Part two: Trotskyism of a New Type
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 na’ve 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."
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."
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.
British Trotskyism in the Second World War
Stalin’s foreign policy – which was supposed to avoid war and defend the USSR – actually placed the Soviet Union in great danger. His betrayal of the Spanish Revolution made war inevitable. The attempt to woo Britain and France failed utterly. The "democracies" that Pollitt lauded so enthusiastically in 1937 were in fact allowing Hitler to build up his army and expand his borders in the belief that he was going to attack Russia.
The feebleness of Chamberlain in the face of Hitler at the time of the Czechoslovakia debacle was dictated by the weakness of British capitalism at the time. It is a fact that Britain was unprepared for war with Germany. In reality, the ruling class was more afraid of the British Labour movement than German fascism, which they saw as a bulwark against Bolshevism. Churchill, that great "democrat", had been an ardent admirer of Mussolini. A big section of the British ruling class had been sympathetic to the Nazis right up until the war. During the first days of 1939, Chamberlain and his minister Halifax were in Rome, feasting with Mussolini and raising their glasses in tribute to the new emperor of Abyssinia. Halifax told the Italian foreign minister Ciano that he hoped Franco would soon "settle the Spanish question". So much for the "British democrats"!
Finally, after the British imperialists had handed Czechoslovakia and its huge arms industries to Hitler on a plate, Stalin dropped the idea of a pact with the "democracies" and instead did a deal with Hitler. In August 1939 Germany and Russia signed a non-aggression pact. This made a European war inevitable, but ensured that Hitler would first strike westwards not eastwards. The USSR established friendly trading relations with Germany. In effect, as Trotsky said, Stalin assumed the role of Hitler’s quartermaster. While it was permissible for the Soviet Union to manoeuvre between different capitalist powers to safeguard itself, Stalin’s policy was a complete betrayal of the elementary principles of a Leninist foreign policy. After the signing ceremony was over, Stalin proposed a toast – to Adolf Hitler: "I know how much the German people love their Fuehrer", he said. "I should therefore to drink a toast to his health."
Shortly after this, the Germans and Russians occupied Poland and the Red Army moved into the Baltic States and Finland, where the Russians got a hotter reception than they had bargained for. They suffered terrible casualties in the Karelia campaign in the beginning of 1940 – perhaps a million were killed or wounded. The problems experienced by the Red Army in Finland showed the terrible damage that had been inflicted by Stalin’s Purges. It was this more than anything else that made Hitler decide to attack the Soviet Union, believing – wrongly – that it would be easy to conquer.
These events caused considerable shock internationally. Ordinary members of the labour movement were shocked and disquieted by Stalin’s Purges and scandalised by the Hitler-Stalin Pact. We made life as difficult as we could for the Stalinists, of course. And although these events were of a deadly serious character, we never lost our sense of humour. After all, humour also has a place in working class propaganda and agitation, and is especially effective in the British labour movement. I remember we lampooned them mercilessly in a song set to the music of "Oh my darling Clementine", which went like this:
Leon Trotsky is a Nazi.
Yes, I know it for a fact!
First I read it, then I said it,
Before the Stalin-Hitler Pact.
Oh my darling, Oh my darling,
Oh my darling Party Line.
Never break thee or forsake thee
Oh my darling Party Line.
In the Kremlin, in the Kremlin,
In the Fall of thirty nine,
Sat a Russian and a Prussian,
Working out the Party Line.
In Siberia, in Siberia,
Where the Arctic son doth shine
Sat an old Bolshevik
Who they called a dirty swine.
Party comrade, Party comrade,
What a sorry fate is thine!
Comrade Stalin does not love you
’Cause you left the Party Line.
To this, we added a couple of lines to the tune of Auld lang syne:
And should old Bolshies be forgot
And never brought to mind,
You’ll find them in Siberia
With a ball and chain behind.
A ball and chain behind, my dear,
A ball and chain behind,
For Stalin shot the bloody lot
For the sake of old lang syne.
Britain in war
In the second half of the 1930s there were signs of an upturn in the class struggle in Britain. After almost a decade of passivity on the industrial front following the defeat of the General Strike, trade union militancy was on the increase again. There was a spate of unofficial strikes, which the union leaders were powerless to control. The London bus strike of 1937 showed a high degree of militancy. The Times was warning the union leaders that if they could not keep their house in order, other methods would have to be found. This was a veiled threat of dictatorship. The army manoeuvres in the period before the war were, based not on the assumption of war with Germany but rather civil disturbances in Britain itself. For the first time the insurance companies were refusing to insure against the risk of civil war.
In September 1939 Britain declared war on Germany. Within a short space of time, Scotland Yard raided the WIL premises. This set the tone for the whole of the war period. Interestingly enough, the RSL were left untouched by the Special Branch. Due to their lack of activity and their sectarian approach, they were not considered as a potential danger nor given the slightest importance by the state. The raids only affected organisations that were active and posed some kind of threat to the war effort. Scotland Yard detectives came to our headquarters, which was in Haston’s house, and searched the place from top to bottom. They were there almost all day, going through our material, every document, and every scrap of paper. They also questioned us repeatedly. We told them of our political position towards the war and other questions, and then they left. After that it became a regular thing that once a month we would have a visit from Scotland Yard. Sometimes, they became so familiar that we joked with them. "Come on", we said, "why raid us like this? If you’d only let us know, give us your address and we’ll send you notices of the meetings". Despite this good humour, they disrupted our activity and turned everything upside down. Of course, in opposing the war we were considered a damn nuisance, but there was nothing they could do about it. In those days, the security forces were mainly interested in the CP and the fascist organisations that openly supported Germany.
As an anecdote, just after the war began, we were surprised by the sudden appearance in Britain of Pierre Frank. He was considered a political opponent, as he had broken with the Trotskyist movement in France, and Trotsky had sharply criticised his actions. He had came to Britain as a representative of the Molinier group – the PCI – that had split from the International. Whereas Trotsky had not attacked or criticised us for our split, he had denounced the Molinier/Frank tendency in the sharpest possible terms. With his customary wit Trotsky said that Molinier was like a cow that gives lots of milk and then kicks over the bucket! He characterised both Molinier and Frank as rotten opportunists and adventurers. A resolution written by Trotsky himself stressed, while his supporters would be welcomed back, any question of Molinier returning to the Trotskyist movement was entirely ruled out.
Frank had escaped to Britain to avoid capture by the French authorities. He attempted to promote the Molinier group in Britain and create an axis between this group and the WIL. We explained to Frank in no uncertain terms that although the WIL had been dealt with unfairly at the Founding World Congress, we nevertheless considered ourselves a loyal part of the Trotskyist movement and were not prepared under any circumstances to attack the International. We were confident that over time we would be recognised as the legitimate British section of the International. Therefore, we refused to have anything to do with Pierre Frank, who went away with his tail between his legs. He failed to convince a single comrade of the need to turn our back on the International or of trying to create some new sort of rival group. The British authorities later interned him. Of course, the WIL protested vigorously about his internment, but when he was released he caused us some bother for a while, when he provided a prop for Gerry Healy’s factionalism.
Having failed to convince us on unity with Molinier, Frank tried every means possible to organise some sort of faction inside our group. He managed to convince one of our comrades, Betty Hamilton (who ended up with Healy), that we had an unhealthy internal regime within the WIL. This was supposedly due to the fact that we didn’t have any real differences within our ranks. For Pierre Frank that was unhealthy! Frank, who was staying at her place, convinced her that an organisation without factions was un-Bolshevik. Even if there were no political differences, he argued, you must have factions within the organisation! In the end, we were not prepared to countenance this nonsense and we expelled Betty Hamilton for intriguing with a hostile grouping.
As a further aside, Healy, just a month or two before the war, announced he was starting a new career in Lever Brothers. He worked for them in some sort of scheme where leaflets were distributed round the houses, and he was about to net an important supervisor’s job in the company. So he began to drift out of activity and was preparing to leave the movement altogether. Perhaps I shouldn’t really confess this, but I managed to persuade him to stay! "Now look here, you can get a job as a supervisor. You might even go higher up. But what would be the use of it?" I told him. "The war is coming in a few months and what happens to your job then? Your job won’t last. So the plan is a stupid idea." After the discussion, he chose to remain in the movement. At that time, Healy did positive work as an industrial organiser for the tendency. But that was not to last long.
Trotsky’s military policy
From Mexico, Trotsky advanced the slogan of unconditional defence of the Soviet Union in the war. This brought to a head the crisis that had been simmering inside the American SWP. A minority led by Max Shachtman and James Burnham were opposed to Trotsky’s position. They considered that the regime in the USSR had degenerated to the point where it was no longer a deformed workers’ state – as Trotsky maintained – but was "state capitalism". This provoked a debate in which Trotsky intervened with some of his most brilliant and profound articles and documents, which were published as a book, In Defence of Marxism.
Needless to say, we were in complete agreement with Trotsky’s position, which formed the basis for our later development and deepening of the idea of proletarian Bonapartism.
WIL opposed the imperialist war from the start. In the September 1939 issue of Youth for Socialism, I wrote an article under the banner heading of Down With the War. However, unlike the drawing room "Marxists" of the RSL, who were effectively paralysed by the war, we took our agitation to the factories and workplaces in an attempt to connect with the working class. Just before the fall of France in June 1940, in some of his last writings, Trotsky wrote some of the finest political material of his entire life. He was examining the attitude of the revolutionary movement towards imperialist war in general, and the Second World War in particular. As I pointed out at the time, "the Old Man gave the finest theoretical exposition of the Marxist-Internationalist attitude to imperialist war in general, and the present imperialist war in particular. These fragments will remain for all time the classical exposition of the Marxist approach to the problem and of the dialectical method as a means for determining the policy of the revolutionary party."
Trotsky pointed out that Lenin in the course of the First World War had laid down the Marxist attitude towards war. However, if the truth is to be told, because the revolutionary movement had been caught by surprise by the betrayal of August 1914, Lenin and the other leading internationalists had tended to pose things in a slightly ultra-left manner. The internationalists defended the ideas of internationalism, class solidarity and raised the question of revolutionary defeatism. They put forward the idea that in war, the defeat of your own ruling class is the lesser evil. Posed in a crude and unqualified way – which is exactly what the sectarians have been doing for the last 80 years – this policy can be interpreted as support for the foreign bourgeoisie. The ignorant sectarians have no idea of the concrete circumstances that determined Lenin’s stance in 1914.
The reason why Lenin expressed himself in such a way was to draw a clear line between the revolutionary vanguard and the social patriotic traitors of the Second International. The betrayal of the leaders of the Second International was entirely unexpected – even by Lenin and Trotsky. It caused tremendous disorientation and confusion. For this reason, Lenin tended to bend the stick in one direction. However, his emphatic policy of revolutionary defeatism was aimed at the cadres of the International, and not the broad masses. Revolutionary defeatism was not the means whereby the working class would be won to the revolutionary party. Far from it. In 1917 the masses in Russia were won over with the slogans of peace, bread and land, and "All Power to the Soviets". Revolutionary defeatism could never have won the masses to the programme and banner of the revolution. That is why Lenin changed his views on slogans regarding the war when he returned to Russia in the Spring of 1917. He adapted his slogans to concrete circumstances. That is what ensured the success of the Bolshevik Party.
While the Second World War was an imperialist war, not qualitatively different to the war of 1914-18, nevertheless the concrete circumstances were different and this had to be taken into account as far as tactics and slogans were concerned. As Trotsky explained in an unfinished article, dictated just prior to his assassination in 1940:
"The present war, as we have stated on more than one occasion, is a continuation of the last war. But a continuation does not signify a repetition. As a general rule, a continuation signifies a development, a deepening, [and] a sharpening. Our policy, the policy of the revolutionary proletariat towards the second imperialist war is a continuation of the policy elaborated during the last imperialist war, primarily under Lenin’s leadership. But a continuation does not signify a repetition. In this case too, continuation signifies a development, a deepening and a sharpening. We were caught unawares in 1914.
"During the last war not only the proletariat as a whole but also its vanguard, and, in a certain sense, the vanguard of this vanguard was caught unawares. The elaboration of the principles of revolutionary policy toward the war began at a time when the war was already in full blaze and the military machine exercised unlimited rule. One year after the outbreak of the war the small revolutionary minority was still compelled to accommodate itself to a centrist majority at the Zimmerwald Conference. Prior to the February Revolution and even afterwards, the revolutionary elements felt themselves to be not contenders for power but the extreme left opposition. Even Lenin relegated the socialist revolution to a more or less distant future...
"In 1915 Lenin referred in his writings to revolutionary wars which the victorious proletariat would have to wage. But it was a question of an indefinite historical perspective and not of tomorrow’s task. The attention of the revolutionary wing was centred on the question of the defence of the capitalist fatherland. The revolutionaries naturally replied to this question in the negative. This was entirely correct. But this purely negative answer served as the basis for propaganda and for training cadres but it could not win the masses who did not want a foreign conqueror.
"In Russia prior to the war the Bolsheviks constituted four fifths of the proletarian vanguard, that is, of the workers participating in political life (newspapers, elections, etc). Following the February revolution the unlimited rule passed into the hands of the defencists, the Mensheviks and the SRs. True enough, the Bolsheviks in the space of eight months conquered the overwhelming majority of the workers. But the decisive role in this conquest was played not by the refusal to defend the bourgeois fatherland but the slogan: ’All power to the Soviets!’ And only by this revolutionary slogan! The criticism of imperialism, its militarism, the renunciation of the defence of bourgeois democracy and so on could never have conquered the overwhelming majority of the people to the side of the Bolsheviks..."
While it was necessary to maintain a principled and inflexible attitude of irreconcilable opposition towards the imperialist war, it was necessary to put our attitude towards the war in a way that would be understood by the broad masses. It was out of this approach, that the proletarian military policy of the Fourth International, put forward originally by Trotsky, was developed by the Trotskyist movement. Of course, the war was an imperialist war, and a continuation of 1914-18. As such, we were opposed to imperialism, capitalism and its war. In the words of Clauswitz, which Lenin was fond of quoting, "War is the continuation of politics by other means."
The Allied powers were simply using anti-fascist propaganda to cover up their war aims. Nevertheless, we had to take into consideration that the mass of workers genuinely wanted to defeat Hitler fascism. That is why they supported the war against Hitler. We also wanted to defeat Hitler, but with our own means and programme. This could only be achieved by the carrying through of a revolutionary war against fascism, which meant the working class taking power. The proletarian military policy was based on the conception that the capitalist class could not fight a real war against fascism. The British bourgeois had supported fascism before the war in its struggle against the socialist revolution. Only the working class could fight fascism, and so they would have to expropriate the ruling class, take over the country and conduct a genuine revolutionary war.
The Stalinists and the war
The Communist Party carried out a number of somersaults in the first period of the war. When the war broke out in 1939, the CPGB was still on the "popular front" Line. So in the first six weeks of the war, they supported the "just war" against fascism. Then soon afterwards, when Stalin signed his infamous Pact with Hitler, the Line was hastily changed. The CP leaders were taken completely off guard by the signing of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. Therefore, for a time, Harry Pollitt continued to push his "patriotic" Line with the usual vehemence, calling on all true patriots to support the war against Hitler and so on.
Within a few days, following orders from Moscow, the CP changed its Line to one of opposition to the war. Poor old Pollitt, who did not jump fast enough for his masters in the Kremlin, fell into disgrace and was replaced as general secretary of the British Party by Palme Dutt, an even more slavish stooge. Given the existence of the Stalin-Hitler Pact, and the carve-up of Poland between Russia and Germany, Moscow now regarded the "democracies" of Britain and France with hostility. Soon the CP was calling on the British workers to recognise "Churchill and Daladier, Attlee and Blum" as their main enemies. The British Communist Party now took a position against the imperialist war. But this was an anti-war position of a peculiar character. It was not a genuine anti-war opposition, based on a Leninist internationalist position.
Pollitt and Campbell were forced to make a humiliating recantation and confess to their "social patriotic" mistakes. They were lucky. In France, where the CP initially sought an agreement with the Germans, and even sent a delegation to request permission to publish L’Humanite in occupied Paris, CP leaders, who opposed the policy of the Party, were actually betrayed to the Gestapo. As reliable mouthpieces for Moscow’s foreign policy, the Communist Parties dutifully attacked the "democratic" imperialist powers. In practice their position was "peace – on Hitler’s terms". In other words, instead of being an agency for British imperialism they became, due to the Hitler-Stalin pact, the apologists of German imperialism. So abrupt a turn naturally provoked a certain amount of unease within their ranks. Actually they made the transition without too much difficulty, since the more proletarian elements saw the abandonment of popular frontism as a left turn. However, it meant that the best elements of the CP that we came across were more amenable to our ideas.
The way in which they changed gave rise to some amusing incidents. Dudley Edwards, a marvellous old comrade who at one time had been the secretary of the ILP’s Revolutionary Policy Committee and who joined us in the 1960s, was at the time a young CP shop steward in the car factory in Oxford. He was supposed to give a speech on the war at a public meeting, and was prepared to deliver a speech on the lines of the old policy, supporting the war. Minutes before he was due to speak, someone tugged at his sleeve and whispered: "Comrade, you can’t give that speech. The Line’s been changed!" And in two minutes, Dudley had to improvise a different speech, putting exactly the opposite position!
The abruptness of the change of Line caused a crisis in the Party for a short time. It was not easy to explain to the workers why the enemies of yesterday had suddenly become allies, or why British "democracy" had suddenly become transformed into British imperialism. The Party lost a lot of support at this time. When Harry Pollitt presented their programme to a working class electorate at the Silvertown bye-election in February 1940, he was rejected by a vote of 12 to 1. Nevertheless, the Party held onto most of its workers, who were relieved by the abandonment of the old policy of open class collaboration. The new policy was an ultra-left caricature of a real communist policy. Most of those who left the CP were middle class types.
The CPGB had organised a "People’s Convention", that was supposed to be an alternative to Parliament. We participated and sent delegates because layers of trade unionists were involved in this convention. We managed to send delegates through the trade unions to put our position. We counterposed our position against their pacifist, or semi-pacifist, peace position put forward by the Daily Worker. Although our position got relatively few votes, given the character of the Convention, we had a relative success and we made a certain number of CP contacts as a result.
But events were to plunge the CP into crisis yet again. On June 30 1941 Hitler’s armies attacked Russia. The Germans had massed 100 army divisions on the Russian border, which struck with devastating force. Hitler’s attacks on the USSR compel the Stalinists hastily to change the Line. Labour Monthly had called an industrial conference with the aim of fomenting strikes. The conference went ahead, but its content was changed. Instead of discussing how to organise strikes, they placed on the agenda the issue of how to raise productivity in industry! For the remainder of the war the Stalinists pursued an openly strike-breaking policy.
At the 1942 CP conference, the general secretary of the CPGB, Harry Pollitt delivered a real hymn in praise of all strike-breakers: "I salute our comrade, a docker from Hull, who was on a job unloading a ship with a cargo urgently wanted’ When the rest of the dockers struck work, he fought against it because he believed that the course of action he recommended would get what was wanted without a strike. What courage, what a sacred spirit of real class consciousness, to walk on the ship’s gangway and resume his job’. This is not strikebreaking. That is striking a blow against fascism as vital as any blow a lad in the Red Army is striking at the present time. It sounds peculiar. It can be misunderstood. The Trotskyists and the ILP charge the party and me in particular with being strike breakers. We can face that from people whose political line is consciously helping the development of fascism." (1942 Conference CPGB)
The WIL and the war
When we received the material by Trotsky on the proletarian military policy, we were enormously enthused. Applying the policy to British conditions, our programme called for Labour to break with the wartime National Government, and for Labour to power on a socialist programme. In a socialist Britain, while we would fight fascism militarily, we would also conduct class propaganda and extend the hand of friendship to the ordinary German workers, calling on them to overthrow Hitler. The military policy also included the election of officers by the soldiers, the training of officers by the trade unions, the need for a workers’ militia, the establishment of committees in the armed forces, for the workers to be trained in arms, and so on. In other words, it aimed to raise the class questions in relation to the army and the war. It attempted to show that, despite all their talk of defeating fascism, the imperialists were not in the least interested in fighting fascism, after all, and it was they who helped Hitler to power in the first place. The only class that could fight fascism was the working class, but in order to do this effectively, it was necessary to conduct an irreconcilable struggle against the ruling class in the so-called democratic countries as well as the ruling class in the fascist countries. As opposed to pacifism and conscientious objection, we were in favour of comrades going into the armed forces to conduct revolutionary work.
After the German invasion of France, the Labour Party entered a coalition government with the Conservatives and Liberals, headed by Churchill. The Labour leaders declared an electoral truce for the duration of the war. This action was endorsed by the Party conference by a massive 2,413,000 votes to 170,000. This reflected the mood of the times. The Nazi armies were already in Holland and Belgium. The Dutch had been crushed in just twenty days. The Belgian king had surrendered. The British army in France was trapped on the beaches at Dunkirk, hard pressed by the advancing Germans. Nine days later, Italy entered the war on the side of Germany. Nine days later the French bourgeoisie capitulated to Hitler without a fight. The position was desperate.
GDH Cole expressed the mood of the British workers at that time: "Momentarily, there was no time for dissention or recrimination. The workers in all essential industries worked, after Dunkirk, all hours that physical powers would permit – often many more than were wise. Gradually, some order was introduced into the organisation of the industrial war effort. The ARP services were enthusiastically performed, often by men and women who went back to work after nights spent in rescue. When the War Secretary asked for 150,000 volunteers to act as ’parashots’ to watch for parachute troops, 750,000 men joined what afterwards became the Home Guard."
During 1940, through the pages of Youth for Socialism, we tried to orientate ourselves along the lines advocated by Trotsky, explaining the role the ruling class was playing in the war in a way that would be understood by ordinary workers. We had to take into consideration the attitude of the workers towards fascism. In the factories, at that time, the working class was working 18 or even 20 hours a day for the purpose of turning out war armaments. As we were immersed in the mass movement, we instinctively understood that this approach by Trotsky, which was a development of Lenin’s position, was absolutely correct. As we had the correct orientation and approach to the workers, we enthusiastically took up the position of the proletarian military policy. To give them credit, the position was also immediately taken up by the American SWP. Cannon made a number of speeches on the question, which we printed in our paper as well as in the Workers International News. However, in other sections of the International there was opposition from the sectarians to this policy. They simply wanted to repeat the position of Lenin in 1914 and the policy of revolutionary defeatism. This reflected a sectarian approach divorced from the real working class movement. They were not able to relate to the real situation on the ground in a flexible, but principled fashion.
The WIL took up Trotsky’s position energetically. I wrote a Socialist Appeal editorial outlining the policy:
"The British workers want to see a real end made to Hitlerism of all varieties and to the domination of one nation by another", stated the article. "They want to win the peoples of Europe to their side in a common struggle against these evils. They want to see the Soviet Union give the full measure of real assistance that will save it from destruction and enable it to reclaim and rebuild all that has been lost. They want to see China victorious over Japanese militarism. They want a genuine international ’united strategy’ that will enable these tasks to be performed and bring about a truly democratic and lasting peace. But while imperialism sits in the saddle there can be no such thing.
"These aims can only become a reality, that is transferred from the realm of words to that of deeds, when the workers take effective measures against imperialism. Such measures would necessarily include the granting of immediate freedom to India and the colonies, the nationalisation under workers control of the banks and all heavy industry and the armaments industry; the election of officers by the soldiers and the merging of the armed forces into the armed people. Only when such measures have been taken would Britain’s war be transformed into one genuinely being fought for national liberation and in defence of the Soviet Union. Only a government of the workers can take such measures. Only a workers’ government can lay the basis for a genuine ’united strategy’ of a global nature. For the only force that cuts across national frontiers and continental barriers is the common interest of the working masses against capitalism." (Socialist Appeal, November 1942)
It was necessary to take into account the real situation of the working class in Britain. At the time of Dunkirk, when Hitler’s armies swept through Norway, Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium and France, the British Army was shattered and on the retreat. This raised alarm in Britain of the danger of an immediate invasion. Under these circumstances, we raised the slogan in Youth for Socialism of the need to arm the British working class. If the ruling class was serious about defending Britain – which they weren’t – then they must arm the population.
The French ruling class allowed Paris to fall to the Germans without a struggle. The Nazis occupied France and established a puppet government under Petain at Vichy. There was an interview by a French general in the Daily Telegraph at the time, in which he admitted that they could have defended Paris. However, that defence could only have been undertaken if they had armed and organised the population. That policy was considered too dangerous, with the memory of the 1871 Commune still fresh in their minds. The prospect of a new Paris Commune was a nightmare facing the French ruling class, and so, rather than risk the possibility of the working class taking power, they capitulated, revealing their complete rottenness and incapacity. Rather than take that chance of arming the working class, they preferred to surrender Paris to the Nazis.
When the defeated British forces in France were being evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940, an enormous wave of fear and panic – it is hard to imagine it now – swept through the working class. We argued in Youth for Socialism that the same thing would happen in Britain as in France if there was an invasion by Hitler. We explained that Britain could be defended, and could be an impregnable fortress against fascism, if there was the arming of workers under the control of the trade unions. Instead of the Home Guard, the workers should be armed factory by factory. On that basis, it would be entirely possible to defend Britain and render it impossible for Hitler to invade. However, as we explained, rather than risk arming the working class, the British ruling class would prefer to sell out to the Nazis if it came to the crunch. Our agitation on this question was a means of exposing the sham position of the British ruling class. We managed to get an echo for our position, which allowed us to extend our influence in the advanced sections of the working class.
Meanwhile, in early 1940, Pierre Frank, having failed to get a response from our organisation, got in touch with a tiny little grouping of Oehlerites. This was a minuscule splinter group led by a man called Hugo Oehler, which had split from the American Workers Party when they entered the Socialist Party. As in Britain, these sectarians always have an inflexible ultra-left attitude on the question of the independence of the party. Of course, the American Trotskyists were not a large party, far from it. They had a few thousand members at most. If the American SWP had been a large party, then things may have been different, and the principle of the independent party may have been correct. But as always, seeing things in terms of "principles", the sectarians lacked any sense of proportion.
There was a little fragment of this grouping in Britain, led by two chaps, called Ernie Rogers and Denis Levin. They eventually left the movement altogether, and Levin later did quite well in the business world. But at the time, they were in Coventry working in the aircraft industry, and Pierre Frank was in touch with them. He was looking round for some points of support and he gave them some brilliant advice: he told them that they should issue a leaflet demanding that the workers seize the factories! Now just imagine it. The workers, faced with the imminent prospect of an invasion by a Nazi army, were working up to twenty hours a day in arms firms, and Frank says this is the time to seize the factories. That is what you might call impeccable timing! But the ultra-lefts Levin and Rogers thought this was a brilliant idea. It appealed to them enormously. So they secretly distributed their Open Letter to British Workers leaflet. The leaflet, which was completely anonymous, without any publisher’s name or address, was passed around.
A couple of days later, there was a knock on the door of the digs where Rogers and Levin were staying. In a very conspiratorial fashion, they peeped out from the top floor to see who was there. To their alarm, down below they saw a policeman clutching a copy of their leaflet. Predictably, the two heroes panicked, dashed out of the back door and went "underground". They beat it out of Coventry and came to us, asking for assistance, money, and so on. They said they were on the run from the police and everybody was after them. Well, in the meantime, the landlady got in touch with Sam Walters who was a member of the tendency also working in Coventry, and told him: "you know a policeman called around to see your friends. He said your friends had forgotten to print their name, address and authorisation on the leaflet." And that was all. The whole episode was over a small technical detail. Predictably, the sectarians got the wrong end of the stick.
Of course, we did not have the hysterical position of the ultra-lefts, but nevertheless we did pay serious attention to the question of security. When the war broke out, it wasn’t at all clear within the first few weeks what was going to happen. The police had raided us before, so we weren’t sure which way events were going to develop. Nobody knew whether the organisation would be declared illegal or not. As a result, in case of illegality, we decided to send certain comrades to Dublin to establish a base in Ireland for the organisation. Ireland was a neutral country, so if we had become illegal we could produce and send revolutionary material from there through sympathetic seafarers. If necessary, we would be able to set up some kind of a radio station that could broadcast to workers in Britain.
It was decided to keep Ralph, Millie and myself in Britain, and to send Jock Haston and a few other comrades to Ireland. They made contact with the left wing of the Irish Labour Party, especially with Nora Connolly O’Brien, the daughter of James Connolly. They also came into contact with the youth of the IRA. Gerry Healy without any discussion or consultation with the leadership of the tendency, unilaterally declared he was leaving Liverpool, where he was working at the time, and going back to Ireland. He was originally from Donegal. Soon afterwards, he resigned after a quarrel, the second resignation that year, but was persuaded to come back. But at any rate we managed to establish an organised group that was oriented towards the Irish Labour Party. So a base was prepared in Ireland to assist, if necessary, the movement towards socialist revolution in Britain.
"We decided that Ralph Lee and Ted Grant would be sent to produce the paper and to train the group that we sent over and we decided to send four or six of the younger people to Ireland with them for that purpose", recalled Haston. "In the event Ralph Lee decided he wouldn’t go and we took the view that Ted couldn’t do the job on his own. I was sent in place of Lee and Grant to head the group that went to Ireland’
"We faithfully followed the entrist line. We had contact with the left wing of the Irish Labour Party in Dublin. Our principal contact was Norah Connolly O’Brien, who was the daughter of Jim Connolly, and she was one of our best contacts then, and she fed us when we were bloody hungry from time to time’
"At the same time we made contact with the youngsters in the IRA who were fairly active. In the Dublin IRA, the leadership tended to be right wing, as the youngsters tended to be socialist or labour party orientated and we made contact with them and won some of them over to the Trotskyist movement. We kept them in the IRA as a faction until they were finally thrown out, but that was part of our activity."
Asked about what the IRA leadership thought about this, Haston replied, "They didn’t like it very much at all. In fact, there was a classic occasion when I was running a class in Liberty Hall, which was the headquarters of the Transport Workers’ Union, when a score of armed IRA guys came in and started drilling in the hall. The result was that the trade union asked us not to meet there anymore, because they were afraid there might be repercussions on them. Eventually they [the IRA] told us to ’get out, or else’, and I was given forty-eight hours to get back to England or they would blow me up!"
At this time we published a small daily duplicated bulletin, called Workers Diary, which was mainly down to the efforts of Ralph Lee, and some help from myself. This was then circulated among our members throughout the country and used effectively to supplement Youth for Socialism and Workers International News. In case we became illegal and were forced underground, we at least would have been able to turn out duplicated material. Every branch of the organisation had a silk screen printing outfit, made by the indefatigable Ralph Lee, so that they would be able to turn out stuff if the leadership at the centre was arrested, and all connections were broken off.
At this time, our work, in the Labour Party, including the youth work in the Labour League of Youth (LLY), was dramatically tailing off. Nothing much was taking place in the Labour Party at that stage. The political truce had choked off life within the Party, and more and more we were forced into independent open work. The Labour League of Youth almost completely disappeared in 1939 as a result of the sabotage of the Stalinists. The young Ted Willis, who later became Lord Willis, had done a very good piece of fraction work for the Communist Party. The Stalinists had sent hundreds of youngsters into the League of Youth and had practically taken it over. As we had only small forces, we weren’t in a position to defeat them. They succeed in taking the majority of the Labour League of Youth into the YCL, but of course, subsequently lost most of these people. In the process, the LLY was practically destroyed.
By 1940, those who were still left in the League of Youth were either conscripted into the armed forces or working long hours in the armament factories. The League of Youth had for all intents and purposes practically disappeared. All political activity ceased in the youth organisation. As for the adult party, the ward branches and constituency parties were hardly functioning at all. The trade union branches still remained and had some life during the course of the war, but this was mainly older workers and a layer from the armaments industries who were in reserved occupations.
Increasingly during 1940, we were being forced to do more and more open work. The ILP, on the basis of its anti-war activity and its pacifist stance, began to grow somewhat so we paid a certain attention to it. We were always very flexible on the question of tactics. Although we recognised the importance of the mass organisations, we never had a fetish about them. Tactics are a question of flexible attitudes, rather than principles on which one must always remain intransigent. During that period, we used our Youth for Socialism and Workers International News to turn not only towards the ILP but also towards the ranks of the Communist Party.
Our turn towards the ILP shows the flexible way in which we dealt with things. In a review of tactics, and to show how they were developed, Jock Haston wrote a piece that is worth quoting.
"There are no short cuts to the leadership of the working class. Nevertheless, a correct application of tactics can assist the process of penetrating the ranks of the workers and in this way hasten the process of gaining the leadership; mistakes in tactics can condemn the revolutionary party to sterility and isolation and dissipate the energy of its cadres in fruitless activity. With every shift in the movement of the workers, the tactical tasks of the revolutionaries alter and assume new emphasis. This is particularly true of WIL. Precisely because of its lack of historical background and lack of support within the ranks of the working class, as well as the youthful and inexperienced composition of its cadres, it has had to impinge itself from the outside upon the labour organisations. But here our very weakness allowed of extreme mobility of tactics which rapidly changing events deem it necessary to review as the need arises.
"Nevertheless, the change in organisational tactics always arouses differences of opinion within the ranks of revolutionary organisations. These differences arise from the appraisal of the political situation; from the conservatism which arises through established routine and reluctance to alter one’s habits over a period; as well as from the genuine political differences ranging from ultra-left sectarianism to centrist capitulation. These are not always clearly demarcated in their lines of divergence.
"As a pre-requisite for our next step it is necessary to review our past tactics in the light of our experiences. From the time of its formation, our organisation has adopted the tactic of entry into the Labour Party. In our document entitled Tasks of the Bolshevik-Leninists in Britain presented to the 1938 Unity Conference, this position was summed up in the slogan ’Full Strength at the Point of Attack.’ Here we proposed to throw the full weight of our membership into the Labour Party.
"Our argument was simple: the main task confronting us was to break down the isolation of our cadres; this could only be done by entry into the mass organisations. The British workers would enter, and were entering a new phase of radicalisation. Though delayed, this movement would be even more revolutionary than the movements of the continental workers. The mainstream of the working class would follow the historical law and pass through the Labour Party. The voluntary isolation of our comrades from the mass organisations as proposed by the lefts who raised the principle of the ’independent organisation’ and the open party, was criminal at this stage. If we worked correctly for a period and dug ourselves into the mass organisations, when the swing came we would be in leading positions within the Labour Party. We would have a base among the workers who had entered in the course of their radicalisation; it was at this point that we would break down our political isolation and reap the results of consistent fraction work; it was at this point that we could contend for the leadership of the working class.
"Objectively the situation did not materialise as we expected it would. The war cut across the movement of the workers. In the ensuing period we were forced to modify our ideas.
"What were the gains of that period? What lessons are to be learned from that episode? These are the two important questions which must be answered now.
"As a prelude to answering them, it is necessary to state that in practise we did not carry out our own tactic; on the contrary, we even contradicted it to a large degree. The publication of WIN and Fourth Internationalist documents as well as the running of independent Trotskyist study circles, became the main axis of our work. Youth for Socialism, in its initial stages attempted to base itself on the entrist tactic. But when the Stalinists broke with the Labour League of Youth leaving only the husk of an organisation, Youth for Socialism became more and more of an open propagandist journal, finally evolving into the Socialist Appeal. For every ounce of energy put into the Labour Party, ten were put into direct open work for the Fourth International. At no time did we allow the work in the Labour Party to interfere with our open work. And it was from the open field that we recruited most of the fresh members into WIL. While it is true we did make a few organisational gains from the Labour Party, we did not succeed in embedding ourselves into its structure as we visualised. From the broader aspect of our accepted tactic, we gained nothing at all. Not a single member of our earlier cadres occupies a leading position from which to influence the local Labour Party in any area. Furthermore we have never been represented at Labour Party National Conferences where our voice could be heard. In this sense our tactic completely failed. Nevertheless, the general basis of our ideas at that period remain true. The workers have not yet broken with the Labour Party and will turn to it yet. This is the background to our transitional slogan that Labour takes power.
"The main achievements of our ’turn towards the Labour Party’ lay in the field of approach and outlook. It was responsible for creating that serious attitude among our membership that we must be with the workers, that we must not isolate ourselves and make the classical blunders of the ultra-lefts in the past. It innoculated the group against the sterile sectarianism, which has isolated the British Trotskyists for years from the bloodstream of the working class.
"Eighteen months ago we substituted the conception of party in place of group in our draft constitution. This was introduced to break down the semi-conspiritorial atmosphere which pervaded our organisation as a hangover from the tactic of entry, as well as the incorrect estimate of the repression we expected would take place when war broke out which resulted in the actions taken by the organisation in preparation for ’illegality’. It also reflected the growth of the group from a local to a national organisation and corresponded to the need to broaden and co-ordinate the scope of our activity...
"But to proclaim ourselves as an independent party is not sufficient. All the arguments levelled against the ultra-lefts are as applicable today as yesterday. While it is necessary to present our tendency before the workers under the independent Trotskyist banner around a propaganda group, it is necessary at the same time to understand the limitations which our present forces impose upon our ’independence’."
The death of Trotsky
During the summer of 1940 for personal and health reasons, Ralph Lee had decided to go back to South Africa. Haston and the other comrades had not long come back from Dublin. Lee’s departure was certainly a blow to us at the time. He was without doubt the most important leader of the tendency, but nevertheless, despite his absence, we continued to develop the organisation. When Ralph returned to South Africa, he resumed his revolutionary work, and established a new group also called the Workers International League. The South African WIL was engaged in a number of struggles, which ended in defeat and resulted in the collapse of the organisation in 1946. Ralph, who was already ill, was terribly worn down by all these setbacks. Having spent his last penny on the revolutionary movement, he fell on extremely difficult times. Unfortunately, we, who at least could have given him some assistance, knew nothing about it until it was too late. Tragically, Ralph Lee took his own life. It was a sad end for such a giant of a man, my comrade and friend, whose historic contribution will always be remembered by our movement.
In the summer of 1940, I was called up to serve in the Pioneer Corps. This posed a dilemma. Our policy towards the armed forces was in complete opposition to the pacifist view of conscientious objection. We held to the position that revolutionaries should go with their class, and if called-up, they should go into the armed forces to conduct revolutionary work. This correct revolutionary policy, nevertheless, threatened to undermine the organisation as the call up spread. If the leadership of the organisation were called up, this would be a severe blow to the tendency. However, fortunately, you might say, I was involved in a vehicle accident and suffered a fractured skull, and was invalided out of the Forces. Haston was also relieved from the call up on medical grounds. This situation allowed us to continue to play a full role within the leadership of the organisation.
While I was recovering in hospital, I heard on the radio the fateful and heart-breaking news of Trotsky’s assassination in Mexico. The comrades were all devastated by the news. Although we never raised it publicly at the time, we were deeply critical of the leadership of the American SWP, which was responsible for Trotsky’s security in Coyoacan. After the first assassination attempt in May, why was Trotsky left alone in his study with a complete stranger? But we didn’t raise or pursue the matter as it now served no real purpose – Trotsky was dead. It now fell on our shoulders to carry on the struggle for the socialist revolution. As a prolific writer, Trotsky had left behind a rich legacy of writings and experience from which we could draw to build a genuine revolutionary movement. In Britain, Trotsky’s death and the start of the world war served to provide us with a new sense of urgency to develop and build the Workers International League. We took his last words to heart – "Go Forward! I am convinced of the victory of the Fourth International!"
The exact reverse seemed true for the RSL, the official section, which had ceased publishing any public material. In 1939, the Labour leadership had proscribed the RSL’s front organisation within the Labour Party, the Militant Labour League, and it vanished immediately. It just disappeared without making a squeak. The RSL people were "intransigent revolutionaries" within the four walls of their bedroom. There, they could convince each other of their great revolutionary integrity, as opposed to the "social chauvinists", as they called us, who were putting forward a revolutionary military policy. Such a "chauvinist" policy, they claimed, was a betrayal of Lenin and a capitulation to bourgeois nationalism. The RSL were incapable of understanding anything, especially the vital question of how Lenin’s position on war was to be applied to the concrete condition faced by the working class. Our genuine revolutionary opposition towards the war gave us the opportunity of working among the masses. For the RSL, such a state of affairs only existed in their heads.
After 1940, the remnants of the RSL very rapidly split into three factions. Denzil Harber, which was the centre faction, led one, another led by John Robinson was on the left, and lastly, John Lawrence led the so-called right. The Americans dubbed the latter faction the "Trotskyist Opposition" as it largely followed the correct line of the International. The proletarian military policy had been rejected by the RSL in September 1941, and this rejection had even been made a condition of membership of the organisation! Only the "Trotskyist Opposition" adhered to the official military policy. The Robinson tendency accused Lawrence and the leadership of the International of chauvinism, and true to their views, even opposed the demand for deep underground bomb shelters – as this was seen as a "defencist" policy! Nothing should be supported that assisted the war effort, including deep shelters. The fact that deeper shelters would help protect workers from Hitler’s bombs was not the point! Clearly, they did not get much support in the working class for these crazy ideas. On the other hand, the WIL, having nothing to do with this ultra-left nonsense, did not hesitate to call on workers to force open the London Underground stations for use as air raid shelters.
From their comfortable armchairs, the RSL attacked the WIL for our alleged "chauvinism". "We must state that the basis for all the main political mistakes of WIL is to be found in the defencist position it has adopted with regard to the imperialist war since the fall of France first made the defeat of British imperialism a real possibility", stated the RSL. "Defencism rarely shows itself in its open form especially in a left-centrist organisation. Concealment is especially necessary in an organisation still professing to stand upon the principles of revolutionary defeatism..." WIL was characterised as "an organisation, not moving politically in our direction, but moving away from us." Unfortunately for the leaders of the RSL, the International Secretariat could no longer go along with their blatant sectarianism. The International Secretariat, recognising the insane delusions from which the RSL was suffering, wrote on 21June 1942: "In our opinion your attitude towards the WIL is utterly false. Without ignoring personal differences inherited from the past, it is necessary to recognise that your false attitude flows directly from a false political appreciation of this group. You see in it a centrist group ’moving away from us’. This is an opinion which we can by no means share."
I wrote an extensive reply to the criticisms and misrepresentations of the RSL in mid-1943, which is worth quoting in order to show where we stood politically:
"Our policy in relation to the problems of the epoch remains on the granite foundation laid down by Lenin. Our attitude towards imperialist war remains that of irreconcilable opposition. We continue the traditions of Bolshevism. But in the epoch of the decline and disintegration of capitalism a continuation, as Trotsky points out, does not mean a mere repetition. In the quarter century that has passed, the objective conditions for the socialist revolution have reached maturity and the decay and disintegration of capitalism have revealed themselves in the abortive attempts at revolution on the part of the masses, in fascism, and now in the new imperialist war. All the objective conditions of the past epoch render the proletariat responsive to the posing of the problem of the conquest of power by the working class.
"As distinct from 1914-18, the cadres of Bolshevism have been trained and educated in the Leninist approach towards imperialist war. The social-chauvinism on the part of the Social Democrats and the Stalinists was anticipated and predicted by the Trotskyists long in advance. The theoretical exposure of social chauvinism is not a live issue for Bolshevism today. We build and construct our party on the Leninist internationalist basis, not least on the fundamental question of war.
"As Trotsky once pointed out, war and revolution are the fundamental test for the policy of all organisations. On both these questions we continue the Leninist tradition. But Marxism does not consist in the repetition of phrases and ideas, however correct these may be. Otherwise Lenin could not have developed and deepened the conceptions first formulated by Marx. And Trotsky could not have propounded the theory of the Permanent Revolution. If all that was required of revolutionaries was to repeat ad nauseam a few phrases and slogans taken from the great teachers of Marxism, the problem of the revolution would be simple indeed. The SPGB would be super-Marxists instead of incurable sectarians. As Trotsky remarked of the ultra-lefts, every sectarian would be a master strategist.
"In the last analysis, the basic principles of Marxism, as developed theoretically by Marx himself, have remained the same for nearly a century. The task of his successors consists, not at all in repeating a few half-digested ideas, parrot fashion, but of using the method of Marxism and applying it correctly to the problems and tasks posed at a particular period. It is now necessary to approach the problem of war, not only from its theoretical characterisation by Lenin, but in the task of winning the masses to the Leninist banner. For the past epoch the cadres of the Fourth International have been educated in the spirit of internationalism. We look at the war from the principled basis established by Lenin, but now from a more developed angle. We do not conduct our propaganda from the standpoint of analysing the nature of the defence of the capitalist fatherland alone but from the standpoint of the conquest of power by the working class and the defence of the proletarian fatherland.
"As Trotsky posed the problem:
’That is why it would be doubly stupid to present a purely abstract pacifist position today; the feeling the masses have is that it is necessary to defend themselves. We must say ’Roosevelt (or Wilkie) says it is necessary to defend the country: good, only it must be our country, not that of the sixty families and their Wall Street.’ (American Problems, August 7, 1940)
"Only hopeless formalists and sectarians, incapable of appreciating the revolutionary dynamic of Marxism, could see in this a chauvinist deviation or an abandonment of Leninism. Our epoch is the epoch of wars and revolutions, militarism and super-militarism. To this epoch must correspond the policy and approach of the revolutionary party. War has come as a horrible retribution for the crimes of Stalinism and reformism. It came through the fact that the traitors in the workers’ leadership frustrated the striving of the masses in the direction of the socialist revolution. It is a reflection of the blind alley in which imperialism finds itself, and of the historical ripeness and over-ripeness for the socialist revolution.
"The last world war was already an expression of that fact that on a world scale capitalism had fulfilled its historical mission. This objective fact leads rapidly to the subjective position where the masses of the workers are ripe for the posing of the problem of the socialist revolution, that is the problem of power. The events of the past epoch have left the working class with a psychology of frustration and bewilderment. They regarded with apprehension and horror the coming of the second blood bath in which they would expect nothing but suffering and misery. In this war, right from its inception, among the British workers, especially among the Labour workers, there has been an absence of hatred towards the German people. Even in America, where the masses are far less politically conscious than in Britain, in a recent Gallup Poll, two thirds of the people interviewed differentiated between the German people and the Nazis on the question of responsibility and punishment after the war. This, despite all the propaganda of the bourgeoisie. If this is the case in America, it is a hundred times more true of Britain.
"It is perfectly true, however, that especially among the working class there is an unclear, but deep-seated hatred of Hitlerism and fascism. But with all due respect to the leadership of the RSL, this hatred is not reactionary and chauvinist but arises from a sound class instinct. True, it is being misused and distorted for reactionary imperialist ends by the bourgeoisie and labour lackeys. But the task of revolutionaries consists in separating what is progressive and what is reactionary in their attitude: in winning away the workers from their Stalinist and Labour leaderships who misuse these progressive sentiments. And there is no other way than that mapped out by Trotsky in his last articles, of separating the workers from the exploiters on the question of war.
"The decay and degeneration of British imperialism render the masses responsive to the posing by the revolutionaries of the problem of power; to the problem of which class holds the power. Every issue which arises must be posed from this angle. Our position towards war is no longer merely a policy of opposition, but is determined by the epoch in which we live, the epoch of socialist revolution. That is, as contenders for power. Only thus can we find an approach to the working class. On paper, and in the abstract, the RSL accepts the Transitional Programme as the basis for our work in the present period. Trotsky points out that the objective situation demands that our day to day work is linked through our transitional demands with the social revolution. This applies to all aspects of our work. The plunging of the world into war does not in the least demand a retreat from this position, but on the contrary gives it an even greater urgency. But the same theoretical conception which forms the basis of the Transitional Programme and dictates the strategical orientation of all our activists forms the basis of the strategical attitude towards war in the modern epoch.
"War is part of the life of society at the present time and our programme of the conquest of power has to be based, not on peace, but on the conditions of universal militarism and war. We may commiserate with the comrades of the RSL on this unfortunate deviation of history. But alas we were too weak to overthrow imperialism and must now pay the price. It was necessary (and, of course, it is still necessary) to educate the cadres of the Fourth International of the nature and meaning of social patriotism and Stalino-chauvinism and its relation towards the war. Who in Britain in the left wing has done this as vigorously as WIL? But we must go further. The Transitional Programme, if it has any meaning at all, is a bridge not only from the consciousness of the masses today to the road of the socialist revolution, but also for the isolated revolutionaries to the masses.
"The RSL convinces itself of the superiority of its position over that of Stalinism and reformism. It comforts itself that it maintains the position of Lenin in the last war. This would be very good...if the RSL had understood the position of Lenin. However, for Trotsky and the inheritors of Bolshevism, we start (even if the RSL correctly interpreted Lenin, which it does not) where the RSL leadership finishes! We approach the problem of war from the angle of the imminence of the next period of the social revolution in Britain as well as other countries. The workers in Britain, as in America ’do not want to be conquered by Hitler, and to those who say, "let us have a peace programme" the workers will reply: "but Hitler does not want a peace programme." Therefore we say, we will defend the United States [or Britain] with a workers’ army with workers’ officers, and with a workers’ government, etc.’ (Trotsky, ibid)
"Those words of the Old Man are saturated through and through with the spirit of revolutionary Marxism, which, while uncompromisingly preserving its opposition towards the bourgeoisie, shows sympathy and understanding for the attitude of the rank and file worker and the problems which are running through his mind. No longer do we stop at the necessity to educate the vanguard as to the nature of the war and the refusal to defend the capitalist fatherland, but we go forward to win the working class for the conquest of power and the defence of the proletarian fatherland."
Completely remote from public life, the only activity open to the RSL was this eternal in-fighting between the different factions. This is what passes for political activity in a sect. Of course, this did not affect the WIL, as we weren’t bothered about what they were doing. The RSL was of no importance in the Labour movement, and of no importance to our tendency. After all the other splits, these new divisions with their ranks effectively paralysed them as an organisation. They were busy putting forward one internal bulletin after another and discussing among themselves as to who was holding up the true banner of internationalism, of revolutionary defeatism that had been developed by Lenin during the First World War. Meanwhile, real life passed them by completely.
The RSL maintained – behind the scenes of course – that Trotsky in the last months of his life had become a centrist, had returned to his position of the August block of 1912, and had abandoned Lenin’s position of opposition to the imperialist war. As an amusing indication of the great success of this policy, John Robinson, the leader of the Left faction within the RSL (who at least should be given credit for trying to carry out their policy) gave a speech at the time of Dunkirk to one of the very few Labour Parties that was still functioning. He lectured them on the following lines: "Comrades, the victory of Hitler is a lesser evil than to support our own ruling class." He then wondered why he was immediately expelled from the Labour Party – with the full support of the rank and file! As a good sectarian, he consoled himself that he had been expelled because of his revolutionary intransigence and perhaps these workers would eventually come to understand the error of their ways.
That was the sort of policy and approach being put forward by the RSL. This policy of an absolute out-of-this-world sectarianism and ultra-leftism on the question of war was linked to an intransigent need to continue work inside the lifeless Labour Party! This gave them the opportunity in the privacy of each other’s homes of carrying on what they imagined was political activity: debating the contents of internal bulletins. Whereas, in our tendency, the two things went together: activity in the working class and theoretical clarity. One without the other being useless and completely barren. This situation led to their rapid decline as a tendency.
Very quickly the WIL had come to the conclusion that entrism did not correspond to the objective situation in Britain. With the Labour Party in a national coalition government, there was no activity in the Party at all. The activity of the working class, in so far as it existed, had begun to shift towards the industrial front. Strikes began to break out after 1941, and we intervened in them with as much drive as possible. Towards the end of 1940 and the beginning of 1941, we became convinced that the main area where we could get results was in the trade unions generally, among the members of the CP where we could get a certain response, and also in the ILP, which had gained an audience thanks to its pseudo anti-war activity. As they seemed to be the only anti-war opposition, the ILP began to make gains during the course of the war. So we paid attention to it.
We were forced to answer the RSL on the question not only of the war, but also of entrism. They saw working in the Labour Party in a completely rigid fashion, and not a tactical question.
"Making a fetish of the tactic of entrism, converting it into a mystic principle standing above time and place, sometimes lands the RSL into fantastic positions", wrote the present author. "For example, the insistence of the RSL in ’critically’ supporting Labour candidates against the Stalinist and ILP anti-war candidates. By this stand they, the principled and implacable revolutionaries, found themselves in a position of critical support for the National Government, because of the coalition of Labour with the Tories! A vote for the Labour candidate could only be interpreted as a vote for the Government and thus for support of the war. Thus they placed themselves in a thoroughly opportunist position on the question of the war. (Here we may say that WIL gave critical support to the Stalinist and ILP anti-war candidates; at no time have we supported pacifist candidates as the RSL lyingly informed the IS in a letter of 7 July 1942.)
"The main idea of entrism, the necessity to operate on a single field in a given set of circumstances, is summed up as in our 1938 document, in military terminology: ’Full strength at the point of attack.’ Posed in this way the situation and the tasks become clearer. It is not without significance that the RSL has not posed the question to WIL from this angle: Why are we not concentrating our forces ’full strength at the point of attack’ in the Labour Party at the present time? For it would raise the reply: It is ridiculous to concentrate one’s army in war on a sector of the front where there are no results to be achieved. Today the ’point of attack’ is the industrial field. But favourable results can be achieved by the adoption of guerrilla tactics. Owing to the development of events, magnificent opportunities for work open up before us in every direction – the trade unions, the ILP, the factories, shop stewards’ movement, and... even the Labour Party.
"To concentrate work inside the Labour Party...the least important field at the present stage, would be suicidal. In politics, as in war, a commander who fails to make the necessary changes in the strategic and tactical disposition of his men when the relationship of forces has changed, leads his army to defeat. Such are the commanders of the RSL."
So we soberly came to the conclusion that nothing much could be gained by maintaining the position of entry into the Labour Party at that stage. The question of entry would inevitably arise at a certain stage in the future as events developed. But for the moment our main activity would have to be on an independent basis. This position was particularly accentuated in June 1941 when the Russians were involved in the war, and the CP did another 180-degree somersault and came out for 100 percent support of the war. They then turned into the chief strikebreaking forces for the capitalist class within the ranks of the working class. "Coal production in the industry can be increased by regular working of all shifts available", said a CP statement, "eliminating all avoidable absenteeism, continuation of work after fatal accidents, and the relaxation of overtime restrictions to ensure that all faces are cleared daily..."
Stalinist slander campaign
The Stalinists had become the loudest war-mongering chauvinists within the ranks of the working class. We therefore decided that we would have to go for open activity under our own banner, as a Fourth International tendency. As a result, we changed the name of our paper from Youth for Socialism to Socialist Appeal, not simply a youth paper but an adult paper, while continuing to publish a theoretical journal, Workers International News. We came forward publicly under the banner of the WIL, as an independent tendency within the working class. The pro-war stance of the Stalinists now provided us with great possibilities for an open Trotskyist tendency.
With this pro-war attitude, large numbers of the best workers in the armament factories, who had been supporting the CP, as well as those within the ranks of the CP, were starting to question the line and move into political opposition. They couldn’t stomach the strikebreaking role and the ultra patriotism that the CP was developing at that time. So we devoted a lot of attention to the CP and we began to win some of their best members. While explaining the imperialist nature of the world war, at the same time we consistently argued, despite Stalin, for the defence of the Soviet Union. Within a short space of time, the bulk of our new members were coming from the CP. In Nottingham, for instance, we won the convenor of the Royal Ordinance Factory, John Pemberton, and then a group of shop stewards around him were won to our organisation, including Claude Bartholemew and Jack Nightingale.
At the Royal Ordinance Factory at Dalmuirs in the West of Scotland we won Alec Riach, the deputy convener, who participated in the Invergordon mutiny, and joined the Communist Party afterwards. When we met Alec, we managed to arrange a debate between himself and Jock Haston over the CP policy in the war. Feeling a bit out of his depth, he asked Campbell or one of the other CP leaders to come and debate instead. But he was told to handle it himself. The CP leaders refused to come and it was left to Alec to take on the task of trying to defend the position of the CP. At least the poor bloke was courageous. He admitted later he’d had a terrible political hammering. At any rate, we won him over and with him a number of shop stewards in the factory. So out of this approach, the WIL had begun to establish an industrial foothold in Scotland, where we later established the Clyde Workers Committee.
We had developed a base in Glasgow at that time, as well as in Edinburgh, where the communists had still stayed in the Labour Party. Of course, we still maintained a fraction in the Labour Party. We didn’t have this lunatic position like all the ultra-left tendencies of leaving the Labour Party, without leaving behind reserves in case it was necessary to make a turn back to Labour Party work. Even at that time, where the Labour Party was viable, and you could get some results, our comrades still continued to work there. But that was extremely limited at this stage. Wherever possible, we saw to it that in these Labour Parties one of our comrades would try to become the political education officer. As part of this, our comrade would have responsibility for organising literature sales. So in every meeting, there was a table for literature that would have Labour Party and working class literature, and of course, copies of the Socialist Appeal. So even then, our newspaper was being sold openly within the Labour Party.
However, even at this stage, we always had an orientation and approach towards Labour workers, as well as towards the workers in the trade unions. With such a sympathetic approach, free of sectarianism and ultra-leftism, we were able to win the best elements to Marxism. In fact, it would be wrong to think that even when we worked in the Labour Party that our recruits to the tendency came from the ranks of existing Labour Party members. That is completely false. While we maintained this orientation to the mass organisations, our recruits were made from fresh workers and youth, which were then taken into the Labour Party. That is the paradox, but it also contains the secret of how to build the tendency when working in the mass organisations, which our tendency alone understood.
We became a thorn in the side of the Communist Party, especially after June 1941 when Hitler invaded the USSR and they hastily changed their policy yet again. The Stalinists were getting very worried about our activity and the high profile of WIL. They began to pay serious attention to our tendency and publish articles and even pamphlets about us. They denounced us as "fascists" and "counter-revolutionaries", and spread all sorts of slanders and lies about us. One such CP pamphlet was called Clear Out Hitler’s Agents, by William H. Wainwright. It said the Trotskyists were Hitler’s agents and that we had to be physically driven out of the workers’ movement.
"There is a group of people in Britain masquerading as socialists in order to cover up their fascist activities", stated Wainwright. "They are called Trotskyists. You’ve heard of the fifth column. The Trotskyists are their allies and agents in the ranks of the working class...The Home Guard has been taught a quick way to deal with enemy paratroopers and spies. You must train yourself to round up these other, more cunning enemies on whom Hitler depends to do his work for him in Britain. This book is a simple training manual. It will explain to you the tactics of the strange war Hitler is waging in your factory."
Wainwright continued: "Trotsky was a Russian who gathered around him an unscrupulous gang of traitors to organise spying, sabotage, wrecking and assassination in the Soviet Union...They wormed their way into important army positions, working class organisations, even Government posts. They plotted with the Nazis to hand over large tracts of their country once they had weakened it sufficiently to make its defeat quite certain...Trotsky’s men are Hitler’s men. They must be cleared out of every working class organisation in the country."
The pamphlet then concluded: "Be on the alert for the Trotskyist disrupters. These people have not the slightest right to be regarded as workers with an honest point of view. They should be treated as you would a Nazi. Clear them out of every working class organisation."
And finally, advice on What to do with the Trotskyists:
"First: Remember that the Trotskyists are no longer part of the working class movement. Second: Expose every Trotskyist you come into contact with. Show other people where his ideas are leading. Treat him as you would an open Nazi. Third: Fight against every Trotskyist who has got himself into a position of authority, either in your trade union branch, local Labour Party or Co-op. Expose him and see that he is turned out."
Other articles accused us of acting as fascist agents within the factories, attempting to sabotage the war effort. They said that our militant demands, however reasonable, were a cover used to disrupt production and help Hitler. According to them, our agitation for the working class was simply to undermine their patriotic stand against fascism, and so on and so forth. The Stalinist pamphlets were small, but to answer them would have required books, because on every page there were so many lies. So we discussed the question of how to frame such a reply, whether we should deal with it in the detailed manner Trotsky dealt with these slanders, or use some other way. We came to the conclusion that it was not necessary under these circumstances to deal with them in such detail. We decided to choose a different tack.
In the end we found a very effective way of dealing with the Stalinist attacks which silenced the Stalinists in the factories. We published a well-produced little leaflet, entitled Factory Workers: Be on your Guard: Clear Out the Bosses’ Agents. We intended to distribute them in tens of thousands in all the factories where we had people, and in as many workplaces as possible where the CP had an influence. And this is what we did. I must say the campaign was very effective. It really hit them where it hurt and served to throw them onto the defensive. The leaflet answered the Stalinist’s lies point by point, and at the end of the reply we put out an offer of a reward: "Ten Pounds Reward!" it read. This was a great deal of money in those days, possibly a few hundred pounds in today’s money. "Ten pounds reward to any member of the Communist Party who could show a single page of their pamphlet that didn’t contain at least five lies", read our statement.
When we gave it out, and the workers read it, they would just laugh at the CP and their propaganda. As soon as the CPers raised their slanders, workers would ask: "Have you applied for the 10 pounds yet?" The Stalinists were mercilessly ribbed, as you can imagine, by the other workers. We of course published it not only as a leaflet, but also as a feature in the pages of the Socialist Appeal. And by that simple means, these lies and slanders, all this crude poison pumped out by the CP, was being cut across. Needless to say, the reward was not claimed, and we had a jolly good laugh.
Given the effect we were having, the CP had to put Wainwright, one of its leaders in charge of following our material, especially the Socialist Appeal. He not only wrote the pamphlet already mentioned, but most of the other stuff in the Daily Worker attacking our position. At the beginning of the war, the Daily Worker had been banned, but now as they were taking a patriotic Line, and waging a campaign in favour of the war, they were allowed to publish their paper again. In the Daily Worker as well as in International Press Correspondence they denounced our material with great hostility. Wainwright twisted and distorted our arguments, but found it increasingly difficult to peddle the nonsense about the WIL being pro-Hitler and all the rest of it, because obviously we were having an effect on the advanced elements of the working class.
The slander of the Stalinists having proved to be a flop, they decided to seek assistance from the worst jingoistic elements within the Tory Party, the die-hard elements in the Monday Club, and so on. They got in touch with Sir Jocelyn Lucas-Tooth the Tory MP from Portsmouth South, who I believe was also a Colonel. They gave him the April issue of the Socialist Appeal that was published just after Japan had entered the war. At this time, with Japan’s entry, there was a tremendous campaign about the monstrous crimes of these fiends, how they cut the heads off babies, strung them up, and so on. These were the stories about the atrocities that the Japanese had committed in Hong Kong, Singapore and elsewhere. The CP held a demonstration in Trafalgar Square, under the slogan "Remember Hong Kong". So we published a special edition of Socialist Appeal with the heading "Remember Hong Kong – and all the rest too". The Appeal carried a picture of the British troops in Burma, holding up the severed heads of Burmese guerrilla fighters. It was a repulsive and monstrous thing, of course. And it showed that the Japanese imperialists did not have a monopoly on such atrocities. The Army tops had to brutalise the British troops in order to get them to do things of this sort. We intervened in the CP demo and were selling papers like hot cakes.
Obviously, when Willie Gallacher gave Sir Jocelyn a copy of this issue of Socialist Appeal, he must have nearly burst a blood vessel. He sent a copy to Morrison and raised the matter in Parliament. "In view of the fact that this paper attacks our allies, and war aims, and is entirely subversive, can the Right Hon. Gentleman state any good reason for allowing it to continue?" he asked of Herbert Morrison the Home Secretary. Perhaps we were fortunate that it was Morrison who was Home Secretary in the coalition government, as he replied: "The House knows that these matters require a great deal of careful consideration, and I think it would be best that I should consider all the circumstances before intimating any decision." (Hansard, 30 April 1942). It was rumoured at the time that in the corridors of the House of Commons, Morrison was overheard saying, "If I do have to take action against the Trotskyists, then I’ll certainly have the warm support of Mr. Gallacher." Gallacher apparently was in earshot, and said agitatedly, "What do you mean?" And Morrison replied, "You know and I know what I mean."
Not long after, in July 1942, the activities of the WIL in the British coalfields were discussed in Parliament. According to the Daily Telegraph, "Capt. Crowder raised the issue by asking Mr. Morrison what action he proposed to take regarding the distribution of subversive literature among Yorkshire miners." It was reported that "Mr. Gallacher, the Communist member, asked facetiously whether Mr. Morrison would inquire into the effect the Daily Worker would have. Mr. Morrison caused a laugh by remarking. ’I ask my Right Hon. Friend not to be too keen on suppressions. This organisation is only pursuing the same political policy as he and his political friends pursued up to some time ago." (Daily Telegraph, 17 July 1942).
Morrison, the Labour Home Minister in the wartime coalition, was clearly concerned about the Trotskyists. He made this clear in a private conversation with James Maxton, the left-wing Scottish MP, who passed the information on to us. However, Morrison had said that he knew we were misguided but honest types. Although he fundamentally disagreed with our views, he saw that we were consistent – unlike the Stalinists – and that we were anti-fascists, and that we had taken a principled position on the war. Later, a full report by Morrison about the WIL appeared in the Cabinet papers (See appendix). They must have even examined our dental records as well as everything else to try and find a way of getting rid of us! But for the moment, Morrison wasn’t prepared to take action. He told Maxton to tell us that we should watch our step, but, despite the Tories pressing him hard, he hung back.
Who knows what went through Morrison’s mind? He had held a pacifist anti-war position during the First World War, though he was now on the right wing of the Labour Party. Maybe he had a bit of a guilty conscience! But I do know that some years before in Hyde Park, Morrison had to have police protection because the CPers – still peddling the old social-fascist Line – attacked him and tried to beat him up. The hooligan tactics of the Stalinists must have made a lasting effect on Morrison and now he decided to get his own back on them. He knew of all the Stalinists’ twists and turns in relation to the war, and that they were dictated by Moscow. He therefore regarded them with contempt. On the other hand, as a result of our clear internationalist position, we had become a thorn in the side of the CP. Needless to say, Morrison didn’t like us, but while we were politically embarrassing the CP and hammering them on every possible occasion, he must have taken malicious pleasure in the belting we gave them.
The industrial front
As the war continued, the mood of the class began to change. In 1943 there were more individual strikes in the mining industry – all of them unofficial – than in any year since the beginning of the century. If we bear in mind that the war was on and that the CP was vehemently opposed to all strikes, it is obvious that a deep mood of discontent was building up. Strikes broke out especially in the Yorkshire and South Wales areas. The exact numbers involved was not published at the time, but there were certainly far more men on strike than at any time since 1926. One hundred and twenty thousand miners were officially out in Yorkshire, one hundred thousand in Wales and several thousand more in Lancashire, Staffordshire, Durham and Scotland. Eventually the government had to back down and agree to a complete overhaul of the wage structure in the industry – which partially appeased the miners.
The strikes were blamed by the right wing President of the miners’ union, William Lawther, on the Trotskyists. This was immediately taken up by the yellow press. The Daily Mail published a sensational "exposure" by one of its reporters who claimed to have formed a team of special investigators all over the country tracking down the Trotskyists. Ernest Bevin the ex-trade union leader who was now Minister of Labour took up the theme, accusing the followers of Leon Trotsky who, he claimed, not only had plenty of members and money, but "more influence among certain sections of the workers than His Majesty’s Government and the trade union leaders combined." In his biography of Aneurin Bevan, Michael Foot recalls the panic in the trade union leadership at the time:
"Ernest Bevin naturally watched the strike movement with growing alarm. Some other smaller unofficial strikes were taking place in other industries, among engineering apprentices and gas workers. Newspapers reported that bands of Trotskyists, who rejected the Communist Line of full support for the war effort, were among the instigators. Bevin said later that the nation was living on the edge of a volcano, which might affect three million workers. On April 5 he attended a luncheon where he underlined the peril – but chiefly the peril in the mines. The stoppage in the Yorkshire coalfield, he said, was far worse than if Sheffield had been bombed. That morning he had attended the Cabinet and that afternoon he called in at a meeting of the General Council of the TUC. He told them that as a result of the strikes, which, in his opinion, were being incited by persons outside the industry concerned, a paralysis was developing in some of the major industries in the country. Under the existing law he had no powers to deal with incitement to strike. That was the power he must have."
Of course, the strikes that were taking place were not caused by "outside agitators" – either the RCP or anyone else. They were caused by the growing discontent of the miners and other workers at the bad conditions in industry, the profiteering of the employers and so on. Nevertheless, the RCP was the only organisation that supported strikes in defence of wages and conditions, while the "Communist" Party was playing a completely strike-breaking role. Therefore, Bevin’s remarks were clearly directed against us. Despite our small size, they took us very seriously and we were regarded as a threat.
Bevin got his way. With the backing of the TUC, the government introduced the notorious Regulation 1AA. Its essential clause reads as follows: "No person shall declare, instigate, or make any other person to take part in, or shall otherwise act in the furtherance of, any strike among persons engaged in the performance of essential services, or any lock-out of persons so engaged." This was a draconic, catch-all piece of legislation, which effectively removed the right to strike. The penalty for violating it was five years’ penal servitude or a five hundred pound fine (a fortune in those days) – or both. But in the end it proved to be a dead letter. No-one was ever prosecuted under Regulation 1AA.
We had our headquarters in a room in Millie Lee’s place in Chichester Road, near Paddington. The printing press was originally stored in Jock’s place in Warwick Avenue, not far from Millie’s. We had used the basement for the purposes of the organisation. We then moved to a loft, at 61 Northdown Street, in Kings Cross. We considered it a great step forward at that time. When the strikes were taking place during the war we had a great deal of press coverage. If you read the pages of the capitalist press at that time, it was full of stories about this loft headquarters. We had reporters coming up to the place, from the backyard near Kings Cross Station and reporting how the class war was being waged from this dingy hide-out. They wrote spine-chilling stories in a conspiratorial and exaggerated style, as you can imagine. They were accompanied by pictures of the office taken from the road. From there, they conducted interviews with Jock Haston, Millie Lee and myself.
With each succeeding crisis during the war, we had had the press coming to see what was going on. For instance, when the miners went on strike in the Yorkshire coalfields in the middle of 1942, Joe Hall, the president of the Yorkshire miners, launched an attack on the WIL, saying that these Trotskyist agitators were being paid ’10 a week, which was a fortune in those days – for the purpose of stirring up agitation. Of course, this had no effect on the miners, but merely frightened the middle classes who were looking for reds under the bed. The capitalist press played it up and we challenged them to produce the evidence.
The Daily Mail reporter came around to gather material about our activities and to write an article about WIL and Joe Hall’s allegations. He interviewed Haston and myself. The next day the story appeared with the heading: "Class War is Waged from Loft HQ." The article opened up: "In a bare loft above a builder’s yard near Kings Cross, London, I found yesterday the home of the Trotsky organisation which has been accused by miners’ leaders of subversive and pro-Nazi activities in the coalfields." (Daily Mail, 15 July 1942). When the Daily Express turned up at the loft, I showed the reporter my discharge papers and my true wage of ’2/10 shillings a week. The Express described me as "’shock-headed, getting a salary of one pound a week, which is made up to two pounds ten shillings by comrades who subscribe from their own wages." I was reported as saying: "We used to have to produce the paper from our private homes but now we are getting support, membership at about 500, we have been able to take over this office for a rental of 27 shillings a week. Our sales like all other papers are on a quota basis from the Ministry of Supply and it has been cut back like all other papers. But fortunately we had in a supply." (Daily Express, 15 July 1942). These facts served to undercut Hall’s allegations.
Between mid-1941, the time of the CP’s pro-imperialist war stand, and 1944, we developed the activity of our tendency to an enormous extent. We maintained a small group in the Labour Party, as explained, ready to take advantage of the situation when it changed. However, in these years, the ILP had developed, and was a far more important field for us. We therefore maintained a fraction in the ILP, and succeeded in winning over people such as Roy Tearse, who became the Industrial Organiser of the WIL and the secretary of the Militant Workers Federation.
We also recruited T. Dan Smith, the notorious T. Dan Smith on Tyneside, who ended up on the right wing, became Labour leader in the North East of England and was subsequently jailed for corruption. Bill Hunter also came from the ILP, and after a period of good work, ended up after the break-up of the RCP as a hatchetman of Healy. Other comrades recruited from the ILP, also from the North East, were Ken Skethaway, Jack and Daisy Rawlings and Herbie Bell, all of whom remained life-long comrades of our tendency. Throughout the North East, we controlled two divisions of the ILP, in Durham and in Cumberland, which we attempted to use to maximum effect.
Herbie Bell deserves a special comment. Herbie was a courageous fighter for the working class. Born in 1885 in Northumberland, he became a farm labourer. He joined the British army and Christmas 1915 took part in the fraternisation between British and German troops. Herbie told many a tale of the victimisation and punishment he received for spreading disaffection and "mutinous" ideas among the ranks. In 1920 he joined the Independent Labour Party, and during the 1926 General Strike he was a dispatch carrier for the No.2 Central Joint Strike Committee. He was sent to Durham prison for his activities. In 1945, in protest at the expulsion of Trotskyists from the ILP, he resigned and joined the RCP. In the same year he stood as the RCP candidate for Wallsend Borough Council, his election agent being Bill Landles, who continues to support the tendency to the present day. Herbie was an active trade unionist and shop steward, and used to sell 100 copies of every issue of our paper Militant [established in 1964] around the pit villages until well into his retirement. He was a man very widely read and with a profound interest in Marxist theory – which he never lost. Even in his last days he was reading Anti-Dühring and Hegel. His dedication was a tremendous inspiration to those who knew him and his death in July 1978 at the age of 83 marked the loss of an outstanding working class revolutionary.
Important as the ILP work was, it was not our most important field of activity. Our main area of work was in the industrial field and in the main trades unions where we were beginning to recruit more and more workers. The WIL, while relatively small with around 300 members, was overwhelmingly – maybe about 90 percent – industrial working class in composition. In August 1942, the WIL held its first national conference, where for the first time we saw collected together a galaxy of working class talent. The conference sent greetings to the Fourth International and requested that WIL be accepted as the official section in Britain.
"This, the first National Conference of the Workers International League, held under the conditions of semi-legality imposed upon us by the present war politics of the British bourgeoisie, sends greetings to the International Secretariat, expressing our solidarity with it and through it to all sections of the Fourth International throughout the world. In addressing ourselves to you, we once again express, by the unanimous vote of our membership, the desire to be acknowledged as an official section of the Fourth International.
"The International Conference of 1938 rejected the appeal of the Workers International League (then only a small minority group) to be accepted as an official section of the Fourth International, or to be recognised as a sympathetic section. This decision on the part of the conference was based on an entirely incorrect estimation of the British movement and its various components. The Conference placed its trust in the ’Unified Revolutionary Socialist League’, in the hands of CLR James, of Maitland and Tate, of Starkey Jackson and DD Harber. Today the ’unified’ organisation has splintered into no less than five fragments; CLR James is now with the Burnham-Shachtman revisionists (his deviation had been noted by the WIL comrades in 1937); Maitland and Tait have adopted the stand of ’Conscientious Objectors’ to the imperialist war on ’ethical grounds’ and have decisively broken with Bolshevism; Jackson and Harber have almost completely disappeared from the political horizon of the revolutionary workers. Meanwhile, despite the loss of comrade Lee who returned to South Africa due to illness, and contrary to the prediction of the Conference that the WIL would splinter into fragments and finish in the mire, the WIL has attracted to its ranks all the genuine militants of our tendency in Britain and stands today as the only representative of the Fourth International with a voice among the British working class."
The statement recorded the fact that the RSL had "to all intents and purposes" collapsed. The last issue of its paper Militant appeared more than a year ago. It had produced no publications. It held no meetings. It conducted no discussion circles. "In name it retains the status of the British section of the Fourth International, in fact it has completely collapsed."
"In contrast to this the WIL has moved slowly but steadily ahead. We have produced every important document of our international movement and sold them in thousands. The semblance of a genuine national organisation has been formed. Militants from our ranks play leading roles in workers’ struggles in many parts of the country – in the trade union and shop stewards movement, particularly in heavy industry the voices of our comrades are heard at conventions of the working class. This is a new feature in British Trotskyism. Our publications have appeared with regularity under the most adverse conditions and today they are the acknowledged publications of Trotskyism in Britain."
"Preparing for power"
As the political secretary of the WIL, I was given the task of drawing up the perspectives document, which was entitled Preparing for Power. It is an important document, which was printed in the WIN, and deserves today to be reprinted and made available to a wider audience. There are those who said that the document, and its title, was out of step with the real situation. But this is false. Our task was the building of a revolutionary proletarian party, whose task was the organisation of the working class to take power. This was based upon the perspective of great revolutionary events that would arise from the war. In 1942, this remained the most likely path in front of us. Our aim was to draw out all the revolutionary possibilities inherent in the situation and to raise the sights of every member to the tasks posed by history. That was the purpose of the perspectives outlined in Preparing for Power.
By its very nature, the document was very optimistic as it outlined the growing upsurge in industrial militancy, and the developing mood for social change. It deals with the international situation, then analysed developments in Britain, especially in the ILP, CP and the trade unions. Together with this, it highlighted the vital role of the subjective factor, the party, as the most decisive factor.
"In Britain, more perhaps than in any other country in the world, a correct policy towards the trade unions and factory committees is necessary for a young revolutionary party", stated the document. "Without a correct attitude on this question, our organisation would doom itself to vegetate in sectarian isolation. This is especially the case today when the workers are beginning to stir and awaken – from the period of relative ’peace’ in industry which followed the debacle of the Labour Party in 1931, and when the whole of the working class is undergoing a transformation in its outlook.
"This awakening of the working class is shown by the number of strikes that are taking place in formerly backward areas which were only partially organised before the war. Commencing with Betteshanger Colliery, the unrest among the miners – always a barometer of the temper of the British workers – has been followed by strikes in one coalfield after another. Small strikes have taken place among the dockers, railwaymen, engineers and ship-building workers. All these have for the present been limited to a local scale. But they are the first rumblings that give warning of the coming eruption.
"The bourgeoisie and the Labour bureaucracy are looking with alarm on these signs of discontent among the workers, and have been compelled to retreat and compromise. They are afraid that by too stubborn opposition, they might release forces beyond their power to control. This process, however, is developing in a contradictory fashion. It can be seen, for example, that despite the terrific discontent among the highly class conscious workers in South Wales and Clydeside, no big movement is taking place in these traditional storm centres. The reason for this has not been unwillingness on the part of the workers to fight. It is the stranglehold exercised by the Stalinists over the shop stewards and leading militants in these districts. Undoubtedly, but for this feature, there would already have been a general strike on the Clydeside, at least among the shipbuilding workers. Had the Stalinists been pursuing their pseudo-left line of the ’people’s government’ period, they would today be at the head of a mass movement throughout the country. It is no exaggeration to say that they would probably have captured the rank and file militants in every union in industry. But the changing of the party Line after Hitler’s attack on Russia, revealed the true face of Stalinism: the Communist Party has come forward as the principal strike-breaking force at the service of the ruling class.
"This offers a tremendous opportunity to the Fourth International, and one which must be utilised to the fullest possible extent. Once again it must be emphasised – face to the factories, the unions, the factory committees!"
Preparing For Power went on to analyse the perspectives for the war and then concluded with great optimism for the future:
"The possibility exists for an unprecedented growth in influence and numbers in the shortest possible time. Today the problem consists mainly in preparing the basis for a rapid increase in growth and influence. The Workers International League will grow with the growth of the left wing. It is necessary to break sharply and consciously, as the group is already doing, with the psychology and perspectives of the past. The most difficult period is in the past – isolated membership and the hostility or indifference of the masses. Big movements and big events which we can influence are on the order of the day. The group must not be caught unawares by the development of events.
"It is necessary that the membership systematically face the workers and penetrate among the masses. Above all, it is necessary to bring the Fourth International before the masses of the workers as an independent tendency.
"It is necessary that the organisation face up critically to the most vital of all factors: the leadership and the organisation are lagging behind the development of events. Objectively, conditions are developing and have already developed, which make for the speediest and most favourable growth and entrenchment of our organisation. But the basic weakness lies in the lack of trained cadres. The membership is for the most part young and untrained and lacks theoretical education. The organisation, despite the leap in influence, still maintains for the most part the habits and attitude of mind of the past – that is, of propaganda circles rather than of branches for agitation among the masses. The difficulties and tasks of the past period of the group’s life are still reflected in its ideas and work. On the basis of the new perspective a sharp break must be made with the past.
"It can be stated without exaggeration that the decisive question of whether the organisation will be able to face up to events will be determined by whether the leadership and membership can base themselves thoroughly in the shortest space of time, on these perspectives and face up to implementing them in the day to day work of the organisation. To develop deep and firm roots and to become known as a tendency and organisation throughout the country, and above all, among the advanced workers in the factories is the basic task of the organisation.
"The disproportion in the situation in Britain lies in the lack of relationship between the ripeness of the objective situation and the immaturity and weakness of our organisation. Prospects of a swift impulsion of the masses leading to a spectacular growth of the organisation on the lines of the POUM in the Spanish revolution are rooted in the situation. But only if we realise the scope of the tasks and possibilities which history has placed before us. We will rise to the situation only if in the interim, skeleton cadres are built throughout the country. These cadres would serve as the bones on which the body of a powerful organisation could be built up from the new and fresh recruits who will come towards us as the crisis develops.
"These tasks must be accomplished. Our untrained and untested organisation, will, within a few years at most, be hurled into the turmoil of the revolution. The problem of the organisation, the problem of building the party, goes hand in hand with the revolutionary mobilisation of the masses. Every member must raise himself or herself to the understanding that the key to world history lies in our hands. The conquest of power is on the order of the day in Britain – but only if we find the road to the masses.
"Revolutionary audacity can achieve everything. The organisation must consciously pose itself and see itself as the decisive factor in the situation. There will be no lack of possibilities for transforming ourselves from a tiny sect into a mass organisation on the wave of the revolution."
Our work in the armed forces
With many of our comrades conscripted into the armed forces, the organisation conducted energetic revolutionary activity within the army. The army was made up overwhelmingly of young conscripts. We had refused to take the pacifist position of the ILP and support the conscientious objectors. On the contrary, we had insisted that all our comrades, except for those needed for the functioning of the organisation, would have to go with their class into the forces. When they were called up they linked their fate with that of their class. This policy of revolutionary activity in the army gained really important results. The past arguments of Lenin and Trotsky had demonstrated the absolute falsity of pacifism and the tactic of conscientious objection as a method of fighting war. The main problem with conscientious objection was that the best elements, the more self-sacrificing, the more courageous elements, would simply separate themselves off from the movement of the working class and those they wanted to influence. Such a policy would leave the working class to the mercy of the reactionary officers and generals of the ruling class.
Our comrades who went into the army very quickly got a great response wherever they were stationed. The military establishment, for example, in order to boost the morale of the soldiers, organised what they called The Army Bureau of Current Affairs or ABCA. This was used by the officers to explain to the conscript soldiers exactly what was happening at the different fronts, educate them about current political events and so on, and to inspire them for their military struggle against fascism. In many cases, where our comrades were stationed, together with other lefts, we took over a number of these ABCAs. Our comrades participated in the Forces’ Parliament in Cairo to such effect that the army chiefs were forced to close it down. In Cyrenaica, Arthur Leadbetter was elected Prime Minister and Home Secretary of the Benghazi Forces’ Parliament, but he was posted back to Cairo and the experiment with "parliamentarism" in the armed forces terminated.
We always insisted that our comrades should be the best workers in the factories, that they should be punctual and conscientious, otherwise workers would not be prepared to listen or take you seriously. Taking the advice of Trotsky, we extended this analogy to work in the army. That is to say, in times of war we should also be the best soldiers, and demonstrate our technical capacity and proficiency in arms. At the same time, our comrades would fight for the improvement in conditions of their fellow soldiers and link this to the establishment of Soldiers’ Committees and a rounded-out revolutionary position.
This tactic was very successful. So successful in fact that the officers in charge usually wouldn’t know what to do with our comrades. The colonel would grumble that he couldn’t have this Bolshie chap ruining the morale in his unit. So he would look around for another officer who he did not particularly like and say: "I think I’ll give Percy a little present." So they would post our comrade to old Percy, or whoever, with the message: "I’ve got a good bloke for you, very conscientious." So they would be posted all round the place. And wherever they went, carrying on our revolutionary agitation, they succeeded in "Bolshevising" the troops, to the dismay of the officers. As a result of this revolutionary work, soldiers were getting in touch with us from all sorts of places.
A classic example of this was what happened with Frank Ward, who unfortunately later ended up on the right wing where he acted as the Labour bureaucracy’s ’expert’ on Trotskyism. Nevertheless at that time he did marvellous work for us in the air force. Frank, a very capable comrade at that time, was an engineer in the RAF where he created waves with his political agitation. On one occasion when Frank was busy tying the officer in charge up in knots, the officer suddenly threw up his hands and said to our comrade: "Very well then, you conduct the bloody classes." Seeing an opportunity, Frank stepped in and gave four lectures on the programme of the Fourth International – and got an amazing response from the soldiers into the bargain! Using these methods, we managed to win over whole number of soldiers to our ideas.
Finally, the bigwigs in the War Office must have got wind of what was happening. They decided that there was only one thing to do. They gave Frank Ward an "honourable discharge" from the air force and sent him home! This was not a dishonourable discharge, of course, because they had no grounds for such an action. Frank’s service record was impeccable, and they didn’t want any trouble. He was informed that he was "no longer suitable to requirements." Of course, we wouldn’t let it end there! We waged a campaign concerning this scandalous affair. This man was healthy, we explained, and there was absolutely nothing wrong with him, mentally or physically, and yet the military bosses were kicking him out of the forces. We kicked up a terrible scandal. After his discharge, he became a professional full-time worker for the organisation.
Our revolutionary agitation within the armed forces was having a great response. It was around this time that one of the great myths was created about the alleged "chauvinism" of Ted Grant – which was peddled around by some of the sects. This arose from our attitude towards the Eighth Army stationed in North Africa. The Eighth army – or the "desert rats" as they were popularly known – was responsible for inflicting the first serious defeat on the German army in North Africa at the battle of Alamein in 1932. This is held up by British military historians as a turning point in the war. But this should be kept in proportion. At Alamein the British defeated fifteen enemy divisions. The Russians were facing one hundred and seventy six enemy divisions on the eastern front.
Anyway, the Eighth Army was regarded as the flower of the British Army, but at that time there was an enormous revolutionary ferment developing among these soldiers. In the Forces’ Parliament in Cairo, as I have already mentioned, our comrades were actually elected to the positions of Prime Minister and Home Secretary. Obviously, they put forward a Trotskyist position. From the reports of our soldier comrades, the Eighth Army soldiers were saying that after the war they would refuse to disarm, and return to Britain with their guns to ensure that things would change. This was the mutinous mood that was developing amongst these troops. At the 1943 conference of our tendency, I made the point, to illustrate the thing graphically, that the military establishment though it their army, but in fact, the soldiers of the Eighth Army were in rebellion. This reflected the revolutionary developments in the army. It was our Eighth Army in that it was being transformed. It was becoming revolutionary and in the process of moving over to the side of the working class. That was the precise meaning of my remark and no other:
"We have a victorious army in North Africa and Italy, and I say, yes", I stated to the WIL conference. "Long Live the Eighth Army, because that is our army. One of our comrades has spoken to a number of people who have had letters from the Eighth Army soldiers showing their complete dissatisfaction. We know of incidents in the army, navy and other forces that have never been reported, and it is impossible for us to report. It is our Eighth Army that is being hammered and tested and being organised for the purpose of changing the face of the world. This applies equally to all the forces."
"Books have their own fate", the Romans used to say, and speeches also have a fate unintended by those who make them. The above remarks were taken completely out of context by the sectarians and twisted in order to give some credence to the false allegation concerning our supposed "chauvinism".
Militants in industry
We made great advances in the army, and we made important gains in industry. In the engineering industry we were developing an important position, particularly in the Amalgamated Engineering Union. In this union we had established a small but important influence. We had set up a network throughout the country based on key activists. Gerry Healy was our industrial organiser, but we had numerous difficulties with him. This resulted in Healy either resigning or being expelled on several occasions from the WIL. Every time Haston and myself brought him back into the leadership, against the wishes of most of the membership. We managed to convince the comrades of his organisational capacity, and we brought him back. This proved to be a big mistake. The last time this happened, in February 1943, he walked out saying he was joining the ILP. Given his track record, when we brought him back this time, we refused to bring him back into the leadership. We told him he would have to work his way back into a position of trust, which served to push him into organising an opposition to the leadership on any question he could lay his hands on. This was the start of Healy’s factionalism within the WIL, which was later encouraged by the connivance of Cannon and Pablo.
Given the importance of the industrial work, and our need to sink deep roots in industry, we had no alternative but to replace Healy. Roy Tearse became our national Industrial Organiser. Tearse, who was an outstanding comrade, had a great feel for the work, and applied himself with great energy and ability. We set up the Militant Workers Federation to draw around us the best militants in industry. Tearse became its secretary and its offices were based in Nottingham near the ROF factory. It quickly involved shop stewards committees and even District Committees, especially of the engineering workers union. Wherever there were strikes, anywhere in the country, the WIL was there. As Roy Tearse stated later:
"Essentially my basic job as the secretary of the Militant Workers Federation was to keep these militants in contact with each other. It was a question of trying to build an alternative base from the Communist Party inside industry. This is what it really meant. There was no secret made of the fact to positively push Trotskyist ideas and to support genuine militant activity on the part of the working class. For instance, this Barrow strike, which is often mentioned, the Militant Workers Federation assisted in the organisation by sending out circulars for support and so on, and collected a considerable amount of money for the strike. In those days, what was collected I don’t remember exactly now, but it was a considerable amount, and it was a question of workers getting assistance, of maintaining contact, where workers needed assistance and so on, and of course arguing all the time for our point of view. This is what it all really amounted to. Its biggest activity was its involvement in the Tyneside Apprentices strike in 1944."
Under wartime conditions, all strikes were unofficial and illegal. Workers had not been involved in struggle for quite a period and so our assistance was invaluable. We gave them the idea of connecting with other sections of the working class, and explained how to set up committees and how to conduct the struggle. During the Barrow engineering workers’ strike of 1943, which was a solid strike affecting the shipbuilding industry, we sent over Jimmy Dean from Liverpool and Roy Tearse, who were subsequently co-opted onto the strike committee. These comrades assisted with the detailed strategy and tactics of the strike throughout its duration, and countered the barrage of attacks from the Communist Party and the government.
The strike was taking place as we held our second national conference. There was great optimism throughout our ranks at the progress we had made, and the developing situation in Britain and internationally.
"Wonderful day, wonderful possibilities open up in front of us", stated the present author to the assembled 150 or so delegates and visitors. "You can feel revolution in the air. That attitude must permeate our conference. The correctness of our viewpoint should give us confidence in preparing ourselves for our role in the coming revolution. Whatever its fate may be, it is certain that we can, we must, we will play our part, and stamp our tendency as an influence, as a serious factor in the situation, as an organisation that will play its part in the revolution. When, twelve months ago, we called our thesis ’Preparing for Power’, this was not a mad gesture. That is the serious problem with which we are faced."
After the Conference, the Barrow strike had been victorious, and was a militant example to workers everywhere. Of course, the press was nosing around the Trotskyists to see what they could dig up, but they couldn’t find anything. Nevertheless, there were campaigns in the press waged by the Sunday Dispatch, the Sunday organ of the Daily Mail, and by other newspapers, with big front page headlines about these ’outside agitators’, and so on. But this had little effect. When the Stalinists attempted to slander our comrades Jimmy Deane and Arthur Farrager, the whole thing backfired. Asked why they weren’t doing their bit for King and Country, they replied: "I’m doing my utmost – I’m a blood donor", to cheers of delight form the workers. Hundreds of Socialist Appeal papers were sold in the dispute.
The WIL was also involved in a number of other strikes, which were regularly covered by the Socialist Appeal. In the report on the WIL drawn up by Herbert Morrison, it outlines some of these interventions:
"Trotskyists also took some part in the strikes at the Rolls Royce aircraft works, Glasgow, in August 1941 and July 1943, in a strike at the Barnbow Royal Ordnance Factory in June 1943 and in the Yorkshire Transport strike in May 1943, but their activity has consisted in advising and encouraging the strike leaders rather than in provoking the strikes."
As the resolution on industrial perspectives for our 1943 national conference explained, 1942 saw the largest number of strikes for 16 years, and in the first five months of 1943 there were one-and-a-half times as many disputes as in the same period of 1942. It highlighted the possible development of workers’ committees or soviets as the industrial struggle deepened, and especially the role of the Militant Workers Federation. The resolution stated:
"It is now possible to perceive, not only a broadening out, but a general transformation in the nature of the struggle. Whereas previously the workers who were involved in disputes were isolated, the nationwide support given to the Neptune Engine works on the Tyne, the solidarity of the miners in the South Yorkshire and South Wales coalfields over recent disputes affecting single collieries in the given areas, or the strike of 23,000 Nottinghamshire miners over the imprisonment of a lad – these are demonstrations that the workers are closing their ranks in solidarity. But the latter strike in particular, is an indication of the political character that the struggle is assuming.
"Already the workers are realising the necessity of linking up with, and gaining support of, workers in other parts. The Committees that were established as the directing centres in these disputes are not as yet soviets, but they point to the centres in which the workers, through the efforts of the local leaders, will create fighting committees or soviets on a national scale in the future. All these factors demonstrate that the main strategy of the revolutionary socialists in the field of industry must be to raise consciously in the minds of the industrial workers the necessity to end the industrial truce.
"All the objective conditions for tremendous explosions are maturing in the factories, mines and transport of Britain. Arising out of the struggles that have already taken place, the question of leadership is being raised more and more sharply in the minds of the working class. The workers have learned, whenever they have been forced to stand and fight, that the Labour and trade union leadership, together with the Communist Party and the National Council of Shop Stewards, have deserted them, and indeed, sabotaged their struggle at every turn."
Demise of the Comintern
In the same year, in June 1943, Stalin wound up the Communist International as a gesture to the Allies, and to demonstrate that he was not interested in world revolution. According to the Stalinist writer William Z. Foster, who was chairman of the American Communist Party:
"It is significant that the historic decision was taken right at the most crucial moment of the fight to establish the second front. This front was very greatly needed for a quick and decisive victory; but the Western reactionaries (who also believed Goebbels’ lies about the Comintern) were blocking it. Undoubtedly the favourable impression all over the bourgeois world made by the dissolution of the Comintern helped very decisively to break this deadly log-jam. It was only a few months later (in November-December 1943) that there was held the famous Teheran conference, at which the date for the second front was finally decided."
In a special issue of Socialist Appeal, a manifesto addressed to working class internationalists was issued. I wrote an analysis in the June edition of WIN entitled The Rise and Fall of the Communist International, outlining the history of the International, from a revolutionary body under Lenin to a counter-revolutionary body under Stalin, for use by comrades in discussions with CP militants. It concluded:
"This policy of Stalin and the ’stinking corpse’ of the Comintern suffered irretrievable ruin when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. The Comintern had to execute a right about turn and convert itself once again into a doormat for Roosevelt and British imperialism. But with the increased dependence of Stalin on American and British imperialism, has come the increased pressure on the part of the capitalist ’allies’. American imperialism especially has demanded the ending of the Comintern as a final guarantee against the danger of social revolution in Europe after the downfall of Hitler.
"The long drawn-out pretence is over. Stalin has dissolved the degenerate Comintern. In doing so he openly announces his stepping over to the side of the capitalist counter-revolution as far as the rest of the world is concerned. But the imperialists, in forcing Stalin to make this trade in return for concessions and bargains on their part, have not understood the consequences this will have. It cannot and will not prevent the coming of new revolutions throughout the world. In the less than two decades since the beginning of its degeneration, the Comintern has ruined many favourable situations in many countries.
"The coming decades will witness many revolutions with the breakdown and collapse of capitalism. Even the violently disturbed epoch of the period between the wars will seem comparatively tranquil compared to the period which lies ahead. On this background of storms and upheavals a real instrument of world revolution will be created. What the workers lacked in the last decades, outside Russia, was a workers’ Bolshevik Party and a Bolshevik leadership. The great days of the Comintern of 1917-23 will live again. The growth in support for the ideas of Marxism internationally, based on the traditions of Bolshevism, the rich experience of the past, and learning the lessons of defeats of the working class, can once again lead the oppressed to the overthrow of capitalism and to the world socialist republic."
The WIL had really come into its own. We had established a modest apparatus. I was the national secretary, Jock was the national organiser, and Harold Atkinson was our national treasurer. We had four full timers at this stage: myself, Jock, Andrew Scott, who was the assistant editor of Socialist Appeal, and Millie Lee. It was a very good team, although Scott dropped out after being called up. Our offices in Kings Cross were very modest, but they suited our purposes. By this time we must have had 300 members. Things were certainly going in our direction.
In contrast, as we explained in our statement, the official section of the International, the RSL, was in a terminal state and split into three warring factions. Its meagre forces were disintegrating before their very eyes. By the summer of 1943, the 170 members who made up the RSL at its foundation had dwindled to 23. Their paper ceased publication and they had no paid full timer. In 1943, one of their factions, the Trotskyist Opposition (TO), the so-called right wing, got in touch with us with the aim of fusing with our organisation. The Healy faction had been in regular contact with the TO, hoping, under the guidance of Cannon, to construct a stronger faction with the TO. However, just at this point when the right wing was preparing to join us, the leadership, which had become a minority in the RSL, pulled a brilliant manoeuvre by expelling the majority! That is an actual fact! They managed to pull off this trick with Harber joining up with Robertson to expel the ’social chauvinists’, as they called the Trotskyist Opposition. As soon as that was complete, Harber then turned around and immediately expelled the supporters of Robertson into the bargain! So by that means the minority succeeded in expelling the majority. At any rate, the TO got in touch with us and were getting ready to enter our organisation and, at that very moment, who should arrive on the scene but Sam Gordon of the American SWP. By this time, the headquarters of the International had moved to New York as the Nazi occupation of Europe made it almost impossible for it to function. Its existence now depended completely on the American SWP. So Gordon arrived in reality as an emissary of James Cannon.
Cannon couldn’t have this terrible mess in Britain. The official British section was an absolute embarrassment. It was a disaster, and they knew it. The Americans had been republishing articles from our press in the American Militant, particularly on our application of the military policy as well as intervention in industry. They reprinted a lot of our material because they could see the enormous progress that was being made on the basis of the policy of Trotskyism. Cannon and the rest of the leaders lamented this position and said: "It’s terrible. It’s unprecedented that an unofficial organisation had the official policy of Trotskyism and the official organ, the RSL, has nothing to do with Trotskyism. The RSL is completely sectarian, completely ultra-left and also completely opportunist in their attitude towards the Labour Party". So the Cannon leadership of the International sought a way out of this dilemma, but of course, in their own inimical fashion.
Firstly, they pulled back the TO from fusing with us, convincing them that their task was to re-establish the RSL, which was in ruins. So they convened a conference of all the factions of the RSL in January 1944. An IS resolution was proposed, and after some arm twisting, accepted as a means of reconstituting the RSL, which could then formally enter fusion talks with the WIL. The job of the IS was simply, as they saw it, to unify their rump grouping with the successful WIL. The International leadership forced the remnants of the RSL at gun-point to come together by threatening to expel them from the International if they weren’t prepared to accept this decision. In the words of Don Corleone in The Godfather, they made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. But before the International leadership was prepared to recognise us as the official tendency in Britain, we had to go through a farcical unification procedure. We didn’t object to unification. But as we said at the time, if there is to be unity in the movement, it will not add up to much. The WIL will simply swallow up what was left of the RSL. That was our open and frank position.
We insisted that if there was going to be a unification of the organisations, then this could only take place on a principled basis. Tactical, strategic and political positions had to be laid down firmly in advance, then discussed on a democratic basis between both tendencies. This would be followed by a unity conference where the decisions would be made. The minority, whoever the minority might be, had the right to develop and put forward their position, and the organisation as a whole would consider it. But once the conference decided, then that would be the policy of the organisation. Otherwise there couldn’t be any unification. We would never again allow a unification such as took place in 1938 – an unprincipled unification, which, we said, was a sure formula for future splits. In this, we were proved absolutely correct.
So they sent Sherry Mangan, another American, over to Europe to oversee the fusion. He was the correspondent for Life and Time magazines, and was in a position to travel quite extensively. He was very well off, probably earning a few thousand dollars a year, which was a lot of money in those days. He came to Britain with the purpose of getting unification at any cost. To his horror, he found we had been in touch with the Harber tendency, the old leaders of the RSL, who had informed us of the real situation in their ranks, in terms of numbers, and so on. We explained the position to Mangan and he quickly realised that we were in a very strong position. In the end, they were quite prepared to accept unity on our terms and so a conference was arranged.
Of course, before the unity conference we published all the documents. The RSL published documents on the military policy, which described us as having a chauvinist policy. We put forward our position of supporting the proletarian military policy based on the policy of Trotsky and Lenin – developed by us and applied to the present situation. This position was in complete contrast to the barren and ineffective caricature of "revolutionary defeatism" as put forward by the RSL.
On the question of entrism, we explained that in the long term, even if we had thousands of members, it would still be necessary to enter the Labour Party at a certain stage – but only under the classic conditions that had been laid down by Trotsky. These were: a pre-revolutionary situation, a ferment within the party of social democracy and a developing mass left wing opposition within the party. We explained that although this would provide a golden opportunity, it was nevertheless regarded as a short-term expedient. That was our position at that time, and that was the position of Trotsky. Events in the post war period forced us to modify this position, and, with the break-up of the RCP, we were forced to enter the Labour Party for a very lengthy period indeed. But at that time, entrism was not a viable tactic in building the organisation. It was necessary to maintain an open independent party.
 From James P. Cannon, The Internationalist by Joseph Hanson, New York, July 1980, pp.27-28.
 Discussion/Education Documentary Collection, 1944.
 Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1939-40, pp. 411-12.
 GDH Cole, op. cit., p. 662.
 Haston interview with Al Richardson, 30 April 1978.
 WIL Internal Bulletin, 12 March 1942.
 Criticism by the RSL of the WIL pamphlet Preparing For Power, 22 December 1942.
 Ibid., pp.11-12.
 Ted Grant, Reply to the RSL, pp.18-19.
 Michael Foot, Aneurin Bevan, vol. 1, p. 388.
 Quoted in War and the International by Bornstein and Richardson, London 1986, p.89.
 Roy Tearse interview by Al Richardson, 6 July 1978.
 Quoted in War and the International, pp.77-78.
 Quoted in War and the International, p.73.
 Quoted in The Communist Movement, Fernando Claudin, London 1975, p.23.