[Book] History of British Trotskyism

Part one: Fighting Against the Stream – The Origins and Early Years

"Learning not to forget the past in order to foresee the future is our first, our most important task."
Leon Trotsky, 27 July 1929.

Our movement – the Trotskyist movement – has a very rich history stretching back many decades. An understanding of our history is important from the point of view of appreciating the way in which a revolutionary movement develops. An understanding of the past sheds light on how a Marxist tendency grows and prepares itself for the titanic events of the future. The history of our tendency can be traced back directly to the great work of Leon Trotsky’s Left Opposition in the 1920s and in fact stretches back even further to the heroic days of the Third International under Lenin and Trotsky.

The genesis of our movement in Britain was already rooted in the formation of the British Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in 1920. At that time, the British Communist Party was very inexperienced and, in contrast to its European counterparts, very weak numerically and largely isolated from the broader labour movement. Although made up of courageous people who were inspired by the Russian Revolution, the young party was saturated with ultra-left and sectarian tendencies that had been the hallmark of the propaganda groups that came together to form the CPGB. Under the guidance of the Communist International, the party began gradually to overcome these shortcomings and turn its attention towards mass work and the serious task of building a mass revolutionary party.

This was not achieved without internal difficulty. Lenin had to use his personal authority to persuade the British leadership to abandon their sectarianism and, in order to influence reformist workers, apply for affiliation to the Labour Party. By 1923, significant changes in its approach and orientation had been carried through. The CPGB had gone through a re-organisation and was undertaking serious work in the trade unions through the creation of the Minority Movement, as well as creating points of support within the Labour Party. Everything seemed set for a big advance for the Communist movement in Britain.

However, just at this time, during 1923-4, the bureaucratic reaction within the Soviet Union was rapidly gaining ground within the state and the party. The isolation of the Russian Revolution in conditions of appalling backwardness gave rise to a huge bureaucracy keen to enjoy the fruits of victory. The opposition of the bureaucracy to world revolution had a material basis. The rising stratum of conservative officials wanted a quiet life, without the storm and stress of revolution and freed from the control of the masses. At each setback for the working class, this privileged caste composed of millions of officials – many of them former tsarist bureaucrats – gathered greater power into its hands, elbowing aside the exhausted working class.

This process found its reflection inside the Russian Communist Party where this upstart caste of officials gravitated around the figurehead of Stalin, who, with his narrow administrative and purely national outlook was best suited to reflect their conservative views and material interests. The theory of "socialism in one country", put forward in the autumn of 1924, was a reflection of the bureaucracy’s disdain for the world revolution. They wished to be left alone to "get on" with the task of running the Soviet state – without the irksome interference of workers’ democracy. Lenin was increasingly alarmed at the rise of the bureaucracy in state and Party institutions and formed a bloc with Trotsky to combat it. But from 1922 Lenin was incapacitated through a series of strokes, and behind the scenes the triumvirate of Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev was manoeuvring to isolate Trotsky. Lenin’s Testament – in which he demanded Stalin’s removal as general secretary and described Trotsky as the most able member of the Central Committee, was hidden from the Party membership, and a campaign of lies and slander was orchestrated against Trotsky and the Opposition.

After Lenin’s last illness, Trotsky took upon his shoulders the struggle against Stalin and the growing bureaucratic menace, fighting for the Leninist programme of proletarian internationalism and workers’ democracy. He launched the Left Opposition in late 1923 after the failure of the German Revolution in an attempt to defend the fundamental ideas of Lenin which were being systematically revised and discarded. The outbreak of this struggle within Russia between the Opposition and the Triumvirate of Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev was first of all contained within the leadership of the CPSU. However, the struggle had a momentum of its own, and with Lenin’s death, the campaign to discredit Trotsky as Lenin’s successor was soon taken into the ranks of the Communist International. As within the apparatus of the Russian Party, where Stalin had used his position to select personnel who were loyal to his faction, so Zinoviev selected leaders in the separate sections who proved more amenable to Moscow. Nevertheless, in these early days of the Communist movement the leadership was forced to allow a pseudo-democratic discussion on the issues raised by the Opposition that had broken out in the Russian Party.

The Stalin-Trotsky clash was first reported to the British Party in early 1924, soon after the death of Lenin. Reports were carried in the party press of the resolution passed at the Thirteenth Conference of the Soviet Communist Party condemning Trotsky’s factionalism and classifying "Trotskyism" as a petty bourgeois deviation. By the end of the year, attacks on "Trotskyism" became more frequent. Tom Bell, the general secretary, introduced a resolution condemning Trotsky at the Party Council on 30 November 1924. Completely ignoring the political issues at stake, he stressed Trotsky’s failure to adhere to party rules as his main argument in condemning the Opposition. "The question of Trotsky, it seems to us, is a question of discipline. We are not arguing or discussing the ideological approach of Trotsky to the question as a whole. Our party is concerned fundamentally with the question of discipline," stated Bell. While there was disquiet at the Party Council with a number of voices challenging the position of the Party leadership, when it came to the vote, the condemnation of Trotsky was carried unanimously.[1]

A report of the Party Council was then given to a 300-strong London Aggregate in January 1925. J T Murphy, despite only having a summary of Trotsky’s views, outlined the case against Trotsky and his violation of the decisions of the Russian Party and the International in reopening the debate on the Opposition views deemed "closed" by the party. In the meeting, Trotsky was defended by Arthur Reade, a member of the London District Committee, who moved a resolution regretting the "hasty vote of the Party Council" in condemning Trotsky and called on the CPGB to support the left wing of the Russian Party. After the discussion, Reade’s motion received, according to the report of the Weekly Worker, 10 votes. (Workers Weekly, 23 January 1925). On 30 January, Reade wrote to the paper complaining that there were only 200 present, and that his motion for adjournment was only defeated by 81 to 65, and in the final vote, his motion received 15 votes.[2] In any case, the leadership won hands down.

The British CP, which had shown little interest in political theory or disputes over "socialism in one country", had fully swung behind the party leaders in Moscow. Around about this time, the Party issued a book, probably in May 1925 although it contained no date, entitled The Errors of Trotskyism, which printed Trotsky’s Lessons of October and a series of replies from Zinoviev, Kamenev, Stalin, Krupskaya (who had initially been close to the Opposition) and others. The book was not intended as an analysis of Trotsky’s ideas, but as the title clearly indicates, was an attack on "Trotskyism". JT Murphy, who was to replace Bell as the British representative on the International Executive Committee, wrote the introduction. At this time, given the prestige of Trotsky in Communist ranks, those who attacked Trotsky had to be somewhat cautious. "It is undoubtedly true", states Murphy, "that it came as a great surprise to the British working class when they saw the Communist International in the throes of a great controversy with Comrade Trotsky."[3]

Murphy was forced to recognise, even at this time, Trotsky’s colossal reputation and authority within the ranks of the Comintern. In his preamble he states: "Comrade Trotsky’s name has always been associated in our minds with Comrade Lenin. ’Lenin and Trotsky!’ These were the names with which we conjured up in all our thoughts and feelings about the Russian Revolution and the Communist International. As the news of the Russian Revolution spread westward, these two figures loomed gigantically above our horizon and we never thought of differences... We saw only leaders, Soviets and masses, and over all the great historical giants, Lenin and Trotsky."[4] Nevertheless, a string of articles, which filled the majority of this book from Comintern leaders, were used to reinforce the myth of "Trotskyism".

It is interesting to note that every one of the people who wrote these anti-Trotsky articles was either expelled or in disfavour with Moscow in the following years. J T Murphy, who had moved Trotsky’s expulsion from the Comintern, was himself ironically expelled on charges of "Trotskyism". But the purge in the Communist International was only an anticipation of the far more monstrous purge whereby Stalin physically annihilated Lenin’s Party. Even Lenin’s wife Krupskaya found herself in danger. When she tried to protest against the expulsion and arrest of Zinoviev and Kamenev, Stalin rudely informed her that he could always find another widow for Lenin. One by one, Stalin murdered the entire Leninist Old Guard. At the end of the Great Purges, only Stalin remained.

The Stalinisation of the Communist International had serious effects in Britain. The British Communist Party, which had every possibility of turning itself into a significant force within the labour movement, was suddenly caught up in this faction fight with the Opposition. Although the British leaders lined up behind Stalin, they were forced to recognise Trotsky’s past achievements. Even as late as the beginning of 1926, they published Trotsky’s book Where is Britain Going? and were forced to defend it. So, in Labour Monthly, Palme Dutt, still not sure which way to jump, took up a robust defence of Trotsky in his review of the book. "Trotsky’s book will be eagerly read, and will give stimulus and help; will help to break the chains of enslavement to old ideas and leadership, to give confidence and clearness and strength, and to show the plain path forward of the struggle", states Palme Dutt. "The English working class has cause to be grateful to Trotsky for his book; and to hope that he will not stay his hand at this short sketch, but will carry forward his work of interpretation, polemic and elucidation, and elaborate his analysis further, which is so much needed in England." (Labour Monthly, April 1926). Any hint of support had, however, completely evaporated by the time of Trotsky’s criticism of the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Committee and his expulsion from the Russian CP in late 1927.

"The book," wrote Trotsky later, "was aimed essentially at the official conception of the Politburo, with its hope of an evolution to the left by the British General Council, and of a gradual and painless penetration of communism into the ranks of the British Labour Party and trade unions."[5]

This was no mere speculation. At the Fifth Congress of the Communist International in 1924 Zinoviev, who was still in alliance with Stalin, after referring to the British CP as the most important section of the International, stated: "We do not know exactly when the Communist Mass Party of England will come, whether only through the Stewart-MacManus door or through some other door."[6] The "other door" was through a "deal" with the left wing of the Labour Party and trade unions, which was to have disastrous consequences in the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Committee and the disorientation of the British CP during the General Strike of 1926.

As a result of the acceptance of Stalin’s policies, which now veered sharply towards opportunism, the British Communist Party increasingly lost sight of its independent role in the scheme of things. After a TUC delegation had visited the Soviet Union in 1925, Moscow looked increasingly towards these left bureaucrats for assistance. They had illusions that the "lefts" could help break Russia’s isolation, and even introduce communism in Britain "by the back door." As a consequence, the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Committee was formed by representatives of British and Russian unions to promote trade union unity and serve as a means of protection against a possible military attack against the USSR. The chairman of the TUC, Purcell, together with Hicks, Bromley and Swales, became highly valued friends of the Soviet Union, and as a result, should be regarded as such by the British Communist Party. Such an approach was to have serious consequences in the 1926 General Strike. When the Strike broke out in May of that year, these "lefts" capitulated before the right wing, who in turn, capitulated before the Baldwin government. The right wing sold out the working class, which came as no surprise to the advanced workers. However, the betrayal of the "lefts" on the TUC, who had the support of the Communists, led to widespread confusion and disillusionment.

In the course of the General Strike, the Communist Party grew to around 10,000 members, but within a short time space of time, the bulk of the new recruits dropped away and left the Party. During the strike, the CPGB had failed to act as an independent revolutionary party, warning of the dangers from the left as well as the right. Despite the demands of the Left Opposition for the Soviet trade unions to break with the British TUC over their betrayal of the strike and resign from the Anglo-Russian committee, the Stalinists instead held on to their coat-tails, until they were unceremoniously dropped by their fair-weather friends. For the advanced workers, it was not only the treacherous actions of the left reformists that were discredited, but also the role of the Communist Party, which acted as a "revolutionary" cover for the fake lefts. This was the result of the opportunist line that was imposed on the British Communists by the Russian leadership.

A few months after Palme Dutt had written his article praising Trotsky, Thaelmann, the German Communist leader, remarked that the British CP was the only major party that had no differences with the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI). It was regarded as the most "loyal" and its leaders, after a period of selection, considered the most pliable by the Kremlin. Pollitt and Co. simply followed every change in the party Line. On all occasions, they were with the "majority". The British Party accepted the official Line from Moscow as a necessary measure to consolidate socialism in Russia. They accepted the idea of the theory of "socialism in one country" without question. In February 1926, the resolution of the enlarged plenum of the Comintern executive praised the "absence of factional struggles in the British Party." It is no accident that Stalin regarded the British party as one of the best sections of the International.

The expulsion of the Opposition

The right-opportunist policy of the Stalinists in appeasing the "lefts" in the British TUC had seriously undermined the British Communists. But this betrayal paled in insignificance beside the terrible catastrophe of the defeat of the Chinese Revolution, which was caused by the policies of Stalin and Bukharin.

Between 1925 and 1927, the unfolding drama of the Chinese Revolution gripped the imagination of the Communist movement internationally. At this time, the Chinese CP was the only mass working class party in existence. It was poised to play a leading role within the revolution and had every chance of carrying through a Chinese "October". However, the opportunist policy pursued by Stalin was also affecting developments in China. His theory of revolution by stages, similar to that put forward by the Mensheviks in Russia, led to the subordination of the Chinese CP to the nationalist Kuomintang. This policy, sharply criticised by the Left Opposition, led to a terrible defeat in 1927 with the bloody suppression of the workers’ movement by Stalin’s one time friend, Chiang Kai-Shek. The defeat led to increased demoralisation within the Soviet working class, and was one of the major factors in the suppression of the Left Opposition at the end of the year.

Trotsky alone had warned against the policy of collaborating with Chiang Kai-Shek. But the defeat in China sealed the fate of the Left Opposition in Russia. The Russian working class, already exhausted by years of war and revolution, was disappointed and tended to fall into inactivity. The workers sympathised with the Opposition’s policies but it was only a passive sympathy, and did not lead to active support. The workers were tired and apathetic, while the bureaucracy was increasingly emboldened by every step back taken by the world revolution. The Opposition was expelled in 1927, the same year that the Chinese working class was crushed. One year later, Trotsky was expelled from the USSR and deprived of Soviet citizenship. As it was still too early for Stalin to have him murdered, he was exiled to Turkey, from where he began to organise the International Left Opposition, dedicated to the fight to reform the Communist International and return it to the authentic ideas of Lenin and the October revolution.

The expulsion of the Left Opposition in November 1927 constituted a defeat for the genuine forces of Leninism within the Communist Parties. This opened the way for the shift to the left by Stalin and his elimination later of the Right Opposition of Bukharin. It marked a further step in the consolidation of the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union, and the elimination of all opposition elements within the Communist International. After the expulsion of the Russian Left Opposition, similar purges were carried out in every section of the Comintern. No criticism of Stalin was permitted. All the foreign Communist Parties were expected to jump when Moscow changed the Line. They learned to dance to Stalin’s tune – or face the consequences.

From 1924 onwards, Stalin repeatedly carried out purges in one Communist Party after another. In France, the leadership of Souvarine and Rosmer, which sympathised with the Opposition, was replaced by the "left" leadership of Treint and Girault, who, in turn were expelled and replaced by Thorez and Doriot. In Germany, Brandler and Thalheimer were replaced by Fischer and Maslow, who, in turn were replaced by Th’lmann and Neumann. In Poland, the Varsky leadership was replaced by Domsky, who was later removed. In China, the leader and founder of the party, Chen Tu-hsiu, was expelled for "Trotskyism". In Spain, leaders like Nin and Andrade were also expelled for "Trotskyism". And in the USA and Canada, Cannon, Abern, Shachtman and Spector suffered the same fate.

This development was in complete contrast to the situation in Britain. The impact of the Russian Opposition proved to have a far smaller effect. Here, the forces of a Trotskyist Opposition were slow to emerge. While there were certain murmurings and unease in the ranks of the Party concerning the internal disputes in Russia and the treatment of Trotsky and the Opposition, there was hardly a ripple compared to other European Parties. This was partly to do with the low political level of the party, and the inability of the Party cadres to understand what was really going on within the Russian Party.

From this time onwards, there was complete and uncritical support by the British leadership for the Stalinist Line. Among the most servile followers of Moscow were Palme Dutt, Harry Pollitt, William Gallagher (the same one who had criticised Lenin from the "left") and the other leaders of the CPGB. Among other things, this reflected the low political level of the British Party, including its leaders. Tom Bell was forced to recognise the ignorance of the British Party "as to what is actually transpiring in the Russian Party." J T Murphy also referred to the "general ignorance of international affairs prevailing amongst the membership in Britain."

This lack of understanding of theoretical issues had long been a hallmark of the British labour movement. As Marx and Engels noted, theory was never a strong point in the British working class, which tended towards empiricism and pragmatism. But without theory there can be no genuine Marxist-Leninist Party. The slavish support for the Moscow bureaucracy ultimately led to the destruction of the CPGB and all the other sections of the Comintern, but not before causing one catastrophe after another for the workers’ movement internationally.

The "Third Period"

By 1927, the balance of forces inside Russia was changing. All along, Trotsky and the Opposition had been warning of the dangers of capitalist restoration posed by the opportunist policy of Stalin and Bukharin of appeasing the rich peasants (the Kulaks). The Left Opposition demanded a reversal of this policy and instead proposed a programme of industrialisation based on five-year plans, the progressive taxation of the rich peasants and gradual collectivisation by example. Stalin and his faction ridiculed this, comparing Trotsky’s proposal for electrification to "offering the peasant a gramophone instead of a cow."

However, by 1927-28 it was clear that there was a real danger of counter-revolution in Russia. The Kulaks, emboldened by the policy of the leadership, launched a grain strike that threatened the very basis of Soviet power. Alarmed, the Stalin faction broke with Bukharin and adopted a programme that was a caricature of that of the Left Opposition. In the process, the Stalinists swung over from opportunism to wild ultra-leftism. This entailed forced collectivisation of agriculture and adventurist targets in the five-year plans, under slogans like "carry out the five year plan in four years." This led to widespread disruption, a catastrophic fall in agricultural production and a terrible famine in which possibly ten million people perished. Nevertheless, the mass of Soviet workers welcomed the turn to industrialisation and five year plans. This provoked a crisis in the Opposition, in which many of its former adherents capitulated to Stalin – a mistake which they later paid for with their lives.

After burning their fingers with the previous right wing policy, the Stalin wing now swung one hundred and eighty degrees to the left and adopted an adventurist policy also on an international scale. Taking their lead blindly from Moscow, the Communist Parties internationally adopted the crazy ultra-left position of the "third period". The Stalinists proclaimed a new (third) period in which the collapse of capitalism was said to be imminent. The world slump of capitalism that began with the Wall Street Crash of 1929 was depicted as the final crisis of capitalism, completely ignoring what Lenin and Trotsky had explained many times – that there was no such thing as a "final crisis" of capitalism, and that capitalism will always manage to extricate itself from even the deepest crisis, until it is overthrown by the working class.

As a corollary to this lunacy, the Stalinists proclaimed that all other parties except themselves were "fascist". In particular, the social-democratic organisations were said to have become fascist – or "social fascist" – in character. "Social democracy and fascism", said Stalin, "are twins and not opposites." Social democracy was therefore considered the main enemy of the working class. As a result, everywhere, the Stalinists split and paralysed the working class movement. The worst results were experienced in Germany, where the ultra-left policies of the Stalinists rendered the working class powerless in the face of the Nazi menace. Instead of adopting Lenin’s policy of the united front to achieve the united action of Communist and Socialist workers against the Nazis, they deliberately set out to split the workers’ movement and thus allowed Hitler to come to power – as he later boasted "without breaking a window pane." The Stalinists collaborated with the Nazis in the Berlin tram strike and even made a bloc with the fascists during the so-called Red Referendum to bring down the Social Democratic government in Prussia. If they had succeeded, it would have meant that Hitler would have come to power two years earlier!

In Britain also we had the ludicrous position of the tiny Communist Party issuing ultimatums to the Labour Party, denouncing the Labour leaders as "social fascists", and even organising the breaking up of Labour Party meetings. They had to be broken up because the Labour leaders were the main enemy of working class, and were even more dangerous than the fascists! In the Daily Worker, Harry Pollitt, the leader of the Party, advocated that no Labour Party meeting should be allowed to take place in the open air. This ultra-left and sectarian line represented a complete abandonment of Lenin’s policies. It served to completely isolate the CP. As a result of this madness the influence of the British Communist Party was completely undermined, and they were reduced to a small sect on the fringes of the labour movement.

The National Government

The second Labour Government, elected in 1929, was a government of crisis. The crisis hit Britain hard. Unemployment was soaring. The Labour leaders, who had fought the election on the issue of unemployment, were powerless to do anything about it. In order to solve the problem they would have had to take over the banks and big companies and instituted a socialist planned economy. Obviously, this was the last thing Ramsay MacDonald had in mind!

In 1931 the crisis manifested itself in the collapse of big banks and industrial concerns in Europe, beginning with the collapse of the Anstalt-Kredit bank in Austria. The American capitalists withdrew their funds from Europe, completing the financial debacle. Unemployment in Germany reached four million. The collapse of Britain’s markets in the Dominions and other primary producing countries resulted in a deepening of the crisis on this side of the Channel. Unemployment, which had already been rising fast before 1930, now soared to intolerable levels. The pettifogging reforms of the Labour Government had no effect.

On the other hand, the ruling class now wanted to get rid of the Labour Government and replace it with a more reliable instrument for carrying out an all-out offensive against the working class. They set out to split the Labour Party, making use of the services of the right wing led by MacDonald. In 1931 they carried out a parliamentary coup that established a National Government, when MacDonald and the right wing of the Parliamentary Labour Party joined forces with the Tories and a section of the Liberals. They then organised a panic election on the "National Unity" ticket, which won an overwhelming majority later in the year.

In this election, the Labour vote fell sharply to 6,648,000, while the Tories got 11,800,000 – almost double the Labour figure – and the total "National" vote was 14,500,000. Labour seats that had been safe for 20 years were lost in the debacle. Every Labour minister lost his seat except for George Lansbury. Only 49 Labour MPs remained in Westminster, while the Tories had 417. Thus, after a severe defeat on the industrial front in 1926, the British workers now suffered a big defeat on the electoral plane. Nevertheless, despite the seriousness of the defeat, the Labour Party was not annihilated. It still had over six and a half million votes, and soon recovered. Moreover, the section which split away to join the National Government was a tiny minority of right wingers, mainly in the Parliamentary Party. At grass-roots level very few joined MacDonald. In opposition, Labour swung to the left and by 1935 it had recovered much of the lost ground.

However, in the short run, the labour movement was in a state of complete turmoil, which expressed itself in the rapid crystalisation of a mass left wing around the Independent Labour Party (ILP). The leaders of the ILP were insistently demanding the right to act as a separate party. In fact, they virtually had this right anyway, since Lansbury, the new leader of the Labour Party, was on the left and inclined to make compromises to keep them inside the Labour Party. However, as typical confused centrists, the ILP leaders made this organisational question into a question of "principle". They were convinced that the Labour Party was completely counter-revolutionary and that to accept its discipline in any way would be "treachery". The Stalinists who were attempting to win the ILP over encouraged this childishness. In actual fact, the programme and policy of the ILP was not qualitatively different from that of the Labour Party, which moved sharply to the left after 1931. By splitting away – which they did in Easter 1932 – the ILP leaders cut the advanced workers off from the mass, which was also moving to the left, but needed time to draw all the conclusions.

Up until this point those who had developed an interest and sympathy in Trotskyism in Britain were to be found in the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and in other radical circles, rather than within the Communist Party. The decline of the CPGB as a result of its ultra-leftism, cut itself off from developments inside the ILP, which was evolving as a mass left wing inside the Labour Party. The crisis that followed the economic collapse in 1929 and the formation of the National Government led to enormous ferment in the Labour Party. However, the Stalinists, blinded by their ultra-left madness, were initially incapable of taking advantage of this situation.

Towards the end of the 1920s, a couple of middle-class intellectuals, Frank Ridley and Chandu Ram, (the same Ridley who later on played a role as an adviser to the ILP leadership) got in touch with Trotsky with a view to founding a Left Opposition group in Britain. But Trotsky, although keen to establish a base in Britain, would not be rushed into an adventure. After examining the hopelessly confused material that they were putting forward Trotsky refused to have anything to do with them.

Ridley and Ram were wildly sectarian and ultra-left and had no idea of how to build a genuine movement. They saw the results of the 1931 general election as a transitional stage between bourgeois democracy and fascism. Trotsky answered their arguments point by point, rejecting their perspective of imminent fascism in Britain, as well as their characterisation of the trade unions as "imperialist organisations", and their premature call for a Fourth International. He simply advised them to "get into the trade unions and do something in relation to the mass movement." Trotsky immediately recognised that they were of little use in developing a real Left Opposition in Britain. At this early stage, therefore, one could only speak of individual sympathisers of Trotsky in Britain – not a Trotskyist tendency in any meaningful sense. The real development of British Trotskyism did not come about until after the experience of the world slump in 1929 and the rise of fascism in Germany.

The international situation had a profound impact on Britain. After the severe defeat of the General Strike, the workers were now struggling to come to grips with mass unemployment and the betrayal of the MacDonald Labour Government. There was a growing radicalisation within the mass organisations, especially around the Independent Labour Party. At this time, Trotsky, from his place of enforced exile in Turkey, was waging an international campaign for a united front in Germany, as a means of achieving the united action of the Communists and Social-Democratic workers to prevent the coming to power of Hitler. Meanwhile, a small group of comrades within the British Communist Party in Balham, South London, began to move into opposition to the party leadership on a number of questions, including the need for united front tactics in Germany. It was from this small group that the first young forces of British Trotskyism were to emerge.

The International Left Opposition

From the small island of Prinkipo in Turkey, Leon Trotsky continued his lonely battle against Stalinism. Despite all the efforts of Stalin and his powerful apparatus to crush the Opposition and silence Trotsky, the voice of the Opposition was getting stronger and gaining new adherents among those Communists who wished to defend the real programme and traditions of Bolshevik-Leninism.

Sometimes, accidents can play an important role in history. Old Hegel long ago said that necessity expresses itself through accident, and what happened at the Sixth Congress of the Comintern was a good example of this dialectical law. In 1928, the American Communist James Cannon and his Canadian comrade Maurice Spector, while attending the Sixth Congress in Moscow, by accident got hold of a copy of Trotsky’s brilliant document entitled the Critique of the Draft Programme of the Communist International, which sharply criticised the erroneous position of Bukharin and Stalin, and especially exposed the anti-Marxist theory of "socialism in one country", which had been put forward by Stalin at the end of 1924. This critique was a landmark in the ideological arming of the Left Opposition internationally. In a truly prophetic statement, Trotsky warned that if this position were adopted by the Communist International, it would inevitably mark the beginning of a process that would lead to the nationalist and reformist degeneration of every Communist Party in the world. Three generations later, his prediction – which was ridiculed by the Stalinists at the time – has been shown to be correct.

Stalin had no intention of circulating Trotsky’s document. But by a strange accident of history, that is what happened. At that time, when the Stalinist regime had not yet been consolidated, the Communist International still had to observe certain norms of democratic centralism, which permitted the circulation of minority opinions. Although Trotsky had been expelled from the Russian Party a year earlier, he took advantage of the Congress to appeal to the Communist International. In the process he submitted his document on the Draft Programme. Through a blunder in the apparatus, they circulated Trotsky’s document to the heads of the delegations, including members of the programme commission. It was here that James Cannon and Maurice Spector first saw and read Trotsky’s document.

"Through some slip-up in the apparatus in Moscow," recalls Cannon, "which was supposed to be airtight, this document of Trotsky came into the translating room of the Comintern. It fell into the hopper, where they had a dozen or more translators and stenographers with nothing else to do. They picked up Trotsky’s document, translated it and distributed it to the heads of the delegations and the members of the programme commission. So, lo and behold, it was laid in my lap, translated into English! Maurice Spector, a delegate from the Canadian Party, and in somewhat the same frame of mind as myself, was also on the programme commission and he got a copy. We let the caucus meetings and the Congress sessions go to the devil while we read and studied this document. Then I knew what I had to do, and so did he. Our doubts had been resolved. It was as clear as daylight that Marxist truth was on the side of Trotsky. We had a compact there and then – Spector and I – that we would come back home and begin a struggle under the banner of Trotskyism." (History of American Trotskyism, New York, 1944, pp. 49-50).

The American comrades James Cannon, Max Shachtman and Martin Abern, who were members of the Central Committee of the American Communist Party, together with Spector in Canada broke with the Stalinists in 1928 and went over to Trotskyism. Within a short time, they were expelled from the Party and they organised themselves into the Communist League of America, together with a small grouping in Canada. This was an historic breakthrough as it served to break the isolation of Trotsky and the Opposition. This was a turning point in the fortunes of the Left Opposition and greatly facilitated the spread of Trotsky’s ideas throughout the world – a fact that played a role in my own recruitment to Trotsky’s International Left Opposition shortly afterwards.

The American Communist League began to publish a newspaper called The Militant in November 1928. Using some good old American enterprise, they got their hands on the Communist Party’s mailing lists and then sent bundles of papers to as many progressive bookshops worldwide as they could, including in Britain, South Africa, and elsewhere. That is how the South African comrades, including myself, got in touch with the ideas of Trotskyism. We saw this material in the bookshop in Johannesburg, got hold of it and read it avidly from cover to cover. It contained all of Trotsky’s criticisms of Stalinism, including his analysis of the aborted revolution in China in 1925-27. We used to wait eagerly for the arrival of each new batch of papers. The same happened in Cape Town. Out of this began, in around 1930, the development of Left Opposition groups in South Africa, in which I first got involved. The same was true in Britain. Material was sent to a left bookshop in London, and the comrades in Balham came across it, and this served to put them in touch with the international Trotskyist movement.

The Balham Group

In 1932, opposition arose in the two branches of the Communist Party in south London, Balham and Tooting. Certain local leaders, Reg Groves, Harry Wicks, Hugo Dewar and Henry Sara, who were on the district committee of the Party, came into political opposition to the CP national leadership. They had got hold of this Trotskyist material from the United States and agreed whole-heartedly with its political position. They recognised that what Trotsky was arguing for was absolutely correct, and that a united front in Germany between Social Democrats and Communists was essential to prevent Hitler’s victory. In contrast to the Trotskyist sympathisers and individuals of the past, the Balham group represented the real genesis of Trotskyism in Britain. The Balham Group, as they became known, raised the question of Germany and the united front within the ranks of the Communist Party. During their interventions, they also raised the issue of applying the united front tactic to the party’s struggle against fascism in Britain. From 1929 to the victory of Hitler in January 1933, the whole campaign of the International Left Opposition was focused on this vital question.

For Trotsky, Germany was the key to the international situation. The struggle in Germany was an elementary question of survival for the workers’ movement. At all costs, the German workers had to prevent Hitler from coming to power. Failure would mean the total destruction of the strongest working class movement in Europe, if not the world. "Germany is now passing through one of those great hours upon which the fate of the German people, the fate of Europe, and in significant measure the fate of all humanity, will depend for decades", stated Trotsky.[7]

When faced with a Trotskyist opposition within the British CP, the leaders of the Party, Pollitt, Gallacher, and Palme Dutt naturally came down hard. They wrote material in The Communist, the theoretical journal of the CP, and in the pages of the Daily Worker, denouncing the united front of workers’ organisations in Germany and Trotsky.

"Question: Cannot the socialist and communists unite? Cannot all workers’ organisations – the Communist Party, the Socialist Party and the trade union and the co-operatives come together and do something to resist the drive to fascism?

"Answer: It is undoubtedly necessary to create working class unity but this must be unity between the workers in the factories and the streets, and not unity between the Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party, which is not a working class party’ For the Communist Party to unite with such a party would be to become an accomplice in the drive to fascist dictatorship." (Daily Worker, 13 August 1932)

On 11 February 1933, the Daily Worker stated: "He [James Maxton, ILP leader] presents the Social Democratic leadership as though it stood for the working class struggle against capitalism and was not in fact the chief support of capitalism. He conceals the fact that building the united working class front is only possible by a steady determined struggle against those whose policy is to split the front and disorganise the working class ranks – viz the Social Democratic leadership." (Daily Worker, 11 February 1933)

And again on 4 May 1933, three months after Hitler’s victory: "The enormous treachery of the social democracy has called forth such a storm of indignation among the workers of all countries that other parties of the Second International have even declined to come forward in their defence.

"But the social democrats have found one ally. And this is Trotsky. As a political cipher in the working class movement he has nothing to lose. He slobbers over the fascist jack-boot, calculating that he can make people talk about him, with the object of reappearing from his political oblivion for even one small hour at any price whatever." (Daily Worker, 4 May 1933)

For these Party hacks, faithfully following Stalin’s Line, the social democrats were the main enemy of the working class, the main agency of capitalism within the ranks of the working class. The Stalinists talked glibly of a united front "from below", as if the rank and file could be easily separated from its leadership. This ultra-left policy lead to disaster. This suicidal policy pursued by the German Stalinists led in the end to the victory of Hitler and the crushing of the German working class, and prepared the way for the Second World War.

Trotsky took a personal interest in these developments in Britain, engaging in correspondence with the Balham comrades. He urged them repeatedly to organise and place their work on a sound footing. "The British Left Opposition must begin systematic work", wrote Trotsky to Reg Groves. "You must establish our staff-centre though a small one. You must build your publication, even on a modest scale’It is necessary to have a steady, uninterrupted activity, to educate our cadres, although in the first stages few. The fundamental power of history is in our favour. When, in Britain, more so than elsewhere, communism in a short time can conquer the consciousness of the wide masses, so can conquer; in the same short time, within the communist movement, the supremacy of the ideas of the Left Opposition, that is, the ideas of Marx and Lenin."[8]

In August 1932, the majority of the comrades in the Balham and Tooting branches of the CP were expelled for "Trotskyism". Excluded from the party, they had no alternative but to form themselves into an openly Trotskyist organisation, campaigning for a return to Leninist ideas. They called their group, made up of a dozen people, the "Communist League" and started to publish in May a monthly paper called the Red Flag. The founding of the Communist League represented a qualitative leap forward in the establishment of a genuine Trotskyist organisation in Britain. Following Trotsky’s advice, they established themselves as an expelled faction of the Communist movement, and sought to fight for the party’s return to its original ideas and programme.

As soon as the Red Flag appeared Trotsky wrote a letter on 22 July 1933 welcoming this "modest step forward", with the advice to study the policy of the CPGB alongside that of the Left Opposition in order to educate their ranks. "While persistently striving to widen our influence among the workers, we must at the same time concentrate on the theoretical and political education of our own ranks", wrote Trotsky. "We have a long and laborious road ahead of us. For this we need first-class cadres."

The expulsion of the Balham Group from the CP resulted in complete isolation from the ranks of the Party. Yet while the road to the communist workers was closed, new opportunities for revolutionary work opened up elsewhere. The world economic crisis and the experience of the Labour Government 1929-1931 had produced a massive left current within the ranks of the Labour Party. This reflected itself in the sharp swing to the left of the ILP, an affiliated section of the Labour Party with some 100,000 mainly working class supporters. Led by the group of Clydeside MPs, Maxton, McGovern and Campbell Stevens, they had waged a struggle against the capitalist policies of the McDonald government. The ranks of the ILP, under the hammer blow of events, were in ferment and were moving in a revolutionary direction. They were in the process of shifting from reformism in a centrist direction, and were endeavouring to draw revolutionary conclusions from their experience. For Marxism, centrism signifies a confused spectrum of ideas somewhere between reformism and revolution, which is an inevitable stage in the process of radicalisation of the masses.

Trotsky and the ILP

The working class learns through its experience, and especially through the experience of great events that shake and transform the existing consciousness. Gradually, the class begins to draw revolutionary conclusions. But this process is not automatic. The mass cannot proceed immediately to a fully worked out revolutionary programme. In the first place, when the masses move into political action they always express themselves through their traditional mass organisations. In Britain that means the trade unions and the Labour Party, of which until 1932, the ILP was an affiliated part.

The crisis of capitalism therefore expresses itself in the formation of a mass left wing inside the existing mass organisations. This will at first inevitably have a left reformist or centrist character. The task of the Marxists is to participate in the mass left wing, to fertilise it with revolutionary ideas and assist the leftward-moving workers to draw revolutionary conclusions. Trotsky, who wrote in an article on the ILP, very well understood this: "Similar processes are to be observed in other countries. A left wing forms within the social-democratic parties which splits off at the following stage from the party and tries with its own forces to pave for itself a revolutionary path."[9]

At its Easter 1932 conference, after MacDonald’s open betrayal and the formation of the National Government, the ILP took the decision to disaffiliate from the Labour Party. The disputed issue was over Labour’s standing orders and the independence of ILP Members of Parliament. According to Trotsky, this decision to disaffiliate was a mistake, splitting for the wrong reasons, using the wrong methods and at the wrong time. Nevertheless, Trotsky recognised that this split represented an attempted break with reformism, and opened possibilities for the emergence of a mass revolutionary current. After the victory of Hitler, Trotsky entered into an energetic correspondence with the ILP with a view to drawing it closer to the Trotskyist movement. At this time, the ILP leaders had moved close to the Communist Party on the basis of a so-called united front, and were under the influence of Stalinism. Trotsky sought to counteract this pernicious influence in a series of articles written for the ILP press, urging the party to clarify its ideas and join the initiative of the International Communist League in an international venture for a new workers’ international.

"The ILP can save the workers’ movement of Britain from this new danger [from Stalinism]", wrote Trotsky in November, "only by freeing itself from all unclarity and haziness with regard to the ways and methods of the socialist revolution and by becoming a truly revolutionary party of the proletariat."[10]

Trotsky saw in these developments inside the ILP an enormous opportunity for the weak forces of British Trotskyism to overcome their isolation and connect with the mass movement of the working class. He was no stranger to the need for flexible tactics and a bold turn when events required it. Therefore, for the first time, in mid-1933 Trotsky raised the question of the entry of the Trotskyists into the ILP. His advice broadly speaking was that there were a hundred thousand workers moving towards revolutionary ideas, and it was therefore necessary that the comrades should actively participate in this mass movement in order to give it a revolutionary direction. The British Trotskyists should participate and try to win over the best elements if not the majority of the party to the programme of Bolshevism-Leninism, i.e. to the programme of Trotskyism.

Wicks, Groves, Dewar, and Sara largely influenced the newly-formed Communist League. Reg Groves was regarded as the main leader of the group. When Trotsky raised the question of entry into the ILP, it provoked an almighty row in the League. The discussion revealed that the leading lights of the group were very inflexible and had little grasp of revolutionary tactics. They simply stuck rigidly to the idea of an independent party, irrespective of its size or the circumstances. They dismissed Trotsky’s position, arguing they could influence the best elements of the ILP from outside. In the end, their methods proved incapable of seizing the opportunities within the ILP.

Trotsky was scathing in his criticism of the sectarians who proclaim the independence of the party as a "principle" – whether it is a party of one or one million. "A Marxist party should, of course, strive to full independence and to the highest homogeneity", he wrote to the British comrades. "But in the process of its formation, a Marxist party often has to act as a faction of a centrist and even reformist party. Thus the Bolsheviks adhered for a number of years to the same party as the Mensheviks. Thus, the Third International only gradually formed itself out of the Second." He continued, "It is worth entering the ILP only if we make it our purpose to help this party, that is, its revolutionary majority, to transform it into a truly Marxist party."[11]

When it was necessary to have a flexible attitude, the leadership of the British group simply dug in its heels and reiterated the so-called principle of the independence of the revolutionary party. In reply to Trotsky, they maintained that they would build a mass revolutionary party outside of the ILP, and outside of the Communist Party, simply by raising their banner. The argument over this issue lasted almost a year, and therefore valuable time was lost. In the meantime the field was left open to the Stalinists, who had finally realised the possibilities of work in the ILP. Unlike these hidebound sectarians, the Stalinists quickly sent forces into the ILP and established their faction around the Revolutionary Policy Committee.

The dogmatic attitude of the leading comrades was therefore a big obstacle. They refused point blank to countenance entry into the ILP. "Doctrinaire intransigence is an essential trait of Bolshevism, but it makes up only 10 percent of its historic content; the other 90 percent is applying principles to the real movement; its participating in the mass organisations, above all the youth, who ask only for our support", warned Trotsky.[12] Eventually, after a prolonged and heated argument, the issue led to a split in the organisation. While the experienced majority stuck rigidly to their guns, the minority of younger and more inexperienced comrades took Trotsky’s advice and entered the ILP.

The International Secretariat, rather than condemning the minority, under the circumstances urged both groups to see what they could do, once they had freed themselves from the factional atmosphere that had consumed the group over the previous period. For the time being, Groves, Wicks, Dewar and Sara carried on as before. They continued to proclaim their ideas and programme at open-air meetings, appealing to the masses to join them. However, their attempt to influence the ILP from outside led nowhere. They were ignored by the mass of workers, who began to move through the trade union movement, and into political activity.

As could have been predicted, these "principled" leaders, who had so haughtily rejected Trotsky’s advice to enter the ILP, very rapidly performed a complete sommersault and ended up in the Labour Party on an entirely opportunist basis. This is a law with the ultra-lefts everywhere. Their opportunism was only the reverse side of their earlier ultra-left attitude. Very quickly they sank almost without trace. Groves was absorbed almost entirely into the Labour Party milieu, being selected as a Labour parliamentary candidate, while the others buried themselves in the National Council of Labour Colleges and the Labour Party. They had made their contribution in the early stage, but were to play no important role in the future development of the Trotskyist movement.

A small minority of comrades, led by Denzil Harber and Stewart Kirby, entered the ILP in March 1934. They clearly faced an uphill struggle. Valuable time had been lost. The ILP was already in decline, and rapidly losing membership. The Trotskyists were numerically small – no more than a dozen strong. As a result of their political inexperience, but also – it must be said – of their middle-class composition and mentality, they failed to make the gains that Trotsky had thought possible. But not all was lost. Despite the difficulties, they did make certain progress. Their ideas had an effect on the best elements in and around the ILP and they managed to win over some talented individuals, such as CLR James. James was a West Indian who came over to Britain to play cricket, and decided to stay on as a cricketing correspondent for the Manchester Guardian. He came into contact with the group in London, was won over to Trotskyism and joined them inside the ILP. He wrote a book called World Revolution in 1937, and a year later his more famous book entitled Black Jacobins, about the slave rebellions during the French Revolution.

However, the evolution of British Trotskyism was influenced in a decisive way by the participation of new arrivals from South Africa, who pushed the movement in an entirely different direction. At this point it is therefore necessary to say a few words about the origins of Trotskyism in South Africa.

Trotskyism in South Africa

It is difficult now for people to realise the terrible difficulties that faced the workers’ movement in South Africa in those dark days before the War. Even more difficult was the work of the revolutionary wing. It took a special kind of person to undertake such work, and such a person was my friend and comrade Ralph (Raff) Lee, the man who recruited me to the movement when I was still 15 years of age and who remained loyal to the ideas of Trotskyism until his tragic and premature death.

Ralph (or Raff, which is short for Raphael) played an important role in the birth of South African and British Trotskyism. He had been a member of the South African Communist Party since 1922, but was expelled during the first Stalinist purges. Ralph Lee had made contact with the international Trotskyist movement in early 1929 via the American Militant which had been dispatched to South Africa by the newly-founded Communist League of America. It was a revelation that changed our lives completely and I started on a political road that now spans more than seventy years.

Ralph Lee, himself still only in his early twenties, was also closely associated with another young Trotskyist, Murray Gow Purdy, who in turn had been a pupil of the very first South African Trotskyist, Frank Glass – a founding member of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA). Glass and his wife, Fanny Klennerman, had established a left-wing bookshop in Von Brandis Street, Johannesburg called Vanguard Booksellers, and it was here that I picked up my first copy of the American Militant. Like many others, Glass left South Africa for greater opportunities elsewhere. He ended up in China in 1930 where he played a pivotal role among the Chinese Trotskyists.

After leaving boarding school at 15, I got a job in a shipping company chasing up invoices. This allowed me to travel around and also gave me free time to read. This I put to full use studying the classics of Marxism. Ralph Lee organised a group of a handful of people – apart from myself there was Purdy, Millie Kahn – who later became Lee’s wife – Raymond Lake, John Saperstein, Max Basch, as well as my sister Zena. In April 1934, we constituted ourselves as the Bolshevik-Leninist League of South Africa, and established links with another newly founded Trotskyist group in Cape Town.[13]

Millie had joined the Trotskyists, having been at first influenced by her mother who was a friend of Fanny Klennerman. Her sister, however, had joined the Communist Party, and they would not speak to one another for years. After joining the group, she moved to live with Lee in Johannesburg. My family also moved to Kerk Street in Johannesburg, where my mother ran the grocery store. Eventually, I left home and moved in with Ralph. From the centre of Johannesburg we were able to develop our political work more effectively.

In June 1934, Purdy had become Organising Secretary of a revived African Laundry Workers’ Union. In an attempt to build a base amongst the black working class, the group turned its whole attention to this work. This was the first practical initiative aimed at recovering the field of black trade union work, which the Stalinists had first wrecked and then abandoned.[14]

After they were married, Ralph and Millie moved into a shack next to the union headquarters, and began to raise funds for the union. "We lived next to the union offices," recalls Millie. "Sure, it was damned uncomfortable, but what did we care? They used to hold the union meetings in our back yard. We tried to raise money in various ways. I remember we collected bottles, cut off the tops, and then painted them. Raff was pretty good at art. But otherwise it was a dud financially."[15]

Within a matter of months, and after a successful recruiting drive, a strike took place towards the end of August, which resulted in the union winning recognition at a number of firms. Millie recalls marching with the black strikers through the streets of Johannesburg. "I was on my own as the other comrades were away I believe, and I got quite a lot of abuse from people shouting from the buildings. But we remained defiant." However, the agreement with the employers was broken, arrests were made and a number of strikers victimised. Purdy himself was imprisoned. It was, nevertheless, an historic struggle and a landmark in the history of the black South African working class. If nothing else, the struggle of the Laundry Workers’ Union left behind an important tradition.

"Broader horizons"

Before the war, the black working class in South Africa was far smaller than today. The possibilities for our work were really very limited. The young South African Trotskyists looked for greater possibilities for socialist revolution in Europe, with its mighty working class and traditions. I took the decision to leave South Africa in the search for broader horizons for revolutionary work in Europe. Given the Commonwealth connections and language, Britain was the obvious choice.

Those who remained behind faced a very difficult time. The terrible problems are alluded to in the correspondence of the time. "The caretaker in the tenement where Mil and I live," wrote Lee, "has objected to the ’Kaffirs’ who visit our room. We have been d’class’ for a long time with our neighbours, the usual riff-raff of billiard room rats, odd jobs gentlemen, canvassers, taxi drivers and trollops that inhabit ’buildings’. So now we pack up and move again."[16]

Purdy, who was an adventurer and somewhat unstable, clashed repeatedly with Lee. "Our personal relations are now strained to the utmost", wrote Lee, "the way he glowers openly at me during branch meetings is ludicrous, and we can hardly exchange a civil word, let alone discuss any questions."[17] To add to the strains, Purdy latched onto the "French Turn" to create a fuss, increasing the internal difficulties of a small isolated group. In May Lee wrote, "I feel quite despondent at this moment about the immediate prospects of the International and the Workers Party of South Africa’ Our immediate pressing task is to discover links with the masses of workers."[18] However in June, Lee wrote to Paul Koston, the secretary of the WPSA, "party affairs are in a hell of a mess here."[19] Eventually, Purdy was expelled and the group reorganised.

Between 1936-37, Lee acted as the general secretary of the WPSA, which was the official section of the International. Known to the Stalinists as "Johannesburg’s chief protagonist and defender of Leon Trotsky", the group was under tremendous pressure. Their turn towards the black working class led them into a close alliance with a number of metal workers, who began to take up some militant demands. In February 1937, the group provided invaluable support to these workers who went on strike for higher wages and better conditions. After ten days, the strike was broken with the connivance of the Stalinists and 16 strikers were arrested. Lee and another comrade, Max Sapire, paid the fines, but the strike had gone down to defeat.

The comrades had provided tremendous financial and moral support to the strike. Lee had "worked tirelessly’ performing a score of tasks, approaching other organisations, collecting funds and even selling his few possessions to do so." The Africans also paid testimony to the support they had received from "coms. Heaton, Frieslich, Kahn, etc."[20]

Purdy, who had developed extreme ultra-left tendencies, went off to Abyssinia, and then on to India where he established a party called the Trotskyist Mazdoor Party. Muddled politically, Purdy developed an erroneous theory that India’s untouchables were the proletarian vanguard. He was however fully involved in the struggle for national independence from Britain, and was sentenced in early 1946 to 10-years imprisonment as a result of a "revolutionary expropriation". On his early release after Independence in 1947, he was deported. Subsequently, in the same year he attended the Second World Congress of the Fourth International, and also visited me in London. But disillusioned with Trotskyism, he subsequently dropped out of the movement.

"Not long after the laundry workers’ strike", writes Ian Hunter, "two of the youngest members of the group left Johannesburg to begin making their way to the centre of world action in Europe. These were Max Basch and Ted Grant. The Cape Town and Johannesburg groups had by then been in contact with each other for some time, and Grant and Basch were able to stop with the Cape Town Trotskyists whilst waiting for a suitable ship. Grant took the opportunity to deliver his first public speech, an account of the events of the laundry strike, to one of the Lenin Club’s open air street meetings outside the Castle Street Post Office, and chaired on this occasion by Charlie Van Gelderen."[21] Unfortunately, as I remember, I didn’t speak too well.

Together with Sid Frost (Max Basch), I took a German-owned passenger-cargo ship, which took about six weeks to reach Europe, stopping at numerous ports along the coast of West Africa. I recall one stop-off at Lagos, where we disembarked for a coffee. We followed the other passengers and ended up in a small coffee place, and we laughed like hell when the other South Africans sat down. They were horrified, being used to "white only" places, when blacks deliberately sat next to them. "Bloody Kaffirs!" they muttered, powerless to do anything about it. Oh, we had some great laughs then!

After a long journey, our ship reached its final destination in France. We took a train to Paris to meet with the French Trotskyists, who had adopted the "French turn" a few months earlier and, following Trotsky’s advice, had just entered the French Socialist Party. Among others, we met Trotsky’s son, Leon Sedov, who was a member of the International Secretariat and co-ordinator of the work of the International Communist League. He was later murdered by Stalin’s agents whilst in hospital. We also met Jeanne Martin, Erwin Wolff, who was murdered in Spain, as well as Pierre Frank, Raymond Molinier and Erwin Bauer. The last-named, who was opposed to the "French turn", and looking for allies, was keen to speak with us. Molinier and Frank were expelled within a year on Trotsky’s insistence, after breaking with the French group.

"I came across to Britain with Ted in the autumn of 1934, arriving in England in December," recalled Sid Frost. "We sailed from South Africa in a ship that was German-owned, which the comrades thought a bit risky at the time, in view of Hitler’s recent accession to power, but we docked safely in France and made our way to Paris in an eight-hour night train journey. We had been given details on how to make contact with the comrades there before we left South Africa. We were to walk along a famous boulevard (Montparnasse, I think) opposite a certain caf’, and after about an hour someone came out and made contact. The Trotskyists used to meet in the caf’ there, and soon we met Leon Sedov, his wife [Jeanne Martin], Erwin Wolff, Pierre Frank, Bauer and Raymond Molinier."[22]

Trotsky was living in France at this time, and we were obviously keen to meet him, but we were doomed to disappointment. The political situation in the country was highly unstable. In February, the fascists had attempted to bring down the government, and the Stalinists were waging a constant campaign against Trotsky. Given the tight security surrounding his household, Trotsky was completely isolated in the mountain village of Domesne, near Grenoble. Under these circumstances, it was not possible for two unknown young comrades from South Africa to visit him.

Instead, Leon Sedov discussed a number of things with us, including the "French turn" and the situation in France and Britain. I had the impression that he wasn’t very happy with the way things were progressing in Britain and in particular with the leadership of the group, who had only recently commenced work within the Independent Labour Party. My later experience showed me why.

The Marxist Group

Sid Frost and myself arrived in London at the end of 1934 and got a place to stay in Kings Cross. At this time, a number of other people in London and elsewhere were also won to the banner of Trotskyism. We had been in correspondence with the British comrades and had received copies of their earlier paper Red Flag. We joined the group straight away, ending up in the Holborn branch of the ILP. I immediately set about speaking for the group at ILP meetings about the "Labour Movement in South Africa", mainly drawing on the lessons of the recent laundry workers’ strike in Johannesburg.

By this time, within the ILP the supporters of the Revolutionary Policy Committee had built up a significant left wing opposition to the leadership. They attempted to pull the ILP in the direction of Stalinism. While this group had some criticisms of the "third period" ultra-leftism, they leaned towards the position of Bukharin and the Communist Right Opposition. Their leading lights, Dr. CK Cullen and Jack Gaster, worked hard to influence the ILP towards a fusion with the Communist Party. These days, the Right Opposition of the Communist International, the supporters of Buharkin-Brandler-Lovestone, are totally unknown to most people even on the left. They have disappeared completely as a political current not only in Britain but internationally. However, at this time, they had quite big forces in the Soviet Union, Sweden and Germany. At one stage, they even had the majority of the Communist movement in America. Yet, as Trotsky had predicted, because they were not based on fundamental principles and a clear programme, they were doomed to disintegrate and disappear. The Right Opposition was only prepared to challenge the Stalinists on their ultra-left zigzag course in the Comintern, but tended to excuse Stalin’s bureaucratic policies and regime within the USSR. Hand in hand with the Stalinists, they participated in the attacks on Trotskyism, and were our main opponents in the ILP, apart from the leadership, of course.

In contrast to the Right Opposition, Leon Trotsky, ever since his expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1929, had worked strenuously to build up a Leninist faction internationally. The Trotskyists saw their prime task as the reform of the Comintern, with the idea of bringing it back onto the road of Leninism as well as the reintroduction of workers’ democracy in the Soviet Union. Trotsky right up until 1933 and the victory of Hitler defended this perspective. The victory of Hitler constituted an historic turning point for Trotsky. The utter failure of the German debacle, which was caused primarily by the ultra-left policies of the Stalinists, to stir up any opposition or criticism within the ranks of the Communist International, meant that the Comintern was dead. Incredibly, the leadership of the Comintern declared their policies absolutely correct. "After Hitler", they said, "our turn!" The actions of the Stalinists were comparable to the betrayal of the social democrats in 1914. Trotsky drew the conclusion that reform of the Comintern was no longer tenable, and that new revolutionary parties would have to be built and a new international prepared. "After the shameful capitulation of the Communist International in Germany", stated Trotsky, "the Bolshevik-Leninists, without hesitating a moment, proclaimed: the Third International is dead!"[23]

At this time, the ILP leadership, true to its centrist position, wanted to maintain its "independent" affiliation to the so-called London Bureau, an international body of centrist organisations. The ILP leaders, who had initially moved closer to the Communist Party, now pulled back in order to maintain their "independence", by which they meant the right of the ILP leadership to have control over their own internal affairs, which they wanted to conduct without any outside interference – including from Moscow. By the time of its Easter conference in 1934, the ILP had severed its links with the Comintern. This constituted a major blow to the Stalinists but it opened a window of opportunity for the Trotskyists to forcefully raise the question of support for a Fourth International.

However, the ILP was determined to maintain their customary centrist stance of a so-called middle road between two "extremes" – that is, to sink ever deeper into the centrist swamp. In the words of Brockway, "The ILP experimented in many directions, at one time approaching the Communist International, at another moving towards the Trotskyist position." For more than two years Trotsky had conducted a vigorous correspondence with the leaders of the ILP, hoping to break the best of them away from centrism and open the way for the development of a genuine revolutionary party. However, the ILP leadership chose to ignore Trotsky’s arguments and led the ILP into a political and organisational blind alley.

Throughout this period, the inexperienced forces of Trotskyism tried their best to influence the ranks of the ILP. However, their lack of authority, as well as their lack of understanding of how to work, made it difficult for these young comrades to make significant headway. Nevertheless, over a period, the organisation managed to get a toehold within the ILP. It was a beginning, but the opportunities within the ILP were disappearing fast.

Bankruptcy of the ILP

The events in Germany fell like a thunderbolt in Britain. The entire labour and trade union movement was in a state of ferment. In the meeting of the TUC that was held after the victory of Hitler, there was uproar. The German labour movement had been one of the most powerful in the world, yet Hitler had been allowed to come to power virtually without a fight. The German unions had not even succeeded in organising a general strike. How could this be explained? Walter Citrine, replying from the platform, said: "If our German comrades would have fought, it would have meant civil war." He tried to frighten the delegates with the spectre of civil war, the streets running with blood and so on.

In reality, it would have been far better for the German workers to have fought – even if they were defeated, which is not at all certain – than to surrender without a fight, which is what happened. In such cases, the effect is total demoralisation. It explains why Germany was the only country on the European Continent where there was no organised Resistance movement against the Nazis. The workers were shattered and demoralised by the surrender of the leaders. Nor did this crime of the Stalinists and Social Democrats avoid bloodshed, as Citrine and the others hypocritically maintained. On the contrary, the victory of Hitler led to the most terrible bloodshed. Millions of communists, socialists, trade unionists and Jews ended up in the concentration camps and within a few years the world was plunged into a war where 55 million people lost their lives. So much for the "realistic" policies of reformism!

In 1934, 1935 and 1936, the British Union of Fascists, led by Sir Oswald Mosley, went onto the offensive, lavishly supplied with money from big business and buoyed up by the victories of fascism in Italy, Germany and Austria. Mosley’s Blackshirt thugs marched into working class and Jewish areas, provoking and beating up the people with no intervention by the police. At Olympia in June 1934 and the Albert Hall in March 1936, they violently assaulted opponents and even peaceful hecklers. Instead of dealing with the fascist bullies, the police instead attacked the anti-fascist demonstrators with baton charges.

Roused by the victory of Hitler, the British workers prepared to fight to defend their organisations. We waged an energetic campaign for a workers’ united front against fascism. Together with workers from the Communist Party, Labour Party, ILP and trade unions, the Trotskyists, including myself, participated in the famous battle of Cable Street, where Mosley’s Blackshirts were confronted by the organised might of the Labour movement and completely smashed. One hundred thousand people built barricades in the street to stop a march by 7,000 fascists. There was s real battle, with lorries upturned and the streets strewn with broken glass to prevent charges by mounted police. Finally, the Blackshirts were physically prevented from marching into the East End of London. It was a tremendous victory for the united front tactic, which Trotsky had advocated from the very beginning.

In October 1935 Mussolini’s fascist troops marched into Abyssinia, provoking war between the two countries. The question of the attitude towards this war immediately assumed a great importance. Without hesitation, Trotsky gave critical support to the Abyssinian people in their colonial struggle against fascist Italy and imperialism. A defeat for Mussolini, noted Trotsky, would also constitute a massive blow against Mussolini and help undermine the Italian fascist regime. At first, the position taken by the ILP was generally positive, which was, in effect, to support workers’ sanctions against Italy instead of the economic sanctions imposed by the League of Nations. However, Trotsky attacked the woolly position of the ILP parliamentary leaders, like McGovern, who wanted to cover up their bankruptcy under the fig leaf of pacifism. In the end the ILP, trailing after their parliamentary wing, took a neutral position, saying in effect that it was a conflict "between rival dictators".

In the run up to the general election of 1935 a dispute broke out within the Marxist Group over which Labour Party candidates to support. There wasn’t exactly a split, but a massive argument over this issue that tended to paralyse the work of intervening in the election. A group of comrades adopted the position of the ILP leadership who only wanted to back those candidates who were against League of Nations’ sanctions. They dressed this up by saying economic sanctions would lead to military sanctions and then to war. In effect, the ILP leadership portrayed these anti-sanctions candidates as the left-wing candidates. "How can we support candidates who support economic sanctions that could lead to imperialist war?" they said. So they ended up abandoning a class position and supporting the muddled position of the ILP leaders.

Trotsky intervened in the discussions to oppose this position. For Trotsky, whether one was for or against sanctions was not of fundamental importance. In seats where the ILP was not contesting, he insisted, the ILP must give support to the Labour Party candidates, whether they supported sanctions or not. It was a class question of supporting a workers’ party against a bourgeois party. "Moreover", stated Trotsky, "the London Division’s policy of giving critical support only to anti-sanctionists would imply a fundamental distinction between the social-patriots like Morrison and Ponsonby or – with your permission – even Cripps. Actually, their differences are merely propagandistic. Cripps is actually only a second class supporter of the bourgeoisie."[24]

The Marxists wanted Labour to win the election in order to put the Labour leaders in power, so that their reformist policies could be put to the test. Here we can see the way in which Trotsky posed matters, very clearly, very soberly, very cautiously, but at the same time, posing a bold theoretical perspective for the movement.

By 1935, the Labour Party had recovered from the crushing blow of the 1931 defeat. The ILP on the other hand, as a result of its centrist politics, began to disintegrate and lose its active membership. Centrism is the most fatal position for a would-be revolutionary tendency. It was a halfway house that sought a middle path between Stalinism and Trotskyism, reformism and revolution. In the beginning, the ILP hankered after the Communist Party, which gave it a revolutionary aura. In doing so, it failed to turn its attention towards the mass organisations – the Labour Party and the trade unions. Trotsky said that the ILP, even with a hundred thousand members, was a very small organisation compared to the Labour Party.

Trotsky advised the ILP firstly to clarify their ideas and adopt a Marxist programme, secondly to face towards the workers in the reformist mass organisations – the unions and the Labour Party, and thirdly, to join the movement for a new Fourth International. He urged them to turn their back decisively on the Communist Party, which had dropped the old "third period" ultra-leftism, but was now leaning towards opportunism, as expressed in the theory of the Popular Front. This represented a serious danger to the leftward-moving workers. Instead, he recommended them to turn towards the Labour Party. The Labour Party, he argued, was based on the trade unions, and the trade unions were composed of millions of workers. He considered that the ILP leaders had split from the Labour Party prematurely – at the wrong time and on the wrong issue:

"The ILP split from the Labour Party chiefly for the sake of its parliamentary fraction", wrote Trotsky. "We do not intend here to discuss whether the split was correct at that given moment, and whether the ILP gleaned from it the expected advantages. We don’t think so. But it remains a fact that for every revolutionary organisation in England its attitude to the masses and to the class is almost coincident with its attitude towards the Labour Party."[25]

Trotsky sharply criticised the ILP leaders for their confused policies, their pacifism and their failure to face towards the Labour Party. Trotsky wrote many letters to the ILP explaining these issues and urging them to reconsider their position. But this advice fell on deaf ears. The ILP leaders simply ignored Trotsky’s advice. "What does Trotsky know of the real position in Britain being so far away in Norway – on the heights of Oslo?" they jibbed. They appreciated his views against Stalinism – which they used to great effect – but completely ignored his revolutionary criticisms of centrism.

Although at the time of the split the ILP may have had the support of around 100,000 workers, they were soon reduced to impotence. The mass of workers could not see any fundamental difference between the confused centrist ideas of the ILP and the left reformist policies being advocated by Lansbury and Attlee, who, under the pressure of the working class, began to talk very "left". Where there are two reformist parties with no fundamental difference in programme and policy, the workers will always tend to support the bigger of the two.

The false policies and orientation of the ILP leaders eventually resulted in a sharp decline in their membership and support. From a large organisation – with the potential of becoming a mass movement – instead, the ILP became a rump. Thousands and thousands of members of the ILP simply drifted into inactivity, and moved out of the movement altogether. All that was left of the ILP in the end was an empty shell – and the enormous property the ILP had built up. They possessed a big apparatus. In every part of the country, in every district, there were ILP rooms and buildings. But that was all. The ILP, which started with so much potential for developing a mass revolutionary party, due to its false policies and sectarian approach, squandered everything. The hopes of hundreds of thousands of revolutionary-minded workers were dashed. Within a measurable space of time the Labour Party recovered and began to move to the left.

As early as April 1935, there were growing doubts about our work in the ILP and also about the functioning of the Marxist Group. Having worked closely with the British comrades for a number of months, we became increasingly dissatisfied with the leadership and the way in which the group was functioning. In April 1935, a joint letter, addressed directly to Leon Sedov, was sent to the International Secretariat (IS) in Paris, signed by myself, Stuart Kirby, Denzil Harber, Sid Frost and a few others complaining bitterly about the situation within the Group:

"Since the 1934 Annual Conference the decline in the membership and influence of the ILP has continued steadily", the letter explained. "A year ago the then secret Bolshevik-Leninist fraction in the ILP had a little under thirty members, almost all active. All these were in London, where some ten branches supported our line at the 1934 Winter Divisional Conference (which, by the way, was held in January, before most of the comrades of the Minority of the old Communist League had entered the party and before the fraction had been organised). At the 1934 Annual Conference held at Easter of last year, 20 branches voted for the Fourth International." A year later, "the vote for the Fourth International was so insignificant that no count was taken."

Regarding the real gains that were made in the ILP, the letter states: "Since the entry of the Minority of the old Communist League into the ILP not one member of the party has been won over to our position in the London Division, all our support having come from either new members (whom, in most cases, we had converted to Bolshevik-Leninism before they joined the ILP), or from old ILPers who had, to a greater or lesser extent, adopted our position before we had entered – in most cases owing to the propaganda carried out by the old Communist League." (Emphasis in original).

The letter then turned to the internal situation within the Marxist Group. "With regard to the internal position of the group of Bolshevik-Leninists, the position is far worse today than it was a year ago." We observed a dangerous growth of centrist tendencies within the group itself. There was a "fetish of doing ILP work and of ’loyalty’ to the ILP leadership and constitution." As an example of this, it says "recently two South African comrades said in a private discussion with comrade [Margaret] Johns, a member of the committee of the Marxist Group, that they thought that under certain circumstances, the Labour League of Youth (youth organisation of the Labour Party) might be found to be a better field for our work than the ILP. At the next meeting of the Holborn Branch of the ILP (of which both comrade Johns and the South African comrades are members), comrade Johns, in the absence of the South African comrades, accused them of disloyalty to the ILP, in as much as they thought the Labour League of Youth a better organisation than the ILP, and on these grounds moved their expulsion from the branch and from the party [sic!]. Certain of our comrades managed to get this matter postponed for a time so that the comrades in question should have an opportunity for defending themselves."

The two South Africans referred to were Sid Frost and myself. We had been in Britain for less than six months before running into the crass opportunism of the leadership of the Marxist Group, who had adapted themselves to the ILP bureaucracy. The letter went on to accuse the leadership of the group of creating "a small clique of perhaps half a dozen, which designs to guide the policy of the Marxist Group and maintain relations with the IS." It informed the IS that the situation within the ILP was so bad, that Kirby and Harber had left the ILP and entered the Labour Party where they have established a Bolshevik-Leninist Group. "They left the ILP individually, since they felt that they could work there no longer, and are now working for Bolshevik-Leninist principles in a new environment." They now considered such individual resignations a "tactical error".

This letter must have influenced the views of the International Secretariat about the situation in Britain, and in particular the exaggerations of the group’s leadership. There can be no doubt such correspondence would have been passed on to Trotsky, who at that time was closely following the situation within the ILP. The letter would surely have influenced his evaluation of the ILP and the question of a turn towards the Labour Party. In fact, towards the end of 1935, Trotsky drew the same conclusions about the ILP and called for a new orientation towards the Labour Party.

Trotsky and the Labour Party

In analysing the movement in Britain, Trotsky showed not only a profound understanding, but also a sensitivity to the mass movement and how it would develop. Above all, he was keen to educate the young forces of Trotskyism against sectarianism and ultra-leftism. Trotsky came to the conclusion that the experience of the ILP must be drawn to a close. There was nothing more to be gained by work in the rump that remained within the ILP. There were clearly more favourable opportunities opening up within the Labour Party, especially the Labour League of Youth. "Since the ILP youth seem to be few and scattered, while the Labour Youth is the mass youth organisation, I would say: ’Do not only build fractions – seek to enter’," advised Trotsky. "The British section will recruit its first cadres from the thirty thousand young workers in the Labour League of Youth."[26] This was the first time in the history of our movement that entry was posed, not into a centrist organisation, but into a reformist organisation.

Trotsky wrote to our comrades in the ILP urging them to make the necessary turn towards the Labour Party. He told them they should prepare the ground by campaigning for the ILP to affiliate to the Labour Party. If the ILP refused to re-affiliate to the Labour Party, or even consider the question seriously, we should call on all revolutionaries to leave with us and join the struggle within the Labour Party. In the process, we would need to explain that the ILP was doomed as a revolutionary force, and we needed to draw all the necessary conclusions. The ILP could not now play the role that they had once hoped it would play, and it was necessary now to take all revolutionary forces into the Labour Party. Above all, in Trotsky’s view, it was from the Labour Youth that the future major forces of British Trotskyism would emerge.

At each historical turn in events, there tends to be a split in the movement. What happened in 1933 would be repeated again in 1936. Trotsky raised this question of entry into the Labour Party, but the majority of the ILP comrades, including the leadership, were opposed and not prepared to follow his advice. They had, in effect, adapted themselves to life within the ILP. They were again determined to cling to the corpse, maintaining that black was white and the ILP offered the only way forward. For them work in the ILP was a "principled question", when in reality it was a question of tactics, as the Old Man pointed out:

"It is not enough for a revolutionist to have correct ideas", wrote Trotsky. "Let us not forget that correct ideas have already been set down in Capital and in The Communist Manifesto. But that has not prevented false ideas from being broadcast. It is the task of the revolutionary party to weld together the correct ideas with the mass labour movement. Only in this manner can an idea become a driving force’

"To conclude: the Koran says that the mountain came to the prophet. Marxism counsels the prophet to go to the mountain."[27]

Denzil Harber, as we have already pointed out, had entered the Labour Party in early 1935 to set up the Bolshevik-Leninist Group. I had joined the Labour Party myself, following the line of Trotsky at that time. CLR James, Arthur Cooper and other comrades who were the leadership of the ILP faction completely rejected entry into what they regarded as a reformist swamp. As I was in touch with both groupings, I had discussions with James, but he had developed other ideas. James and Cooper had illusions that they could influence Brockway and build a big movement inside the ILP. They failed to recognise that years of centrism had produced a certain ossification within the party. For the centrist ILP leaders, it had become an organic way of life. To a certain extent, this outlook had even affected the ILP rank and file. So the best way to influence the ranks of the ILP, as Trotsky explained, was to go into the Labour Party and build a revolutionary tendency there. They had to show by deeds what could be done and the way in which such a movement would develop. "I deem it absolutely necessary", wrote Trotsky in the summer of 1936, "for our comrades to break openly with the ILP and transfer to the Labour Party where, as is shown especially by the experience in the youth, much more can be accomplished."[28] Again, "the most important thing is to get in", urged Trotsky impatiently.[29]

Trotsky’s arguments produced a massive crisis within the Marxist Group. There was a split and over a period a growing minority drifted into the Labour Party and began the task of building the "Bolshevik-Leninist Group". Unfortunately, once again valuable time had been lost. Trotsky was very critical of this time-wasting. "In Spain, where our section is carrying out a miserable political line, the youth, who were just becoming interested in the Fourth International, were handed over to the Stalinists", he said. "In England, where our people were too slow to get involved, the Stalinists have become the most important force among the Labour Party youth and we are in second place."[30] The failure of Nin and the Spanish Trotskyists, in the name of "independence", to enter the Socialist Youth was to contribute directly to the defeat of the Spanish Revolution. "The lads who called themselves Bolshevik-Leninists", wrote Trotsky, "and who permitted this, or better yet, who caused this, have to be stigmatised forever as criminals against the revolution."[31]

In Britain, the new group inside the Labour Party began the publication of a monthly journal called Youth Militant, aimed at members of the Labour League of Youth. Already operating in the Labour Party was the Marxist League of Wicks and Dewar. They had entered on an opportunist basis. Ironically, this seems to be a social law. Those individuals who take an ultra-left attitude tend to swing from one extreme to the other. Because they do not possess a balanced attitude and a Marxist understanding of the processes that take place within the mass organisations, they burn their fingers at every stage, jumping from ultra-leftism to opportunism and back again.

The question of how revolutionaries should work within the mass organisations was dealt with many times by Trotsky, and not only in relation to Britain. Just as Dewar had entered the Labour Party on an opportunist basis, so had Naville in France entered the Socialist Party, having previously opposed the idea as "capitulation" when Trotsky had first suggested it. Both started out bitterly against entrism in "principle", then somersaulted to the other extreme. Trotsky commented bitterly:

"He [Naville] called the entry ’capitulation’ because basically he was frightened by the prospect of a ferocious battle against a powerful apparatus", states Trotsky. "It is much easier to defend ’intransigent’ principles in a sealed jar’. Since then Naville has entered the Socialist Party. But he abandoned the banner of the organisation, the programme. He does not wish to be more than the left wing of the SP. He has already presented motions in common with the left wing, confused opportunist motions, full of the verbiage of so-called centrism."[32]

CLR James, who was a key leader of the Marxist Group, and had been expelled from the ILP for publishing Fight, suddenly, without any real preparation, discovered the "principle" of the independent party. Like so many others before and since, he became hooked on this so-called principle. So, James, together with Arthur Cooper, organised his supporters into an independent Marxist Group, which continued to publish the Fight as its paper. James moved closer to Wicks, who assisted him in the writing of his well-known book World Revolution. In early 1938 they fused the two disintegrating groups to produce the Revolutionary Socialist League. Naturally, this fusion was predictably to prove completely barren.

When Trotsky later reviewed James’ World Revolution he commented on it in a generally favourable way, but then pointed out that its main failing was the lack of a dialectical method, an arbitrary and formalistic approach to history. The same undialectical formalism can be seen in the attitude towards tactics and party building, not only on the part of CLR James but also of all the others who rejected Trotsky’s advice on the Labour Party. They all had the same defect – formalism instead of Marxist dialectics.

In late 1937, the Militant Labour League was set up by the Bolshevik-Leninist Group, as a front organisation for its work inside the Labour Party. The Bolshevik-Leninists had by this time become known as the Militant Group, after the name of their paper. The Militant Labour League was supposed to be a left-wing organisation, not completely Trotskyist, aimed at organising the left inside the Labour Party. But it proved to be a dead letter. Our position in the Labour Party was confused with the contradictory position of an outer organisation and an inner organisation. This was bound to lead to friction as all members of the Militant Labour League, the open organisation, realised that the inner group was taking all the decisions. It also meant a duplication of apparatus, because nine-tenths of the members of the Militant Labour League were also members of the Militant Group. There was only a tiny periphery in the Militant Labour League who was not already members. The whole thing proved to be an extra burden with no results.

Therefore, this Militant Labour League was stillborn and destined to play no practical role. It had one or two centrists, and one or two left reformists looking for a platform, but it had no real importance. On the other hand, the Militant Group had won over a considerable portion of the Marxist Group. They had managed to grow inside the Labour Party, and had won over a layer of supporters in London, Leeds, Liverpool, and Glasgow. This also included Starkey Jackson and Jock Haston. Jackson, a very able man, had joined the Labour League of Youth at the age of 14. He lost his job as a result of his activities during the General Strike, and in the same year was elected to the first Youth Delegation to the USSR. He then joined the YCL, but was soon disillusioned with Stalinism and joined the Trotskyists. He soon became a leader and secretary of the organisation. He lost his life at sea during the war. Jock Haston was an ex-seaman and he had been looking around for a revolutionary tendency. He was a disillusioned member of the Communist Party and he ended up joining our Militant Group with a group of others who were won from our activities in Hyde Park. Excellent recruits were also made in Liverpool, such as Gertie and Jimmy Deane.

The Deane family had a long and proud revolutionary history. Gertie’s father had been a member of the old Social Democratic Federation, the original British Marxist organisation, and was Labour’s first councillor in Liverpool. The Irish revolutionary trade union leader, Jim Larkin, a good friend of the family, made frequent visits to the Deane household. Gertie also knew James Connolly, Hyndman and Harry Quelch. She was an active suffragette, and later become a Marxist. Through her son Jimmy, she was won over to Trotskyism, and remained a committed revolutionary until the end of her life. Her other sons, Arthur and Brian also became members of the Workers International League and the Revolutionary Communist Party. Jimmy, an exceptionally talented man who was a model of a proletarian revolutionary, is now unfortunately in very poor health, but he remains a committed Marxist to this very day. He has always had a great feel for workers, especially the youth, and is a source of inspiration to all those who have ever known and worked with him.

In relation to work in the Labour Party, Trotsky rejected entry into the left reformist Socialist League, which was a remnant of the ILP that had remained in the Labour Party under the leadership of Stafford Cripps. Trotsky regarded it as a grouping composed of mainly middle class elements. He argued that we should turn our back on the Socialist League and concentrate the bulk of our work on other possibilities in the Labour Party and especially in the Labour League of Youth. In the course of this discussion, Trotsky made a remarkable prediction that Stafford Cripps, the leading left reformist, who at that time was demagogically talking about revolution, the abolition of the monarchy, and so on, would inevitably betray the movement and end up on the right wing. This was the case. Sir Stafford Cripps, as he later became known, was one of the most rabid right wing ministers in the post-war Labour government.

This is no accident. Inherent in reformism, explained Trotsky, is betrayal. As a consequence, it would be a profound mistake to put any faith in the "left" leaders of the Labour Party, any more than the right wing leaders. In fact, said Trotsky, the real danger to the movement is more often from the left than from the right, because they will sow even greater illusions. However, it is not a question of the bad faith or lack of sincerity of this or that individual. It is a political question. Both the right and the left wing of reformism accept capitalism. The difference is that the Lefts want a kinder, more humane capitalism with reforms and class peace. They do not understand that, if you accept capitalism, then you must also accept the laws of capitalism. In the end that must mean attacking the wages, jobs and conditions of the working class. As the Bible says: you cannot serve two masters; you cannot serve God and Mammon.

Needless to say, while maintaining complete independence from the left reformists, our arguments with them are never posed in the lunatic way of the sectarians who imagine that hysteria and abuse are a good substitute for argument. Our criticism of the reformist leaders is aimed at convincing the honest reformist workers, and is always put forward in a friendly fashion. We do not make concessions to reformism on principled questions. We always put forward a sharp and penetrating criticism of their policies based upon facts, figures and sound arguments.

On this question too, we follow the advice of the Old Man: "The greatest patience, a calm, friendly tone, are indispensable", said Trotsky.[33] Only in this way can you get the ear of the reformist workers and win them to a consistent revolutionary position.

The Paddington Group

In July 1937, Ralph Lee and his wife Millie, Heaton Lee (no relation to Ralph) and Dick Frieslich, who were members of the Trotskyist movement in South Africa, emigrated to Britain. Ralph was a very talented writer, a very talented speaker and a very talented organiser. He had been, together with Millie, the driving force in the Johannesburg group. He was the comrade, as we have seen, who won me over to Marxism in South Africa. He was certainly widely read, but not perhaps as theoretically developed as he could have been. But he had a great capacity in all other regards. He had been the general secretary of the Workers Party of South Africa, the united party of South African Trotskyism before leaving for Britain. I had been in correspondence with him and Millie while they were in South Africa and we had discussed in depth all the key questions of the movement. Ralph was a great personal friend of mine and he and Millie looked us up as soon as they arrived. I had left my digs at Kings Cross and was now sharing accommodation with Haston in Paddington, and so introduced him to the new arrivals.

Ralph wanted to see at first hand the different Trotskyist groups that existed in Britain. Of course, I urged him to join our group in the Labour Party, but Ralph hesitated and wanted to see things for himself. He didn’t just take as read what I told him, or Jock Haston for that matter, who also went to discuss with him and Millie. First of all, Ralph wanted to discuss with James and all the people in his group. He even had discussions with Reg Groves. Apparently, Groves told him, "Don’t publish any more material. There’s too much material being published already... all you seem to want to do is use the duplicator, you know, turn the handle. You should stick to the material that was already turned out".

This was the typical sort of over-weaning remark of Groves, who had always had a reluctance to publish Trotsky’s material. Groves’ organisation had disappeared and he had lost the little rank and file he once had. At the time, Groves, Wicks and James were considered "the three little generals without an army". Their sectarian and opportunist attitudes and their inflexible approach, could have no attraction for these South African comrades who had worked hard to connect with the black working class back home in Johannesburg. So Ralph and Millie, and the other comrades who came from South Africa soon joined the Militant Group, and our political work became concentrated in the Paddington area of London.

Popular frontism

The Stalinists had by now abandoned the old discredited policy of "social fascism". Nevertheless, their policy of "fighting fascism" was thoroughly opportunist, although the ordinary CP workers were obviously sincere in their desire to fight fascism. At first the Stalinists raised the slogan of the united front, which they had so cavalierly rejected when Trotsky urged them to implement it in Germany. However, their version of the "united front" had nothing in common with Lenin’s united front policy. In the struggle against fascism, the CP insisted in including all and sundry: pacifists, vicars, bishops, Liberals and even "progressive Tories". They attempted to put on a respectable and "patriotic" image. On demonstrations they carried the Union Jack flag. On several occasions we had the ludicrous spectacle of Mosley’s fascists and the Stalinists confronting each other in rival demonstrations, both waving the Union Jack – and both sides singing "God Save the King"! In other words, the CP had entirely abandoned a class position and became the most fervent advocates of a class collaborationist policy.

This fitted in with Stalin’s policy, which after about 1935 consisted in appeasing the "Western democracies" – particularly Britain and France – allegedly as a means of defending the Soviet Union against Hitler. At one stage, they even included Mussolini’s Italy in this putative anti-Hitler coalition. Apparently, it was a case of "good" Italian fascism against "bad" German fascism. When the Stalinists were pushing for a "Popular front", they used to sing a song (I think it was called the "United Front Song") which went:

Then left, two, three,
Then left, two, three,
To the work that we must do.
March on to the workers’ united front,
For you are a worker too.

To which we used to answer:

Then zig-zag-zig,
Then zig-zag-zig.
There’s a place, duchess, for you!
March on to the bourgeois united front.
For we are bourgeois, too!

However, their opportunism did not get them very far. The attempts of the Stalinists to unite with the Labour Party – having previously denounced the Labour Party as "fascists" – obviously met with a dusty answer. Herbert Morrison, who had been the target of the attacks in their ultra left period, subjected them to merciless mockery and carried the Labour conference easily. The Labour Party conference in effect threw out the Communist Party’s proposal for a "united front" by 2,116,000 votes to 331,000.

Their opportunist policy was too much even for the ILP, which up till then had been flirting with Stalinism. As GDH Cole recalls: "Following the new Moscow policy of close alliances with all nominally democratic parties, and of throwing aside programmes which might antagonise them, the Communists were more eager to collaborate with Liberals than ILPers."[34] The antagonisms between the two became especially bitter at the time of the Spanish Civil War, when Stalin’s GPU were murdering members of the POUM – the ILP’s sister party in Spain. At this time the Stalinists even started calling the poor old centrists of the ILP "Trotskyists".

From 1935, Stalin had been preparing to move against all potential opposition within the party. With the murder of Kirov (by Stalin), a key Stalinist bureaucrat in Moscow, wheels were set in motion that would lead to the murder of all the Old Bolsheviks in notorious Purge trials extending over more than three years. These Old Bolsheviks faced horrendous charges of aiding the counterrevolution and even the attempted murder of Lenin! All this was supposedly organised by a terrorist centre abroad, led by Trotsky and his son Leon Sedov. Not only the leaders of the Party, but millions of suspected Trotskyists were tortured and murdered in the prisons and labour camps of Stalin’s GPU. By means of these monstrous trials, the Stalinist bureaucracy consolidated its position over the corpses of Lenin’s Party.

In 1936 Stalin began his purge of the Old Bolsheviks with the trial of Kamenev and Zinoviev. During the show trial, the defendants "confessed" to plotting the murder of Kirov and of conspiring with Trotsky and Hitler to overthrow Stalin and carry out a capitalist counter-revolution in the Soviet Union. Vishinsky, the State Prosecutor – and a former Menshevik opponent of Bolshevism – demanded the death penalty for two men who had been Lenin’s close colleagues for many years. In the official court record we could Vishinsky’s ravings: "contemptible, base, vile, despicable murderous scoundrels, not tigers or lions but merely mad Fascist police dogs, humanity’s dregs, the scum of the underworld, traitors and bandits." He ended with the cry: "Shoot these mad curs, every one of them."

The Daily Worker followed the same theme under the editorial The Malice of a Renegade.

"The revelations of the terrorist plot to assassinate the Soviet leaders, a plot instigated by Trotsky and engineered in all its details by Zinoviev and Kamenev will fill all decent citizens with loathing and hatred.

"These people long ago abandoned every socialist principle, they worked energetically to retard, hinder and destroy socialist culture, they conspired to murder George Kirov, a Bolshevik leader beloved of the whole country, they accepted political responsibility for the murder, abjured their own view and deeds at their trial only in order to cover up the actual machinery of their murder organisation.

"Crowning infamy of all this is the evidence showing how they were linked up with the Nazi Secret Police which provided false passports for their agents. So they stand revealed as tools of a world fascist attack." (Daily Worker, 17 August 1936)

Having been framed and forced to confess, the defendants were then shot. The Stalinists immediately applauded this monstrous frame-up internationally. Taking its cue from Moscow, the Daily Worker carried a heading in big letters: "Shoot the reptiles!" They described the accused in the vilest terms: "They are ’a festering, cankering sore’ and we echo fervently the workers’ verdict: Shoot the reptiles!" (Daily Worker, 24 August 1936)

Prominent British Stalinists like Campbell and Pritt wrote whole books, attempting to show that the Moscow trials were completely legal and fair. In fact, the victims were convicted purely on the basis of confessions which were beaten out of them by Stalin’s GPU. They were not allowed any defence lawyers. And all the accusations made against them were proven to be false by the Dewey Commission. (See the two volumes The Case of Leon Trotsky and Not Guilty.)

The Purge Trials were a kind of one-sided civil war that Stalin and the bureaucracy waged against the Bolshevik Party. Stalinism and Bolshevism are completely incompatible, and Stalin could only consolidate his bureaucratic regime over the dead body of Lenin’s Party. One crime led to another. The Trial of the Sixteen was followed the next year by the Trial of the Seventeen, including Radek, Sokolnikov and Piatakov. Later Stalin arrested the hero of the Red Army Tukhachevsky and other prominent Soviet generals, who were all executed. Pravda exulted: "The reptile of Fascist espionage has many heads but we will cut off every head and paralyse and sever every tentacle." In reality, by destroying the finest cadres of the Red Army, Stalin encouraged Hitler to attack the USSR and gravely weakened its defences – a fact that became all too clear in 1941.

The Spanish Revolution

One of the reasons for the murder of the Old Bolsheviks was the revolution that had broken out in Spain in July 1936. The uprising of Franco had created a revolutionary wave throughout Spain, and in Catalonia in particular. There, power was in the hands of the workers and the Republican government was suspended in mid-air. Stalin feared that a successful revolution in Spain would re-enthuse the masses in the USSR, and any of the Old Bolshevik leaders could become a pole of attraction under these circumstances. This could lead to the death-knell of the Stalin regime and the rebirth of workers’ democracy in Russia. As a result, Stalin pursued a counter-revolutionary policy in Spain designed to betray the revolution and divert it into simply a military struggle with Franco. He supplied arms to the Republicans – at a price – and forced a policy upon the government to eliminate the revolutionary elements within their ranks. The Spanish CP became an open tool of counter-revolution under the slogan "First Win the War!"

The policy of the Stalinists – reflecting the Moscow Line – was openly pro-bourgeois and anti-revolutionary. In Spain, this led to the defeat of the revolution, although, as Trotsky pointed out, the Spanish workers could have made not one revolution but ten. They were betrayed by the leadership – not only the Stalinists but also the Socialists, the Anarchists and the centrists of the POUM – all of which played a fatal role. The supporters of Trotsky led by Andres Nin, broke from the Trotskyist movement in 1935 to enter an alliance with Catalan left nationalists around Maurin. This alliance produced the POUM, a centrist organisation, which veered between reformism and revolution. Despite breaking with Trotskyism and entering the Catalan government, they were regarded by the Stalinists as "Trotskyist". They became their main targets for elimination. After the May 1937 events, the POUM was declared illegal and its leaders arrested and murdered. This defeat in Spain laid the basis for the victory of Franco and prepared the way for the Second World War.

The Spanish events greatly intensified the antagonism between the ILP and the Stalinists. In May of that year the Spanish Stalinists staged a provocation in Barcelona where they seized the telephone exchange that had been captured from the fascists in 1936 by the CNT and the POUM. The Stalinists resorted to armed force to crush the revolution in Catalonia, where they kidnapped and murdered Andres Nin and other leaders of the POUM. Yet Pollitt had the brazen cheek to describe the actions of the POUMists in Barcelona as a "fascist counter-revolution". In his speech to the 1937 congress of the CPGB, Harry Pollitt was practically foaming at the mouth:

"In opposition to the People’s Front in France and Spain, its refusal to appreciate the difference between certain democratic states and open fascist states, its foul slanders against the Soviet Union, its support of the POUM which daily stabs the Spanish people in the back – all this forms clear evidence that certain elements inside the ILP have, while disclaiming the name of Trotsky, fully developed the whole stock-in-trade of the Trotskyists.

"The support of the fascist rising in Barcelona by the New Leader, carried out under the flag of the POUM to whom the drunken fascist general de Lano wirelessed a message of support and sympathy, is a shameful episode.

"...The Trotskyist criminals in Barcelona acted as the tools of the fascists, carried out the rebellion that the fascists wanted, and only by the steadfastness of the Catalan people [sic!] was this rebellion defeated.

"It was this foul policy which received the support of a section of the ILP leaders."[35]

The British Trotskyists not only rallied to the support of the Spanish Revolution, but also denounced the counter-revolutionary role of the Stalinists. In particular, we waged a campaign to expose the Moscow Trials as the biggest frame-up in history. The ILP leaders played a scandalous role in refusing to support our initiative of an international committee of inquiry into the Moscow Trials. In May 1937, Fenner Brockway, in the name of the London Bureau, rejected the invitation to endorse the American Inquiry, because, he said, it was set up by a "partisan" Committee for the Defence of Trotsky. This hypocritical stance was even more scandalous since the London Bureau supported the centrist POUM in Spain, which was now being exterminated by the Stalinists. Wherever possible we raised this issue within the labour movement, and countered the lies of the Stalinists about "Trotsky-fascists".

The Paddington group

In the Paddington branch of the Militant Group, we had nine members. One of the new recruits at this time was Gerry Healy, who ended up a complete gangster. One amusing episode was the way in which Haston recruited Gerry Healy. Healy was a member of the Communist Party at that time, and he came across Trotskyism when he met Haston selling the Militant paper at Hyde Park. Gerry Healy introduced himself to Haston by saying "you bastard Trotskyist", and punched Haston on the jaw. Haston got hold of him, and, since he was twice the size of Healy, could have given him a really rough time, but instead of this he calmed him down. "Look, come and have a cup of tea and we’ll discuss the question", said Haston. Sad to say, he managed to convince Healy to accept Trotskyism and he also became a member of the Paddington Group.

Although there were only nine of us in Paddington, out of a national membership of about fifty or so, we were by far the most active members of the organisation. Out of the 800 copies of the paper that were sold, 500 of them were sold by our group in Paddington. It may sound amazing but it is an actual fact. We sold at Speakers Corner and in Hyde Park. We sold in the local working class areas and around the housing estates every Sunday morning. We went out assiduously selling the paper on the doorstep. Sometimes we went out with a loudhailer, the whole lots of us, selling the paper and trying to win people. We succeeded in building up a regular sale in the working class areas around Paddington. So this one small group of comrades, with an abundance of energy and enthusiasm, was selling more papers than the rest of the organisation put together.

As a result of our energetic work and the extraordinary ability of Ralph Lee, it soon became obvious that the Paddington tendency, as you might call it, was playing the leading role in the organisation. Recognising this, Lee was co-opted onto the Executive Committee of the group. Haston was also elected to the EC. Given his leading role in South Africa, Ralph had in fact been proposed as secretary of the group. However, in the winter of 1937, when the elections for the leadership of the group were being held, we discovered by accident that there had been an intrigue by the existing leadership against him. An incredible fairy-tale had been spread around the organisation that Ralph had come from South Africa because he had allegedly stolen the funds of the Laundry Workers Union. This slander was all the more disgusting because, in fact, the exact opposite was true. Ralph and Millie had subsidised the union out of their own pockets as far as they were able, at considerable cost to themselves. Not a word of this allegation came out into the open. The story was simply spread behind our backs, which was a real scandal in a so-called Marxist organisation.

It was later established that the rumour had originated from the South African Stalinists. It had been picked up by Hermann Van Gelderen, a member of the Trotskyist group in Cape Town, and relayed by him to his brother, Charlie Van Gelderen, in London. He in turn stupidly passed the allegations on to the leadership who used them for its own purposes to discredit Lee. You must remember that this was late 1937, at the height of the Frame-up Trials in Moscow. There was a tremendous hate campaign being conducted by the Stalinists world-wide against us, using all kinds of disgusting slanders – "Trotsky-fascists" and such like. The Trotskyists were vigorously campaigning against the frame-ups and slanders at this very time. Ralph Lee had been a target for the South African Stalinists for a long time. They accused him of "counter-revolution" and all manner of things. Unscrupulous elements could easily acquire some of this dirt manufactured against Lee by our enemies.

Of course, as soon as we discovered this scandal we went through the roof. We demanded that the matter be raised openly at the next aggregate. So at the following aggregate in December, the allegations were brought out into the open and Lee raised charges of "irresponsibility" against the officers of the group. This, as expected, caused a terrible row. Lee demanded that there should be an inquiry into what had taken place. Immediately Harber and Jackson, who felt their positions threatened, launched a vicious attack on us, saying we were splitting, undermining and disorganising the movement by raising this question. In reality, they were responsible for the mess. In sheer disgust Haston walked out of the meeting in protest, and as a gesture of solidarity we all walked out. That is all we intended to do. There was no question of a split. We were absolutely disgusted, and that was all. But as soon as we had walked out the door, Harber moved that we should be expelled and in our absence this was passed! The very people, who accused us of being splitters, themselves split the organisation by immediately expelling us. This completely poisoned our relations with the old group.

Some time later, the truth came out. The secretary of the Workers’ Party of South Africa condemned Van Gelderen as "an irresponsible person". The Johannesburg group’s secretary, Max Sapire, wrote to exonerate Ralph, "Comrade RL had many enemies in this country – as have all genuine revolutionaries in all countries. It is only to be expected. And that these enemies should seize every opportunity to besmirch the past record of a revolutionary by lies, deceit and falsifications innumerable should also occasion no surprise. The disastrous blunder committed by your organisation by allowing itself to be tricked and side tracked by falsehood and intrigue is utterly indefensible.

"The negligent manner in which this whole matter has been handled by responsible members of your group is thoroughly unbecoming a revolutionary organisation and we trust that you will give this communication the widest publicity in an endeavour to clear comrade RL’s name of the slanders cast upon him. We also hope that you yourself will regard this communication in a very serious and sober light and will thereby avoid repetition of such catastrophic errors in the future."[36]

A letter was also received from RTR. Molefe, member of the Committee for the African Metal Trades Union, and signed by ten former strikers which outlined Lee’s tremendous role in helping the union. "During the strike comrade RL and comrade Sapire worked their duties satisfactorily. Our secretary RL shall never be forgotten in our minds. Even today our members wished him back. Comrade RL left for England in June when the strike was three months over. Now comrades only lies you have been told there."

Even the IS condemned Harber and Van Gelderen. But while this cleared Lee’s name, the whole atmosphere within the group had been thoroughly poisoned by the affair. How could we have any trust in such leaders in the future? The damage had been done.

The Workers International League

The question was immediately raised of what to do. We discussed this continually for three or four nights that week, and the discussions lasted for a full week or more. We knew that if we waged a struggle for re-entry into the organisation that we would be allowed back. But we asked ourselves, what would that accomplish. We came to the conclusion that the organisation at that stage represented only the embryonic stage of the Trotskyist movement. We needed to break out of that type of immature politics. We also knew that every great revolutionary movement in the beginning tends to attract mainly middle class types. The social composition of the Militant Group was pretty bad. It was composed to a large degree of bohemians and people of that sort. There were people who wore cloaks and sandals, and grew beards, which, at that time, was a sort of exotic fashion in certain "intellectual" circles. You can just imagine the type of individuals. They were your typical Bloomsbury bohemians.

We came to the conclusion that it would be pointless to return to the old group. Certainly, comradely and personal relations had become impossible and there was a huge amount of distrust as a result of the intrigue. If we re-entered this group, we would have a long and perhaps fruitless struggle to transform the internal life. So after considerable deliberations, we finally came round to the view expressed by Old Engels, that sometimes a split, even on an apparent organisational question, can reflect certain underlying major differences and tendencies. For example, the Bolshevik split from the Mensheviks in 1903 initially had nothing to do with political questions. There were no fundamental political differences at that stage. But the split revealed a difference in outlook, a difference in approach, and attitude. It was only later that fundamental political differences emerged between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. Therefore, we concluded that a split from a dead organisation could give an impulse to the movement.

Trotsky also thought on similar lines. In dealing with the French Trotskyists five years earlier he favoured separating out the healthy elements from those who held the organisation back.

"A revolutionary organisation cannot develop without purging itself, especially under conditions of legal work, when not infrequently chance, alien and degenerate elements gather under the banner of revolution. Since, in addition, the Left Opposition formed itself in the struggle with monstrous bureaucratism, many quasi-oppositionists have concluded that inside the Opposition ’everything is permitted’. In the French League and on its periphery prevail practises that have nothing in common with a revolutionary proletarian organisation. Separate groups and individuals easily change their political position or in general are not concerned about it, devoting their time and effort to the discrediting of the Left Opposition, to personal squabbles, insinuations and organisational sabotage’

"To be able to cope with the new tasks, it is necessary to burn out with a red-hot iron the anarchist and Menshevik methods from the organisations of the Bolshevik-Leninists.

"We are making an important revolutionary turn. At such moments inner crises or splits are absolutely inevitable. To fear them is to substitute petty-bourgeois sentimentalism and personal scheming for revolutionary policy’ Under these circumstances, a splitting off of a part of the League will be a great step forward. It will reject all that is unhealthy, crippled and incapacitated; it will give a lesson to the vacillating and irresolute elements; it will harden the better sections of the youth; it will improve the inner atmosphere; it will open up before the League new, great possibilities. What will be lost – partly only temporarily – will be regained a hundredfold already at the next stage."

There was only one thing to do. It was impossible for us to return to the poisoned atmosphere of the Marxist Group. We weren’t going to abandon the movement, so we had no alternative but to organise a group of our own. And this we did – all nine of us. We gave the new group the name of Workers International League. Perhaps at a later stage even the question of unity between the two groups might arise. We did not discount it. But for the time being, we branched out on our own, determined to develop a healthy Trotskyist movement in Britain. Some have attacked us for our stand. We have even been called "unprincipled" for the split. It has been said that there was no political basis for it. The "Lee affair", as it became known, has been presented as a purely personal schism. This became Van Gelderen’s position. But these critics could not see, or refused to see, the real situation. And events – which are decisive – were to prove who was correct.[37]

As an interesting aside, one of those to walk out of the meeting and protest against the actions of the leadership of the Militant Group was a young musician by the name of Michael Tippet. He had joined the Militant Group after leaving the Communist Party before the war. He later joined the WIL, but developed pacifist leanings, for which he was expelled in 1940. I know we were still in touch with him up until his imprisonment for refusing to go into the army in 1943. Tippet later became a world famous composer. He was knighted and become the Master of the Queen’s Music. He died a few years ago, and very few people suspected that Sir Michael Tippet was a one-time Trotskyist! Looking back on it, we may have been a bit hard on him.

At the time, Tippet protested energetically against the shenanigans of the leadership around Harber. "Why are GMM minutes to be declared correct or incorrect by an EC? And then by an EC which declared itself unconstitutional? What a further muddle and confusion! Is this going to be cleared up?" He went on, "They (the EC) deferred the original issue for a month, and proceeded to initiate censure and expulsion against the original sufferer of the provocation and his associates. The commencement of the proceedings to elect an EC were eminently revealing, and not being able to contain my disgust, I left."[38]

The International Secretariat had condemned the Militant Group’s leadership for the mess they had created, but also attacked our split and called on us to return. The WIL replied that we had not split, but were expelled and rejected the advice of the IS. We wrote back to them:

"If the comrades of our group accepted the expulsion and did not appeal to the ’national membership’, it was because:

1) The national membership is fictitious

2) Because the actions of the leadership after our expulsion reinforced the conclusion we formed before the expulsion that both leadership and membership were irresponsible’"[39]

In late December 1937 the Workers International League came into being. At the start there were myself, Ralph and Millie, Jock Haston, Betty Hamilton, Heaton Lee, Jessie Strachan, Dick Freislich and Gerry Healy. We were confident of the ideas and the responsibility that rested on our shoulders. With the world war looming, we engaged in an energetic campaign to build up our forces. The old methods had proved ineffective. It was time to cut a new path.


[1] See "The Comintern and its Critics", Revolutionary History, vol.8, no.1, pp.34-39.

[2] See ibid., pp.40-43.

[3] The Errors of Trotskyism, p.5.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Trotsky, My Life, p. 527.

[6] Abridged Report, 17 June – 8 July 1924, quoted in MacFarlane, History of the British Communist Party, p. 142.

[7] Trotsky, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, New York, 2001, p.152.

[8] Trotsky’s Writings on Britain, volume 3, London 1974, p.64.

[9] Ibid., vol. 3, p. 68.

[10] Ibid., vol. 3, p.72.

[11] Ibid, pp. 87 and 89, emphasis in original.

[12] Writings of Leon Trotsky supplement 1934-40, p. 540.

[13] See Ian Hunter, "Raff Lee and the Pioneer Trotskyists of Johannesburg", Revolutionary History, Volume 4, no. 4, Spring 1993, pp. 60-65.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Interview with Rob Sewell, London, 19 January 2002.

[16] Lee to Koston, 12 April 1935.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Lee to Koston, 17 May 1935.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Quoted in Hunter, op. cit. p.76

[21] ibid, p.65

[22] Quoted in Bornstein and Richardson, Against the Stream – a History of the Trotskyist Movement in Britain 1924-38, London 1986, p.169.

[23] Trotsky, Whither France, London, 1974, p.85.

[24] Trotsky, Writings on Britain, vol. 3, p.119.

[25] Ibid., p.107.

[26] Writings of Leon Trotsky 1935-36, p.203.

[27] Ibid., 1934-35, pp.33 and 38.

[28] Ibid., 1935-36, p.366.

[29] Ibid., p.379.

[30] Ibid., p.322.

[31] Ibid., p.368.

[32] Ibid., supplement 1934-40, p. 553.

[33] Ibid., 1935-36, p.268.

[34] GDH. Cole, The Common People, p. 605.

[35] It Can be Done, Report of the Fourteenth Congress of the CPGB, p. 61.

[36] From the archives of Revolutionary History.

[37] Trotsky, op. cit. 1933-34, pp. 90-91.

[38] Quoted in Revolutionary History, vol.7, no.1, pp. 185-6.

[39] Quoted by John Archer in his unpublished Ph.D. thesis on Trotskyism in Britain 1931-37, chapter 6, p.242, dated September 1979.