Trotskyism in May 1945: Down with the Churchill Coalition! Labour to Power on a Socialist Programme!

The media have just finished celebrating the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. We would like to remind our readers of an important event that took place around the same time, the Neath by-election on 15th May 1945. For the first time in Britain, a Trotskyist party, the Revolutionary Communist Party, contested a Parliamentary election. The seat was solid Labour, but the vote for the RCP was significant. Even more significant was the way the party was able to link up with the most advanced workers and youth.

Sixty years ago in the closing stages of the Second World War, and for the first time in Britain, a Trotskyist party contested a Parliamentary election. This was the little known Neath by-election on 15th May 1945.

The Trotskyists at this time were organised in the Revolutionary Communist Party, a small party established in March 1944. Unlike today’s “revolutionary” grouplets that water down their programme in the most opportunist and reformist fashion, the RCP was not out to win cheap votes, but to raise the fundamental tasks of the working class in the clearest, sharpest and most principled way. The party’s platform was uncompromisingly revolutionary:

“In the whole course of the war”, proclaimed the party’s paper, the Socialist Appeal of January 1945, “not a single election has been fought wherein a direct revolutionary appeal has been made to the electorate. The Revolutionary Communist Party will make this election a test of the real feelings in the ranks of the working class. Our candidate will fight on a platform of uncompromising hostility to the imperialist war, for the breaking of the Coalition, for the overthrow of the Churchill Government and for Labour to take power on a Socialist platform...

“The Trotskyist candidate will fight the election on the basis of international socialism; he will conduct his fight on the traditions of the great socialist teachers of our time – Marx, Lenin, Liebknecht and Trotsky. For the overthrow and destruction of Nazism as well as the monarchist and capitalist quislings and governments set up by Anglo-American imperialism in ‘liberated’ territories. Land to the peasants and factories to the workers throughout Europe and the world! Not the military domination of Europe by the Allied imperialist armies, but a United Socialist States of Europe. In particular he will appeal for a hand of friendship and fraternity to the German working class for the overthrow of Hitler and the establishment of the Socialist brotherhood of European nations – Against Vansittartism – against reparations, against blockade and revenge on the German working class.”

The Revolutionary Communist Party was formed from the unification of two Trotskyist groups, the remnants of the ineffective Revolutionary Socialist League (the official section of the 4th International) and the much larger and successful Workers’ International League, which had developed a significant industrial base. Its founding conference deliberately chose the name Revolutionary Communist Party in contrast to the pro-war “Communist” Party, which it dubbed “His Majesty’s Communist Party”.

Ever since its inception, the young party had been subjected to a witch-hunt by the gutter press as well as persecution by the forces of the state. Led by the reactionary Daily Mail, which only a few years earlier had been a vigorous supporter of Sir Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists, the press had accused the newly-formed RCP of being responsible for the “present discontent in the coalfields and other sections of industry by poisoning the miners’ minds both against their own leaders and the government.” They referred to the Trotskyists as “Stalin-haters”, after the Mail had switch from Hitler to become a fervent admirer of Joseph Stalin, and urged the government to take firm action against these militant “trouble-makers”.

The Churchill government swiftly obliged with Special Branch raids on the headquarters of the RCP and members’ homes in Nottingham, Glasgow and Newcastle. At that time the party was giving assistance to apprentices in Tyneside in their opposition to the Bevin Boy scheme, which forced young workers into the mines. Four leaders of the RCP, including its general secretary Jock Haston, were framed and arrested on charges of furtherance of an illegal strike, conspiracy and incitement. They were imprisoned under the Trades Dispute Act of 1927, brought in after the betrayal of the 1926 General Strike, the first and only time the Act was used in Britain.

Eventually, they were released on appeal on 23rd August 1944 after a successful Labour movement campaign involving Aneurin Bevan MP, James Maxton MP, S.O. Davies MP, Sidney Silverman MP, and others. Such was the success of the campaign that the protests, to the alarm of the government, even reached into the Armed Forces.

Throughout the war, the Trotskyists consistently and heroically put forward a revolutionary programme in the pages of its newspaper Socialist Appeal. Its banner heading “Our Programme for Power” proclaimed:

“An end to the coalition with the bosses. Labour and trade union leaders must break with the capitalist government and wage a campaign for power on the following programme:

  1. Immediate despatch of arms and material to the Soviet Union under the control of the trades unions and factory committees.
  2. Nationalisation of the land, mines, banks, transport and all big industry without compensation.
  3. Confiscation of all war profits – all company books to be open for trade union inspection.
  4. Workers’ control of production to be exercised through workers’ committees to end chaos and mismanagement in industry.
  5. Equal distribution of food, clothes and other consumers’ commodities under the control of committees of workers elected from the distributive trades, factories, housewives’ committees and small shopkeepers.
  6. Sliding scale of wages to meet the increased cost of living with a guaranteed minimum.
  7. Repeal of the Essential Works Order and all other anti-working class and strikebreaking laws.
  8. Clear out the reactionary pro-fascist officer caste in the army and Home Guard. Election of officers by the soldiers. Trade union wages for all workers in the armed forces.
  9. Establishment of military academies by the trade unions at the expense of the state for the training of worker-officers.
  10. Arming of the workers under control of committees of workers elected in factories, unions and in the streets against the danger of invasion or Petainism.
  11. Freedom for Ireland, India and the colonies
  12. A socialist appeal to the workers of Germany and Europe on the basis of this programme in Britain to join the socialist struggle against Hitler for the Socialist United States of Europe.”

This programme constituted an application of Trotsky’s “proletarian military policy”, which allowed the Trotskyists to re-orientate themselves to the new situation of world war. Trotsky explained that in the present context it was incorrect to advance the old slogan of revolutionary defeatism – the defeat of “one’s own” imperialism – in a crude fashion. He explained that while Lenin had advocated this position in the First World War, it was in a different context aimed at the advanced guard and not the broad masses. The workers’ vanguard was taken totally unawares by the betrayal of the leaders of the Second International and their capitulation before their separate national bourgeoisies. Lenin was therefore attempting to combat chauvinism and educate the revolutionary cadres in the spirit of internationalism.

In the circumstances of the Second World War, it would have been completely wrong to give any impression to workers that the Trotskyists favoured support for the “enemy” imperialism, especially given the justifiable hatred of British workers for Hitler and the Nazis. This would have constituted a ridiculous inverted chauvinism, a position advocated by the Revolutionary Socialist League – which doomed it as a sect vegetating in the environment of the bedroom.

While the RCP opposed the imperialist war, which it regarded as a continuation of the First World War, it refused to put forward a pacifist or “peace” programme, which had no appeal for workers faced with Hitler’s armies. Instead, the Trotskyists exposed the war aims of the imperialists, who supported Hitler when it suited them, and advocated instead a genuine revolutionary “war against fascism”. Such a war could not be fought under the leadership of Churchill and the capitalists, but only when capitalism was overthrown and the working class were in power. This military programme served to connect with the advanced class-conscious layers of the working class who distrusted Churchill but who wanted to fight fascism. This was especially the case after the fall of France in 1940 and the betrayal of the French ruling class.

The RCP’s programme also contrasted sharply with that of the so-called Communist Party, which, after the German invasion of the USSR in mid-1941, had become an open supporter of Churchill and the war effort. On the industrial front, the Stalinists opposed all strikes and became the most blatant strikebreakers. All work stoppages were denounced as a betrayal of the war effort, while class collaboration became the key platform of the “Communists”. As a consequence, the Trotskyists were labelled by the Stalinists as agents of Hitler, who must be driven out of the workplaces. On the electoral front, the CP became the most ardent chauvinists (“the only good German is a dead German”) and as well as an enthusiastic cheerleader for the Coalition government.

“For Labour to fight by-elections where the government candidate is a Tory is not the way forward,” stated the “Communist” Party. “Everything that Labour does must be directed towards strengthening national unity. To fight elections on the Labour versus Tory basis would open up issues that divide.” The Stalinists fully supported the wartime political truce, whereby if a by-election occurred, the party holding the seat simply nominated a candidate and the others agreed not to stand.

The Trotskyists were determined to expose this myth of “national unity”. An important opportunity came in early 1945 when a by-election was called in Neath, South Wales, after the death of the sitting MP. This would allow the RCP to enter the electoral field and engage in mass work to contrast their programme with those of the other pro-war parties.

South Wales was regarded as a fertile area for the RCP for a number of reasons. First of all, the area was traditionally a stronghold of both Labour and Communist Parties. But with Labour in a Coalition with Churchill and the “Communist” Party loyal to the Coalition, this alienated many advanced workers, a layer of whom could be attracted to a revolutionary alternative. The militant traditions of the South Wales working class were also reflected in the high level of unofficial strikes, especially in the coal industry. Of the thirty pits in South Wales, which, during the war experienced more than five stoppages, twenty were in the anthracite district of West Wales. Under these circumstances, the strikebreaking actions of the “Communists” served to repel the best militants. While the RCP had no illusions in winning the seat (where Labour had a huge majority), it hoped to connect with the socialist and class-conscious traditions and undermine the position of the “Communist” Party in South Wales.

The announcement of the RCP to stand Jock Haston, its general secretary, as its candidate in Neath badly stung the “Communist” Party. The West Wales CP sent a letter to the local Evening Post denouncing the RCP: “In contrast to their policy of disunity and strikes the Communist Party stands for national unity of all people who are for the defeat of Germany and for a people’s peace... We call upon the people to reject the policy of these proved enemies of the workers, as their policy is definitely opposed to the present and future interests of the working class.”

The RCP hit back by challenging the Stalinised “Communist” Party through the press to a public debate to back up their slanders, but they constantly refused. This was followed by Haston’s speaking tour throughout the constituency, beginning at the Miners’ Welfare Hall in Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen, the heart of the anthracite coalfield. Chaired by local miner John “Crown” Jones, a new Trotskyist recruit, Haston exposed the counter-revolutionary role of Churchill and the British Labour and trade union leaders in Greece and Europe. “The workers of Britain”, he said, “must show that their internationalism is based on ‘Workers of the World Unite’ by clasping the hands of the workers of Europe and Germany and forcing their leaders to break the coalition.” The report in the Socialist Appeal told of “a magnificent response” and “growing demand for our pamphlets.” By early February 150 copies of “ABC of Trotskyism” had been sold. More meetings were planned with Haston, Ted Grant, the editor of Socialist Appeal, Ajit Roy and a Greek revolutionary.

The “Communist” Party kept churning out the lies about fascist agents and traded blows about the Moscow Trials. However, the RCP contrasted their proud role of being prepared to go to prison for their class at a time when the CP was engaged in class collaboration and strikebreaking.

Practically the whole of the RCP’s membership, some 400 comrades, were mobilised to help in the campaign, coming to Neath whenever they could, sleeping on floors, and donating whatever money they could. Small offices were rented in Alfred Street, Neath, which were a hive of activity. Such was the impact of the campaign that members of the local ILP volunteered to help, and some were to join the RCP after the election.

The CP instead volunteered to help the Labour campaign, but this was rejected. Nevertheless, they continued to attack the Trotskyists. “Thus the Trotskyists are not fighting for Socialism. Their fight is a fight to save Fascism. They are the Agents of Fascism in the ranks of the working class. They are Wolves in Sheep’s clothing. They are a greater menace and far more dangerous than a Fascist paratrooper.” They poured out a stream of abuse in a series of leaflets and a pamphlet entitled “Trounce the Trotskyists”.

The fierce response of the RCP to these attacks was continually concluded with a challenge to the CP to debate. Over time, this was having a big effect within the Stalinist ranks. Election meetings of the RCP were large by any standards, but especially in comparison with those of the Labour Party and the Welsh nationalists, who were also standing. “More and more workers are beginning to talk about our programme. Go into any café or pub and the subject under discussion is the by-election – the difference between the Trotskyists and the Stalinists”, commented a report in the Socialist Appeal.

The CP held a public meeting in late April on the subject “Trounce the Trotskyists”, with 300 present. A week later 750 attended an RCP meeting in the Gwyn Hall, Neath. It was the biggest meeting so far of the election campaign and was addressed by Ted Grant, Bob Condon, Miners’ Agent Cannock Chase, and Jock Haston. “We have opposed this war from the beginning. This is a war for profits. The working class can only fight fascism by taking power into its own hands”, stated Haston.

Mounting pressure within the ranks of the CP for a debate with the Trotskyists was now forcing the hands of the leadership. Eventually they had no alternative but to relent. The debate took place on the eve of the poll. “The greatest mass rally of Neath workers to be held in the Gwyn Hall since 1929, when Ramsay Macdonald addressed the meeting, took place on Sunday, May 13th, convened in support of Comrade Jock Haston, the Revolutionary Communist Party Candidate”, reported the Socialist Appeal.

Some 1,500 workers packed into the debate, where Alun Thomas, leader of the West Wales CP, took on Jock Haston. Hundreds were left outside as the hall reached capacity. Thomas, behind a giant banner “Long Live the 4th International”, opened by saying that it was not the usual policy of the CP to debate with Trotskyists. Unfortunately, he said, there were some politically backward people in Neath who had been persuaded by the demagogy of Haston. He went on to defend the class-collaborationist record of the CP and explained that the Moscow Trials had proved conclusively that the Trotskyists were fascists. “Haston wants to hasten things. He has never said Hitler was wrong. He has never said anything against Hitler... Haston and Hitler are the only two who are right... Haston has come to this election to confuse and split the workers.” He concluded, to the shock of much of the audience: “In Russia they defeated fascism because they shot all the Trotskyists and the Fifth column scum, and if we had our way, these people on this platform would be shot.”

Haston opened his reply by saying that Thomas’ statement about it not being the CP’s policy to debate with Trotskyists was the only true part of his speech. However, the CP had been forced to debate.

He then went on to deal with the Moscow frame-up trials, the CP’s policy of “peace on Hitler’s’ terms”, the Stalin-Hitler Pact, Third Period Stalinism where the CP advocated the physical smashing of Labour meetings, the expulsion of Trotskyists for advocating a united front to defeat Hitler, the bureaucratisation of the USSR, and the capitulation of the CP to Churchill and reformism.

Throughout the debate, Haston was assisted ably by Ted Grant who was busy handing Jock relevant quotations from the Stalinist press used to crush Thomas’ arguments.

“In the course of this campaign”, stated Haston, “we have attempted to raise the fundamental political issues before the working class. Anyone who has studied the literature distributed by ‘His Majesty’s Communist Party’ or attended their meetings will find concentrated slander but no political attack.”

On election day the RCP managed to achieve a magnificent 1,781 votes for revolutionary communism. The Socialist Appeal supplement brought out soon afterwards explained under the headline “Trotskyism Lays Roots in Wales”:

“The advanced section of Neath workers demonstrated by their vote that they want an end of the policy of class collaboration and reformism pursued by their leaders, and are demanding a fighting policy against the capitalist class.

“At a time when the policy of international socialism is under violent attack from not only the capitalist class, but from every section of the Labour and Stalinist movement, the fact that in a small area of Wales, 1,781 workers voted for a policy of revolutionary socialism, holds out great hope for the future of the working class movement. This vote was cast in face of the bitterest and most hysterical slander campaign to be seen in an election for many years.”

As expected the Labour Party polled over 30,000, which still reflected the great loyalty of workers to Labour, while the nationalists gained some 6,000 votes. The RCP’s vote was qualitatively different, representing the most class-conscious workers looking for a clear Trotskyist lead. Even then, the RCP never had a sectarian approach to the mass organisations, unlike the sects of today. “The discussions with Labour Party members were always on the plane of how best to change the Labour Party policy by fighting from within”, stated the Socialist Appeal. “We explained that in the General Election when the Labour Party was standing on an independent platform we would call on the workers to support the Labour Party and vote Labour. We would not create the illusion that the Labour Party could solve the problems of the working class with its programme of reforms. Throughout the campaign we would put forward our alternative policy as the only solution to the problems of the working class.”

Over £130 worth of literature – a massive figure in today’s terms – was sold in the three months of the campaign. Some 7,500 copies of the special February edition of Socialist Appeal were sold – approximately one to every three houses. Hundreds of copies of the “ABC of Trotskyism” were sold, in fact it was sold out, as well as many hundreds of other pamphlets. About 2,000 of each issue of the Socialist Appeal were sold and some 30,000 leaflets were distributed. There was chalking, whitewashing and billposting, paper selling, canvassing, speaking and endless contact work.

The RCP concluded in an internal report: “1,781 votes for a bold policy of class struggle and internationalism despite V.E. Day celebrations, Buchenwald horror campaigns, the high pressure slander efforts of the Stalinism, and the very strong Labour traditions of the Welsh workers is sufficient proof of the existence of this... (revolutionary) tendency... what votes we did get were definitely votes against the Labour Party as a programme and for the policy of Revolutionary Communism.”

In the Socialist Appeal supplement, the party summed up the whole experience: “What is the lasting achievement of the campaign? It can be seen already in the heightening of the political consciousness of organised Labour in this area. To the older generation of workers, embittered and disillusioned by the repeated betrayals of Reformism and Stalinism our campaign for Revolutionary Socialism brought a new inspiration and revived the will to struggle. To the working youth from the mines and the factories, hundreds of whom listened with rapt attention to Comrade Haston and our speakers, our campaign came as a rousing call to prepare themselves by study and understanding for the great class battles of our epoch. Trotskyism has found its roots in Wales. But its richest harvest will be reaped in the years to come. Our campaign has begun the process of unifying the mighty power and fighting capacity of Welsh Labour with the ideas and principles of militant Socialism – of Trotskyism. Out of this combination will be born a new fighting leadership – a tower of strength for the entire working class movement in Britain in the coming struggle for Power.”

Although the heroic work of the RCP did not result in the building of a mass Trotskyist party, mainly for objective reasons, the party laid down great traditions. Today, we stand on the shoulders of those comrades who did so much. In particular, the work of comrade Ted Grant, the political secretary of the RCP as well as its key theoretician, provided the unbroken thread of Trotskyism throughout those years to the present day. Even now, in his advanced years, Ted helps to educate and train the new generation of comrades. Today, we can find inspiration in the Neath by-election and the past struggles of the Trotskyist movement. To quote Jock Haston’s closing remark to the pre-election mass rally: “Long live the International solidarity of the working class! Workers of all lands unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains. You have a world to win!”

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