The History of British Trotskyism to 1949

being a Thesis submitted for the Degree of

Doctor of Philosophy

in the University of Hull


Martin Richard Upham, B.A., M.Sc.

September 1980



Trotskyism has been neglected by historians excavating those ever more popular quarries the 1930s and 1940s. Their disinterest is my main case for devoting a full-length thesis to Trotskyist activity before 1949. It may be objected that Trotskyism was unimportant throughout my chosen period. But while it was certainly no major influence before 1949, even in the restricted area of the labour movement during that time, Trotskyism maintained activity and conditioned in part the behaviour of other movements and individuals who are thought fit subjects for historical enquiry. There is therefore a job of recovery to be done in order to establish whom Trotskyism affected and why. Yet there is, simultaneously, a larger question to pose: if Trotskyism was unimportant throughout, why was this so? There is no iron law of labour movements which inevitably permits communist parties to eclipse Trotskyism. In a number of metropolitan countries Trotsky received early and significant support from noted communist leaders. Since this did not happen in Britain where the communists themselves never gathered mass support, the historian must ask why. It is also necessary to allow for those occasions when Trotskyism passed out of the shadows into the floodlights: these moments have also been skipped, for the most part, by historians, and need to be put in their proper setting within the labour history of the time.

My claim to have undertaken original work rests chiefly on the lack of secondary material on the subject. The main lines of development of the Trotskyist movement laid down in this thesis I have derived from contemporary manuscripts and published material, and from conversations with participants. Invariably my investigation took me from a working knowledge of labour movement history into uncharted waters. Sometimes I floundered and occasionally I was misled by red herrings: at all events I had to make my own charts and I hope they will help others. Yet I do not seek to give the impression that there has been no secondary work at all. How do I relate to what has been written? The last five years have seen a spurt of scholarly interest in the non-communist left of the labour movement. Two theses on the I.L.P. have been written which span a period similar to that of this thesis and discuss Trotskyist influence on the party. [1] At the end of 1979 a thesis by John Archer was completed covering Trotskyist movements between 1931 and 1937. [2] Since I had at that time a first draft of my own thesis, I did not, on the advice of my supervisor, read Archer’s work. There has also been written a shorter bibliographical thesis on the Trotskyist press by Alison Penn which is a useful tool although it lacks absolute authority. [3]

Published work which discusses British Trotskyism in whole or part falls into two categories. There are the articles written by Brian Pearce under a variety of pseudonyms some twenty years ago, several of which have now been republished. [4] Pearce always went to the sources and unearthed many forgotten episodes or facets of better known events. Hugo Dewar’s Communist Politics in Britain (1976) is broader though less sure in content but only marginally concerned with the Trotskyists. Reg Groves has published his recollections as The Balham Group (1974), an invaluable memoir which yet leaves much unsaid. Harry Wicks has also written briefly of the early years of Trotskyism. [5] Wartime and the controversy over Military Policy (q.v.) have stimulated interesting articles in the socialist press. [6] Finally there have been accounts of the post-war controversies within the Fourth International arising from European economic recovery. [7]

Consigned to the not recommended category must be those squibs written by political activists in order to cancel out the past or to justify the present: I have responded to these by seeking to establish fact and demolish myth but they are mentioned in my bibliography.

It seems to me that the history of Trotskyism in Britain has a natural periodicity. There was no organised movement in the 1920s. The years to 1938 when the Fourth International was launched were in Britain years of survival and sectarianism. Toeholds were established but conditions were most unfavourable for the gathering of support. From 1938 to 1944 there was a contradictory development as the official British Section of the Fourth International splintered repeatedly and finally ceased to be a coherent political force, while an unofficial group, regarded as a pariah by official Trotskyist opinion, built the strongest position yet for the movement in Britain drawing to it some who were disaffected and others who were new. The process was thus simultaneously one of fission and fusion. 1944 to 1949 were years when the Revolutionary Communist Party declined as its perspectives collided with reviving capitalism and it was progressively debilitated by internal disputes. Just as in the 1930s, but now for quite opposite reasons, there were no major industrial conflicts and this absence blighted Trotskyism’s prospects. My argument is that the major influences on the British working class were established at the beginning of the 1930s while Trotskyism was still incipient. Only the peculiar political conjuncture induced by the war permitted Trotskyist growth. The end of the war brought a return to traditional political loyalties, the objects of which had not yet been tested to the full. There was simply no room for a strong Trotskyist organisation and all the characteristics accurately or unfairly imputed to it were secondary in effect to the brutal centripetal tendencies of the British labour movement.

1. P.J. Thwaites, The Independent Labour Party, 1938-50 (University of London Ph.D. thesis, 1976); G. Littlejohns, The Decline of the Independent Labour Party, (University of Nottingham MPhil. thesis, 1979).

2. J. Archer, Trotskyism in Britain: 1931-1937 (Polytechnic of Central London Ph.D. thesis, 1979).

3. A.M.R. Penn, A Bibliography of the British Trotskyist Press (University of Warwick M.A. thesis, 1979).

4. See M. Woodhouse and B. Pearce, Essays on the History of Communism in Britain, 1975.

5. H. Wicks, British Trotskyism in the Thirties, International, Vol.1, No.4, 1971, 26-32.

6. W. Hunter, Marxists in the Second World War, Labour Review, Dec. 1958, 139-46; B. Farnborough (B. Pearce) Marxists in the Second World War, Labour Review, April-May 1959; D. Parkin, British Trotskyists and the Class Struggle in World War 2, Trotskyism Today, March 1978, 27-30.

7. Notably P. Jenkins, Where Trotskyism Got Lost, 1979.



This thesis was begun as a piece of research in the Summer of 1972. In the eight years that have passed since then I have been helped in my research by a great many people. Whenever I needed it I have been assisted by my supervisor John Saville, who read critically whatever I wrote and made me a little less unscholarly than I originally was. It was he who was responsible for acquiring the Haston Papers, now lodged at the University of Hull, and who cleared the way for me to research them. Latterly, he carefully read my penultimate draft and his comments were always stimulating. I am deeply in his debt. Equally responsible for my research falling into the minority category of completed doctoral theses was my wife Chitra who encouraged me to take up anew a project which had all but lapsed and who transformed my scribbled first draft into clear typewritten pages. I also owe a huge debt to Sally Boston, Assistant Librarian of the University of Hull, whose responsibility it has been to classify the Haston Papers. She was heroic in coping with the arrival of a researcher so soon after they were deposited and helped me on countless occasions, sometimes at some personal inconvenience. To their names must be added those of Joyce Bellamy who put me to work to acquire the rudiments of scholarship on the Dictionary of Labour Biography even before my research officially began and from whom I continued to learn, together with those of David Rubinstein and other members of the Department of Economic and Social History at the University of Hull with whom I have had many rewarding discussions.

Among the others who have helped me, especially in the early stages of my research, were such former and continuing activists as John and Mary Archer, Margaret Johns, Brian Pearce, Sam Bornstein, Sam Levy, Reg Groves, Harry Wicks, John Goffe, Ted Grant, Jock and Millie Haston, Roy Tearse and Sid Bidwell. My thesis would have had a very one-dimensional character without their help and – not infrequently – their hospitality. I have been most fortunate also in the help I have received from the staff of a number of libraries. Much of the early reading was undertaken in the Brynmor Jones Library of the University of Hull where I was able to feast off strong Labour and socialist history sources. I am grateful also to Richard Storey, Senior Projects Officer of the Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick, and his present and former staff on whom I often descended and demanded vast numbers of photocopies. This was of critical importance for one who had to work in his spare time. Special mention must also be made of Margaret Kentfield, Nick Wetton, and the staff of the Marx Memorial Library, an institution geared, in its opening hours and desire to place the minimum of obstacles between reader and source, to the needs of those who are not full-time students. I also worked at the L.S.E. library and that of Nuffield College at the University of Oxford, at the British Museum Reading Room and at its Periodicals Library in Colindale, at the Public Records Office and the Fitzwilliam Library, University of Cambridge.

In my first year of work I was maintained by the Social Science Research Council on the recommendation of the Department of Economic and Social History, University of Hull. In my second year I was fortunate to receive an award of equivalent value to that from the S.S.R.C. from the A.J. Horsley fund at the University of Hull. For a short time after the completion of that year I worked on a part-time basis for the Dictionary of Labour Biography under the direction of Doctor Joyce Bellamy and Professor John Saville of my department. After that I encountered the vicissitudes of completing this kind of work under part-time conditions, constrained by absence from easy access to a community of scholars and a good library and by being unable to devote the whole of my mind to the project. It was therefore of tremendous assistance that I should be granted by my employers, the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation, a sabbatical leave of two calendar months in the Summer of 1980, during which time I was able to devote all my time to writing the penultimate draft. Mr. Bill Sirs, the ISTC General Secretary, showed no hesitation in granting me leave although my request came at a critical moment in the Union’s fortunes.

Finally I am deeply indebted to Carol Tarling who quickly mastered the intricacies of thesis lay-out and the almost unfathomable mysteries of my handwriting to present me with a finished product which is a pleasure to the eye.





List of Appendices

Note on References

I. Introduction: Trotsky and the British Labour Movement in the 1920s.

PART ONE (1929–1938)

II Organised Trotskyism to the Formation of the British Section (1929–November 1931).

III The British Section of the Left Opposition (November 1931–December 1933).

IV The Marxist Group in the I.L.P. (1933–1936).

V The Communist League and the Marxist League (January 1934–October 1937).

VI Trotskyism and British Responses to the Moscow Trials (1936–1938).

VII The Bolshevik-Leninists and the Militant Group (1934–1937).

VIII Unity (1936–1938).

PART TWO (1938–1944)

IX Applying the Military Policy (1938–1941).

X The R.S.L. in Unity and Disunity (September 1938–March 1944).

XI The Growth of Workers International League and its Industrial Agitation (1938–1944).

PART THREE (1944–1949)

XII The RCP and the Fourth International (1944–1947).

XIII Trotskyism in Practice (The RCP 1944–1947).

XIV Last Rites (The RCP 1947–1949).

XV Conclusion.



List of Interviews.


A. A Note on British Trotskyists and Spain.

B. Reg Groves and the Aylesbury Divisional Labour Party (1937–1945).

C. Articles in Workers International News While it was Published by Workers International League (January 1938–February 1944).

D. Peace and Unity Agreement (1938).

E. Industrial Programme of Workers International League.

F. Trotskyism and the I.L.P.

G. Programme of the Revolutionary Communist Party.

H. War Cabinet. The Trotskyist Movement in Great Britain – Memorandum by the Home Secretary.



In the footnotes to the text I have tried to reduce details in references to the minimum consistent with precision. Where possible details of references are given in full in the bibliography. There are no references to works published after 1979 at which date the first draft of the thesis was complete.

In the footnotes and in the bibliography the following abbreviations occur:

BSSLH: Bulletin of the Society for the Study of Labour History

Inprecorr: International Press Correspondence

JCH: Journal of Contemporary History

JSLHS: Journal of the Scottish Labour History Society

PQ: Political Quarterly

Unless otherwise stated in the bibliography, the place of publication is London.

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