The History of British Trotskyism to 1949

by Martin Upham


(SEPTEMBER 1938 – MARCH 1944)

The Revolutionary Socialist League was a failure. It did not hold together and it proved unable to capitalise on wartime opportunities. The Marxist League cadre drifted away from it to joint activities against military measures with dissidents inside and outside the Labour Party. The RSP refused any kind of Labour Party work, tried independence and later entered the ILP. The Militant Labour League was left in control of the RSL with official backing from the International. But from 1940 it stagnated within the Labour Party and fell out with the International over the correct line to be advocated against the war. These two factors added to a third, the contrast presented by the growth of the WIL, gave rise to intense factionalism and the effective separation of the RSL into three parts. It drew together at the end of 1943 but only as a preliminary to dissolution in the much larger WIL to form the Revolutionary Communist Party.

The new Revolutionary Socialist League was formed on the eve of the war scare associated with the Munich crisis. This was a test which exposed the fragility of the union forged in July 1938 as each faction reacted in its own way. The MLL argued that the crisis underlined the need for it as the only pole of revolutionary Marxism in the Labour Party. [1] In October, sales of Militant reached a peak figure of 3,000. On 6 November 1938 its conference met. [2] As the public face of the Revolutionary Socialist League, the MLL spent the post-Munich months trying to dig itself in. But until a conference of the RSL was held to establish a firm policy on Labour Party work the energy of the whole organisation could not be concentrated on the MLL What was the reaction of those signatories of the Peace and Unity agreement with a clear preference for “open” work?

(i) The Revolutionary Socialist Party

But while Militant continued to appear regularly during these turbulent months all was not well with other commitments made by the fusion. The RSP had surrendered its paper, Revolutionary Socialist, for the promise of a revamped Fight, rechristened Workers Fight, for “open” sales. To a tiny party whose mode was street meetings and outdoor sales, regular appearance of the outside paper was vital. The paper came out in October 1938, marking C.L.R. James’s last connection with the British Trotskyist movement. [3] It firmly opposed ILP reaffiliation to the Labour Party [4] and continued Fight’s tradition as an open Fourth International journal. [5] There was no change in the political line in November. Both these issues appeared late however, and that intended for December failed to come out at all. [6]

This caused disquiet in the RSP as well as among other devotees of outside work. The RSP leaders had signed the Peace and Unity agreement as individuals and were meant, within a week, to have won the assent of the party as a whole. Failing to manage this, they were allowed time to hold a referendum. This was completed late in October 1938, and indicated unanimous backing for joining the RSL. But Maitland and Willie Tait told the RSL central committee the next month that conditions were attached to the union: a guaranteed continuation of open work and an open paper, and the placing of the editorial and business control of Workers Fight in the hands of the RSP! This ultimatum was refused on the grounds that a revolutionary organisation must centrally control all its publications and that the overall tactics of the RSL could be changed only by a national conference.

RSP suspicions of a lack of interest in London in activities outside the Labour Party continued to fester. It formally joined the RSL on 15 December 1938, but presented the League’s executive with a lengthy critique. [7] The RSL central committee, under fire also from London apostles of the independent life, pleaded that as well as the perennial dearth of funds the League lacked able and willing organisers for outside work. [8] There had to be, it argued, a period of common experience on the part of all signatories to the Peace and Unity agreement. The RSP, however, was making its own experience by outdoor rallies on the Munich issue [9] and an intervention in the West Perthshire by-election. [10] It was never really integrated in the RSL.

(ii) The Socialist Anti-War Front

Meanwhile the centre of the RSL was under pressure from the other independent strand of thought within it. The entire leading cadre of the old Marxist League was involved in September 1938 in launching the Socialist Anti-War Front. A London conference to found the SAWF brought together members of a wide spectrum of organisations, though none of them lacked Trotskyist participation. [11]

It elected Hugo Dewar secretary, formed a provisional committee and issued a “call to action” in view of the Munich crisis. [12] On 1 October a youth section was set up [13] and the next day a demonstration in Hyde Park was held. At this stage the SAWF was mainly a London organisation. [14] The SAWF was formed to organise working class opposition to war and to achieve unity among socialists. Its general analysis did not differ from the accepted Trotskyist view and the MLL joined the provisional committee in mid-October. But the truth was that SAWF appeal was couched in terms sufficiently ambiguous to carry support from the ILP as well. Indeed, it was ILP interest which made the SAWF as broad as it was. [15] Later both the MLL, and the WIL, which had also participated, were to condemn the SAWF for pacifism. [16]

Within the RSL ways began to part, first of all over the SAWF thesis that a block of socialist parties could prevent war, expounded in its pamphlet War and the Workers (1939). Workers Fight commented that while unity was a progressive step, only a revolutionary party could overthrow capitalism, the cause of war. [17] In November, the Front declared the National Register part of a dress rehearsal for military and police dictatorship. In Resist the Register, [18] Hugo Dewar argued for non-cooperation, rejecting the government argument that conscription was defensive and voluntary. [19] When the Military Training Bill was introduced without strenuous opposition, a new organisation, the No-Conscription League, was launched, which gained important support and in which the SAWF functioned as a militant working-class wing. [20] At the Bermondsey convention of the N-CL, on 4 June 1939, Groves [21] moved an SAWF amendment to the main policy resolution. With support from Wicks he secured a pledge for agitation against the Military Training Act, for trade union assistance to victimised objectors and help for shop stewards resisting industrial conscription. [22]

The outbreak of war itself geared up the SAWF an extra notch. Its manifesto, issued on the day of declaration of war, called on trades councils to make themselves the centres of opposition to encroachment on civil liberties, and condemned Labour and the CPGB for their willingness to stand with exploiters behind rhetoric about an anti-fascist war. The Front launched its own journal, The Call, in November 1939, and showed signs of gathering round it substantial numbers of dissident Labour candidates [23] and trades councils. There was some encouragement in the declaration of the Home Counties Labour Parties for socialist peace terms and against the political truce, and The Call claimed resolutions on these matters were “pouring” into Transport House. [24]

On 12 November 1939, the N-CL held an all-London convention against war and conscription, where Alex Sloan MP moved and C.A. Smith seconded a resolution opposing the war, urging repeal of the National Service Act, calling for the maintenance of civil liberties and an end to the truce, and demanding an immediate Labour Party conference to formulate Socialist Peace proposals. An SAWF amendment was carried with support from the N-CL executive. [25]

It seems that the SAWF now carried the hopes of the former Marxist League in much the same way as the earlier SLF had. To Groves, and perhaps now to the others as well, a gathering of anti-war Labour dissidents in a convention “would mark an end to the division, the fractionisation, the hole-in-the-corner groupings that in the past have ruined all effort to secure a large left-wing movement”. [26] The Front was militant, anti-capitalist and anti-Stalinist. [27] It was also, by the meagre standards of these years, a success. Against this it mattered little that it did not call for a Fourth International whose hour had not struck. [28] The Front rejected a purely pacifist appeal which it considered would not rally the working class, but it did demand peace on “socialist principles”. This was what divided it from WIL and – after initial hesitation – from the MLL. It built up a significant movement against the anticipated demise of civil liberty and the militarisation of life [29] and even occasionally moved out of the realm of propaganda into direct intervention in events. [30] When confronted by the Call-up, however, it had only negative individual resistance to suggest. [31] An attempt was made to transcend this limit [32], but the Front was not a political party and when the end of the Phoney War made military resistance irrelevant, it also died. The Front disappeared after April 1940, despite ambitious plans [33], and a broadening of its interests to embrace problems of working class life. It had for once provided a genuine movement in which many of Trotskyist origins might work, but the new phase of the war [34], together with increased Transport House vigilance against party dissidents, now finished it off.

To Wicks and Sara, executive members of the RSL, from the time of the July 1938 fusion, the SAWF was a way of tapping the kind of revival in the movement anticipated in the Transitional Programme. They expected they might build as they had in the months following their expulsion from the CPGB [35]: the issue and – for them – the geographical location was similar. It also offered a forum for unity with Groves and Dewar, the one in the Labour Party, the other in the ILP. Sara and Wicks were similarly divided. But on the pacifist appeal of the SAWF itself, they parted with the RSL early in 1939. [36]

The first RSL conference, convened just outside the six month schedule set when the League was formed, did not reveal a healthy state of affairs. The centre was in conflict with three distinct groups: the former Marxist League, dissidents within the first RSL, and the RSP The proceedings opened acrimoniously when the expulsion of Lane and Duncan, of Islington, was upheld. [37] This led to a walk-out of at least [38] ten members who were to attempt to found a new organisation. Jackson, the RSL secretary, then had to report the aborting of attempts to fuse with the WIL. [39] Finally it was announced that fusion with the RSP remained unconsummated and new ground rules were laid down for bringing the moment of it near. [40] Conference then approved an uncontroversial – if lengthy – constitution [41] and returned an executive with strong Militant influence. [42]

Conference endorsed the executive position on Air Raid Precautions, which rejected a distinction between offence and defence and called for a boycott, but not before dissent had been voiced, an anticipation of the factionalism which shook the whole League in 1942. [43] It went on to affirm the split perspective, an inevitable development which it believed might benefit centrism (the ILP) or the Fourth International. It also still believed in an open centre, the MLL: all outside work was subordinate to that. The major controversy of 1938 was thus resolved in the Militant’s favour. Finally conference recognised that it would not gain support before war broke out, that hostilities would delay the swing to the left (though they would also intensify it), and that the organisation would have to act in collective prudence in order to avoid provoking physical obliteration by a stark, presentation of policy. [44]

The MLL, focus for the Militant Group before the Peace and Unity conference became, by fission, the hub around which the whole RSL turned. On its behalf Matlow and Wood made speeches to Labour’s 1939 conference, the first it had held for a year and a half. [45] Youth Militant reappeared, (after a lapse), in February 1939 as the paper of the youth section of the MLL. [46] It reviewed the attempt of earlier years to rally delegates for a socialist policy and advanced a positive and detailed youth programme stimulated by the TUC Youth Charter. It retained the distinctive stamp of appealing for a Third Labour Government and autonomy for the Leagues of Youth. But the LLOY was now in decline, debilitated by a repressive party apparatus and peacetime conscription. [47] The MLL had fifteen delegates at its annual conference [48] but there was now no future for youth work.

In November 1939 London executive members of the RSL had advanced a proposal to their central committee that an open Fourth International paper should be published. The provinces’ representatives voted them down, thus ensuring continued dependence on a Labour Party presence. J. Middleton and G. Shepherd, secretary and national agent respectively, warned local Labour Parties in January 1940 against pacifist attacks on party policy and candidates. By February early talk in Labour’s propaganda of a German revolution had ceased. Harold Laski’s pamphlet, Is it an imperialist war? appeared, intended to assuage the more “ideologically minded”. He argued that the war might be imperialist but distinguished the contracting (Anglo-French) strain from the aggressive (German) kind. [49] Reg Groves wrote a forceful reply which was to lead later to conflict with Shepherd and the NEC. [50] Van Gelderen tackled the same job in a review for Militant. [51] At this point early in the year, however, party conference had not pronounced on the war.

Lack of constitutionally decided policy did not protect the MLL from the Labour Party apparatus. In early March 1940 it resolved that the League was “a communist organisation for the promotion of Leon Trotsky’s views and policy” [52], and that membership of it was not compatible with party membership. The League protested that no reason had been given for the ban, that it was “a denial of democracy and political freedom within the workers’ organisation”, “a Gestapo-like attempt ... to crush honest political criticism”. [53] Jackson anticipated the Fourth International itself in his attempt to put a brave face on the ban. Labour leaders, he suggested, were less secure as awareness of the reactionary nature of the war began to spread:

“It is not accidental that the MLL is banned at the period when British Imperialism plans to extend the war and talk of further sacrifices in blood and money is in the air.” [54]

Jackson threatened Labour with continued activity after the MLL itself disappeared. On 16 March 1940 the RSL executive had in fact recommended MLL dissolution. Later that month, on 23 March, an RSL conference met followed by a conference of the doomed MLL. It was resolved to follow the RSL recommendation, although the leaders were faced with Our Present Tasks, a “document of the fourteen”, whose authors thought the main political developments would, as in 1915-18, take place in the factories, workshops and streets. They flatly denied that there would be a swing to the left within the Labour Party [55], but the meaning of acquiescence in the ban had to be that retention of Labour Party membership was an overriding RSL objective. The executive and J.L. Robinson’s Leicester branch came together to reject the call to launch an openly Fourth International paper, and suspend Militant and the MLL in favour of open work. [56] On 9 April 1940, MLL branches were urged to agitate about the ban but to stop short of provoking expulsion. They were promised a monthly Militant and the services of a full-time organiser. The promise was fulfilled when Jackson moved from a voluntary to a professional basis on 15 April at a weekly wage of £2 a week. [57] Transport House was told that the NEC action threatened to turn it into “a hardened bureaucracy”; the MLL was informed in its turn that it was committed to policies of which party conference would not approve and that an attempt was being made by it to build an organisation within the party. [58] The MLL might express surprise that conference decisions could be anticipated in this way [59], but the Bournemouth conference easily endorsed Labour’s entry into coalition as well as the war itself. MLL speakers there received some support but the emergency motion for Labour joining the government was easily carried. [60]

The drive against Labour dissidents was the very thing the MLL had always feared and tried to avoid. Expulsions and proscriptions would inhibit it from taking advantage of a swing to the left in Labour’s ranks. [61] The RSL drew the opposite conclusion from the proscriptions and isolation revealed at Bournemouth to that drawn around this time by the WIL. Late in May 1940 even the continuation of Militant itself was thought risky and it was dropped for a proposed theoretical journal. [62] Rather than pull out, the RSL concluded that Labour’s debilitated condition would permit an increase in its influence. In a tidying up operation, whatever MLL members who were amenable were recruited into the RSL, but that organisation kept an even lower public profile. [63]

This retreat afforded few encouraging signs to any with a sense of proportion. This quality was never prominent among the governing bodies of the Fourth International. In 1940 the International was faced with a double crisis. War made it impossible for Europe to function as any kind of international centre. Worse yet, the Shachtmanite schism of 1939-40 [64] had disrupted the International Executive Committee, with four of its seven members supporting Shachtman’s new party and his view of Russia. [65] Among them was C.L.R. James, now working in the SWP under the pseudonym J.R. Johnson. Faced with this crisis an Emergency Conference of the Fourth International was convened on 19-26 May in New York by the United States, Canadian and Mexican Sections. [66] Harber, an orthodox IEC member, did not attend, but the British Section did disown James who was its other representative. [67]When the conference looked at the situation in Britain it came up with a surrealistic resolution [68], inspired perhaps from only one source. It declared “a rapid revolutionary movement” was maturing in Britain, that a broad unorganised Trotskyist sentiment existed, and that the fractions British were in four groups. Only the third point was factually correct, but the International Conference made two inferences: that the ban on the MLL was motivated by the “substantial progress” it was making, and that unity might now come about in Britain. Such a call was never likely to be efficacious, even when sweetened with a nudge to the MLL to make what organisational concessions it could. [69]

Those who had walked out of the February 1939 conference attempted for a time to maintain that they were the true RSL and entitled to recognition. By October of that year they had to recognise that the International would not transfer its allegiance and changed their name to the Revolutionary Workers’ League. [70] The RWL maintained a tiny independent existence [71] publishing a duplicated paper, Workers Fight, which at Christmas changed to a printed format with ambitions of appearing fortnightly. [72] They published a manifesto [73] and a pamphlet [74], held meetings in London and reported a following in the provinces. But disorganisation led to them losing control of the Pioneer Press outlet which they had held at the time of the walk-out. [75] In summer 1940 a majority entered WIL on a critical basis. [76] Leading figures like Lane and Duncan remained aloof. In July or August 1941 twelve former RWL members, among them some who had joined the WIL, rejoined the RSL. [77]

After the Fall of France, the RSL slogan remained “For a Third Labour Government, with full power”. [78] Like WIL the RSL thought the experience of struggling round such a slogan would be the best education for the masses. [79] The masses had to see that a struggle against bourgeois methods meant a struggle against war. [80] The sign of a revolutionary temper was opposition to war. The “Third Labour Government” was considered by the RSL an elementary slogan of the kind which would break the mass from illusions [81], but it had a revolutionary significance only in the right context: “The demand for the ending of the Party truce may be progressive or reactionary. Progressive if counterposed to the bourgeois task of winning the war, reactionary if advanced as a mean to the better prosecution of the war”. [82]

Militant appeared for the last time in its pre-war series in May 1940. An enlarged RSL executive resolved on 25 May that there was no basis for a semi-agitational paper and suspended it with the initial intention of launching a theoretical journal. This was never published. The effective immediate replacement for Militant was The Bulletin of the Fourth International which first appeared in June. [83]

Though commended by the Emergency Conference, the RSL’s prospects were bleak. To general torpor within its chosen theatre of operations it had to add the practical difficulty of sustaining any kind of activity at all in London from mid-1940 on because of the blitz. [84] At the beginning of winter the London organisation, its heart, was reduced to a very weak state. [85] It believed it could provide no more than 150 sales for a theoretical journal. [86] This was somewhat academic, since no such journal ever appeared, Militant had lapsed, and its intended replacement, the Bulletin of the BSFI [87] did not appear on a regular monthly basis.

The suspension of publications landed the EC in further trouble on left and right. “The fourteen” were in defiance of an executive directive of 25 May 1940 towards Labour Party activity. In July they registered vigorous opposition to the suspension of Militant even if it were to be substituted. [88] The central committee delivered an ultimatum which, on pain of expulsion, demanded that the fourteen produce a definite alternative programme to Labour Party activities they scorned. [89] Further exchanges led to the expulsion of “F” on 5 February 1941 [90], and the decision by the three prime movers among the fourteen to launch a new faction, the Socialist Workers Group, in April. [91] It flirted with WIL, now independent itself [92], but five members of it applied to return to the RSL on 3 May 1942.

While wrangling with exponents of independence the central committee and the executive found itself in growing conflict with the Leicester RSL branch which, under the uncompromising leadership of J.L. Robinson, also challenged the suspension of Militant and the appearance of The Bulletin. Leicester was further incensed to find, in The Bulletin for November 1940, a call by Starkey Jackson for support to be given to deep air raid shelters, which policy was also followed by Youth Militant for the same month. [93] It considered the step a risk to the Labour Party tactic by its open identification of the RSL with the Fourth International, and the other a contravention of 1940 conference decisions. [94] Leicester pressurised the Centre for the next five months to clarify its position on ARP. In the absence of a statement [95], Leicester issued a document, Bolshevism or Defencism, which indicted the Centre for capitulation and a long and tedious polemic began. [96]

The breeding ground of factionalism was inactivity which was itself the product not only of a false perspective, but also of organisational incompetence. [97] The December 1940 central committee resolved to begin publication of Militant anew in a duplicated format. [98] This occurred only in March 1941 however. Again, a July 1941 decision to begin printing became operative only in September. This compares poorly with the contemporary publishing record of WIL. In fairness it must be also added that by March 1941 most RSL central committee members and alternates were in the forces. [99]

The new Militant appeared from Glasgow in September 1941 [100] published in the changed political environment arising from Hitler’s June invasion of Soviet Russia. It appeared with a strong supplement calling for Soviet defence, though differing from the CPGB in its belief that an independent factory movement was the key to achieving it. Like other Trotskyists, the RSL considered Russia unlikely to survive in view of “Russia’s complete incapacity to resist the armies of Hitler, which can only be defeated by superior military strength, which thanks to the bureaucracy and its incompetence the Soviet Union does not possess; or by propagandising the proletarian revolution”. But though such forecasts reflect part of the baggage carried from the Founding Conference [101], this Militant series was more impressive than its predecessors, not least in its ability to reflect living industrial struggles. [102]

The RSL convened its national conference on 20/21 September 1941. [103] This gathering revealed growing uncertainty in the RSL about its international standing [104] and lifted a veil from new factional lines: Conference clearly revealed a Left Fraction, around Robinson, which was intractably wedded to the Labour Party tactic, but vigilant against any concessions to chauvinism [105]; a Right which favoured a Military Policy on the war and worked for fusion with the WIL; and a Centre of Harber and the traditional MLL leaders which controlled the apparatus. Conference discussed Military Policy and concluded that it might not be binding on a section of the International. It decided to seek clarification of this point upon receipt of which a special conference would be held. [106] This gave freedom to the Right to develop its activities. Jackson, the RSL organiser, had been called up [107] and John Lawrence became organiser responsible for industrial affairs. At central committee meetings he and Harber clashed over [108] possible fusion with WIL. [109] Until the end of the year, it was possible that the RSL would be knocked off its course not only on the war but on the Labour Party tactic too. [110]

The RSL was vulnerable because the Military Policy it perceived as a concession to chauvinism had been embraced by WIL. From August 1941, under international pressure, the two organisations exchanged documents. [111] The RSL stood by its 1937 position that WIL had had no political right to exist when it was first formed. WIL claimed British Section status since it and not the RSL adhered to Fourth International policy. It had launched its paper Socialist Appeal as an avowedly Fourth International journal, but the RSL found its documents vague and saw them as confirmation that WIL was a clique. The RSL retained international backing but the door was now noticeably left open to the WIL. [112] On 12 December 1941 the RSL resolved to bring negotiations to an end.

To WIL, now outside all parties, the “Third Labour Government” slogan was “completely incorrect and opportunist”, a demand associated with the bad experiences of the past. WIL argued for advancing a Fourth International programme for Labour, in power, to implement. The RSL, it charged, had become Labour Party members on principle, not qualitatively different from the Marxist Group or the Communist League:

“Like the sectarians who attempt to place the so-called ‘independence of the organisation’ above time and place, the late adherents of the Militant Labour League turn the Labour Party tactic into a panacea.” [113]

WIL did not drop its demand for Labour to take power just because it was outside the Labour Party. Throughout the war, and after, its leaders rejected a long term presence in the Labour Party. [114] But to surrender the advantages of independence for “a problematical future possibility” of fecund Labour Party work was, in its view, futile.

From 1942 it became impossible to disentangle the wrangles within the RSL from that body’s relations with WIL and the International Secretariat. [115] The RSL Centre, supported by the Left, made three charges against WIL: it lacked internal democracy; it had abandoned revolutionary defeatism; it had rejected entrism for party building methods “basically opposed to those of Bolshevism”. [116] The central committee as a whole broadened its sights on 11 January 1942 when it declared the Chicago (Military) Policy of J.P. Cannon to be reactionary. This was not enough for the Left, which in April 1942 launched its own duplicated internal journal, The Leninist. For the Left it was in the end all one: any concessions made to Military Policy must ruin everything. If Military Policy was rejected then fusion with WIL was out of the question. [117]

When, on 21 June 1942, the IS wrote to the RSL again advancing the need for Military Policy and urging unity with WIL, Lawrence and thirteen others seized their opportunity. They circulated a statement [118] among the membership backing the IS, reserving their right to participate freely in fusion discussions unbound by RSL policy and demanding an emergency conference. It seems that the Right at this point was about to break away and join WIL. [119] On 18 July, however, an International representative, J.B. Stuart [120], visited London. He met WIL leaders, Margaret Johns and, crucially, some members of the Right, whom he persuaded to stay in the RSL and fight for a majority. The next day the RSL central committee met and suspended the fourteen signatories to the statement of dissociation, including Carson, Lawrence, Lane and Goffe [121] but the Right, which earlier might have welcomed a rupture, now submitted to being disciplined. On 26 July 1942 Stuart met Harber and Lawrence and a compromise plan was agreed to cover the conduct of the Right during negotiations for fusion. [122] This collapsed a few weeks later when it was discovered that Lawrence and others of the Right were involved in an elaborate subterfuge, that their conciliation screened concerted action with WIL. [123] In October and November nearly all members of the Right were expelled from the RSL

Meanwhile a special conference of the RSL had been held as requested by the Right. The Left was itself growing in alienation from the RSL and from the Fourth International, but it united with the Centre to vote down Military Policy and reluctantly advanced a panel for the central committee. The Left and Right captured three seats each and the Centre held four. Following the conference the League heard from the IS which condemned it for severing negotiations with WIL [124] and for the ultra-leftism of Robinson. Following the expulsion of the Right, however, a new central committee was returned, composed of six followers of the Centre and four from the Left. [125] The Right, also now known as the Trotskyist Opposition, was playing its own game, with international encouragement. [126] There was a feeling that simple adherence to WIL would mean that that body had too easily surmounted the 1938 declaration of the International. [127] From 1942 the idea took root that WIL was anti-internationalist, and that its support for the FI programme was only for the record. So the Trotskyist Opposition bobbed about independently in 1943, some of its members uneasy at a policy which had turned them back towards struggling for a majority in the RSL.

By 1942 WIL was even more convinced that the place for Trotskyists was in the open [128], seizing the opportunity to recruit directly to the Fourth International. It was now visibly beginning to derive benefit from an existence outside parties, unlike the RSL which remained immersed in the Labour Party. It would take a mass influx into the Labour Party to make it change its mind. [129] The RSL always challenged WIL’s presentation of conditions for entry. WIL had argued that Labour must be in a state of flux, at a high level of political life, and moving left. The RSL countered that political life in the Labour Party had never been on a high level and that this was not in any case material in determining Trotskyist behaviour. .Trotskyism, it insisted, had to prepare the turn to the Labour Party, a task WIL was manifestly failing to carry out. [130]

The RSL suggested that WIL was preparing to argue that workers would skip the Labour Party stage and join it directly. [131] Finally, it argued that WIL’s false attitude to the Labour Party sprang from its erroneous policy on war. WIL did not recognise present chauvinism, it charged, and it exaggerated class conflict so that it might reject the Labour Party. [132]

But the already tottering RSL was now lop-sided. Indeed the Centre now had twenty-three members on paper to the Left’s thirty six. [133] The Left believed Harber to be a liquidationist who would dissolve the revolutionary party in the centrist WIL. The Centre was deeply suspicious of an organised faction within the League, and one, moreover, which had effective control of its paper from December 1942. [134] On 9 January 1943 the Lefts were suspended for factionalism. When the charges against them were confirmed they were expelled on 23 January for refusing to divulge the names of their Fraction. [135] The Left boasted that it took with it the true industrial base of the British Section of the Fourth International [136] and the early months of 1943 passed in an ugly wrangle over the status of its paper. [137] On 4 June the Left Fraction appealed to the IS against its expulsion and received a reply to the effect that this act was indeed a violation of the RSL constitution. [138]

In July 1943 WIL made a new offer on unification. It refused to devote itself to nothing else but proposed a six month discussion at the end of which a fusion conference would vote for one tactic in a majority vote. WIL demanded for itself either recognition as the official British Section or, failing that, sympathetic status – the very request it had made in 1938. [139] WIL also had grown tired of being lectured by American representatives on splits:

The elements which began the work of the Opposition, even in the majority, were not of the best material. The difficulties of growth and the milieu in which they had to work; the composition of the Opposition itself, the different stages of development through which the organisation passed; the necessity at various stages of making sharp changes if the movement was even to survive; all these factors led necessarily and inevitably to splits. [140]

On 7 September 1943, WIL wrote to the IS about the mode of unification. On 26 September the IS passed a resolution on British Unification which identified acceptance of the FI programme principles and statutes as the sole conditions for it. Under the circumstances the door was open to WIL. Yet WIL had within its own ranks a challenge to its behaviour since 1938, a minority which, like the Right Opposition of the RSL, accused it of being anti-Internationalist in method. [141] This minority led by Healy, a party to WIL’s abstention from the Peace and Unity agreement, now condemned this aloofness in a critical resolution. [142] It reminded the WIL leaders of the need to observe majorities and warned, presciently, that such majorities had international as well as national boundaries.

The IS resolution of 26 September 1943 led the warring RSL factions to prepare unification. The Centre seems to have responded [143] most promptly: it regarded the proposed reconstitution conference as the reforming of the old RSL The IS required all three parts of the old RSL to be within the reconstitution. Bitterness persisted between Lawrence and Harber, leaders of the “Right” and “Centre” to the end [144], but a Reconstitution Conference did gather on New Year’s Day 1944 in the presence of Phelan. The Left had hoped to secure from it a unified organisation with which to join WIL in fusion. This was not the proposition however. The Right (thirty four votes) and the Centre (thirty six votes) carried the Standing Orders Committee proposal of a looser arrangement against twenty nine votes for the Left.

The Left joined with the others in giving unanimous support to the IS resolution of 26 September reconstituting the British Section, a step it later regretted. But its full vote was cast against the resolution for fusion which was carried with seventy four votes behind it. The Right emerged as the faction most eager for unity, and in the third session of conference called for immediate fusion of RSL and WIL locals. [145] An IS representative also attended the second day of WIL’s January 1944 central committee [146] from which the Minority was excluded in view of its contact with an RSL faction. Nor was the Minority allotted a place on the negotiating committee in view of lack of support for its views at the 1943 WIL conference. [147]

The Fusion Conference met on 11-12 March 1944. There were sixty-nine delegates, fifty two from the WIL and seventeen from the RSL. [148] This reflected a membership split of 260/75 in WIL’s favour. [149] And the division of the RSL delegates – seven to the Centre, six to the Trotskyist Opposition, and four to the Left Fraction – meant that whatever resistance there was to the WIL, was seriously weakened. The resolutions of the RSL Centre did not represent any programmatic change. It still saw workers” control as a slogan for a revolutionary period. As advanced in the Britain of 1941-3, at a time when the masses were under capitalist influence, it continued to believe that the slogan had “not so much a purely reformist character as a definitely chauvinist one”. It furthered the illusion that it was justifiable to increase war production. All supporters of Military Policy had taken the incidental factor that the enemy was a fascist country and made it a cardinal principle. Since this was essentially a rehearsal of the old argument, it may have been aimed at justifying the RSL’s wartime stand. When Tearse moved the WIL’s industrial policy resolution he was able to carry it with only four votes in opposition. No more successful was the Left Fraction with its motion, A Policy for Industry. The Fraction regarded the Clyde Workers Committee and MWF as paper organisations [150]: the emphasis should have been put on work within the existing organisations, and its aim should have been to achieve one shop stewards movement. “We certainly will not assist in clarifying our position by attempting to imitate the Stalinists and building our own private concern.” To the Left Fraction it was tactically preferable to court expulsion from the shop stewards” movement and then campaign for democracy in the factories. The Fraction implied that the Militant Workers Federation was being used by WIL as a kind of political party. It was no more successful than the RSL Centre had been, and secured only four votes.

Voting on conference resolutions reflected roughly a four to one majority for WIL policies. Indeed, the Fusion Conference generally was a recognition of WIL’s wartime achievement. The main WIL leaders were all returned to the new central committee and there was no representation for the WIL minority. For the RSL, Harber (now known as Paul Dixon on party documents) and John Goffe were returned as CC members. [151] The leading WIL figures were then confirmed in the key positions. Haston became general secretary, Millie Lee organisational secretary, Ted Grant the editor of Socialist Appeal. This paper was confirmed as the agitational organ of Trotskyism though Militant’s imprint was to be used in the Labour Party. Workers International News remained the theoretical journal. The decision to adopt the name Revolutionary Communist Party was at once a rebuke to the CPGB and a reflection of WIL optimism rather than the bleaker outlook of the RSL. Stuart’s report to the American Trotskyists is perhaps the source of the myths later circulated about the WIL and the RSL. [152] It saw the RCP as a marriage of the “furious activism” of the one with the “serious attention to theory” of the other, whose consummation was the fruit of two years” tireless international effort. [153]

Stuart detected two dangers as displayed by the Fusion Conference. One was ultra leftism within the Left Fraction, though he urged caution in dealing with it in view of its class composition. The other was “a deviation of national coloration”, apparently discernible in the ex-WIL leadership. He made complaints of references to “our” eighth army which were almost certainly directed at the views of Grant.

The Fusion Conference was the occasion of the last in a series of communist pamphlets attacking Trotskyism. [154] Elsewhere the launching of the RCP attracted some attention, but it was really the arrests of party leaders during an industrial crisis the following month which brought recognition. Even before this assault of the party helped bind it together, the fusion resolution declared the hatchet buried:

The past clashes on the political questions engendered deep cleavages between the leading personnel and embittered the relations between the members of the organisation. An important task for the leadership of the new organisation is to introduce a real comradeship into the political discussions and life of the party, and to sweep away all the vestiges of the bitter disputes of the past. In the interests of the fusion this Conference therefore dissolves all past organisational conflicts and disputes and closes the discussion on these questions in the British Section. [155]

The Fusion Conference was a watershed. It did not mark the end of factionalism, but it redrew the demarcation lines. WIL leaders felt that Harber and the RSL Centre adhered loyally to the new set up [156] even though they still differed from the new party’s leadership. The Left Fraction, of course, maintained its existence. But the Right or Trotskyist Opposition had some within it who were travelling in the same direction as the Healy group within the WIL, and the fusion brought them together with, in the end, profound results.

The RSL had a melancholy history. All of the WIL’s predictions concerning the fragility of the Peace and Unity agreement of 1938 were borne out. The gulf over Labour Party tactics was too wide to be bridged by such a pact. In the end it was experience which resolved this, always the most difficult question for Trotskyists in Britain. WIL grew by rejecting the Labour Party and staying independent of the International. [157] The RSL decayed and dissolved by staying within the Labour Party. The sacrifices it made for its Labour Party existence became increasingly futile as the anticipated left swing within it was seen to be a mirage. The formation of the RCP was an endorsement of WIL’s method and its policies and gave promise of a departure from a bleak Trotskyist tradition in Britain.



1. Though it maintained there was no contradiction between its own existence and that of the Socialist Anti-War Front, formed in September: “on the contrary, the strong organisation of the revolutionary left in the Labour Party will be of great assistance to its work” (Militant, Oct. 1938).

2. The MLL conference reported 150 members, adopted a programme of transitional demands proposed by Jackson, claimed 2,000 monthly sales of Militant. It also claimed to be the driving force of the SAWF in some areas, (Report of the first National Conference of the Militant Labour League, [Nov. 1938?], 3, H.P., D.J.H. 3/2).

3. James was regarded by the RSP as a pledge that open activity would receive sufficient emphasis in the RSL He fulfilled some speaking engagements despite his illness, and the October Workers Fight bears his editorial mark, but he left for the United States shortly after.

4. It was argued that the opposition of most ILP leaders to reaffiliation would evaporate. “Comrades of the ILP, you think some of you that you are revolutionaries. You are not.” Capitulation to the Labour Party, it now predicted, would allow the ILP to be used by Transport House as a counterweight to Stalinism.

5. It carried articles by James and Maitland, advertisements for Militant, the RSP bookshop and even Workers International News. The Founding Conference was reported as were other affairs of the International such as the murder of its administrative secretary, Rudolf Klement.

6. Suspension of publication was blamed on low revenue from sales, although it was claimed that October and November were sold out.

7. RSP charges against the RSL centre were set down in RSP to RSL, (29 Dec. 1938), Letter and Statement of the RSP (Edinburgh) and reply of Executive Committee, H.P., D.J.H. 13a/6. See also Statement of the RSP, 23 Dec. 1938, in WIL document on the history of Trotskyism, 9-11.

8. ibid. Chief London critics were Lane and Duncan of the Islington RSL branch. This branch did publish at least four issues of Islington Workers Voice, a duplicated supplement to Militant, early in 1939. See the issue for March 1939 at H.P., D.J.H./3.

9. It claimed to have convened the biggest protest meetings in Edinburgh; one of its complaints against the centre was that it had not been kept supplied with literature during this time. It believed that the RSL central committee was mainly preoccupied with preparations to go underground.

10. At West Perthshire there was no Labour Party candidate in the by-election, brought about when the Duchess of Atholl resigned her seat in protest against the National Government’s foreign policy. She was the author of Searchlight on Spain, 1938, a defence of the Republic, and received popular front support in her unsuccessful bid to be returned. The RSP weighed in with Maitland’s pamphlet Searchlight on the Duchess of Atholl, 1938, an analysis of why a Tory should support the Republic.

11. Present were members of the ILP London Divisional Council, the RSL, the Africa Service Bureau, the MLL, the ILP Guild of Youth and the Labour League of Youth.

12. All capitalist conflicts were denounced but the League of Nations, Collective Security and Peace Blocs rejected. The notion of a war for democracy was felt to be undermined since the British, French and Czechs were already “ruling by decrees without consulting Parliament”. For the text of the Call to Action see Militant, Oct. 1938.

13. Members of various unions attended as well as others from the Woodcraft Folk, the League of Youth, Guild of Youth, WIL, RSL and London SAWF The Youth SAWF intervened with difficulty in a Youth Peace conference that autumn dominated by Ted Willis and John Gollan (The New Leader, 21 Oct. 1938).

14. The September 1938 conference of the SAWF had formed a provisional committee for London as well as district committees all over the capital. In South London Dewar held the secretaryship in addition to the national post.

15. Reg. Groves used The New Leader regularly to expound SAWF views (see the issue for 30 Sept. 1938). Sydney Bidwell told the ILP that the Front’s anti-war call had come “like a refreshing breeze” through the labour movement (The New Leader, 7 Oct. 1938), though this was of course vitiated by the adulatory reception extended by Maxton and ILP MPs to Chamberlain on his return from Munich.

16. The RSL admitted its involvement with the SAWF during the Munich crisis to have been a mistake, but charged the WIL with sharing it (British Section of the Fourth International, Statement on relations with the Workers International League, 4 Dec. 1939, H.P., D.J.H. 13x/8, 4).

17. See its issue for January 1939. That spring the SAWF did, however, issue a message to Labour’s rank and file declaring opposition to imperialist war to be part of the struggle for workers” power.

18. Dated 7 Feb. 1939, n.p. This pamphlet, with its pacifist connotations was later withdrawn by the Front. The Royal Arsenal Cooperative Society was one organisation which struck an encouraging note when it declared the Register “a threat to the rights and liberties of Cooperators, and part of the general effort of the present Government to destroy peace and democracy”.

19. See also SAWF general circular of 13 March 1939, Warwick MSS, 15/4/1/19.

20. The N-CL was launched in February 1939 and two months later was talking of a youth section. After a year’s life the N-CL claimed 6,000 members organised in 100 branches and around a quarter of a million affiliated members (The New Leader, 23 Feb. 1940).

21. Groves and Wicks were unable to carry electoral opposition to candidates not opposed to conscription (No Conscription, June 1939).

22. No evidence has been located of Reg Groves joining the RSL, either in its first or second incarnations, though he and Dewar now linked with the other Marxist Leaguers in the Socialist Anti-War Front. For most of the first year of the war Groves was a militant propagandist against the aims of the war, using whatever publication was open to him to advance his views, and being prime mover in founding another, Home Front (See Appendix 3).

23. In addition to Reg Groves, still the Aylesbury candidate, contributors to The Call included Edgar Plaisted (Wimbledon), W.T. Colyer (Chislehurst) and Will Morris (Hampstead) who was also secretary of the N-CL. The Call claimed forty Parliamentary candidates had signed a petition for immediate peace.

24. Writing in The Call for December 1939, Will Morris claimed for the N-CL the backing of nine trades councils, eighteen DLPs and 300 Women’s Cooperative Guilds through their national organisation. In Glasgow an N-CL convention was called by the Glasgow Trades Council. The N-CL also received backing from the ISP and the RSP in 1939, and the following year the British Federation of Cooperative Youth carried an anti-war resolution with one opposed. In November 1939, seventy Divisional Labour Parties, as well as twenty MPs backed a call for peace (A. Calder, The People’s War, 67).

25. Strongest opposition came from the Peace Pledge Union which, declared the SAWF, “regarded the whole question of war and peace as an abstract one unconnected with the efforts of the workers to achieve political power”, The Call, Dec. 1939.

26. ibid.

27. See H. Sara, Pollitt and the Party Line, The Call, Nov. 1939. In December The Call condemned Stalin’s invasion of Finland while dissociating itself from official Labour opinion.

28. W.T. Colyer, in The Three Internationals, The Call, Feb. 1940, scorned the Second and Third Internationals, but kept silent on the Fourth. Colyer shared a communist background with Groves, but had left the CPGB rather earlier and for quite opposite reasons, since he opposed party control of the National Left-Wing Movement (L.J. Macintyre, op. cit., 189-90).

29. This was a perspective which it shared with the WIL and the MLL

30. Some trades councils, like that in Romford, carried out campaigns and The Call for April 1940 carried a report from former Balham Group member Steve Dowdall on agitation in the building trade.

31. From November 1939 to April 19409 its entire life, The Call carried statements from SAWF members making conscientious objection to conscription.

32. In March 1940, The Call talked of ending “the purely negative stage of opposing the war”, arguing the need for “a great forward movement of the workers”.

33. The Call last appeared in April 1940 in a more professional format than previously. It claimed to have almost doubled circulation in six months and planned pamphlets by F.A. Ridley and George Padmore. Nearly sixty lecture meetings had been held in the first five months of the war, and the SAWF looked forward to the conference of the N-CL planned for 9 June 1940.

34. For the decline of conscientious objection in wartime, see E.A. Prince, Civil Liberty in Great Britain, University of London Ph.D., 1950, 304. Another contributory factor to loss of support for the SAWF was the death in January 1940 of Rowland Hill, a steady friend of the Marxist League and its causes across the years and “an enthusiastic admirer of Trotsky ... though he was not a Trotskyist in the full sense” (The Call, March 1940).

35. Interview with H. Wicks, 30 Nov. 1979.

36. They were certainly expelled from the RSL by the middle of the year. See Conscription, WIN, June 1939, 3. After the Fall of France the SAWF contacted the RSL. The RSL countered with a questionnaire on such matters as the Fourth International and revolutionary defeatism which could hardly do other than keep the two apart. It seems likely that the SAWF was in any case a broken reed by this time.

37. No document detailing the reason for the original EC decision to expel them has been located, but they were in conflict over their belief in outside work. At the conference they charged that the RSL had effectively been dissolved into the MLL, and were accused in turn of obstructiveness. Provincial members expressed bewilderment at all this and the EC recommendation was upheld, not with full authority, forty three to twenty three. A Hampstead delegate then proposed the withdrawal of dissidents to convene an alternative conference and a walk-out took place (Report of National Conference of the RSL, [Feb?] 1939, H.P., D.J.H. 13a/91).

38. [R.S.L], Interim Report of National Conference, [Feb?] 1939, H.P., D.J.H. 13A/9K, gives sixteen.

39.The RSL had offered WIL unification on equal terms though it claimed to hold twice the membership. Both sides met with Phelan of the SWP (q.v.) to consider the RSL proposal of equal executive representation. WIL declined as it did not accept the MLL tactic; nor did it respond to a second RSL offer, for a three month discussion to be followed by a binding majority vote at a joint conference. [RSL], Report On Negotiations With the WIL, [Jan. 1942]. Two WIL visitors were denied entry to the 1939 RSL conference. Jackson told the conference that decisive steps had been taken against WIL where it had established relations with RSL contacts.

40. Jackson steered conference through the complex relations between the RSL and the RSP by reference to a thick file of documents. Conference first rejected immediate RSP entry sixteen to thirty. It then instructed the executive forty two to one to open negotiations for fusion with the party, admitting the obvious truth that this task remained unaccomplished (Interim Report).

41. This was a full blown constitution, remarkably elaborate for an organisation less then sixty strong.

42. Members were Jackson, Weston, Wood, Johns, Harber, van Gelderen, “B.Sh.”, “D.B.”, “H.S.” (ibid.). Two other members who had been prominent earlier, Bert Matlow and Roma Dewar, had drifted away from the centre of affairs and were reported in October 1941 to be inactive (C.C. Minutes, 26 Oct. 1941, Har. P.). Matlow’s last important contribution to the Trotskyist cause seems to have been his speech to the 1939 Labour Party Conference, though he remained a central committee member until December 1940.

43. There were several positions. Finchley, Islington and Hampstead did not dispute the purpose of ARP or the nature of the impending war, but they demanded transitional demands on defence. J.L. Robinson, always implacable on this matter, flatly opposed any demands on the state for protection. George Weston proposed a resolution which argued that demands for defence in war were no more reactionary than demands for more money in peace, but even he favoured abstention from ARP work.

44. “It would therefore be fatal for us to carry on open propaganda against the war immediately after its outbreak” (Our tasks in relation to the outbreak of Imperialist War, in RSL National Conference 1939, [March? 1939], H.P.).

45. It claimed three delegates present altogether, (BSFI, Statement on relations with the Workers International League, 4 Dec. 1939, H.P., 13a/8, 3-4).

46. Youth Militant appeared in February, April and May 1939 and then unevenly for at least two years. A new series began in December 1939 and continued at least to No.[16?] which appeared in summer 1941.

47. That spring Advance was ousted from control of the LLOY by Labour officials. In July, Willis, most of the now unofficial NAC and many of the rank and file joined the Young Communist League. If the YCL grew it was a temporary spurt before conscription bit into the membership of both Leagues (J. Ferris, The Labour League of Youth, 1924-40, University of Warwick M.A., 1977, 129-32; T. Willis Whatever Happened to Tom Mix?, 1970, 185).

48. BSFI, Statement on relations, 3-4.

49. T.D. Burridge, British Labour and Hitler’s War, 1976, 41; B. Jones, The Russia Complex, 1977, 50.

50. It is an imperialist war (1940) was written before Labour’s conference endorsed participation by its leaders in the Churchill government. He was threatened with discipline by George Shepherd, the National Agent, but the NEC opted in the end to give him the chance to moderate his views, (see Appendix B ).

51. See its final issue, that for May 1940.

52. LPCR, 1940, 27.

53. Militant, April 1940. No other paper printed this statement of the MLL executive published over the name of “M. Stanwick”, almost certainly a pseudonym.

54. ibid.

55. Leaders of “the fourteen” were “F” (A.A. Cooper?), Bone and Emmett, the last two veterans of the League of Youth. They had backing in the Camberwell and East branches of the RSL They attributed their defeat at the Easter conference to the low political level of the provincial members.

56. Leicester Group (of the RSL), A Circle or a Party?, [1941?], n. pag. Har. P. There had been an attempt to sustain fortnightly publication of Militant in October 1939 (A. Penn, op. cit., 115).

57. EC Circular, 16 May 1940. Seemingly there had been plans to publish twice monthly before the ban. Providing Jackson’s salary, regularly, proved a strain almost at once, and the frequency of circulars declined.

58. M. Stanwick to the NEC, Labour Party, 8 April 1940; G.S. Shepherd to Stanwick, 10 April 1940.

59. M. Stanwick to the NEC, Labour Party, 25 April 1940. Stanwick pointed out that other minorities, such as the Peace Pledge Union, had not been suppressed but that the drive was aimed against socialist organisations. He instanced the Russia Today Society and the expulsion of D.N. Pritt M.P. For Pritt’s account of his expulsion see From Right to Left, 1965, 221 and ff. The MLL had resolutions from Norwood and Eastbourne on the agenda of the May 1940 annual conference.

60. A. McDonald (Edinburgh and District) put a Leninist view of the war and reminded conference that the previous year any intention to join Chamberlain in government had been disclaimed. Joe Pawsey (Norwood) seconded, calling for a British workers” state as the surest route to defeating fascism in Germany. Among supporting speakers was Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire) (LPCR, 1940, 127-31). Militant seems to have had illusions in the party mood. In April it had written that most of the 200 resolutions tabled were critical of party policy, that there was “growing uneasiness” if not an actual alternative. 49 out of 50 resolutions on the war, it told its readers, were opposed to the official line.

61. In May 1940 Militant argued that the proscriptions were part of a joint Labour government campaign against the left. Apart from the examples it gave action was also taken against the CPGB dominated Sheffield Trades Council, against Krishna Menon, and League of Youth members were forbidden to sell Youth for Socialism (WIN, May 1940, 5-6).

62. “A Labour Party semi-agitational paper no longer has a basis in the absence of a left-wing tendency even such as existed when the paper was first produced” (Resolution Passed by Enlarged EC, 25 May 1940). Youth Militant, it was resolved, would continue to be published. The theoretical journal did not appear. Instead it was agreed to launch an internal bulletin under the editorial control of Harber.

63. To avoid risks the EC resolved to hold its own Trotsky Memorial Meeting independently of all others and, later in the year, to take no part in the People’s Convention (Special EC, 23 Aug. 1940). Jackson remained organiser, now under the aegis of the RSL, but van Gelderen’s proposal that he seek to avoid military service was not upheld (EC Minutes, 6 July 1940). Jackson himself was uneasy at drift within the League and made a political statement deploring lack of leadership and initiative (EC Minutes, 11 Aug. 1940).

64. The course of this dispute can be traced through Trotsky’s letters to the SWP and to Shachtman and other dissidents published in L. Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism, 1966. See also J.P. Cannon, The Struggle for a Proletarian Party, N.Y. 1972.

65. Of the seven IEC members elected at the Founding Conference Shachtman himself, Abern, Mario Pedrosa (of Brazil) and James were defectors, (R.J. Alexander, Trotskyism in Latin America, Stanford 1973, 13).

66. For the various decisions taken by the conference see Documents, 306-97.

67. Between March and early April 1940 the RSL contacted Trotsky or the IEC to declare their support for Trotsky’s view, (Declaration, 19 March 1940; Declaration on the Status of the Resident IEC, 2 April 1940, Writings: Supplement (1934-40), 853-4). Conference resolved, “the authority of Johnson rested upon the mandate given him by the British section. But the British section in its organs and in all communications received, condemns defeatism in the Soviet Union and continues to endorse the entire programme of the Fourth International, including the position of unconditional defence of the USSR” Documents, 354.

68. Resolution on the Unification of the British Section, Documents, 359. The four FI factions in Britain are identified as the MLL, RWL (q.v.), WIL and the Labour League of Youth. The erroneous belief that the League of Youth stood for Trotskyism reveals how ill-informed the International actually was.

69. While remaining within its principles and those of the Founding Conference. The proceedings of the Conference were reported in Britain as The Emergency Conference of the Fourth International, International Bulletin, July 1940, H.P., D.J.H. 18/2. On Harber’s proposal the RSL attempted in August to set up a European subsection of the Fourth International, but only one meeting was held before contact was lost with other sections, (EC Minutes, 11 Aug. 1940). Members were Harber, Johns, van Gelderen, one German, one Czech, and one Polish advisor. Present in London during this period was the IKD (German Trotskyists) in exile. It too declared against Shachtman and reported a new layer of contacts (Organisational Report of the International Communists of Germany [IKD], Documents, 369).

70 RWL, For Members Only, 27 Oct. 1939, in WIL document on the History of British Trotskyism. This was a resolution which deplored the IS failure to conduct an investigation into Britain.

71. As late as May 1940 Workers Fight was telling revolutionaries in the ILP to join the Fourth International.

72. Workers Fight, 23 Dec. 1939.

73. The manifesto, dated 20 Dec. 1939, stressed the Finnish issue and called on workers to retain organisations independent both of Stalin and Mannerheim.

74. Though they did not follow Shachtman in his view that Russia had ceased to be a workers’ state, they did publish his important pamphlet Finland and the Fourth International, [1940?].

75. RWL to M. Abern, 7 Dec. [1939], H.P., D.J.H. 6/2b. Abern was also to follow Shachtman in the split from the SWP to set up the Workers’ Party, but the RWL’s connections with American dissidents seem coincidental.

76. Though a fusion of the WIL and the RWL, almost in response to the May 1940 resolution of the Emergency Conference, was announced by WIN in June 1940 and Youth for Socialism incorporated Workers Fight, only twelve RWL members joined WIL, and it seems that half of them left soon after. Those who joined saw the WIL as providing the nucleus for what might become a true British Section of the FI.

77. Six of them, including Rose Carson, were to form the core of the Right Opposition, which was soon to crystallize within the RSL One curious feature of the RWL’s brief existence was the use of the name “D. Gray”, presumably fictitious, on Workers Fight. The same name was also used by Workers International News and Youth for Socialism in 1940-1.

78. [RSL], The Electoral Tactics of the Workers’ Vanguard, 1940, 1.

79. It believed the slogan itself might win it dissidents from within WIL.

80. Thesis on the Crisis of Capitalism and the Tasks of the British Section of the Fourth International (adopted by RSL central committee, 11 Aug. 1940), Bulletin of the British Section of the Fourth International, Sept. 1940, D.J.H. 6/3, 8.

81. RSL, Statement of the Executive Committee of the British Section of the Fourth International, Marxist Discussion Bulletin, 2, Aug. 1940, H.P., D.J.H. 6/5, 25.

82. RSL, Attitude of the Proletariat Towards Imperialist War, H.P., D.J.H. 6/12, 4.

83. The June 1940 issue drew immediate complaints from the Leicester branch of the RSL, in August, that its appearance in the name of the Fourth International amounted to a declaration for open work, was an assertion that Trotskyism “had an independent role outside of the social democratic movement of the masses”, and offered Labour officialdom a chance to take repressive measures (Leicester Group, A Circle or a Party?).

84. A move of the centre to Glasgow to avoid the blitz was announced to members on 28 October 1940. In December the Central Committee announced it had become impossible to maintain a full national apparatus but early in 1941 returned to London.

85. The London Organisation Report of 3 Nov. 1940, gave eight to twelve members in Croydon, but their Labour Party had collapsed and inter-member contact was poor; East London had two members left; Lambeth had ten but they were starting to be called up; Staines had one left as had Balham; Camberwell had eight; North had five but had not met for two months.

86. ibid.

87. Sometimes entitled Marxist Discussion Bulletin. Alison Penn (op. cit., 159) gives the last Bulletin as September 1940, but there are references in RSL papers to one for November.

88. There must be no compromise, 24 July 1940.

89. Dated 11 August 1940.

90. “F” was expelled for opposing the Labour Party concentration at a December 1940 members meeting, and for general inactivity (F, B, E, For the building of the British Section of the Fourth International, 30 April 1941, H.P., D.J.H. 7/1, 8).

91. They declared that “the theory of the Labour Party perspective now has no harmony with reality” and that the official section of the Fourth International in Britain no longer existed. They would launch a bulletin, Socialist Fight to achieve a regrouping of Fourth Internationalists and to direct propaganda and activity towards “the industrio-military field” (ibid., 8-10).

92. Fusion was prematurely announced in WIN.

93. Leicester threatened to move expulsion of the whole CC if such concessions to chauvinism continued. The dispute between Leicester and the centre can be traced from August 1940.

94. Central Committee, 15 Dec. 1940.

95. The RSL Centre composed a Reply to Leicester and claimed to have despatched it in February 1941. The Leicester branch claimed to have received it on 2 July 1941.

96. Bolshevism or Defencism was published by Leicester on 25 May 1941 and marks the effective beginning of the Left Fraction of the RSL. For the argument of this and other Faction Documents, see below, The Centre’s reply, dated June 1941, was entitled Leicester’s House of Straw, and has not been located.

97. The December CC virtually confessed this by its announcement that wartime conditions made full implementation of the 1939 constitution of the RSL impossible. Early in the New Year this position was confirmed. National Conferences were declared to be impossible and would be replaced by enlarged national committees and London general membership meetings. The central committee would become the highest body in the party (E.C. Statement, Our Constitution and the War, Feb. or March 1941, in Leicester Group, A Circle or a Party?).

98. It was duplicated in Glasgow and edited in Norwich ([Anon], Dear Friends, [1943], H.P., D.J.H. 13A/18). The general work of the League was geographically dispersed from August (EC Circular, 1 Aug. 1941).

99. EC Circular, 19 March 1941. In December 1940 the central committee had been Harber, Johns, Davis, van Gelderen, Pawsey, Matlow, Jackson, Wood, Archer, “M.S.”, Robinson, “M.Q.”, with Tom Mercer as an alternate. By late 1940 Tony Doncaster, another senior Militant Group member was in the Navy (A. Newell [secretary, Aylesbury DLP] to Groves, 2 Dec. 1940). That autumn the RSL had changed its attitude towards conscription sufficiently to dissociate itself from four WIL members in Sheffield who had evaded military service.

100. Sub-titled Organ of the Socialist Left of the Labour Party. It appeared as from the Pioneer Publishing Association, possibly transferred after the collapse of the RWL’s attempt to run a PPA outlet in December 1939 (see above, 313).

101. Signs which contradicted 1938 predictions were consistently misinterpreted. Family allowances? It was no accident they existed in Italy and Germany. ABCA? A means for administering “imperialist dope”. Reveille? “a pornographic-demagogic rag”. The paper showed a steady inability to recognise the potential in any development which fell short of the full revolutionary programme. See the issue for October 1941.

102. London took 500 and Glasgow 300 of the September issue. Every other area took dozens or fractions thereof. Only Glasgow sustained high sales, however, reflecting a steady drive into the Lanarkshire coalfield. And it was the Glasgow RSL branch’s opposition which prevented a new suspension in 1942 when sales declined elsewhere ([Anon], Dear Friends, [1943], H.P., D.J.H. 13A/18.) What was noticeable in this Glasgow Militant was its close coverage of trade union affairs. Disputes north and south of the border were closely watched, especially where factory floor feeling clashed with the opinions of union officials or communist stewards.

103. Thereby contradicting the intention announced by the Central Committee at its meeting of December 1940.

104. The RSL had learned of contacts between the IS and WIL and was vulnerable by reason of its internal disputes and its differences with the International over Military Policy. A November 1941 communication from the IS reassured the RSL that it was still the official British Section.

105. The Left Fraction comprised principally J.L. Robinson and his supporters in Leicester, and the Glasgow backers of Tom Mercer, an alternate member of the Central Committee and Nan Milton, daughter and later biographer of John MacLean.

106. It later heard that Military Policy was not binding upon national sections of the Fourth International.

107. Jackson became a submariner. On 9 January 1943 the Central Committee was told that he was missing, presumed lost at sea.

108. EC Minutes, 26 Sept. 1941, Har. P. The Left Fraction later claimed that at this time the RSL issued two pamphlets, Class War in the West and Production committees and the Soviet Union, each of which reflected the line of the Right. Neither has been located. Each was withdrawn when the RSL heard from the IS that Military Policy was not binding upon it. On 5 January 1942 the RSL recommended that Lawrence be made a professional.

109. At the October meeting Harber moved “that fusion with WIL is not politically necessary” (CC Minutes, 26 Oct. 1941). The following month Lawrence demanded immediate fusion (EC Circular, 26 Nov. 1941) but the Central Committee voted against it in November and December (CC Minutes, 7 Dec. 1941).

110. The October 1941 central committee heard gloomy reports about the League of Youth and the Labour Party. Youth Militant had control of the League in the Midlands and South Yorkshire and its activists believed in a long entrist perspective, but the organisation as a whole was small. The Labour Party had “no leftward tendency” and was ‘stagnant”. Remarkably, the central committee concluded six to two that little could be done in the Labour Party and that the RSL must go into industry as an organised left. An open challenge was tabled at this meeting to the Labour Party tactic (Anon., Opportunism and the Labour Party Perspective, late [1941?] Har.P.,F6; CC Minutes, 26 Oct. 1941; West Riding Faction, Labour League of Youth and Our Perspectives, [1941]).

111. RSL to WIL, 5 Aug. 1941, Report on Negotiations with the WIL, [Jan. 1942?]. The RSL sent WIL its documents The Crisis of British Capitalism and Political Statement (to its 1941 conference). WIL returned, somewhat tardily, its Reply to the Political Statement of the RSL.

112. “The decision of 1938 was not taken by chance, but on the basis of a definite attitude of the Lee group. Since then many things have occurred and our relations are not exempt from development, but that could be done only through a thorough explanation” (IS to WIL, 28 Oct. 1941, ibid., 6). Eight months later, the IS attitude had hardened. It told the RSL:

In our opinion. your attitude towards the WIL is utterly false. Without ignoring personal differences inherited from the past, it is necessary to recognise that your false attitude flows directly from a false political appreciation of this group. You see in it a centrist group ”moving away from us”. This is an opinion which we can by no means share. (IS to RSL, 21 June 1942)

113 WIL, Reply to the Political Statement of the Revolutionary Socialist League, 1941, H.P., D.J.H. 5/7, 4.

114. “This tactic is designated for a period, when, under the impact of events, the leftward moving rank and file of reformist or centrist organisations in a state of flux, can be won in a short time to a programme of revolution. The perspective is not of long years but of one or two, or even of months” (ibid., 4).

115. One curious development early in the year was a sharp attack by Jackson on Harber for breaking off fusion negotiations with WIL (E.S. Jackson, On the Workers International League, 18 Feb. 1942, Har. P.).

116. The charges mingle. Thus WIL was accused of building its independent organisation by “pandering to the chauvinism of the workers” with its slogans of “Arm the Workers” and “Nationalise the Arms Industries under workers’ control” (D.D. Harber, Our Political Estimation of the WIL, accepted by the RSL central committee, 29 March 1942).

117. This stricture also applied to other protagonists of “independence”. It was Robinson who intervened to prevent the speedy admission of five SWG members who had applied to rejoin the RSL on 3 May. The terms he set were softened by Harber however (Minutes, Emergency CC, 17 May 1942). Robinson, almost incredibly, suspected Harber of being soft on the WIL. At the June 1942 meeting of the central committee he intervened to prevent the RSL selling WIL publications in public. Connections with “centrism”, he warned, would damage the League’s integrity. (J.L. Robinson, Answer to the. Statement of the EC, [March 1943?], in Dear Friends, etc., H.P., D.J.H. 13A/18.)

118. This happened on 14 July, (History of Expulsions of Members of the WIL Faction (Right Wing) accepted by a majority of the C.C., Dec. 1942).

119. WIL Document on the History of British Trotskyism, 13.

120. J.B. Stuart (Sam Gordon) was the administrative secretary of the FI appointed by the Emergency Conference in 1940.

121. Resolutions passed by the CC, 19 July 1942. Their appeal to international opinion was neutralised by Harber, who argued that while the IS had a view it had not taken a decision on which the Right might act.

122. The plan was Harber’s. He proposed that a period of discussions be held within the RSL and the WIL and that when exchanges began between the two the Right could remain silent. Harber was reassured by Stuart that the RSL’s status with the Fourth International was safe, but he suspected Stuart’s relationship with the Right and was disturbed that he did not meet the Left. He later told the RSL

“The IS seeks, in my opinion, to push us into a fusion with the WIL, which they know would automatically give the supporters of the AMP (American Military Policy – M.U.); a majority. Such a tactic is typical of Cannonism ...” D.D.H., Report of Conversations with Comrade S. of the IS, 7 Aug. 1942.

123. It is generally agreed that from about this time Lawrence began to act as a WIL agent within the RSL branch at Leeds. On at least one occasion he actually received a salary from WIL. Lawrence, Lane and others of the Right were also holding secret faction meetings with Haston and Grant of the WIL from August 1942 onwards.

Lawrence’s activities on WIL’s behalf were revealed at the August central committee of the RSL and Harber’s compromise plan was then withdrawn. E.L. Davis interviewed members of the Right involved in the WIL meetings on 5 September 1942. On 3 October they were confronted with the charge of acting as WIL agents and, after a lengthy discussion, expelled. Others who supported their action were expelled in November (History of Expulsions of Members of the WIL Faction (Right Wing), Dec. 1942; Gradjine, Who Speaks For Bolshevism?, 19 Nov. 1942).

124. The RSL met the WIL on 25 Oct. 1942, where proposals for a joint discussion bulletin were opposed by Harber. He also blocked the holding of a joint conference before a full exchange had taken place between the groups.

125. Gradjine, Who Speaks for Bolshevism?, 19 Nov. 1942.

126. For the Trotskyist Opposition, see WIL document on the History of Trotskyism, 16-17.

127. “It would be criminal to assume that, because it (WIL) pursues a by and large correct policy today, that is all that is important” (J.B. Stuart to J.Lawrence), 4 Feb. 1943, ibid., 17).

128. “The proponents of entry have their eyes glued to “the future visage of the Labour Party and not to its present posterior. Using the example of the last war, they argue, correctly enough, that the first big revolutionary wave will revive the Labour Party” (Preparing for Power, special issue WIN, Sept. 1942, 22).

129. “If as the result of the mass upsurge, hundreds of thousands and millions participate actively in the organisation of the Labour Party, then will come the time to enter (ibid., 23).

130. A Criticism of the WIL Pamphlet Preparing for Power, in, WIL Discussion Bulletin, Policy and Perspectives of the British Trotskyists, 1942, 3. Here the RSL rejected a further WIL argument, that a turn of other parties such as the ILP towards Labour also confirmed the time to enter. The RSL reminded WIL that the ILP had had no interest in the Labour Party in 1936 when Trotsky had proposed joining and that the conditions to which it attached such weight did not apply during WIL’s own period in the Labour Party.

131. ibid., 4. The RSL central committee assented to this document by a majority on a postal ballot.

132. The following year WIL responded to this document arguing that there was a pre-revolutionary situation and that it would not take an antiwar character at all. It dismissed as “formalistic nonsense” the thesis that all workers must pass through the Labour Party and argued that there would be a differential response to the Labour Party within the working class (Reply of WIL to the RSL criticism of Preparing for Power, 7 June 1943, 15).

133. J.L. Robinson, Answer to the Statement, loc. cit. One rare product of RSL thought not devoted to factional conflict at this time was Harber’s preamble to a Draft Programme for the “socialist Left”, [June?) 1942 (Har. P.).

134. A Glasgow supporter of the Left, Gibbie Russell, was a former Lanarkshire miner who had retained his links with the pits. By 1942 a rank and file movement had developed among the miners in Lanarkshire. See Fife Dispute supplement, Militant (Glasgow), Sept. 1942. But it was debarred from launching a new paper by war time regulations. Russell persuaded the RSL executive to turn over the Militant to the miners in return for the proviso that all material be first submitted to Margaret Johns and Tom Mercer, both of the Glasgow RSL branch, and that the RSL be allowed a 200 word editorial. The transfer took place on 3 December 1942. Even before this a special supplement had been issued to Militant between normal issues with all. articles being written by Russell, Hugh Brannan (a Lanarkshire miner and Left Faction member) and Tom Stephenson, (a Cumberland miner and ILP member who had been a disaffiliationist in 1932).

135. P.J.B., E.L.D., M.J., D.D.H., An Answer to the Charges of the “Left”, 23 Jan. 1943 (Har. P.).

136. See the Left Fraction, On the Future of the Scottish Miner Edition of the Militant. The RSL did not dispute this assertion, (Dear Friends, etc., H.P., D.J.H. 13A/18). For Trotskyists in the Scottish pits in wartime see Chapter XI.

137. Russell and another member circulated all RSL branches on 18 February 1943 urging joint BSFI – Lanarkshire miners control of Militant. By May circulation of the paper, now duplicated, had fallen below 300 (Minutes of the CC held on 9 May 1943, Har. P.).

138. The IS specified that it continued to abhor Left Fraction policies (Brief Notes on the History of the Left Fraction, 2).

139. WIL offered, tongue in cheek, to treat with the RSL factions separately or together (Conference Resolution On International Affiliation, H.P., D.J.H. 14B/17).

140. Political Bureau, Internal Bulletin, 11 Sept. 1943, 12. WIL also recalled Trotsky’s part in splitting the Belgian Party in 1929 and his role in the CL split of 1933. It never conceded that its own existence was due to a personalised split but argued that even if true, this charge could not cancel out its own success while the RSL had failed. WIL took the view that the IS had in any case been for years “completely misinformed” about the real situation in Britain (WIL, Document on the History of British Trotskyism, 2).

141. See G. Healy, Our Most Important Task, Internal Bulletin, [1943?]; Political Bureau to Healy, 21 Aug. 1943; G. Healy to Political Bureau, 25 Aug. 1943.

142. H.P., Political Statement of the Minority on Unification, Dec. 1943, H.P., 14B/21. See also An Open Letter to All Group Members, 30 Dec. 1943, H.P. 14B/21.

143. Minutes of EC of 13 Nov. 1943, Har. P.

144. See D.D.H., H.G., Account of an Interview between S.G. and D.D.H. (Militant Group) and J.L. (‘T.O.’) on 4 Dec.1943, H.P., D.J.H. 13A/23; [J.L.], Letter to the RSL Membership, 18 Dec. 1943, H.P., D.J.H. 13A/24; EC of the TO, Statement to the RSL membership from the EC of the TO (RSL), 19 Dec. 1943, H.P., D.J.H. 13A/25.

145. Left Fraction, RSL “Reconstitution” Conference, [Jan.?] 1944 , Har. P. This is the only record of the conference located.

146. Another recent WIL contact with the American-based IS had been through Grant who was in the United States at Christmas 1943 (A. Wald, op. cit., 84).

147. Central Committee Report, Jan. 1944 , H.P., D.J.H. 14B/22.

148. Plus a representative from the International, Terence Phelan (alias Sherry Mangan, 1904-61). Mangan, a CLA member, worked in France as a Time-Life correspondent from 1938 until he was expelled by the Petain government for his political activities. In 1939 he had been technical secretary of the IS In 1944, again in France, he was part of the European Secretariat and was to join the reconstituted IS in 1946. After the war he was often known in Trotskyist papers as Patrice O’Daniel.

149. The WIL membership of 260 has been wrongly taken as the membership of the entire RCP (P. Jenkins, Where Trotskyism Got Lost, 1977, 3).

150. These bodies, the product in part of WIL’s wartime drive into industry, are discussed in Chapter XI.

151. Goffe had been on the RSL Central Committee and also represented an important provincial area, Glasgow

152. See T. Ali, The Coming British Revolution (1972), where it is revealed that the WIL was smaller than the RSL, that they fused after the war, and that WIL’s internal life was marked by an intense factional struggle over Labour Party entry.

153. J.B. Stuart, A Brief Report On England, Fourth International, June 1944), 168-70. The claim of the Fourth International that it played a centripetal role is set down in P. Frank, The Fourth International, 1979, 60.

154. J.R. Campbell, Trotskyist Saboteurs, 1944.

155. Socialist Appeal, April 1944. Party leaders lived up to these sentiments, taking a close interest in how the new branches were holding together and referring to the fusion as the marriage. In Glasgow there was great enthusiasm for the merger on the part of the two locals, each important in its national organisation. They had some common work behind them, (Interview with J. Goffe, M. Johns, July 1974, Nov. 1973).

156. Interview with R. Tearse, Nov. 1973.

157. WIL’s industrial successes are the theme of Chapter XI.

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