 1974).

61. Bolshevism and Defencism, 11. Youth Militant was also singled out for criticism by the Leicester branch. While making an international onslaught the Left Faction (as it soon became) had some ideological companions elsewhere, notably Grandizo Munis of the Spanish section, currently in Mexican exile, who protested against Cannon’s exposition of the Military Policy at the Minneapolis Trial.

62. “J.H.”, A Step Towards Capitulation, Internal Bulletin, 21 March 1941, 5, H.P., D.J.H. 14a/3.

63. Military Policy or Confusion, Internal Bulletin, 20 March 1941, H.P., D.J.H. 14a/2.

64. His argument was that Trotsky’s advice to the Americans had been offered in the context of a dynamic and developing labour movement confronted by the prospect of universal militarization: his ideas should not be used as an alternative to an anti-war struggle.

65. Shortly after this exchange, Haston protested against the emasculation of an article he had written for Socialist Appeal and suggested that the formation of the Home Guard proved that the bourgeoisie was not in fact fearful of arming the workers (The Military Policy as applied to the Home Guard, Internal Bulletin, 21 April 1941, 1-7, H.P., D.J.H., 140/4).

66. ibid., 20.

67. G.H., The Home Guard – An Approach, Internal Bulletin, 19 May 1941, H.P., D.J.H., 14A/5.

68. The views of Burnham and Shachtman found no echo in Britain at the time of the Russo-Finnish war and the RSL disowned C.L.R. James when he defected to Shachtman’s side early in 1940. Nor did Trotskyists reject Soviet manoeuvres between the Great Powers, only the argument that socialist principles should be jettisoned in allied countries.

69. The Trotskyist view was that the USSR had been weakened by diplomatic bungling and purges of the Red Army. See A. Scott, Stalin’s Diplomacy Leads to Defeats, WIN, Dec. 1941, 1-6 and Trotsky’s earlier article The Decapitation of the Red Army, 5 July 1937, Writings (1937-38), 55-60.

70. “The urgent need now is the fullest mobilisation and active energy of all sections of the people for the fulfillment of the tasks of the common struggle with the Soviet people for the defeat of Hitler. We strive for the united national front of all sections of the people (not only of the left anti-imperialist or pro-Soviet elements, but of all opposed to Hitler and supporting the Pact) to drive forward the maximum effort in the joint war with the Soviet Union for the defeat of Hitler” (R.P. Dutt, Notes of the Month, Labour Monthly, Aug. 1941, 356).

71. “But the same class is in control. They are still fighting for the same interests – their profits, markets, colonies, etc. And they can fight for no other interests. They are still fighting to keep India under their own subjection and to keep Africa enslaved.” (A. Scott, Britain’s War Remains Imperialist. It is not altered by the alliance with the Soviet Union, WIN, Nov. 1941, 7. This article was also published separately as a pamphlet.

72. Preparing For Power, WIN, Sept. 1942, 5.

73. RSL, A Criticism of the WIL Pamphlet Preparing For Power in WIL, Policy and Perspectives of the British Trotskyists, 1943, 2.

74. The example given was workers’ control of production to increase production for the war, (RSL, loc. cit., 5).

75. Reply of WIL to the RSL Criticisms of Preparing For Power, in WIL, Policy and Perspectives of the British Trotskyists, 1943, 16.

76. WIL, loc. cit., 17.

77. Bonapartism, Fascism and War, [Aug. 1940], Writings (1939-40), 121. WIL Published this as Leon Trotsky’s Last Article in WIN for February 1941.

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