Trotsky’s suppressed letter: an introduction by Alan Woods

It is a well-known fact that accident can play a considerable role in both history and the lives of individuals. In the course of my life I have observed many accidents and extraordinary coincidences. But I have never experienced such a unique and unforeseeable concatenation of circumstances as that which I am about to relate here.

It centres on the extraordinary fate of a single letter, written by Leon Trotsky in 1938 and addressed to the Workers’ International League of Great Britain, which was the direct and lineal ancestor of the present-day International Marxist Tendency. This letter has not seen the light of day for eight decades. We all thought that it had been lost, and to some extent that assumption was correct. Now, however, by an extraordinary turn of events, the missing letter has been returned to its rightful owners.

It resembles one of the more unlikely episodes in one of the detective series that frequently appear on our television screens. And like all good detective stories, this one ends by pointing an accusing finger at those who have been responsible for a crime: the crime of attempting to falsify history.

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How it all began

The story begins on Monday, 21 May, 2018. Comrade Ana Muñoz is in charge of the daily work of following correspondence to our website In Defence of Marxism. Normally, this work is of a fairly routine character. Occasionally, an interesting item of correspondence is received from some country where we do not have much contact. More often, however, the letters received do not lead very far. Some of them, in fact, are simple hoaxes.

So, when Ana received a letter from a person asking if we were interested in some letters of Trotsky that had turned up in a box in the attic of her mother, who had recently passed away, she was intrigued and sceptical in equal measure. The text of the letter was as follows:

“I found letters from Leon Trotsky in an attic. Would you like them or should I throw them out?”

The message was extremely terse, even strange. It was signed MT. But there was no indication of where it came from, or even whether the sender was a man or a woman. Who was this mysterious person? And what were these letters? Did they exist at all? All kinds of doubts came into her mind, but she decided to answer that of course we were interested in the letters. She wrote back:

“Dear MT,

"Many thanks for your offer of some letters from Leon Trotsky. We would definitely be interested in them if you are not. We actually will have a representative of ours in New York very soon. Would it be possible for him to contact you and maybe make arrangements about this matter? Please let us know.

"Yours sincerely,

"Ana Muñoz on behalf of IDOM”

Ana had done some investigation, and discovered that the message came from a New York IP address. The person concerned was a woman, who wrote to confirm this, and then sent another cryptic message:

“I am leaving New York. Is there an address I can send them to?


Ana wrote back, suggesting that she should get in contact with the comrades of our US section who have a headquarters in New York. Contact was eventually established. She wrote again:

“Dear MT,

"This is to confirm that I have passed your email to our representatives in New York. They should have written to you by now. I also want to thank you for your kindness for donating these letters.

"Yours sincerely, A. Muñoz”

On behalf of the International, comrade Antonio Balmer contacted our correspondent and arranged for the letters to be sent.

The letters arrive

Then we waited. One week passed, then another, then another. The suspicion grew that we would never see the letters. With all the pressures of work, we had almost forgotten about them. Then one fine day, we received a phone call from an excited comrade in New York: the letters had arrived!

We were naturally very pleased to hear the news, but even at that stage we did not realise how significant this event would prove to be. We had no idea what the letters contained, and assumed that they would be of secondary importance – possibly of an organisational or administrative character. We could not have been more wrong.

Trotsky letter 5Ted Grant at Speakers' Corner, 1942 / Image: Ted Grant Archive

Before receiving the original letters, we were sent an email with copies attached. I was suffering from a severe bout of conjunctivitis, so I was finding it difficult to read. I asked Ana to read the letters for me. She replied that there were three letters, two longer ones and one that was shorter. I asked her to read me the shorter letter.

She started to read, and I was immediately amazed at what I was hearing. Incredulous, I said: “Can you read that again?” She did so, and my astonishment grew by the moment. I exclaimed: “Good God! This is amazing. You don’t know what you are holding in your hands!”

I examined the letter, and saw that it was indeed genuine. Here was Trotsky’s own signature, plain for all to see. This was the missing letter that we all thought had been lost for the last eight decades!

Still not daring to trust my own judgement, I rang Rob Sewell, who a few years earlier had gone to Harvard University to look for the missing letter in the Trotsky archives that are kept there. He did not find the letter, although he did by accident stumble across boxes of unpublished material from Trotsky’s biography of Stalin, which we later published for the first time.

I said: “Rob, you are not going to believe this, but it looks as if the letter you were searching for is in now my hands. At any rate, it is a confirmation that the letter existed, but it looks like the real thing to me.” After I read the letter to him, he immediately said: “That is the letter!”

But what letter?

During his lifetime, Ted Grant gave talks about the British Trotskyist movement in the 1930s, in which he was involved. He frequently talked about an episode, concerning a letter that Trotsky had sent us about the introduction to Trotsky’s article The Lessons of Spain – The Last Warning written in the spring of 1938.

He always maintained that Trotsky had been sent a copy and had replied, welcoming its production and praising the introduction. He said that Trotsky, had also warmly welcomed the initiative of the comrades in establishing a print-shop of their own.

The problem was that he never had a copy of this letter and it is not in the Writings of Trotsky. Where was that letter? This was a riddle that we thought could not be solved. But now it has been solved. Let us clarify the mystery point by point.

Three letters

Here are the three letters in full:

Avenida Londres 127

Coyoacan, D.F.


May 21, 1937

Dear Comrade Sumner,

I am sincerely grateful to you for your friendly and very informative letter. I can very well understand the obstacles you have to overcome, but it is beyond doubt that every new month will see the situation change in your favour. The only difficulty was to begin the investigation; now the truth will reveal itself almost as automatically as a natural force. All these ladies and gentlemen, including such political old wives as Brailsford and Fenner Brockway, will soon notice that the ground is becoming hot under them and they will try to join the camp of the truth to avoid being definitely compromised. We can, openly and with full assurance, predict our victory over the masters of frame-up and their agents of the first and second degrees. The shift which is now occurring in the United States will undoubtedly influence your situation in England favourably.

Please transmit my respectful greetings to your mother and my best wishes to all our friends in England.

Fraternally yours,

Leon Trotsky


April 15, 1938

Dear Comrade Sumner,

I haven’t written you for a long time but you understand the reasons. We received your cable and your letter and both Natalia and I warmly appreciate your friendly feelings…

I don’t know whether you have been informed about the trip of Comrade Cannon to Europe and in the first line to London. It is possible that Comrade Shachtman will also go with Cannon. I ascribe great importance to this trip especially for things in England. Cannon and Shachtman are our best comrades in the States, with a wide outlook and with serious organizational experience. One of their tasks is to meet all the English groups who belong or wish to belong to the Fourth International and to try to normalize the situation among these groups in order to help the crystallization of a genuine British section of the Fourth International. I hope that you and your group will give Cannon and Shachtman your full cooperation in their task.

I doubt that they can remain in London for more than a week, possibly less. It is absolutely necessary to use this time as well as possible. The best procedure it seems to me would be to enter now into connection with the other groups and even to establish a technical committee with the purpose of arranging the meeting of the American friends with each of the British groups separately, and then with all of them together. You will surely receive in time a communication specifying the precise day of arrival of the American friends in London. I should be very glad to have a note from you about the preparation for the discussions with C and S and also later about the results of these discussions.

I receive your publications. Thanks. But I write today only on the “C-S” trip.

Best greetings from Natalia and me to you and all friends.

Yours fraternally,


Coyoacan, D.F.

LT: joe 61-18

P.S. – I have received a letter from Frank Maitland in the name of the ‘Revolutionary Socialist Party.’ He wished to publish my article upon Spain as a pamphlet and is ready to do it in cooperation with one of our British groups. The evolution of his party, he writes me, is totally in the direction of the Fourth International. Are you in connection with them? I am writing to Maitland today.

Frank Maitland was a Scottish Trotskyist who I believe later joined the RSL for a short time. But the suggested pamphlet of Trotsky’s writings on Spain has not surfaced. Probably, it was never published. By contrast, the comrades of the WIL did publish a pamphlet of Trotsky’s article The Lessons of Spain with an introduction written by Ted Grant in collaboration with Ralph Lee. It is this introduction that Trotsky praised in the following letter:

June 29, 1938

Dear Comrade Sumner,

I received your edition of my Spain pamphlet with your excellent introduction. It was really a good revolutionary idea to create one’s own printing shop.

We received Leon’s letter to you which turned out to be his last letter. I don’t remember whether I answered you at that time. Natalia was very touched by your attention.

I wrote you about Cannon’s and Shachtman’s trip to Europe and especially to England and the plans connected with this trip. Did you receive this letter? You never answered me on this matter.

My warmest greetings to you and to your friends.


Leon Trotsky

Coyoacan, D.F.

LT: joe 71.2

Who was Charles Sumner?

Charles Sumner (also known as A. Boyd) was the party name of Hilary Sumner-Boyd. He was actually an American, born in Boston, Mass. in January 1913, and died in Istanbul in September 1976, at the age of 63. The son of Matthew Frederick Boyd and Anne Porter Boyd, he obviously came from a well-to-do family, as he received a private education.

Later he went on to study at Christ Church, Oxford. But it seems to have had certain radical influences on the family. His father had known John Reed, and Trotsky appears to have been acquainted with his mother. He was a gifted intellectual who spoke Greek, German, French, Turkish and the Latin languages.

At the time we are interested in he was the secretary of the British Revolutionary Socialist League and was business manager of The Red Flag and his flat at 238 Edgware Road, served as a centre for League activities. He played an active role in the campaign to expose the fraudulent nature of the Moscow Trials. He was also a member of the International Secretariat and he attended the founding conference of the Fourth International.

But, as the comrades of the WIL had warned, the so-called 1938 “Unity Conference” in Britain was doomed from the start. As we shall see, the artificial “unity” brokered by Cannon and Shachtman began to break down immediately. [The reasons are explained below]. The new organization very soon split in pieces. This must have had a profoundly negative effect on Sumner’s morale.

For whatever reason, Sumner later left Britain for Turkey, where he dropped out of active politics and was absorbed into the world of academia, where he made quite a name for himself. He was the author of a very well-known book for tourists: Strolling through Istanbul: a brief guide to the city. Hilary was also influential in the development of the modern Turkish theatre, with a number of his students going on to distinguished careers as actors, directors and playwrights.

But although he had dropped out of the Trotskyist movement, it appears he never completely renounced his ideas. The British philosopher A.J. Ayer recalled meeting "…an American called Hilary Sumner-Boyd, who was secretary, and for all I could ever discover, the only member of the Oxford Trotskyist party (!). His extreme gentleness of manner belied the ferocity of his ideas."

This is confirmed in a letter that was written by his lawyer after he died. It relates to the Trotsky letters that he had kept safely among his belongings all those years. The lawyer writes:


Meydan Mahallesi No 18

Rumeli Hisarı


19th March, 1977

To MW:

As Trustee and Executor of the Estate of the late Professor Hilary Sumner-Boyd, I have the pleasure of making over to you, absolutely and without condition, the enclosed letters written to Hilary by Leon Trotsky on April 15, June 29, 38; and May 21, 1937.

These letters may be used or disposed of by you at your discretion.

I know that Hilary would have been very happy to know that these letters were in your possession. They are not of great historical value, but it is something to be able to touch a part of history. It was Hilary’s wish that his possessions should be given to those who would use and appreciate them for their own sake, and not for his. It is in accordance with that wish that these letters are entrusted to you.

Michael J.L. Austin

Evidently, the lawyer was sufficiently well acquainted with his client to be aware of his political inclinations, and he stresses that it was his express desire that these letters should be given to somebody “who would use and appreciate them for their own sake, and not for his.”

It is clear from this that although the man who was known as comrade Sumner had long ceased to play an active role in the revolutionary Trotskyist movement, he had kept and treasured these letters all his life, and was sufficiently concerned about their future to insist, as his last request, that they be handed to those who appreciated the value and will use them appropriately.

It was for this reason, that the lawyer in Istanbul took the trouble to establish contact with somebody who was at the time an active member of the American SWP. We do not know how the link was established. What we do know is that the recipient of the letters, MW, later gave them to the person who has now handed them over to the people for whom Trotsky had originally intended them.

In thanking MT for her generous gift, we also explained some of the background of these letters, and why they meant so much to us. Replying to our message, she provided some more details of how the letters came to light:


"I'm glad that the letters have found the right home.

"As regards their provenance, I attended school with MW many years ago. When MW graduated, he handed on a folder for The Tufts Student Coalition Against Racism which I led the next year. He passed on the letters to me at that time thinking I would find them of interest. I found them again when cleaning out my mother's attic after she passed away. They were in an old box of ‘precious’ high school letters and papers.

"I was unable to obtain MW's current contact info from the Tft alumni office, so did an online search and found your organization.

"I'm sorry that they have been out of the way for so long, but am glad they have found you and that they fill in some gaps. Thank you for sharing their import with me! Out of context I had found them a bit confusing, and I have a new appreciation of their history and significance now.

"Best regards,


By such circuitous routes does history move!

Further light on these questions was provided by comrade Steve Iverson, a member of the American section of the IMT based in Boston, who for many years was an active member of the SWP. Commenting on a speech that I made last summer at the IMT World Congress in Italy, in which I described Trotsky’s letter as “our birth certificate”, Steve wrote the following:

“Delegates to the 2018 IMT World Congress were thrilled to hear the story of how we got into our hands the ‘birth certificate’ of our tendency, the letter from Trotsky to the British comrades congratulating them on the publication of the pamphlet on the Spanish Revolution.

“As the story unfolded, it still held within it a mystery as to the provenance of the document itself: that is, how the chain of custody was constructed so as to bring it to its rightful home.

“Ana reported that the American woman who contacted us with the offer of the three original Trotsky letters later told us a bit about the circumstances which led them into her possession.

“As it happens, I am in a position to be able to fill in some of the missing pieces to this puzzle.

“Our benefactor told us that in the mid-1970s she was a student at Tufts University in Somerville, Massachusetts. While studying there, she joined a campus chapter of the National Student Coalition Against Racism, NSCAR. I was also a member of this organization during its brief lifetime. And although I now live two blocks from that university, at that time I lived on the extreme opposite end of the continent, in California.

“NSCAR was founded in a January 1975 conference at Boston University at the initiative of the US Socialist Workers Party and its then youth organization, the Young Socialist Alliance, as a vehicle to broaden and deepen mobilizations in support of Boston’s black community in its fight against racist forces actively blocking the desegregation of Boston schools.

“This woman explained to us that when the chairperson of the Tufts SCAR chapter was preparing to leave Boston and move to a different city, he offered her the three documents. He had received them in an inheritance from a professor who had died in the early 1970s.

“The connection between professor and student remains a mystery, but the student inheritor, MW, is someone I knew once upon a time.

“He, as far as I know, is no longer politically active. But for many years, MW was a member of the Socialist Workers Party. Over the years he served as a branch organizer in a couple of different cities, and even ran as the SWP’s candidate for mayor of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1985.

“One curious thing about MW’s handing over of the three documents in 1977 is why he would do this at a time in which the Trotsky archives had, at long last, been opened up to public view at Harvard University, and several SWP members had been assigned to research the files to expand the contents of Pathfinder Press’s series of Trotsky’s writings during his final exile. Why didn’t he hand them over to the party he belonged to instead?”

As it turns out, copies of two of the three letters were found in the archive and made it into print. But the third, the one we were most interested in, had never yet seen the light of day…

Why the letter was suppressed

The first two letters were published by the SWP in Trotsky’s Writings. The third was not. It simply disappeared, as if it had never existed. The question that has to be asked is: why this letter – and this letter alone – was suppressed for decades?

If this letter was of paramount importance to our tendency, its deliberate suppression was clearly of equally paramount importance to our political enemies. And there can be no doubt whatever that this letter was, in fact, deliberately suppressed by the leaders of the SWP, and specifically by James Cannon.

What proof do we have of this assertion? We have already stated that there were three letters involved. Two of them were published in Trotsky’s writings that were issued by the American SWP. Only one was omitted, that is the famous missing letter. Did the SWP not have a copy of this letter? That is quite unthinkable. Joseph Hansen, who was one of Trotsky’s secretaries, had a copy of all Trotsky’s correspondence. He most certainly had a copy of this letter, as indicated by the fact that at the bottom of the letter there is a filing reference made out to: “Joe 71.2” (i.e. Copy to Joe Hansen).

Yet in the Harvard archives, no copy of this letter exists. As stated above, in 2003 comrade Rob Sewell went to Harvard University in Boston to search for the missing letter in the Trotsky archives. He found absolutely no trace of it. In the process, however – as we explained above – he happened to find several boxes of unpublished material that had been omitted from Trotsky’s biography of Stalin. This was the start of an important project by the IMT to publish a new and amplified version of this important work. But as for the missing letter, it stayed missing.

In order to clarify the reasons for this mystery, we would have to go right back to the origins of our tendency in the period leading up to Trotsky’s attempt to launch the Fourth International 80 years ago in 1938. This is not the place to deal in detail with the circumstances in which this took place, or the subsequent disastrous evolution that led to the collapse of the Fourth International. These questions have been dealt with in other works, notably Ted Grant’s History of British Trotskyism and The Programme of the International.

The scope of the present article is far more limited than that, but nevertheless casts considerable light on the false methods and organisational chicanery that, together with incorrect political positions and analyses, were an important element in the degeneration and collapse of the International after the Second World War.

The origins of the IMT

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 isolation of the Russian Revolution in conditions of appalling backwardness gave rise to a huge bureaucracy keen to enjoy the fruits of victory.

Trotsky reading the militantThe history of our tendency can be traced back directly to the great work of Leon Trotsky’s Left Opposition in the 1920s, and even further to the Third International under Lenin and Trotsky / Image: public domain

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.

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 Party in the Soviet Union. 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 subsequent 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 later ultra-shift 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.

One man against the world

Despite all the efforts of Stalin and his powerful apparatus to crush the Opposition, Trotsky refused to be silenced. From the small island of Prinkipo in Turkey, where he had been forced into exile, Leon Trotsky continued his stubborn battle against Stalinism. He began the slow and arduous process of gathering together those Communists who wished to defend the real programme and traditions of Bolshevik-Leninism.

But Trotsky was attempting to form a new International under the most difficult circumstances imaginable. The tide of reaction that swept across Europe was reflected in a series of defeats of the working class and the rise of fascism in Italy, Germany and Spain. In Russia, the monstrous Moscow trials represented a one-sided civil war of the Stalinist bureaucracy against Bolshevism. Trotsky continued his struggle from his far-off Mexican exile, fighting a courageous but lonely battle against atrocious odds: one man against the whole world.

Under these circumstances, the cadres of the new international necessarily reflected a milieu of defeat and reaction: demoralised elements, mainly drawn from the petty bourgeoisie. The truth of the matter is that Trotsky had very limited resources to draw upon. Many of those who came over to the Opposition did not do so because they were convinced Bolshevik-Leninists, but as a reaction against the excesses of Stalinism. Some were tired and worn out, and many were politically disoriented. There were ultra-lefts, quasi-anarchists, syndicalists, Bordighists and other deviations.

Trotsky was well aware of this problem. That fact is well expressed in Trotsky’s book The Crisis in the French Section, which covers the period 1935-36. Most revealing of all is the transcript of an interview Trotsky gave to Fred Zeller, who was then a leading French Left Young Socialist. When Fred Zeller reproached Trotsky with the bad conduct of his followers in France, he did not attempt to defend them. All he said was:

“You know, he said, there isn’t much choice. You have to work with the material you have on hand. That is not always convenient.” (Trotsky, On Organizational Problems, November 1935, in The Crisis in the French Section, p. 67.)

Trotskyism in Britain

Trotsky’s judgement of the French Trotskyists could equally well have been applied to those who called themselves Trotskyists in Britain. Like the French, they were predominantly petty-bourgeois elements, bohemian types organically incapable of breaking out of the small circle mentality and finding a road to the working class. They were sick with the disease of sectarianism, which has plagued the movement from its inception and which Trotsky criticized many times.

In an attempt to overcome the isolation of the British Trotskyists from the working class, Trotsky tried to persuade them to enter the Independent Labour Party, which had split from the Labour Party in the early 1930s with the support of a large number of leftward moving workers. Typically, they resisted his advice, and only a small group of fifteen or twenty people finally went into the ILP. Unfortunately, they were very inexperienced, and they had entered the ILP very late, when it was already losing ground. They were known as the Marxist Group.

Trotsky letter 3Ralph Lee / Image: Ted Grant Archive

The situation began to change with the arrival of a couple of enthusiastic young Trotskyists from South Africa, one of whom was Ted Grant. They made certain gains, but by this time, the possibilities of work in the ILP had diminished significantly. Trotsky saw that there were clearly more favourable opportunities opening up within the Labour Party, especially in the Labour League of Youth. He wrote:

“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. The British section will recruit its first cadres from the thirty thousand young workers in the Labour League of Youth.” (Leon Trotsky, Writings, 1935-36, p. 203.)

Ted Grant helped to develop the Bolshevik-Leninist Group within the Labour Party, which became known publicly as the Militant Group, after the name of its paper. By this time, he had been joined by the majority of the South African group, including Ralph Lee. But the composition of the Militant Groups was predominantly petty bourgeois and its internal regime reflected this fact. A hotbed of gossip, intrigue and backstabbing, it was the kind of unhealthy media upon which petty bourgeois elements thrive.

The old leaders were jealous of the enthusiastic young comrades, of whom they were resentful and who they saw as a threat to their position and authority. As always with such groups, scandal and personal attacks took the place of political debate. Lacking the ability to argue their political position, the leaders organised a campaign of scandalous attacks and slanders directed against Ralph Lee. These accusations were false, and were later repudiated. But the poisonous atmosphere led to an inevitable breakdown in relations. The crisis ended with the expulsion of the comrades from the Militant Group.

The expelled comrades decided that a new start was necessary, and they set up the Workers’ International League (WIL), and the first issue of Workers’ International News came out in January 1938. They were only a handful, but what they lacked in numbers and resources they made up for with sheer youthful élan and revolutionary enthusiasm. Recruits were won from the ILP Guild of Youth, the Labour League of Youth, and the Communist Party. Ted later recalled:

“We had eight members. We were active; we sold in Hyde Park, Piccadilly and Tottenham Court Road. Where there were strikes, we intervened and won people that way, we won workers. We were the only workers’ group as you know. We wanted workers; we did not want the rubbish that was in the other groups.”

Shortly before the war, the Workers’ International League obtained its first printing machine: a battered old machine, which Lee, who was very skilful, managed to get to work. They published a theoretical magazine called Workers’ International News and also a paper called Youth for Socialism. They also produced a small pamphlet of Trotsky’s article The Lessons of Spain, with an introduction that Ted wrote in collaboration with Ralph Lee.

Trotsky letter 6WIL's newspaper Youth For Socialism, March 1939. Lead article by Ted Grant / Image: Ted Grant Archive

Ralph Lee wrote a letter to Trotsky on 12 February 1938, soon after the formation of the WIL. (Leon Trotsky exile papers, Harvard, bms Russ 13.1, 2625.) He also sent two issues of the Workers' International News. Included was the first issue of the WIN, produced in January, containing an article by Trotsky. Trotsky read the letter and made underlinings in red and blue pencil. There is a question mark made by Trotsky in the margin where Ralph says copies of the WIN and a pamphlet had been sent to him separately. It seems to indicate he had not received them or he needed to find out more about the group, or both.

Ralph explained that the group had acquired a printing press, on which the new WIN had been produced. "Up to now we have published two issues of the Workers' International News and the pamphlet, Summary of the final report of the commission of enquiry into the charges against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials. Copies of these have been sent to you under separate cover." This sentence is underlined in red.

Ralph concludes his letter with the words: “Hitherto we have been dependent on the initiative and energy of the American comrades but this has meant, among other things, prohibitive prices for our publications that have prevented their wide distribution. In seeking to end this dependence on an external section of Fourth Internationalists, we hope that we will have your blessing.” The last eight words are again underlined by Trotsky in red pencil. This was something he needed to give consideration to or inquire about further, possibly from Charles Sumner.

In the Trotsky archive is another letter from Ralph Lee to Trotsky sent on 14 December 1938, enclosing the WIL declaration of the General Membership Meeting that was held on 27 November 1938. (bms Russ 13.1, 1111-1115.)

In a discussion with the leaders of the American SWP on 23 July 1938, Trotsky chastised them for their lack of revolutionary self-sacrifice and their failure to establish a printing press. He went on to give the example of the WIL:

“We must have such printing shops if we have nothing else.

“For example, our English comrades now have their own printing shop, but to have such a printing shop with two or three devoted comrades, we can put out not only the Socialist Appeal at least twice a week, but also pamphlets, leaflets, etc. The trouble is that the party work is too much based on petty-bourgeois conceptions.

“We must educate our youth for more of a spirit of sacrifice. We already have so many young bureaucrats in our movement.” (Trotsky, Writings, 1937-38, p. 394.)

These criticisms must have stung Cannon. They were a blow to his inflated ego – and they were delivered by Trotsky himself, behind whose authority Cannon sheltered. His prestige was being undermined, and that, for him, was an unforgivable offense. This explains his rancorous and unremitting hostility to the WIL, against whom he waged an unrelenting offensive, using methods that Trotsky would have condemned unequivocally.

Interestingly, while other extensive comments by Trotsky were reproduced verbatim in the SWP internal bulletins, the one that contained these sharp criticisms of the SWP was omitted.

How not to unify

Trotsky letter 8The growth of WIL was reflected in the launch of the fortnightly Socialist Appeal in 1941 (1 March 1942 issue) / Image: Ted Grant Archive

With the approaching danger of a new World War, Trotsky decided to accelerate preparations for the founding of a new International. In August 1938, shortly before the Founding Conference of the Fourth International, James P. Cannon of the US Socialist Workers’ Party came to London with the aim of uniting the different groups of British Trotskyists into a single organization.

Because of their special relationship with Trotsky, the leaders of the SWP thought they had a privileged position in the international Trotskyist movement. This was particularly the case with Cannon, who took it for granted that the British Trotskyists would follow his lead in all things.

Cannon tried to use his authority to pressurise the comrades to unify with the other groups. They told him that they were in favour of unity, but only on the basis of clear political agreement on strategy and tactics. If Cannon pushed ahead with unity on an unprincipled basis, they told him he would unite three groups into ten. Nevertheless, he asked if they would come to the Unity Conference and they agreed to come and put their case.

The members of the WIL were understandably cautious. After their bad experience with the Militant Group, they were unsure as to how any meaningful unity could be achieved. But they dutifully went along to the conference. They were, of course, fully in favour of the Fourth International and held Cannon in high esteem, but when they turned up at the conference, they were utterly scandalized at what they saw.

The full story can be found in The History of British Trotskyism, where we read the following:

“As a prelude to the founding Congress of the Fourth International in Paris, James Cannon, the leader of the American Trotskyists and delegate to the World Congress, came over from the United States to prepare the ground for a unified Trotskyist organisation in Britain. He imagined that he was going to brush away the differences and unify the movement in one fell swoop. At that time, there existed three separate groups claiming Trotskyist roots in the London area, and one in Scotland. There was the Militant Group, the Revolutionary Socialist League, the Revolutionary Socialist Party, and ourselves, the WIL. The RSP was a split-off from the Socialist Labour Party, a largely sectarian organisation in Scotland, with remnants in Glasgow, Edinburgh and a few individuals in Yorkshire, which had moved in the direction of Trotskyism.

“So this was the state of things when Cannon came to this country. We looked up to Cannon, who had a long revolutionary history in the movement. He was the leader of the SWP and was in regular contact with Trotsky in Mexico. The comrades held him in very high regard. When we met Cannon he told us that his task was to unify the British groups before the founding congress of the Fourth International in September. That was the deadline and we couldn’t wait until everything was right in everybody’s head before carrying through this unification. For our part, we told him that we were in favour of unity, but it must be on a correct principled basis. At that time, given the fundamental differences between the groups, you had to face up to the immediate problem of how to work: entry or non-entry, independent work or work in the Labour Party. We told Cannon that before we could get unity we had to agree on one clear policy. Any united organisation would have to agree either a policy for entry or a policy for independent work. Added to this were, of course, the rights of the minority to put forward their position completely freely and to try and convince the majority within the framework of the organisation.

"Cannon said, 'Yes, but the RSP tendency and the James tendency would never accept that.' So we countered: ‘If they’re not prepared to accept that then, of course, there won’t be any unity as far as we are concerned’.”

The worst fears of the WIL comrades were immediately confirmed. The whole conduct of the “Unity” Conference was a farce. When Ralph Lee saw what was happening, with doors opening and closing and people going round and round, canvassing and lobbying as the different participants engaged in horse-trading and back-room deals, he likened it to a French bedroom farce. The only people who were neither lobbied nor consulted were the members of the WIL.

At bottom, the problem was that it is impossible to unite groups with radically different policies, tactics and orientation. The comrades of the WIL tried to point this out to Cannon, but he was unimpressed. He demanded unity and that was all there was to be said. In the end, the WIL refused to join, arguing that the unification agreement, which allowed those Trotskyists opposed to entry to engage in open work, was bound to fail.

Cannon’s reply was entirely in character. He said: “We crush splitters like beetles.” Lee responded with equal sharpness, saying that unity on that basis was impossible. Henry Sara, who was in the chair, said to Lee “you can’t talk to a guest like that”. Ted got up and protested that “even if comrade Trotsky were present, we would have the right to put forward any position we like. That is the democracy within our movement no matter who is here.”

Lee’s warning was confirmed within one week. Maitland, who was there for the RSP, was repudiated by his own group and they rejected unification. Other splits soon followed. Within six weeks the whole thing was already a shambles. Cannon was not pleased. He was used to getting all his own way. He blamed the WIL for his problems. The resulting resentment he felt towards the “awkward squad” of Lee, Jock Haston and Ted Grant lasted for years. It is this that explains the mystery of the missing letter.

The reason why Cannon could not stand the British Trotskyists is simply that they were not prepared to accept his leadership unconditionally and without criticism. He always regarded them as a nuisance. It is significant that, in criticising the leadership of the “official” British section (the RSL), he accuses them of being too “gentlemanly” and insufficiently “brutal” towards the WIL. The fact that he could equate Bolshevism with brutality is an indication of just how far Cannon stood from the genuine ideas and methods of Lenin and Trotsky.

It is true that hardness was an important element in the Bolshevik mind-set. It was no accident that in the 1903 division between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, the former were known as the “hards” and the latter were called the “softs”. But Trotsky pointed out that hardness was not a monopoly of Bolshevism. In the ranks of the Mensheviks there were also many hard men and women who were dedicated to their cause and willing to fight and sacrifice for it, while in the camp of Bolshevism there was no shortage of compromisers, as we saw in the decisive moments of the Revolution.

In the final analysis, however, hardness and softness in revolutionary tendencies must have a political basis. The organizational amorphousness of Menshevism was only a reflection of their political opportunism – their willingness to compromise on questions of principle, to seek agreements with alien classes and, in the end, to pass over to the camp of the bourgeoisie.

Lenin himself was always hard and intransigent (one might even say “brutal”) on questions of theory and principles. That was the real basis for his centralism. But that was only one side of the equation. The other side was his extremely flexible attitude to questions of organization and tactics. And in his treatment of his fellow comrades, far from showing any sign of “brutality”, he always displayed great consideration, tact and humanity.

For Lenin, and also for Trotsky, it was unthinkable that they should ever use administrative methods to solve political disputes. Bullying, threats, insults and distortions were entirely alien to them. They always treated political opponents with respect, answering their arguments point by point. It is sufficient to recall the first five years of the Communist International to demonstrate this. The school of Cannon was not that of Bolshevism, but rather that of Zinovievism, which in turn prepared the ground for Stalinism.

The Founding Conference

At the “Unity” Conference, Cannon asked Ted and Jock Haston to go and see him. He asked them if they would send a delegate to the founding conference of the Fourth International and ask for sympathetic affiliation. They answered that they would apply for sympathetic affiliation, although they might not be able to raise the funds to send a comrade to the Founding Conference. Cannon replied: “Do what you can. If not, send a letter.”

They discussed it and drew up a letter expressing support for the Fourth International and asking for acceptance as a sympathising section. The French delegate moved that the WIL should be accepted as a sympathetic section. This would almost certainly have been accepted, but for the intervention of Cannon, who took his revenge on the comrades in the most petty and spiteful way.

Trotsky letter 7WIL's theoretical magazine, Workers' International News, July 1941 / Image: Ted Grant Archive

The letter of the WIL was not read out. Instead, Cannon delivered a diatribe against the WIL for having split, allegedly, over mere personal grievances. Cannon delivered a vicious and lying diatribe against the WIL, which he accused of “sectarian nationalism”. This was entirely false, as Cannon knew very well.

In conclusion, Cannon advocated recognition of the RSL as the official British section. This proposal was naturally accepted, and since the delegates had been given a whole series of lies, the WIL’s request for sympathetic affiliation was rejected. As a result of these manoeuvres, the WIL was unjustly censured. “All purely national groupings”, the official statement read, “all those who reject international organisation, control and discipline, are in their essence reactionary.”

When Cannon wrote a report for Trotsky about the Fourth International’s founding conference, he gave a dishonest and distorted version of his visit to Britain and the fusion conference and gave the following assessment of the WIL:

“The Militant group in the past six months had suffered from an unfortunate split led by Lee which resulted in the creation of another group without any principled grounds for the split (the Workers’ International News). This could only introduce confusion and demoralization—the more so since both groups work exclusively in the Labour Party. At the same time, the Liverpool branch had withdrawn from the Militant group on opportunistic lines. (…)

“In the London conference, a week later, I had their support [the Edinburgh group] from the start for a general unification. This undoubtedly exerted considerable pressure on the [CLR] James group.

“The political resolution accepted as a basis for unification provided that the main emphasis should be placed on work in the Labour Party without making Labour Party membership compulsory upon those comrades who have not been members up till now. This at least provides a definite orientation for the united group. It was the maximum possible. It seems to me that the most important thing, if we could at least get a correct orientation, was to bring all the comrades together and get them in the habit of functioning in one organization which would be firmly affiliated to the Fourth International. We carried on a strong crusade against irresponsible splits and made it clear that the international conference would do away with the possibility of a multiplicity of groups, and recognize only one section in each country. (…)

“The Lee group consists of about thirty, mostly youngsters, who have been deeply poisoned with personal antagonism to the leadership of the Militant group. They attempted to obstruct the unification but were pounded mercilessly at the unification conference, and their ranks were badly shaken. Their attitude was condemned by the international conference.

“Shachtman, during his visit to England, also had a session with this group. His opinion is the same as mine—that they will have to submit to the international decision and come into the united British section or suffer a split. It is only necessary for the British section to take a firm and resolute stand in regard to this group, and in no case to acknowledge its legitimacy. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. The English comrades, alas, are gentlemen. They are not accustomed to our ‘brutal’ (i.e. Bolshevik) treatment of groups who play with splits.” (James P. Cannon, Impressions of the Founding Conference, October 12, 1938, in Joseph Hansen, James P. Cannon – The Internationalist, July 1980.)

Cannon’s Zinovievist methods

Lenin said that spite in politics plays the most despicable role. He was referring to Stalin in his Testament – another document that was suppressed deliberately for factional reasons. But spitefulness was also a feature of the psychology and methodology of Zinoviev.

It is not generally realised that the vicious campaign of lies and slanders directed against Trotsky after Lenin’s death was launched, not by Stalin, but by Zinoviev, who was motivated purely by personal prestige. He was convinced that he was the rightful heir to Lenin, and he was jealous of Trotsky and bitterly resented the enormous prestige that he had won in the ranks of the Bolshevik party and the working class as a result of his decisive role in the October revolution in the Civil War that followed it.

Later on, Zinoviev and Kamenev broke with Stalin, and went over to Trotsky’s Left Opposition. But Zinoviev never abandoned his unprincipled methods, substituting organisational intrigue for an honest fight for political ideas. His complete lack of principle was finally exposed when he capitulated to Stalin, following the expulsion of the Left Opposition in 1927.

James Cannon played an important role in assisting the building of the Left Opposition, following his break with Stalin in 1928. He had a long history in the workers’ movement, was a talented agitator and an organiser. Of all the early leaders of the Fourth International, he was probably the most able. But Cannon, like Zinoviev and Stalin, was never a theoretician.

He not only admitted it, but was actually proud of it. He said: “I brought down my heavy hand against anybody ever calling me a theoretician. I called myself an agitator.” (Cannon, Writings, 1940-43, p. 360.) Cannon overlooks the little detail that Lenin and Trotsky, the leaders of the Bolshevik Party, were theoreticians first and foremost.

Cannon belongs to a long list of self-proclaimed “proletarian” revolutionaries who conceal their theoretical ignorance behind a false façade of “workerism”. In place of theory they peddle bad agitation. Behind their assumed attitude of contempt for theory and intellectuals, there lies a deep-seated feeling of inferiority that conceals a burning desire to be a master, not only of the art of organizational intrigue and manoeuvres, but also a master of theory – something that, alas, always escapes them. There is no more dangerous animal in the revolutionary movement than a man who is not a theoretician, and thinks that he ought to be.

Cannon was a Zinovievist, and in his organisational methods he remained a Zinovievist all is life. He effectively admits to this in his autobiography:

“The writings of the Left Opposition under Trotsky were suppressed. We got only faint snatches of them here and there and I, like every other leader of the American party in those days, could be said to be a Zinovievist. We were taken in by that campaign of the troika [against Trotsky].”

And again:

I would say it would be very safe to say at that time I was a Zinovievist in the sense that every other leader of the party was, in the sense that they were taking for good coin the whole line from Moscow and not examining it too critically.”

(Cannon, Writings 1945-47, p.187, my emphasis, AW.)

Zinovievism is a crude caricature of Bolshevism that elevates one side of Lenin’s ideas (the need for a strong, disciplined and centralised revolutionary organisation) while ignoring or minimising the importance of theory and ideas. Zinovievist tendencies are regrettably present in many groups that today pretend to stand under the banner of Trotskyism. These tendencies played a very pernicious role in the degeneration of the Fourth International, and ultimately its complete liquidation.

James Cannon’s Zinovievist methods were evident from the very beginning – a fact which was well known to Trotsky, who on more than one occasion repudiated them. Cannon’s conduct in regard to the British Trotskyists was a classic example of those methods. His aim was to establish complete domination. Anyone who dared to contradict him was treated as an enemy to be driven out of the movement. The very language he uses is full of the most poisonous spite. The following is a choice example:

“All the crimes and mistakes of this rotten-to-the-core Haston faction are directly traceable to its origin as an unprincipled clique in 1938. When I was in England a little later that year, on the eve of the First World Congress, I denounced the Lee-Haston faction as tainted by unprincipledness at its birth. I never had a bit of confidence in them throughout their subsequent development, regardless of what theses they wrote or voted for at the moment.” (Cannon, Speeches to the Party, pp.296-297, 6 April 1953.)

Writing about the split in Britain, he states:

“The split in the English movement [1938] was not explicable on political grounds. It did untold damage to the movement and left it in a weakened position even today, after the unification finally brought about by the intervention and pressure of the international movement.” (Cannon, Writings and Speeches 1945-47, p. 61.)

This is a blatant lie. Cannon was well aware of the political differences that separated the WIL from the other groups that he pushed into a premature and unprincipled unification. The comrades of the WIL – as we have seen – warned him that such “unity” would not last five minutes, and they were shown to be correct. During the Second World War, in an equally unprincipled manoeuvre, Cannon arbitrarily withdrew recognition from the “official” section (the RSL) and recognised the WIL, because the latter had grown much more successfully during the war.

Despite everything, the SWP for years perpetuated the legend that there were “no political differences” between the RSL and the WIL. In the notes to Trotsky’s Writings, 1938-39, p. 405, note 238, we read the following:

“The Lee Group came into existence in 1938 as a result of purely personal grievances and had no discernible political program. Millie Lee was a South African and a former member of the CP.”

In this note it is difficult to see what is worse: political distortion or sheer ignorance. The author of this lamentable note does not even know that the leader of the WIL was not Millie Lee, but her husband, Ralph Lee, although Millie undoubtedly played a very active role in the group.

A note in Cannon’s Writings and Speeches reads as follows: “Cannon went to England in 1938, prior to the founding conference of the Fourth International, as a representative of the International Secretariat with the object of promoting a fusion of the four then-existing Trotskyist groups. He succeeded in uniting three of these to form the Revolutionary Socialist League (these were the Revolutionary Socialist Party; the Marxist Group, led by C.L.R. James; and the Militant Group). The RSL was represented at the founding conference of the FI and was recognised as the British section. The Workers' International League, led by Ralph Lee and Jock Haston, refused to join the united movement and boycotted the founding congress of the FI. Under pressure from the world movement, the RSL and WIL fused in 1944 to form the Revolutionary Communist Party.” (My emphasis, AW)

This is yet another lie. As we have seen, the WIL did not boycott the founding congress of the Fourth International. Although the WIL were formally outside the Fourth International, they regarded themselves as part of the world Trotskyist movement. They were in full agreement with the programme and principles of the Fourth International as expounded by Trotsky.

Trotsky’s attitude to the WIL

Despite Cannon’s systematic campaign of falsification, it is clear that Trotsky had an entirely different attitude. He was prepared to be patient, and to wait and see which group in Britain would really represent the future of the Fourth International. For the time being, he was reserving judgement. But in the few references he makes to the WIL, he studiously avoided any criticism.

If Trotsky had been convinced that they were, in fact, “sectarian nationalists”, he would have undoubtedly attacked them in the strongest language. Early in 1939, CLR James gave a report of the British Trotskyist groups to Trotsky. Having described the problems in the official group, he went on to comment on what he calls Lee’s group in the Labour Party (i.e. the WIL):

“There is also another group – Lee’s group in the Labour Party – which refused to have anything to do with fusion, saying that it was bound to fail. The Lee group is very active.” (Trotsky, Writings, 1938-39, p. 250)

Trotsky listened attentively but made no comment. He did not condemn the Lee group, but had a wait-and-see approach. After all, in the previous year he had enthusiastically commended their efforts in publishing his pamphlet on Spain and on acquiring a printing press. In an interview with Sam Bornstein, Ted Grant pointed out that:

“The important thing to remember is that Trotsky never attacked the WIL in the whole of his writings. He was waiting to see what was going to happen. He knew [how] Cannon and those people behaved. He had experience of them, and therefore Trotsky never attacked us. (...) He wrote praising us, praising our getting a press, praising the introduction that Lee and I wrote to the pamphlet Lessons of Spain.”

Ted remembered their joy when they read a letter from Trotsky – precisely the letter which we have now found – congratulating them on publishing this pamphlet, in which he emphasized how important it was for a revolutionary organization to have its own printing press, independent of capitalist establishments. From this it is clear that Trotsky was following the work of the WIL with interest, and was receiving regular material from them.

Trotsky letter 4WIL's Trotsky Memorial meeting, August 1942 / Image: Ted Grant Archive

Although formally outside the International, Ted and the others still continued to regard themselves as part of it. “We saw ourselves as the bastard child of the International”, he explained. They were confident that sooner or later they would be recognized as the rightful British section. History proved them right. As we have seen, the “unified” group started to break up as soon as the conference was over.

In the meantime, the WIL continued to make steady progress, winning over workers, members of the ILP, Communist Party and the Labour Party, and even from the RSL, which was reduced to an insignificant rump. In the end, as we have seen, Cannon was obliged to ditch the moribund RSL and recognise the WIL as the official section of the Fourth International in Britain. Even after that, however, he did not cease his destructive intrigues and manoeuvres against the leadership of the British section, which finally led to a new split and the destruction of the section after the Second World War.

We should add that Cannon was not the only one responsible for the shipwreck of the Fourth. He was not the worst of the so-called leaders who came to the fore after the death of Trotsky. The others were no better, and most of them were far worse. Pablo, Mandel, Pierre Frank, Livio Maitan – had all of Cannon’s defects and none of his virtues. Not one of them was up to the level demanded by history. Between them, they reduced the International to dust.

Falsification is a crime

Letters can be lost in the post, destroyed, mislaid, or even forgotten in a box in an attic. But in this case, the disappearance of Trotsky’s letter was not an accident, but a deliberate act of political falsification. This is, of course, a very serious allegation. Leon Trotsky conducted an implacable struggle against historical falsification, which is a Stalinist and Zinovievist method that is quite alien to the traditions of Bolshevism. It is, in one word, a crime.

What evidence do we have for this assertion? In the investigation of any crime, it is necessary to establish a motive and an opportunity. Cannon’s motivation in this affair can be stated very simply. He was motivated above all by an obsession with his personal prestige. He regarded himself as the principal leader of the world Trotskyist movement, second only to Trotsky himself. He was well known to be arrogant and intolerant of any opposition or criticism. These are very serious faults in anyone who pretends to be a revolutionary leader.

Trotsky letter 2Leaflet for WIL's Trotsky Memorial meeting, August 1942 / Image: Ted Grant Archive

While Trotsky paid tribute to Cannon’s undoubted talents, especially in the organisational sphere, he never approved of Cannon’s organisational methods. At the time of the split in the SWP over the attitude towards the Soviet Union, when Shachtman and others bent to the pressure of the petty bourgeoisie and accepted the false theory of state capitalism, Cannon came down in defence of Trotsky’s position, which undoubtedly was correct. But Trotsky warned Cannon not to use administrative measures against the minority, or to try to push Shachtman out of the organisation. That was nevertheless precisely what he did.

As for opportunity, Cannon had every opportunity in the world to suppress a letter, or any other document or article he considered to be inconvenient from his point of view. The fact that the missing letter is not to be found in Trotsky’s archives in Harvard University is yet another indication of how far Cannon and Hansen were prepared to go in falsifying the historical record. There is every reason to believe Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson, when they complain that there must be many documents of Trotsky that are missing for exactly that reason.

The fact that Bornstein and Richardson were certainly not favourably disposed to Ted Grant and the WIL, means that they can be cited as reliable witnesses to the fact that Cannon and his supporters deliberately suppressed the letter that Trotsky wrote praising the work of the WIL for factional reasons. In their book War and the International. A History of the Trotskyist Movement in Britain 1937-1949, we read the following:

“Particularly glaring are the gaps in the writings of L.D. Trotsky, showing that even the more comprehensive collections of his works on Britain can only claim to be the barest selections. In at least one instance, we are probably justified in claiming that a document has been suppressed in the interests of factional considerations.” (War and the International, p. xi, my emphasis, AW.)

What letter are they referring to? They explain:

“Among the letters sent by Trotsky to Sumner at this time was one congratulating the WIL for the preface to its edition of his The Lessons of Spain: The Last Warning. It has yet to be published in the ‘Pioneer’ edition of the collected works of Trotsky’s last exile, for evident factional motives. C.f. J. Haston, Letter to Pablo (M. Raptis), 19th July, 1947, in the Internal Bulletin of the RCP, p.1.” (Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson, War and the International. A History of the Trotskyist Movement in Britain, 1937-1949, p.46, note 5, my emphasis, AW.)

The knot of history retied

I can understand that for many people outside our movement, it may seem strange that the appearance of a short letter, comprising just a few paragraphs, should cause such excitement. But the publication of any letter by Trotsky is always motive for celebration for those of us who remain firmly committed to the ideas he stood for and the cause for which he gave his entire life.

But for the members of the International Marxist Tendency, this letter represents far more than that. It is living proof of what Ted Grant, the founder of our movement, described as the Unbroken Thread that connects us to the real origins of revolutionary international Marxism. It is, as I stated at the 2018 World Congress of the IMT, our birth certificate. It links us directly to Leon Trotsky, and is a striking confirmation that the ideas and methods we defend had the approbation of that great man.

I was recently in New York where I attended a very successful school of the north-eastern branches of the US section of the IMT. The news of the letters had only recently been conveyed to the US comrades upon whom it made a deep impression. One veteran of the section said to me: “If I were inclined to religion, I would regard the survival of this letter as a small miracle.”

These words do not contain an atom of exaggeration. One can think of dozens of reasons why this letter should never have seen the light of day. It has travelled from Coyoacan in Mexico to London, from London to Istanbul, from the Turkish capital to Boston and then to New York, where it lay for many years, forgotten in a box in an attic, and finally, after such an incredible odyssey, it found its way to the correct destination after a delay of precisely 80 years. In the history of the world’s postal services, this must feature among the most extraordinary deliveries ever recorded.

Ted Grant once told me that before the Second World War, there was a comrade in our ranks who had been a member of the First, Second, Third and Fourth internationals. Regrettably, I never met this comrade. He died long before I joined this tendency in 1960. But for us it is a matter of great pride that we can trace our political ancestry back, through Trotsky in the Transitional Programme, the International Left Opposition, Lenin and the Bolshevik party, right back to the ideas of Marx and Engels, the First International and the Communist Manifesto, which today remains the most relevant contemporary document in the world.

For those of us who have had the privilege and the honour of working and fighting for the building of a genuine Trotskyist international, the discovery of the missing letter was a very moving and inspiring experience. It was like finding the last piece of the colossal jigsaw puzzle, where finally everything fits into place. But this moment of triumph was at the same time a moment filled with a tragic realisation.

Ted Grant was forever rightly insisting on the need to understand who we are, and where we have come from. He often spoke on the history of the tendency, (although for reasons of time, he never succeeded in going further than 1949). And every time Ted spoke on this subject, he never once failed to mention this letter. If only Ted could have lived to see it. He would have been overjoyed. Sadly, that was not to be.

The wheels of history move so slowly, while the biological clock that governs the lives of men and women is remorseless. We are born, we live and we die. But the cause of the working class is immortal, and that cause is greater than any individual life. The struggle continues, and will continue until the moment of final victory. It is to that cause that we dedicate ourselves, in the full and absolute confidence that it will triumph.

Today, 80 years after its foundation, the Fourth International no longer exists as an organization. The myriad of squabbling sects who lay claim to its name do nothing except to discredit the name of Trotskyism in the eyes of the most advanced workers and youth who are seeking the road to the socialist revolution. Trotsky handed us a clean banner. The petty bourgeois Zinovievists have stained and discredited it. We have turned our backs decisively on them.

But the International still exists today. Its flame burns more brightly than ever, and it is even more necessary today than ever. It exists in the ideas, programme and principles laid down by Leon Trotsky, which in essence are the same ideas that were proclaimed by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto, the same ideas as those of Lenin and the Bolshevik Party, the same ideas that led the Russian workers to victory in 1917, the same ideas that were enshrined in the documents of the first four congresses of the Communist International.

Today those ideas are defended by the International Marxist Tendency, which is proud to trace its ancestry right back to the origins of Trotsky. This gives us the right to say to the whole world: this is our banner, our heritage and our tradition. And this is what fills us with the confidence we need to carry the struggle to the end. 


Trotsky letter 9

Click here to read Ralph Lee and Ted Grant's introduction to "The Lessons of Spain", which Trotsky himself praised in his long-suppressed letter to the WIL.

You can also read the full text of Trotsky's "The Lessons of Spain: The Last Warning (1937)" here.

Ted and Ralph's introduction is included in Ted Grant's Collected Writings Vol. I: 1938-42 and The Unbroken Thread, both available from WellRed Books!