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Ken Tarbuck

Some Notes on British Trotskyist History

(Winter 1969/70)

From Marxist Studies, Vol. 2 No. 1, Winter 1969–70.
Signed ‘John Walters’.
Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.
Minor spelling errors have been corrected without indication.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

It is clear from Comrade Greenlark’s comments in the last issue of Marxist Studies that he is not familiar with the history of the British Trotskyist movement because he refers to the Socialist Labour League (SLL) as though this had had a continuous existence for over 20 years. The SLL was in fact launched in 1959, and the group which he referred to as the one that the Cliff tendency broke from was only one of the component parts of the SLL in 1959.

However, that is a minor aspect of the question. What I am concerned about is to examine the proposition that the Cliff tendency came into existence because of the pressures of the Cold War, and in particular its hot phase, that is, the Korean War. Unfortunately for those who like their history and politics handed out in neat simple packages, the truth was far more complicated and to understand it, it is necessary to go back a little further than 1950.

The situation after 1944 was that for the first time in the history of British Trotskyism there was one united organisation, that is, the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). After the advent of the Labour government to office in 1945 there arose a dispute within the organisation on the question of entry into the Labour Party. Gerry Healy was the leader of the minority faction in favour of entry, whilst the majority faction which opposed entry was led by Jock Haston.

This particular dispute was waged fiercely for three years, but the minority still remained the minority. In 1947 the Executive of the Fourth International stepped in and decided that this dispute could only be settled in practice. It decided to allow the minority to enter the Labour Party as a separate organisation under the direction of the International. This was done despite protests from the leadership of the RCP. De facto this once more split the British Trotskyist movement, although in theory there was supposed to be still only one section. (Incidentally, it was in the same year that Cliff issued his theses on Stalinist Russia [1], and hardly caused a ripple either in the majority or the minority faction because they were locked in combat over the Labour Party question.)

Therefore, from 1947 there were two official British sections of the Fourth International, the RCP and the Healy Group inside the Labour Party. This situation caused relations between the factions, and between the RCP leadership and the International, to become even more embittered.

The Healy Group were instrumental in the publication of a monthly (later weekly) newspaper — Socialist Outlook — which gradually gathered support inside the Labour Party and trade unions, but no spectacular results were obtained in the first three years or so. At the same time the RCP gradually declined in numbers and influence, and the circulation of its publications declined considerably. The RCP leadership, which had pinned its hopes of a turn to the left of the rank and file of the Labour Party and an eventual split, gradually became disillusioned and began to capitulate intellectually to reformism. As they had previously exaggerated the prospects for revolution now they exaggerated the real changes brought about by reformism.

In 1949 the majority of the RCP leadership decided to recommend entry into the Labour Party, and even those who were against it decided not to fight on the issue. Therefore when a special congress of the party was held in 1949 the leadership won the day fairly easily, despite misgivings on the part of even their own supporters. At the same time it should be noted that the demoralisation amongst the leadership had been carefully screened from the membership even by those who were not capitulating to reformism.

When this had been accomplished, the RCP and the Healy Group fused, once more becoming a united organisation. But with this difference, the Healy faction demanded, and were given, a majority on the executive bodies of the fused organisation. Shortly after this fusion took place Haston and others of the old leadership resigned from the organisation, renouncing their Trotskyism. This was a tremendous blow to the morale of those they had led. Moreover, the regime of the unified organisation was a very authoritarian one, with many members being expelled for formal infractions of discipline, or on trumped-up charges.

There is another factor that has to be considered. Trotskyism as an international and national political tendency had been forged in a battle against Stalinism. Therefore, much of the propaganda of the movement was directed to criticising Stalinism. Having sprung from the world communist movement Trotskyism was therefore very largely oriented towards it. The transition to entry work was for many members a very difficult change to make, because the mode of operation, priorities and milieu were radically different to that of an open party. The pages of Socialist Appeal (the RCP’s twice-monthly newspaper) were studded with biting attacks upon Stalinism, but in contrast the entry paper Socialist Outlook made only the most passing and muted reference to this question.

It was with this background that the outbreak of the Korean War made its impact upon the organisation. This war was partially a civil war and partially an imperialist attack upon North Korea. In such circumstances it was the duty of revolutionary Marxists to support and defend the North Korean state but at the same time it was necessary to distinguish between support for such a state under attack from imperialism and the particular regime of that state. The North Korean state was a Stalinist police regime, which should have been criticised, Trotsky always emphasised that whilst one’s support for a workers’ state was unconditional, this in no way meant that one gave unconditional support to the regime. In the case of Korea the line pursued by the Healy leadership was completely uncritical of the Stalinists. This meant that Socialist Outlook was indistinguishable from the Daily Worker (now Morning Star) and to many people outside the organisation (and inside) it seemed that a Stalinist policy was being pursued.

This was the final cause of the crisis inside British Trotskyism in 1950. It was in this situation that Cliff emerged from the obscurity that he had rested in since 1947, and proceeded to argue his case. The logic of his case was fairly simple, in essence he said: ‘If you continue to call these states workers’ states you end up carrying out semi-Stalinist or Stalinist policies and practices.’ The evidence he presented was very real, firstly there was the internal regime of the organisation which seemed designed to drive out all those who opposed the leadership; secondly there was the complete lack of criticism of Stalinism in the public policies of the organisation. In a situation where many members felt betrayed first by Haston and then by Healy, Cliff for once found fertile ground for his ideas. If one were to examine this situation in detail one would understand that for many people Cliff was merely carrying on the traditions that they had known, but carried them to their ‘logical’ conclusion.

When the SLL today thunder about the iniquities of ‘Pabloism’, it is conveniently forgotten by them that it was Healy that first introduced this dread virus into British Trotskyist body politic. Cliff was not the only person to break from the British section at this period. A smaller group of people who were not state-capitalists also broke, and they too argued that Healy was giving in to the pressures of Stalinism. But perhaps even more important is the fact that most of the people who actually joined the Cliff group at this period did not leave the British section of their own accord, but were expelled because they opposed the leadership.

Therefore, to argue in such simplistic terms as that ‘the Cliff group was formed because of pressures from the general anti-communist feeling at the time’ is to say the least inaccurate. The complex of pressures was much greater than allowed for. Personally I think it fair to say that the person who did most to create the Cliff Group was — Gerry Healy.


1. Tony Cliff, The Nature of Stalinist Russia.

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Last updated: 14 October 2014