The History of British Trotskyism to 1949

by Martin Upham


Trotskyism and the ILP
by Martin Upham

This is Appendix F in Martin Upham’s thesis. Appendix D & E (the Programme and Industrial Programme of the RCP) can be found in the Home Office Report of 1944 on the Trotskyists groups on this website.

In the ILP Trotskyism’s presence in 1938 was at a low ebb, virtually reduced to Patterson and others working from the Clapham ILP bookshop. In the Guild of Youth there were some young members of WIL and they achieved a symbolic coup on 26 November 1938 when the London Guild declared for the formation of the Fourth International. [1] At the national conference of the Guild, however, the Fourth International was passed over for the London Bureau and the RSL was condemned for failing to support an anti-war front the Bureau had summoned. [2] At the Party conference of 1939 reaffiliation was the key issue and now, as at the end of the war, Trotskyism split both ways. Harry Wicks and Hugo Dewar had moved to the ILP as the most likely source, in their view, of labour movement revival. With their supporters they openly entered the ILP and formed its Battersea and Wimbledon branches. [3] At conference they allied with C.A. Smith and Fred Jowett against reaffiliation. [4] Patterson, a long standing opponent of rejoining Labour had now reversed his view. [5] From its Labour Party position, Workers International League also supported reaffiliation. [6] The desire of the National Council was upheld and negotiations opened which might have been successful had not war intervened. Patterson attempted to take dissident ILPers into the Labour Party and received support from the London Divisional Council. The attempt was crushed by ILP head office. [7]

War gave the ILP a chance to return to the great simplicities. [8] The 1930s had revealed a lack of clarity as to what the party stood for, but it was definitely against war. This gave it a greater firmness of purpose between 1939 and 1945 than it had had for some years and even the fleeting promise of not being confined to electoral representation in Scotland. It also gathered to it other dissidents stifled by the electoral truce between the two main parties. Before June 1941 the CPGB was better placed to tap this potential. After that date the ILP, the new Common Wealth Party, and even WIL derived growth from defiance of the consensus.

In January 1940 The New Leader felt confident enough to treat the Trotskyists with disdain, listing five separate organisations of theirs which opposed the war. [9] But while Patterson had left the ILP, Wicks and Dewar had come in. By 1942 two more Trotskyist groups had entered the party. The first group was the RSP, which had never really surrendered its independence at the time of the Peace and Unity agreement or later. In 1940 a split was evident within this tiny party. Maitland and the Taits were extracted by the idea of conscientious objection, but a number of their Edinburgh members had drifted towards the perspectives of the WIL, which had sent Lee and Haston up to address the branch. [10] Maitland and the Taits expelled the pro-WIL faction. [11] In December 1941 they announced their decision to enter the ILP, then “challenging the capitalist warmongers in the Central Edinburgh By-Election”. The ILP, they had concluded, was the only nationally organised socialist party in Britain [12], and they set up a new branch of it in the city.

When the ILP launched its Socialist Britain Now! campaign in late 1941 it rallied support from many with histories in the Trotskyist movement. Reg Groves greeted it with the declaration that it would bring “hope to the world”. [13] He and two comrades from SAWF days, W.T. Colyer and Will Morris, now wrote regularly for The New Leader. In February 1942 Dick Beech, an early British contact of the Opposition, applied to join the ILP as the only party which had not shelved socialism for the duration. [14] Groves threw himself into the campaign in the spring of that year. [15]

The premise of the Socialist Britain Now! campaign was that the ILP, would be the prime instrument of socialist transformation. This view was diametrically opposed to that of WIL, which believed that the ILP should join the Labour Party in order to strengthen its left. [16] Three Trotskyist factions were in evidence at the ILP annual conferences [17] of 1942. There W. Tait urged the sending of arms to Russia under worker’ control and found a seconder in W.G. Hanton, the Communist League veteran. [18] Maitland moved a resolution on industrial unionism. [19] WIL ran a baleful eye of the performance of Dewar and Wicks, who they thought had antagonised delegates with points of order and not forced the Russian issue. [20] For itself, it took great encouragement from the passage by chance, of its “Labour to Power” policy, and the strong contact established with the Newcastle and Cardiff branches. [21]

Interest in Trotsky, never absent from the ILP, increased in 1942 with polemical articles sustained subsequently by WIL. [22] Wicks and Dewar, with support from Maitland, took over the open forum Free Expression, and by 1943 had turned it into a Trotskyist vehicle. [23] Ironically it was WIL which effectively was operating the policy Wicks and Dewar had advocated for the Communist League a decade earlier: an independent Trotskyist organisation with an ILP fraction. Its more effective ILR work helped it to make recruits from Wicks and Dewar as well as directly from the ILP. [24]

One thrust of WIL propaganda against the ILP was to ridicule its leaders as poseurs with a taste for ultra-left adventures. Such, it believed, was the Socialist Britain Now! campaign which collapsed between the annual conferences of 1942 and 1943. WIL argued that if it were a revolutionary party reaffiliation to Labour would be a disaster, for ILP leaders did not make principled criticisms of Labour leaders; precisely because it was not revolutionary ILP reaffiliation would be a progressive step which would sort out not only its own members but those of the Labour Left as well. [25] By the time of the 1943 conference WIL was confident. The ILP now had within it a sizeable group of genuine Marxists “for the first time since the C.L.R. James walk-out and debacle”. [26]

At this conference WIL influence contributed to the success of Ted Fletcher in defeating an NAC proposal for an alliance with Common Wealth, though a discussion on the Fourth International was not allowed. There was still a clash of policy between the Trotskyists. A Wallsend-Tooting amendment was tabled to the NAC resolution on Political Truce and Labour Unity but its call for “Labour to Power” was voted down. After this Wicks, the Battersea delegate, opposed the resolution itself on the grounds that it implied reaffiliation [27]: Nor was this the only clash. [28] In their journals the WIL and the Wicks-Dewar factions argued out the future of the ILP from opposite corners. [29] Yet despite their programmatic differences both emphasised the importance of agitation in the factories: there was a close similarity between their approach and that of the ILP when at last it took up industrial work. [30] These similar approaches helped at least one of the ILP’s impressive wartime performances at by-elections. [31]

January 1944 saw Trotskyist influence in the North-East reach a peak at the ILP Divisional conference. There a resolution was accepted calling for discussions with “the Fourth International and other groups who recognise the urgent necessity for the working class to be led by a Workers International based upon Marxism and embracing the Bolshevik form of organisation”. Conference also amended an official motion on War and the World Struggle to include the Trotskyist demand for a united socialist states of Europe. [32] The division defeated a call for Labour Party affiliation, yet it also rejected an electoral alliance with Common Wealth. That same weekend saw the London and Southern Counties division turn down a Tooting resolution on the Common Wealth alliance and refuse permission to approach other revolutionary organisations including the Fourth International.

National ILP conference coincided in time and place with the arrests of Trotskyists for acting in furtherance of the Tyneside apprentices dispute. No party rallied more powerfully to the aid of the infant RCP than the ILP, not least at a parliamentary level. [33] This is remarkable since 1944 may justly be singled out as the year when, arguably, Trotskyist influence on the ILP exceeded even that of 1935-6. Dave Binah, an RCP member and Sunderland delegate urged on the 1944 conference the policy of Labour to Power. His call for the ILP to help break the coalition and participate in exposing reformists was countered by Maitland who claimed Brockway and the Glasgow councillor Tom.Taylor were trying to lead the ILP back by the nose into the Labour Party. It was being asked to mask new treachery. This time the RCP was on the winning side: an NAC resolution for socialist unity and the establishment of joint left groups fell by forty three to sixty one. [34] Two separate Trotskyist streams in the ILP continued to flow their distinct ways. The RCP’s fraction work culminated in expulsions the following year. [35] Dewar [36] and Maitland [37] remained within the ILP, firmly committed to the thesis that it might become the agent of revolutionary transformation. In the case of Dewar at least this was to mean commitment to a sinking ship. [38]



1. The decision had only an abstract meaning since the Guild also rejected cooperation with Youth for Socialism, at that time largely based on the League of Youth (The New Leader, 2 Dec. 1938; Youth for Socialism, Nov. 1938).

2. The conference also rejected a Stepney resolution advancing the Trotskyist view of Russia and passed one from Barking putting the ILP view (The New Leader, 24 Feb. 1939).

3. Wicks and Dewar negotiated their entry with Brockway who welcomed them because they brought support (Interview with H. Wicks).

4. For this debate see P. Thwaites, The Independent Labour Party, 1938-1950 (University of London Ph.D. thesis, 1976), 83; F. Brockway, Inside the Left, 1942; The New Leader, 14 April 1939. In the winter of 1940-41, C.A. Smith shocked the ILP by coming out in favour of the war and national defence.

5. Patterson was on the losing side in his attempts to subject the parliamentary group to the party following its behaviour during the Munich crisis, in his effort to strengthen the ILP’s immediate policy on war and in his opposition, during the debate on the National Register, to any connection with ARP (The New Leader, 14 April 1939).

6. Perhaps with Patterson in mind WIL wrote

“The militant members, who have vainly been striving to transform the ILP into a revolutionary organisation, now completely disillusioned, are attempting to organise themselves with a view to entering the Labour Party apart from the ILP.” (What Next for the ILP?, WIN, June 1939, 3)

7. The NAC suspended Patterson for anti-party conduct but the London Divisional Council declined by one vote to operate the suspension. Thereupon the NAC suspended the Council, convened a special conference of London branches, and put to it the motion that the ILP could be made “an effective revolutionary instrument” and should be strengthened. Resolutions for and against Patterson were ruled out of order on the grounds that he had a right of appeal, whereupon nine branches withdrew in protest. But twenty stayed to pass the resolution and it seems that both groups of delegates opted for staying in the ILP (The New Leader, 21 July 1939).

8. See the first four footnotes. ILP MPs opposed the Military Training Act, the Emergency Powers Act, the National Services (Armed Forces) Act, the Control of Employment Act, and the Declaration of War itself (The ILP in War and Peace).

9. J. Jupp, op. cit., 237.

10. Interview with E. Grant (Jan. 1973).

11. They adhered to the WIL, but because of local conditions peculiar to Edinburgh were allowed to continue with open work (WIL, Reply of the EC to Comrade D.F., 12 Oct. 1940, Internal Bulletin,

12. [R.S.P.], Vote For A Socialist Britain, [Dec. 1941 , H.P., D.J.H. 8/1]. In June 1942 WIL attempted unsuccessfully to recruit the rump of the RSP. When it failed it concluded W. Tait and others would line up with the “right wing including Padley and Wicks against the WIL members in the ILP” (C.C., 20 June 1942, H.P., D.J.H. 14B/19).

13. The New Leader (10 Jan. 1942).

14. He did not become a prominent member though The New Leader did publish some of his fiction in 1944.

15. He spoke at a number of campaign meetings and in March 1942 seconded Brockway’s main resolution at a Socialist Britain Now! conference in the ILP Midland division (Maitland-Sara Papers, MSS 172/LPA/5).

16. See WIL’s open letter to the 1942 ILP conference (Socialist Appeal, April 1942). It had been sufficiently sensitive to ILP affairs to publish Trotsky’s The ILP and the Fourth International, in WIN for December 1941. The CPGB was equally scornful of the proposition that the ILP would rapidly become the instrument of socialist change. See the treatment of an analysis by John McGovern MP in J.R. Campbell, Socialism Through Victory (1942), 10-11.

17. Groves also maintained relations with the ILP but on an individual basis. From summer 1943 while still Labour candidate for Aylesbury he contributed a free-ranging column Time to Kill to The New Leader. The RSL executive broke its inflexibility on the Labour Party tactic on 16 March 1942 to allow that members might enter the ILP, where short term gains could be made. Nothing came of this, preventing the ILP’s internal life becoming yet more complex.

18. J.R. Campbell, Socialism Through Victory (1942), 6.

19. S. Bornstein, interview with F. Maitland (Aug. 1976), kindly lent to author.

20. Their activity was “distinguished only by its complete stupidity and political ineptitude” (EC Report, 22 April 1942, H.P., D.J.H. 14B/11/1; National Organiser’s Report, n.d., 2). The WIL National Organiser and Healy had attended the conference as observers.

21. Conference had passed by an overwhelming majority a Cardiff-Tooting composite putting the Socialist Appeal programme. This “most amazing fluke” gave WIL a legal platform for its activities (EC Report, 22 April 1942, H.P., D.J.H.14B/11/1).Marc Loris of the SWP, who was closely in touch with WIL, contributed a critique, The ILP: Words and Reality, of the Socialist Britain Now! campaign to Left (formerly Controversy) for October 1942. Walter Padley of the ILP replied in December and Loris wrote again on the party the next year (The British ILP, Fourth International, Feb. 1943, 63). See also WIN, passim.

22. Wicks promised a limited attempt at changing Free Expression into “a Marxist theoretical journal” in October 1942, and that month it proclaimed itself “a Revolutionary Socialist monthly”. (H. Wicks to Sara, 1 Oct. 1942, Warwick MSS 15/3/1/66). From November it was a regular Trotskyist journal, publishing articles by Trotsky himself, former oppositionists and Hugo and Margaret Dewar. Free Expression articles were forceful, but weakened when they had to give practical advice.


24. They were to win the support of Bill Hunter, a Tynesider who had formerly belonged to the Peace Pledge Union, and Betty Russell of the Tooting branch of the ILP These WIL gains may have been facilitated by joint ILP-Trotskyist fractions (Interview with H. Wicks, 30 Nov. 1979). Against such gains WIL had to offset its problems with Healy, who in February 1943 told its Political Bureau that he was resigning to join the ILP The Bureau recalled seven previous resignations that had been hushed up and this was no more permanent (Statement of the PB on the Expulsion of G. Healy at the Central Committee Meeting of February 7th 1943, 15 Feb. 1943, H.P., D.J.H. 4 (15)).

25. E. Grant, The ILP in Transition, WIN, May 1943, 2.

26. A Letter from England, Fourth International (June 1943), 190. The most effective work of all was being done in the North-East. Roy Tearse, from that ILP division, was from 1942 organising WIL industrial work from London. Following the arrival of Heaton Lee and Ann Keen in Walker in 1943, a consolidated ILP fraction included T. Dan Smith, Ken Skethaway, Dave Binah and Jack and Daisy Rawlings. This led in turn to an acquaintance with Bill Davy of the YCL, who was to lead the engineering apprentices’ movement of 1943-4 (Interview with Ann Finkel (Keen), 30 July 1974). As to the size of the factions, P. Thwaites (op. cit., 36) gives twelve for the WIL on entry into the ILP and H. Wicks recalls twenty around Free Expression (Interview, 30 Nov. 1979).

27. Hugo Dewar believed that the basis of reformism had been eaten away by the war. “The disappearance of this (Labour) party from the British political scene is inevitable”, he concluded (The End of the Labour Party, Free Expression, June 1943, n.p.). For the clash between the Trotskyists see P. Thwaites, op. cit., 155.

28. In the India debate Wicks backed an NAC resolution while Betty Russell (Tooting) unsuccessfully moved a series of amendments disputing that Congress could be an instrument of workers’ and peasants’ struggles. There was, however, only one speaker, Wicks, who called for class unity as the best way to help Russia.

29. Free Expression was open to opposed views. The annonymous author of Socialists and the Labour Party, in its December 1943 issue, argued the WIL case that the Fourth International which the journal called for would not begin from mere denunciation of Labour Party crimes. The opposite view was advanced by Maitland in The Meaning of Smith, Left, March 1943, 66-70. Maitland wrote another article, The Political Struggle for Italy for Left, October 1943.

30. See Chapter XI.

31. At a by-election in Acton in December 1943, Walter Padley, the party Industrial Organiser, fought an area where the ILP and Trotskyism had factory support. He polled a respectable 28% of the votes.

32. There was some ambiguity in this since there were ILPers who backed this demand.

33.The generous response of Maxton and the ILP conference to the victimization of Jock Haston and the other arrested Trotskyists and the contribution of ILP M.P.s to the debate on Order IA(a) are discussed in Chapter XI.

34. The New Leader, 7 April 1945.

35. See Chapter XIII of Upham.

36. See Dewar’s defence of an ILP separate from the Labour Party, What Will the Labour Party Live For?, Left, Dec. 1944, 271-3.

37. Maitland wrote four articles for Left in 1945 including his brief polemic against Walter Padley, Lord Keynes and Walter Padley, Jan. 1945, 306.

38. The post-war decline of the ILP and the disastrous Battersea by-election are discussed in Chapter XIII.

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