Part Two

Trotskyism of a New Type

[Section 1]

We began first of all to publish a monthly called Workers International News, and our orientation was towards the Labour Party as Trotsky had urged. Britain was entering a pre-pre-revolutionary situation, and the British ruling class was making preparations not for war, but civil war. The development of such events, would lead to a crisis within the Labour Party and open up possibilities for the revolutionary tendency. However, while we conducted work in the Labour Party, we were at that same time energetically trying to promote our material everywhere we could, and attempting to influence people in the direction of Trotskyism. In this way, we managed to recruit members of the Young Communist League and the ILP. These new recruits then assisted our work inside the Labour Party, and in particular our work in the Labour League of Youth, where we were engaged in an almighty battle with the Stalinists.

When we began the work in developing our tendency, we decided, consciously and deliberately, to turn our back on the little squabbling sects, the Militant Group, the Marxist Group, and other remnants. Instead, we would face towards the mass movement. We would face towards the working class, and begin the real process of constructing of a strong Marxist organisation. Although we originally had only nine members, these nine were very dedicated people. Millie had private funds from South Africa and so both she and Ralph were able to work full-time for the new organisation. The other members were mainly unemployed, with only a couple of comrades actually working. Gerry Healy, I recall, had a job. The rest of us managed to get by on unemployment benefit. Well at least we got a meagre subsistence from the state for the purpose of revolutionary activity! As full-time professionals, we got about fifteen shillings a week. Those on national assistance got a rise to about seventeen shillings a week, which at that time, if you didn't drink or smoke, you could just about manage to live on.

So the nine of us began an energetic campaign to build the WIL. The first task was to publish our material. It was too expensive to get stuff printed commercially as we didn't have the money. However, Ralph managed to pick up and repair a battered old Ardena printing machine for next to nothing. Those of you who are familiar with such machines, which specialise in turning out small cards, will know that is more like a toy rather than a printing press. Anyway, we got a little Ardena and we found a typesetter to do the typesetting. We managed to do the compositing ourselves. Both Lee and Haston possessed some mechanical skills, so we soon learned how to do the printing work. But to say the least, the Ardena printing was a backbreaking job!

We wrote the articles, proof-read them, prepared them for printing, worked the printing machine and sold the magazine. As I recall, till perhaps one, two or three in the morning, we were busy, in Groves' words, "turning the handle". In this way we turned out the Workers International News every month, devoted largely to republishing Trotsky's material and articles from the international movement. Our first issue of Workers International News came off the press in January 1938, with a front-page article by Trotsky, entitled GPU Stalks Abroad - Open Letter to All Working Class Organisations. It was a proud moment for us, and an essential task in building the organisation.

We selected certain spots to sell the magazine: Hyde Park, Tottenham Court Road and Piccadilly, where we sold regularly every Saturday and Sunday. In that way we made contacts both nationally and internationally, as many people who visit London inevitably travel to Hyde Park and Speakers Corner. Also workers from London and the rest of the country going on a jaunt to the West End inevitably passed through either Piccadilly or Tottenham Court Road. Therefore, we made quite a number of contacts and actual members from our sales at that time. We intervened wherever possible in all the strikes that took place, and we made contact with industrial workers, and very slowly a trickle of workers began to join the organisation. Right from the beginning our tendency was working class in its composition. Industrial workers in particular were won from the engineering factories and we built a basis within the Amalgamated Engineering Union. We ignored completely the old sectarian tendencies, with their overwhelming petty-bourgeois composition, engrossed in their armchair politics, and began the work of rebuilding the movement.

After some time, we scraped together the money to buy a second-hand treadle-printing machine that was foot-operated. We manage to pick one up very cheap - about twenty pounds, I think. I am sure it would be very antediluvian by modern standards! But it was a tremendous leap forward when compared to the little handle-cranking Ardena machine. This treadle machine allowed us to publish a bigger size than the small magazine format. We also printed the bulletin of the Paddington branch of the Labour League of Youth, called Searchlight. Our comrades actually started this publication as a duplicated paper for the socialist youth as we politically controlled the Paddington youth branch. Later this became Youth for Socialism, which we maintained until 1941.

One of the first pamphlets we produced was The Lessons of Spain by Trotsky, in July 1938, for which Ralph and myself wrote the introduction. We sent Trotsky a copy, and he sent back an enthusiastic letter congratulating the WIL on this great achievement, and particularly the fact that we had got our own printing press. We felt we were on our way, and had grown within six months to 30 comrades. Although mainly based in London, we won over comrades in other areas, and in the end took about a third of the members of the Militant Group. We began to construct an organisation that was mainly working class in composition, young and very energetic.

I must say, even at that early stage we had already attracted the attention of the Special Branch. Although we had only a small group they became interested in our activities. Later on, MI5 actually sent people to penetrate our organisation, but even at this time they started sniffing around. I remember one chap called Jones who came along and said he was a gas worker and wanted to join our organization. Later, quite by accident, we found out he was a Detective Inspector Jones. But we had our suspicions straight away. We just took one look at the size of his feet and it was quite obvious where comrade Jones came from! At this time the headquarters of the organisation was in the basement of Ralph and Millie's house. As he said he had a job at the gas works, we made it our business to find out the truth. We fobbed him off, and for a few days we watched the gas works and asked the workers what shift Mr. Jones worked on. The workers were bemused. They had no knowledge of this Mr. Jones. He told us that he was a member of the CP - in fact he had a CP card in his possession - so he was obviously also doing work for the police in the Communist Party!

We continued to put him off from joining with one excuse or another. Firstly, before joining, we told him that he had to show his revolutionary integrity by giving money to the organisation. Of course, being a good agent we got money out of him. Then, having a sense of humour, we decided to play a trick on D.C. Jones. He showed a great interest in getting copies of every paper and leaflet we had published. He had to get his hands on these leaflets! We had just issued the first issue of Searchlight, when he got in touch with us. So we decided to skip issue number 2 and just put number 3 on the second issue. Poor old Detective-Inspector Jones was in a terrible panic over trying to trace the phantom issue No. 2! He must have been hauled over the coals at Scotland Yard for this failing, because he tried frantically to get hold of the missing number. For months he tried and, of course, failed miserably!

Having failed with him, the Special Branch next sent along a woman undercover detective. We also sized her up as just another agent and we told her the same story: "if you want to join the organisation you have to make a financial sacrifice." At that time we wanted to publish Trotsky's Transitional Programme, which cost £12 and 10 shillings. So she dutifully produced the £12 and 10 shillings, but, of course, we gave her the run-around as well. Afterwards, when Haston was arrested and being questioned by Detective Whitehead - the head of the Special Branch dealing with the Fourth International - Whitehead asked: "Where do you get your money from?" Haston replied: "Well, as far as I remember, you paid for the Transitional Programme!" which of course shut him up. Anyway, having given us the £12 and 10 shillings, she also failed to get into the organisation.

The role of Cannon

In the middle of 1938 plans were being laid by the International Secretariat in Paris for the first World Congress, the founding congress of the Fourth International. Since 1933, Trotsky had raised the idea of a new International to replace the bankrupt Internationals of the Stalinists and reformists as a weapon for world revolution. Throughout the 1930s, Trotsky sought to prepare the ground for its launch. However, whereas the other Internationals were born in a period of working class advance and revolution, the Fourth International was being formed in a period of colossal defeats and retreat for the working class. Nevertheless, the founding of the Fourth International in 1938 was directly linked to the perspective of world war and revolutionary upheavals. On the basis of this perspective, Trotsky forecast that within ten years not one stone upon another would be left of the old organisations, and that the Fourth International would become the dominant force on the planet.

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". Cannon tried to persuade us but failed to convince any of our leading comrades. We told Cannon that we would give him every opportunity to speak to the rank and file of our organisation, and we invited him to speak at our monthly aggregate meeting. He accepted the invitation and asked us how many members did we have? We told him we had thirty members. He looked at us, and figured American-style, if you had thirty members, you simply doubled it and say you had sixty; if you had sixty, you doubled it and say you had 120, and so on. So when we said we had thirty members, Cannon said, "you mean fifteen". This was clearly the method used elsewhere in calculating the membership. Cannon continued, "Well, I understood from others you had ten or fifteen members". This was probably the figure he had been told by Harber and Jackson, who had no idea of how fast we had grown. As usual, they were completely out of touch. So we said firmly, "No, we have 30 members", and Cannon, who clearly didn't believe us, just nodded.

Our membership meeting was held in a room in Jock Haston's house in Warwick Avenue, where the print machine was also kept. Before the meeting, we proudly showed off the treadle machine to Cannon, and he was suitably impressed. Cannon sat down at the table at the front of the meeting. It was exactly half-past seven when the meeting was due to start. There were ten people present in the room, so Cannon asked if we should begin. We said, "No, hang on. Give us a few more minutes until all the comrades arrive." Cannon just smiled and said nothing and looked at his notes. Then after about ten more minutes there were twenty people in the room, so again Cannon asked if we should start the proceedings. Again, we said, "Hang on, give us a few more minutes." At a quarter to eight, to Cannon's surprise, there were thirty people in the room. So we told Cannon we could now start. He must have thought that we were very naïve or something. "They say they've got thirty, and they've actually got thirty", he must have said to himself in bemusement.

Cannon spoke forcefully to our members, arguing for unity at all costs. However, his arguments fell on stony ground and he failed to convince a single comrade. The WIL membership was homogeneous, firm, and clear on the unity question, both the leadership and the rank and file. We pointed out to him the weaknesses of the other groups. We said, "You haven't had a meeting with the rank and file of the Militant Group, or with the rank and file of the RSL. Only our tendency is prepared to let you meet with the membership and discuss things out openly." We told him that the reason for this was that the other tendencies were very loose, petty bourgeois and politically woolly.

In our discussions with Cannon, he told us that on the tactical questions, he could see we were not sectarian in relation to the trade unions, or in our attitude towards the Labour Party. According to him, our general approach was correct. We were just sectarian on this question of unity! We told him that on the contrary, we took a Marxist principled stand on the question of unity. After seeing he was getting nowhere, he asked if we would at any rate attend the Unity Conference that was about to take place. We said, "Certainly we'll come to the Unity Conference, and we'll put our position there". We had no objection to that, and neither did Cannon. In fact, we presented our own document on perspectives and tactics. The only ones to offer a clear and full political explanation.

The Unity Conference took place in South London, somewhere in Clapham. Our thirty comrades appeared, as well as large numbers of others, even the "political corpses" - those who had long dropped out of political activity. They had even fished out Harry Wicks and Henry Sara. I do not remember exactly how many were there, but the place was full. Sara took the chair of the meeting. He had been in the original Trotskyist tendency, the Balham Group. And therefore, despite their poor record in building the Trotskyist movement, a certain leniency and good will was extended towards them. As usual at these proceedings, the conference didn't start on time and there was a lot of shuffling about the place. Ralph Lee, who was a great wit, remarked, "It's like a French bedroom farce, with people moving all around, one door opening and the other door closing... its difficult to know what is going on". As expected, we were like pariahs at the Unity Conference. No one was talking to us. We were completely ignored. We ended up simply discussing among ourselves, waiting patiently in the hall for the conference to start.

Eventually it started about an hour late. They were still going round and round in circles from one room to another, trying even at that late stage to patch up an agreement that could be acceptable to everybody. At any rate they succeeded after an hour or so in getting the other groups together. Then, if you can believe it, it only took them about twenty minutes to patch up an agreement between the leaders. We heard afterwards that Cannon had persuaded James to come to America, promising him a position in the American SWP building up the black movement. He also managed to persuade Henry Sara of the benefits of a united organisation. On that basis they managed to arrive at some sort of compromise. The compromise was that both tactics would be legitimate, that they would carry out an open party tactic and an entrist tactic simultaneously. Of course, it was sheer madness, and we knew it.

The session was introduced by the young American, Nathan Gould, the IS representative in Europe. Rather than deal with the concrete differences and orientation, he spoke about the Transitional Programme. There was no political discussion on the tactics and strategy that separated us. When we saw the proposed Unity Agreement, we were amazed, and said openly, "How the hell can this work?" We made it clear we would have nothing to do with an unprincipled agreement like the one proposed. Lee gave a speech in which he said, "Cannon is like the man who tied the tails of the two Kilkenny cats together, and they will end up tearing each other to pieces." He predicted that by joining these three groups together, what you would be doing would be to "unite" three organisations into ten. That would be the upshot of it all. There was only a limited amount of resources, only a limited amount of money and comrades, and if both tactics were employed, it would destroy the organisation. The people in favour of the entrist tactic would say that the resources should go to them, and they would point to the conference resolution, the open group would do the same. It was therefore a formula for paralysing the organisation. Cannon was furious because we refused to accept the Unity Agreement. He got up and said, "We crush splitters like beetles". And Sara chipped in: "This is a scandal. Here is our guest comrade from the United States, and he is being treated shamefully!"

We rejected this assertion. At this point, I intervened. "Even if Comrade Trotsky himself had come here we would have acted no differently. The need to state differences clearly is a principle of our movement, as opposed to the Stalinists. Each comrade should be allowed to say what he or she honestly believes." And I concluded, "If Comrade Trotsky himself stood before us and put forward a position we did not agree with, we would have every opportunity of putting forward our case. And he would have been in favour of that." After that, the whole argument was dropped.

Cannon then got up again to put a stop to this infantile line of argument - I'll give him credit for that - and said that he didn't object to these attacks. He continued, "we can take it, but we can also dish it out". He then proceeded to "dish it out" to us, but without having any effect on our membership. We weren't the least bit bothered because we knew what was going to happen. The new united organisation, which claimed 170 members, took the name of Revolutionary Socialist League. However, the Militant Group was committed to entrism; the old RSL was for independent work, and the RSP was against entrism in principle. It was a dog's dinner, and would be shown to be so by events. Meanwhile, the 30-strong Workers International League, which refused to endorse the Agreement, continued to pursue its work within the Labour Party, as well as having a flexible approach to opportunities outside.

Haston and myself, but Haston in particular had a number of discussions with Cannon. He was clearly impressed with the WIL. After the conference he asked if we would see him and we agreed. Cannon told us frankly: "Well, you haven't joined the organisation, but I hope you will have good relations with the RSL." He asked us if we would send a delegate to the Founding Congress of the International on the condition that relations between ourselves and the united tendency would be harmonious. Obviously, we had absolute agreement with the programme and policy of the International. We agreed fully with the Transitional Programme, written by Trotsky, which put forward the idea of the International conducting mass work on the basis of transitional demands. We said that we agreed completely with the ideas, the methods, the policies and the programme of the International. We explained we would like very much to apply, at least for sympathetic affiliation to the International. So he asked if we would send a delegate to the World Congress, and we told him we would discuss the question, and do our best to send someone. If we could raise the money, which was always a stumbling block, we would certainly be represented. In his discussions with us, Cannon was emphatic that we should be present at the Congress. He must have wanted us to attend, as he probably thought that the Congress would have exerted sufficient pressure to push us into unification with the other groups. Anyway, that was probably the idea in the back of his mind.

However, when we came to discuss the question in our Executive Committee, we realised that we didn't have the money to send anyone to Paris. We were mainly unemployed and living on the breadline. We simply couldn't afford it. We were bitterly disappointed, but we decided instead to send a letter explaining our position and requesting sympathetic affiliation to the International. We drafted a letter and, in order not to duplicate the typing, Millie put the statement straight onto a stencil, which we copied to circulate to our comrades. We thought nothing of it and simply did it out of convenience, so it could be circulated widely inside our ranks. In fact, the letter was approved at a general members' meeting before being sent in a sealed envelope which Denzil Harber, who was attending the Congress for the RSL, was supposed to deliver.

The founding congress of the Fourth

At the World Congress in early September, the report of the British Section was presented. This contained a sharp attack on the WIL for refusing to unite with the other groups. I understand it was one of the French delegates who moved that we be treated as a sympathising group of the Fourth International. Then Cannon launched a vicious attack on us, accusing the "Lee group" of splitting on "purely personal grievances", obstructing unification, and refusing to send a delegate to the World Congress. He told a whole lot of lies, saying that our letter to the Congress was a statement to "the world at large", an open statement to our enemies, purely on the basis that it was duplicated and not typed. As a result of Cannon's attack on the WIL, sympathetic affiliation was rejected. From that time onwards, Cannon was to nurture a deeply held grudge against the WIL and its leadership, which was to have serious repercussions in the future.

Shortly after the Congress, on 12 October, Cannon wrote a report to Trotsky which referred to the "Lee Group".

"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 demoralisation - 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 grounds. They wanted to work in the Labour Party simply as a left wing without any international connections..."

At the Unity Conference in London, "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 recognise 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 in 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. However, I think they learned something from our visit, at least they said they did.

"I will not attempt to prophesise the outcome of the British experiment in unification. Friction undoubtedly exists, and still worse, there are undoubted differences in conception. Some of the members of the James group were still debating the French turn from the point of view of Field-Oehler."[1]

As Cannon's report mentions, following the Congress, Max Shachtman arrived back in Britain to ask us to reconsider our position. He was quite indignant when he met us, asking why we had deliberately broken with the International in this manner. But when we heard a report of what had happened at the Congress, we were furious at Cannon and the others for spreading slanders about us. We then gave poor old Shatchman a roasting over the issue. I will say this for Shachtman; he was genuinely surprised when we told him what had really happened with Cannon over the Unity Agreement. Shachtman listened to what we had to say and he agreed to speak to our membership. We denounced the manoeuvres of Cannon at the meeting, but Shachtman defended him as best he could. "Well, it was a manoeuvre", he said, "but it was a good manoeuvre. Cannon wanted unity. He wanted to bring the tendency together", and so on and so forth. As if that was sufficient reason to stab us in the back. Although even at that time, there must have been frictions between him and Cannon that overshadowed the faction fight of 1939-40, he still defended Cannon.

As could be expected, Shachtman got a cool reception from the members, who were totally unconvinced by his arguments. After he left for America, we took the view that we were, in fact, the illegitimate child of the International. We would still continue the work of the International. In fact, we considered that we were the real Fourth International in Britain. Our view of the development of pre-war Trotskyism was summed up in a document produced by the WIL in late 1942. We saw it as a necessary preliminary stage in our development. But we regarded the formation of the WIL as a decisive break with the past, and the creation of the real beginnings of a genuine Trotskyist tradition in Britain.

"The initial cadres of the Left Opposition in the Communist Party of Great Britain, were in the main petty bourgeois", stated the WIL document. "While accepting the ideas and principles of the International Left Opposition, they made no attempt to concretise these ideas and apply them to the British movement. The spirit of a petty bourgeois discussion circle was fostered in the early meetings. No real attempt was made to acquaint the youth members and sympathisers of the theoretical differences between the Bolshevik-Leninists and the Stalinist bureaucracy nationally or internationally, or with the programme of the Left Opposition. The leadership showed the greatest incapacity to train the younger elements or to conduct any decisive political action.

"During the period of the campaign of the Left Opposition for re-entry into the Communist Parties, it was possible for a loose collection of individuals to hold together, for in this country it enabled them to appear in public as "critics" while binding them to no real programme of activity. However, when the German betrayal impelled the Left Opposition to consider the reform of the Comintern no longer possible and adopt the perspective of orientation towards the new Fourth International, the basic weakness of the British Bolshevik-Leninists was revealed.

"The directive given to the British comrades was to turn towards the centrist organisations as the main field of work. This perspective worked out by comrade Trotsky, was fundamentally correct. But due to the complete incapacity of the Trotskyists to carry out this tactic, the outcome resulted in failure. This turn towards the centrists marked the first of what was to be a series of splits. Incapable of acting as a unified body, the opposition burst asunder, one group entering the ILP, the other at first remained independent and later entered the Labour Party. This initial split took place without any thorough discussion or preparation, the factional lines running parallel to the personal alliances of the various individuals.

"From 1934 until 1938 a continuous series of splits took place. The political lines were as a rule, not fundamental in character, but on questions of tactics, which were raised to immutable principles. The factions were characterised by a core, which generally speaking, broke along lines of personal affiliation. The few who remained on the periphery of these factions - mainly fresh elements turning to the Trotskyist viewpoint - moved aimlessly from one group to the other seeking a lead.

"The French Party's turn to the Socialist Party and the Oehler split in America over the question of entry into the Socialist Party, created a new basis for the various factions. The 'principle' of the 'independence of the Bolshevik Party' became the centre of the new and 'higher' forms of political discussion.

"During the whole of this period, the International Secretariat was completely misinformed as to the real situation in the British movement - its strength, the forms of work it conducted, its support among the workers, and in every other aspect of its activities. The loose connection between the IS and the British movement facilitated this.

"The Trotskyist groups which evolved and disappeared were myriad. The Communist Left Opposition, the Marxist League, the Marxist Group, the Militant Group, the Chelsea Action Group, the Revolutionary Socialist League, the Unified Revolutionary Socialist League, the Militant Labour League, the Revolutionary Workers League, Workers International League - all these in the London area alone, and others emerged from time to time in the provinces.

"By September 1938 there were three distinct groups in existence in the London area as follows: (the names of the leaderships of those organisations are given to identify them as subsequently the names were changed). The Revolutionary Socialist League (James, Duncan, Lane - Wicks, Dewar), the Marxist League (Wicks, Dewar) had just entered into a unification with the RSL on the basis of the independent tactic. The Militant Group (Harber, Jackson) which was an entrist group in the Labour Party. Workers International League (Lee, Grant, Haston) - an entrist group in the Labour Party.

"There also existed the Revolutionary Socialist Party of Edinburgh, which was moving towards the Fourth International and was about to affect a unification with the RSL on the basis of the independent tactic. The leaders of this group were Maitland and Tait.

"Each year - and sometimes twice a year - a 'unity' Conference was called, but without any serious preparation or intention. The soft elements that had proved themselves incapable of any continuity of organised work, who had dropped out of the movement from time to time, appeared on the platform and played a predominant role in the 'discussions'. Each year it became more and more obvious that a genuine unification among the old elements was absolutely precluded, because of the determination of the 'leaders' to retain their independence and resist any encroachment on their positions, and most important, because of the absence of a genuine rank and file. It was evident that unification would only take place on the basis of a common programme of action, on the basis of common work.

"Such was the position in the British movement when the 'Peace and Unity Conference' took place in September 1938. In the bulletin circulated for pre-conference discussion, there were three theses submitted for discussion by the WIL, the RSL and the RSP. Representatives of these three groups, as well as a representative of the Militant Group attended the Conference. At this conference, the 'Peace and Unity agreement' was drawn up by and presented by the American comrade. There was no political discussion on the differences of tactics and perspectives for Britain, which had separated the groups for years. Only this 'Peace and Unity Agreement' which the groups were given twenty minutes to sign. All groups signed except WIL."[2]

We had turned our back decisively on the so-called united tendency, the RSL - as we had done with the old Militant Group. And, just as we expected, as soon as Cannon and Shachtman had gone back to America, the fun started. Within weeks of this so-called Unity Conference, the first splits appeared, and the organisation began to dissolve into its constituent parts. The RSP walked out when they saw what was happening. Henry Sara and Harry Wicks left, and a deep split took place at its conference where the majority of the old RSL split away to form the Revolutionary Workers League, followed by a series of individual resignations. The group that was left suffered from the formation of rival factions, especially with the outbreak of the Second World War, and their attitude towards the proletarian military policy advocated by Trotsky.

The RSL, seeing us as an enemy group, immediately declared war on us. We in turn went onto the offensive. Our wings weren't clipped and our hands weren't tied by any agreement, so we got stuck into a vigorous campaign to win over the best elements in the RSL branches, which were in a state of crisis. Very quickly, in the early part of 1939, we won over the comrades in Liverpool. We took the big majority of the Liverpool branch, including Jimmy Dean and Tommy Birchall and other key comrades. The same thing happened in Leeds, where we won over the majority of the RSP. We left Frank Maitland and Tommy Tate, who were the leaders of that tendency, almost completely high and dry. We soon won the majority of the RSP in Edinburgh, which had been their stronghold, and they entered the Labour Party under our guidance.

Up to the onset of the war, we had begun a systematic publication of Trotskyist pamphlets. For example, as I have already mentioned, we issued the Lessons of Spain by Trotsky with our own introduction. "The experience of Spain is a warning and a lesson to the workers of the world, above all to the British workers", we wrote. "Yesterday's drama in Spain is being rehearsed today in Britain. Tomorrow it will be enacted if the British workers have failed to realise the nature of the tasks which history has placed before them. And in preparing to tackle those tasks, the working class has need above all, of 'a party, once more a party; again a party'."

On re-reading it after many years, I must say, it was a very good introduction. Trotsky sent us a very enthusiastic letter in response. Although it wasn't very well printed, the Old Man was very encouraged by our small efforts. We were not the official section of the international, but Trotsky could see from the introduction that we had a very healthy approach and were a genuine Bolshevik-Leninist tendency, and not a sect. It is significant that the only split in the whole of our history in which Trotsky did not intervene, or denounce was our split with the Militant Group. We believe that this was for two reasons. Firstly, Trotsky knew the limitations of Cannon and didn't accept all his opinions at face value. Secondly, he was not prepared to pass judgement on groups until he was certain of how the different tendencies were developing. He would not intervene prematurely in Britain until things had crystallised sufficiently. In any case, he must have despaired about the way the RSL was splitting into fragments. For the moment, he left things alone in Britain, and concentrated on events in America, and the developing faction fight between Cannon and Shachtman.

We made sure Trotsky got our material, and I am sure he would certainly have compared it very favourably with the material of the RSL. Trotsky was waiting, if you like, to see which way the wind was blowing in Britain. This view is partially confirmed in the reply to questions put to Trotsky by CLR James in April 1939. James outlined a brief history of the British section, including the Unity Agreement. "The pact for unity and peace stipulated that each group was to continue its own activity and after six months a balance sheet was to be drawn", James told Trotsky. However, James went on to explain, "The last news is the friction has continued [sic] and that the Labour Party group is now dominant." This is diplomatic language for saying the "unity agreement" had fallen apart. James then goes on to inform Trotsky, "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." Significantly, Trotsky in reply to James' points, made no reference to the Lee group, or its decision not to take part in the fusion. Trotsky preferred to wait and see.

[To be continued]

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Notes

[1] From James P. Cannon, The Internationalist by Joseph Hanson, New York, July 1980, pp.27-28.

[2] Discussion/Education Documentary Collection, 1944.