The History of British Trotskyism: An Overview, 1940s to 1960s

Submitted by AWL on 28 May, 2009 - 3:24 Author: Sean Matgamna

In part 4 of his series on “Misunderstandings, misrepresentations, and lies about the AWL” Sean Matgamna gives an overview of the Trotskyist movement from the 1940s to the 1960s.


Click here for part 2 of this article.
Where does AWL come from?

We started as Workers’ Fight, a group that emerged in 1966-7 as a response to the crisis of the British and international Trotskyist movement. In Britain then there were four main revolutionary left groupings.

• The Socialist Labour League was far and away the biggest and most active. (It would later rename itself WRP, degenerate hugely, and collapse altogether in 1985).

• The RSL (Militant; today the Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal) was much smaller, and a great deal less active and less ambitious than the SLL.

• IS (today SWP) was growing, but in terms of activity and “presence” was not much “bigger” than Militant, and very much less than the SLL. Like the SLL and RSL, it had come out of the 1940s “orthodox Trotskyist” current, WIL/RCP, which broke up in 1947-50.

• The fourth grouping was The Week, the future IMG (today ISG, a small group within George Galloway’s “Respect”). It had had a faltering existence of sorts since the end of the 1950s, initially as a sub-grouping with primary loyalty to the Pablo-Mandel International within Militant/ RSL, who were affiliated to that International from 1956 to 1965. There were a number of other very small groups.

What was wrong with those four groupings?

In order to understand the genesis of Workers’ Fight you have to know something about those four organisations which dominated revolutionary politics in Britain and whose organisational and political ancestors had done so for a quarter-century before Workers’ Fight was founded.

What had the four in common?

• Roots in the “orthodox” post-Trotsky Trotskyist movement of the 1940s.

• Theories and positions that were at variance with both common and dialectical sense, such as, for most of them, the idea that Russia was a “workers’ state”. Their theories therefore needed a certain amount of artificial help, organisational help, to remain in place. This was true of the odd one out, Tony Cliff’s IS, with its distinctive dogma of “bureaucratic state capitalism”, too.

• Until the SLL started to proclaim that it could quickly build a mass independent revolutionary movement, all four groups had been very much in the Labour Party. They had grounded their idea of the movement of the working class towards revolutionary socialism in notions of the future evolution of the Labour Party. They had all in the 1950s been very much crushed under the weight of post-1945 Labour hegemony. All the groups (until the SLL quit in 1964-5) were heavily involved in the Labour Party’s Young Socialists.

• All the groups, partially excepting the proto-IMG (The Week), were dominated overmuch by a central leadership. This was as true in IS as it was in the SLL with its “strong apparatus”, which IS then lacked. It worked differently in IS, but it “worked” there too, as an at that stage seemingly benign cult of Tony Cliff.

• With the exception of IS, they were were mono-factional cliquist-led organisations: certain political positions were enthroned, and changes or modification of position had to come, when they came, from certain people who brooked little or no opposition.

• All the groups — with the exception in part, perhaps, of the Pablo-Mandel people — were “economistic”. They looked to industrial action to bring with it political change. Again, this trait varied greatly in its weight and force from group to group and from time to time. By the mid-60s, IS had reached such a level of “economism” that functionally it was unable to distinguish between industrial militancy and political awareness.

• The groups had been heavily working-class in composition, though this had already changed and would change a great deal further by the mid-60s. IS was here the exception: its political ethos and leadership were upper “middle-class”.

• In terms of major political issues, the groups tended to move in a loose convoy, to operate a moving consensus.

All the groups of the 1960s originated from what had been a unified Trotskyist movement in the 1940s, called the WIL to 1944 and the RCP in 1944-9. What were the problems of the RCP, and how did it come to break up?

The political world after World War Two changed everything that had allowed the WIL/RCP to grow quite impressively during the war, when it was the militant revolutionary organisation, and the Russia-supporting Communist Party was to the right of the Labour Party leaders, fiercely denouncing strikes and strikers.

Labour was in power. It was carrying out serious reforms, and measures that were experienced by the workers involved as serious reforms, for example the nationalisation (state-capitalist, not socialist) of bankrupt and moribund industries such as coal and the railways.

In Europe a gigantic Russian Stalinist empire had been won during the war and consolidated after it, reaching as far as a hundred miles west of Berlin. Stalinism was winning victories in China and Vietnam. The Communist Party in Britain was now an oppositional force, and with prestige much enhanced by the Stalinist gains.

The RCP was no longer, so to speak, the only revolutionary game in town. Most important, though, was the theoretical and political disarming of the Trotskyists.

During World War Two the WIL/RCP had pretended, following the SWP-USA, that the raping and pillaging army of Stalin was “really” still the “Red Army of Leon Trotsky”. That might have been “smart” politics in the wartime world in which the “Red” Army, fighting the German-Nazi enemy, was immensely popular, and “Uncle Joe” (Stalin, the other Hitler or near-Hitler) was popular too. But the pretence was poisonous nonsense, and utterly disorienting.

The Trotskyists’ “perspectives” for what would occur during the war and follow from it had proved false. They expected Russian Stalinism to fall and, in the war, be replaced either by bourgeois counter-revolution or by a new working-class revolution (“political revolution”).

In fact, Stalinism had survived and spread. In terms of what seemed to be fundamental things — overthrowing capitalism — the Stalinists were revolutionaries. They had an enormous dominance in the affairs of the working class in Western Europe. In France and Italy they seemed on the verge of taking power: they were in coalition governments in those countries until 1947.

The Stalinists had created, in many countries, as much (nationalised property, etc.) as, according to the “degenerated workers’ state” theory of the “orthodox” Trotskyists, “remained of the Russian revolution” under the ice-cap of totalitarian Stalinism

The “degenerated and deformed workers’ state”, “orthodox”, Trotskyists would take refuge from the issues in denunciation of the French and Italian Communist Parties because, in deference to Russian wartime and immediate post-war policies, they had not taken power after World War Two. They found “evidence” that Mao had not “really wanted to take power”, and that in 1946 and after the Chinese Stalinists had merely defended themselves against the assaults of Chiang Kai Shek.

But fundamentally, as against the enormous facts of Stalinist gains here, the Trotskyists were marginalised critics. In many countries, during and after the war, they were people who could be casually murdered by the Stalinists as they advanced. At best the Trotskyists offered a democratic working-class criticism of the Stalinist states. The Stalinist had immense accomplished facts to build on.

The Trotskyists had expected that during the war bourgeois democracy would be quickly destroyed in Britain and the USA, and on the basis of that expectation dismissed the difference between the democratic imperialisms and the fascists as being of no serious-term significance or importance to the orientation of the Trotskyists.

Trotsky had begun to offset that schematism in the “proletarian military policy”, a programme of working-class measures focused on beating the Nazis, but only begun. (Trotsky initiated that policy, and Cannon developed it, often using arguments that were not very well thought-out. Shachtman demolished much of Cannon’s argument, without in my view thereby settling the question: that there was a difference between bourgeois democracy and fascism, and a difference involving life or death for the labour movement).

With their “proletarian military policy”, the WIL/ RCP criticised the British ruling class as being unable to beat the Nazis or “secretly”, some of them, unwilling to do that.

The difference between the “proletarian military policy” and “revolutionary defencism” is, to the writer’s eyes, very hard to find. I think they were broadly correct in their policy. But it helped disorient their politics after the war, when the British and US ruling classes had indeed defeated Nazism and established bourgeois democracy in Western Europe.

The SLL

The SLL was the biggest group in the 1960s. Where did it come from?

The SLL had begun as a minority, led by Gerry Healy and John Lawrence, in the RCP. They operated in the RCP as the British supporters of the international leadership of the “Fourth International”, reorganised after World War Two as more or less a mono-tendency organisation. Essentially they were a British “branch dealership” of the international leadership’s politics. They had different from the majority of the RCP on a number of points.

They resisted the policy which the RCP leaders pioneered in the Fourth International in the mid and late 1940s of defining Russia’s new empire in Eastern Europe as “deformed workers’ states”. The “theorising” on Eastern Europe which the Healy group shaped with the Mandel-Pablo Fourth International and the SWP-USA was indeed lamentable, and it contained the seed of its own inversion after summer 1948. But the impulse to resist the conclusion that expanding Stalinist totalitarianism was a first stage in the working-class world revolution was healthy.

From 1945 the Healy group advocated the liquidation of the RCP as a public organisation and the full entry of the Trotskyists into the Labour Party. (The RCP leadership wanted to continue the WIL policy during World War Two, when, while still having a few people in the Labour Party and campaigning for a Labour government, the WIL built itself essentially from industrial militancy).

The Healy group denounced the “cliquism” of the RCP leadership — the shaping of political positions not according to the strict Marxist rule of political objectivity but by personal friendships and habits of mutual accommodation in the leading RCP group around Jock Haston, Ted Grant, and Millie Lee. Some such mutual accommodation and mutual valuing of each other is necessary to any team, but only within limits. The Healy group was to benefit greatly by the public exhibition of how far beyond legitimate necessity that trait existed in the RCP leadership when the RCP collapsed in 1949.

In 1947 the RCP divided in two, the Healy-Lawrence group and the others. The Healy Group went ahead with its project of working in the Labour Party, the RCP majority continued as an open organisation. This was an "amicabler" split organised by the leadership of the Fourth Internnational, with both British groups retaining their status as Sections of the Fourth International. The RCP continued to decline and fall apart. In mid-1949, the RCP formally dissolved, and its members joined the Labour Party and reunited with the Healy Group to form a single Section of the Fourth International.

Once all the Trotskyists were in the Labour Party (after 1949), a central difference between the others and the SLL (then called “The Club”) was whether the Trotskyists should confine themselves to general propaganda there, adapted to Labour Party conditions and Labour Party moods and with an eye to not getting banned from Labour Party membership; or also try to organise the broader Labour Party left on specific limited issues.

That difference in turn raised larger questions, because the broader left in the Labour Party was heavily infested with Stalinism of varying intensity and pervasiveness.

From the start the Healy-Lawrence group had advocated entry into the Labour Party as a way to link up with broader groups of leftists. They did that consistently and with some success, thereby preparing some of the ground for the qualitative breakthrough the organisation achieved when the Communist Party went into crisis in 1956-7. Some of the CPers then had some prior awareness of the “The Club” through its activity in calling conferences and so on; that helped “The Club”.

The other groups rejected the Healy-Lawrence perspective. They only joined the Labour Party when the RCP collapsed. They could still see no merit in the work the Healy group tried to do. They tried to continue inside the Labour Party as propagandists. The IS group (then called Socialist Review) would shift rather spectacularly on this, but not until 1953-4.

Isn’t the Healy group famous for having had a very harsh and brutal regime?

Yes. The weight of its “leadership” and of the character of the person at its centre, Gerry Healy, was offset up to a point by the resistance, weight, education, and accepted norms of the cadres of the organisation and of the organisation’s democratic process. At first, and into the 1960s, they exerted a restraining influence on Healy.

Elements of the notorious Healy regime can be found earlier than 1950, for instance in the group’s subordination of politics to existing organisational affiliations in its quick jumping into line with the Fourth International line when it changed on issues such as defining the new Stalinist states. But the regime took its real, characteristic shape when the elements of the RCP “reunified” in the Labour Party, from mid 1949.

What happened, specifically, in 1950, to divide the Trotskyists into three rival groups?

In 1949 the RCP majority decided to join the Labour Party, and the Trotskyists were “reunified” inside the Labour Party.

The internally-balancing, “Bonapartist” character of the leadership of the Healy group was perhaps rooted in the exigencies and problems of that “unification”.

There were still more members in the RCP segment than in the Healy segment of the organisation. Politically, none of the differences in the RCP had gone away — not even, in some all-shaping respects, the Labour Party questions. The RCP majority had collapsed into the Labour Party, most of them thinking it a misfortune that they were reduced to that; the “Club” had joined the Labour Party to do work there, and worked at organising a periphery around themselves on limited politics.

Under the terms of reorganisation for the first period after the 1949 reunification, up to the holding of the first “reunified” conference, the Healy group, the minority, would have a majority in the leading bodies of the “reunified” Trotskyists. It was their “tactic” — entry into the Labour Party to work there — that was being worked, and it followed that they should not relinquish control of that work to the RCP majority who had fought it for four or five years and were “refugees” in the Labour Party rather than infiltrated “soldiers” there to organise and fight the Establishment.

Odd though the “minority rule” provision was, the prime anomaly was not in that, but in the “reunification” of the segments of the RCP in conditions where the majority had not voluntarily come to agree with the perspective of organising in the Labour Party. The majority would have conducted the work of the organisation on a different approach, that of mere “internal” general propagandists in the Labour Party. That is how they conducted themselves after they separated from “The Club” — the proto-Militant/ Socialist Party/ Socialist Appeal, until well into the 1960s.

It was an untenable reunification that would not have occurred had not the RCP collapsed. Its central leaders, Jock Haston and his partner Millie Lee, deserted the movement. Having opposed Labour Party work for years, Haston now joined the Labour Party as a new-hatched reformist, and still rejecting organised Trotskyist work there. Others such as Roy Tearse, the RCP’s industrial organiser, did the same. The main remaining RCP organiser, Bill Hunter, went over politically to Healyism after the reunification.

The “minority rule” was the first stop-gap consequence of the untenability of the reunification. The second was that the Healyites rampaged through the group, expelling former RCP majorityites left, right, and centre.

In that way two distinct currents separated from “The Club” — the Cliff group (today’s SWP) and the Grant-Deane group (later Militant, Socialist Party, Socialist Appeal).

Couldn’t the Trotskyist unity have been maintained if Healy had been easier-going?

A fashion in the historiography of that forming period — the dominant school, I think — has been created by people who sympathise with Haston and his friends, or, most of them, loathe the Healy organisation because they know its subsequent degeneration. They say that the reunified Trotskyist group in 1949 was “undemocratic” in its minority-rule provision, and then in the deliberate breaking-up of the majority in the reunified organisation so as to ensure control for the leaders of “The Club”.

The problem with this “unity”-worshipping is that it is apolitical. The organisation existed for a political purpose. “Unity” was good or bad according to what the political consequences were. It was not some unconditional “good thing”, “outside of politics”.

The idea that the Healy group should have meekly returned to being the paralysed minority that they had been for the three years before the two RCP tendencies separated “amicably”, under the aegis of the international leadership, puts politics, and what the organisation would do, second to “unity” and formal majorities within an entity — the reunified Trotskyists in the Labour Party — whose political viability had already been denied in the 1947 separation.

Whether or not the leaders of “The Club” and their international co-thinkers and “managers” (the Fourth International, the SWP-USA) had had a prior intention of “carving up” the RCP majority, the logic of the situation decreed that either the Healy group would put the conduct of their Labour Party work in the hands of people who did not agree with them, or that the reunification would collapse one way or another.

The collapse took the form of often arbitrary expulsions of individuals from the numerical majority, and even the expulsion of those who voted against expelling others.

The “state of siege” regime of Healy emerged in that period, and for those political reasons. Elements who would otherwise been able to coexist in one party (even the “state-capitalists”) and coexist on the broad basis of ideas they had in common were scattered because the Healy group was — and, in the circumstances, necessarily so — defined by its tactic of Labour Party work. It was also an extension into Britain of the mono-factional nature of the Fourth International reorganised after the World War by the “Cannonite” “orthodox” Trotskyists.

These events shaped the left for decades.

What was the Healy group like in its politics?

The Healy group went through a number of distinct phases, which broadly coincided with the different names under which it was known: “The Club” from 1947 to 1957; the Newsletter group from 1957 to 1959; the Socialist Labour League from 1959 to November 1973; the Workers’ Revolutionary Party from 1973 to its implosion in 1985.

In the period of “The Club” it worked to organise a broad left around the paper Socialist Outlook, which it began in December 1948, at first as a Labour Party monthly, and then a weekly up until it was banned by the Labour Party in July 1954 and ceased publication after the Labour Party conference in October 1954 upheld the ban. Around Socialist Outlook it organised occasional broad conferences.

Its politics in this period went through three distinct phases.

From 1948 to June-July 1950 (the start of the Korean war) its politics did not differ from those of the RCP. It focused on workers’ control as a counter to Labour’s reformist nationalisations. It was very critical of the Stalinists.

At the start Healy was to the left of the Haston-Grant segment of the RCP, who were pioneers of the “deformed workers’ state” theory. In June 1948, Tito, the Yugoslav Stalinist leader, fell out with the Russian Stalinists, and the Yugoslav Communist Party began to criticise the Russian system. The Fourth International, within a few days, switched from defining Yugoslavia as a state-capitalist police state to increasingly uncritical adulation of it as a working-class or “socialist” state. It was the first of a series of such relationships with revolutionary Stalinist bureaucracies (Vietnam, Cuba).

The Healyites used the Tito-Stalin split to undercut the Communist Party. They organised work groups to go and help building roads in Yugoslavia. This was a sort of “critical support” that would become familiar, “critical support” whose real premise was the abandonment of all fundamental criticism, a form of political self-disarming. The Healyites would develop it all the way through to the same “support” for Gaddafi’s Libya, Saddam’s Iraq, and the PLO.

But at the start the Healyites were not different in general politics from the RCP majority, or if anything to their left.

The second period is the Korean war, June-July 1950 to late 1953. This period is usually what is talked of when people describe the politics of “The Club”.

Korea marked a culmination of the conflict after World War Two between the USA and Russia. North Korea invaded the South. The USA (and Britain, Australia, Turkey, and others), under the banner of the United Nations, landed troops to stop the invaders. A full-scale war of attrition developed. When the North Koreans were facing decisive defeat, Stalinist China sent in troops to back them (December 1950). The war of attrition went on for two and a half years, until after Stalin’s death his successors quickly negotiated peace.

On the Stalinist side, this was a “proxy war”, with Russia as financier and arms-supplier of the Stalinist forces in Korea. The outbreak of a full-scale world war was a serious possibility.

The Fourth International jumped to back North Korea and the Stalinist bloc. It took James P Cannon and the SWP-USA a number of weeks to decide on their line. They swung to back North Korea by way of banishing any acknowledgement of what Stalinism meant to those living under it, in Korea as elsewhere: they renamed Korean Stalinism as “the Korean Revolution”, part of the “Colonial Revolution”.

That impermissibly abstract approach turned the Fourth International into a close satellite, albeit sometimes a critical one, of the Russian-led bloc. Socialist Outlook lurched after the Fourth International, backing North Korea, China, and Russia. It turned itself into a de facto propaganda agency for the Stalinist bloc.

Socialist Outlook did criticise Stalinism, and differentiate from the Stalinists, for example on the East European purge trials of 1949-52 and the rampaging Stalinist anti-semitism (dressed as “anti-Zionism”) that went with them. But all in all it was not remotely adequate from a revolutionary-socialist working-class point of view, i.e. the dominant private view of the members of “The Club”.

The previous focus for Socialist Outlook’s “pro-Stalinist” leanings, Tito’s Yugoslavia, backed the United Nations in Korea. Indeed, in the early 1950s, the Yugoslav Stalinists would criticise the Trotskyist movement for being too pro-Russian!

Then Healy took one side in an international split among the Trotskyists, in 1953. What was that about?

The Pablo group controlled the “Fourth International” and, in the late 1940s and early 50s, began to work through and systematise the logic of their orientation to “progressive” Stalinism. For instant, it developed the view that the Trotskyist groups in France and Italy should liquidate themselves and go deep underground (there was no other way to go) into the big Communist Parties there. James P Cannon and the SWP-USA and others began to pull back, piecemeal and partially, from the logic of the positions which they had shared with Pablo at the Fourth International’s Third World Congress in August-September 1951.

In November 1953 Cannon issued a round condemnation, episcopal or papal style, of what he called “Pablo revisionism”, restating the basic Trotskyist view of Stalinism, and there was a split.

The problem was if Pablo was “revisionist”, then so also was the whole post-Trotsky “orthodox” Trotskyist current. The current rested on an incoherent amalgamation of Trotsky’s Trotskyism and ideas typical of the “Right Communist” oppositionists of the 1930s, people like Heinrich Brandler who were critical of Stalinism but did not take a revolutionary working-class position against it. The best-known exponent of the “Brandlerite” views was Isaac Deutscher, who had been a Trotskyist from 1932 to 1940.

The “orthodox” Trotskyists had Trotsky’s programme for Russia and the satellite states, advocating working-class overthrow of the bureaucrats; and the Brandler programme (reform, not anti-Stalinist revolution) for Yugoslavia, China, and in the future Vietnam, etc.

From the 1953 split two groups emerged: the “International Committee of the Fourth International”, led by Cannon and including groups in Britain, France, and Argentina; and the “International Secretariat of the Fourth International”, led by Pablo and Mandel.

Click here for part 2 of this article.