Part Four

In Defence of Trotskyism - Our Struggle with the International

[Section 3]

Although not experiencing a period of deep reaction as in 1908-10 in Russia, Britain was passing through an extremely difficult period that nevertheless, served to isolate the revolutionary forces. Under these conditions, it was a question of holding on to our forces, defending the fundamental ideas and raising the theoretical level of those people we could influence. It was inevitable that there would be a certain disappointment and disillusionment among comrades who had looked forward to a revolutionary development after the war. Instead of this, the old leadership of the working class had betrayed the revolution and the enormous pressures of reformism, Stalinism, and capitalism were bearing down upon our movement.

The RCP had no independent printing press during the war. The old treadle machine of the WIL had been destroyed by bombing in the war, and you couldn't get a printing press for love nor money. We had tried to buy a press when we were flush with funds from the people who printed our paper. In fact, the proprietor had agreed to give us a 51 percent discount, but unfortunately his accountant had advised him against, so he turned us down. We were quite prepared to pay him a large amount of money at that time, but the chap refused, and we couldn't budge him. Later on, we had no money anyway.

Our income was affected in many ways. Former wealthy sympathisers were no longer willing to give large sums of money. Sales of the paper and the WIN were dwindling. This added to the pressures on comrades, who found it more and more difficult to sell. We started to lose more comrades than we were recruiting. It was a period of retrenchment for our forces. "Towards the middle of the year", states The Party Organiser, "the Party was forced to retrench on the apparatus costs. In line with the general trend and drop in income after the war, the apparatus costs were out of proportion with the rate of growth and development of the organisation. Five professionals were taken off the pay-roll - two from the centre and three from the provincial areas." (September 1946) The circulation of the Socialist Appeal had dropped to around 10,000 copies per issue.

Although conditions were getting difficult, we still maintained our activity. We continued to make minor gains, no longer on the scale that we had made during the war. Nevertheless, we picked up the more thinking workers here and there. Between 1946 and 1947, the figures show we had gained 40 comrades and lost 48, giving us a membership of 336. There were 60 comrades in the Labour Party. In the organisational report to the national conference in 1947, we read: "Losses are recorded in Newcastle, Liverpool and Wales." The comrades were forced to cease publication of the WIN. The full-time professionals were: Ted Grant, Jock Haston, Heaton Lee (Wales), Roy Tearse (Glasgow), and George Smith (Business Manager). The unpaid professionals were Millie Lee, Tom Reilly, and George Nozeda.

I analysed the situation in an article comparing the Labour Government with the previous one in 1929-31, which was published in the Socialist Appeal in October 1947.

"The striking difference between the position in 1929 and the present", stated the article, "is that in the former case, powerful opposition developed within the Labour Party on home affairs, which assumed terrible urgency in the lives of the workers. In the previous Labour Government, the foreign policy was based on pacifist demagogy and was largely endorsed by the 'lefts'. What feeble opposition has developed in the Labour Party and Parliamentary Party today has been on the issue of foreign policy. But the opposition on foreign policy collapsed because of the weakness of British imperialism, which resulted in the forced withdrawal from India, partly from Egypt, and now the government declaration regarding its preparedness to withdraw from Palestine. Moreover, an opposition, while it is confined in the main to foreign affairs, cannot hope to attract the support of the broad masses away from the right wing. Thus, the right wing Labour leaders have been able, owing to Britain's weakness, to pose as 'liberators' of the colonial peoples with a 'socialist' foreign policy as against the blatantly imperialist policy of Churchill and the previous Tory governments, and even the previous Labour Government.

"The policy of the Government on home affairs has been largely endorsed by the so-called opposition - a striking contrast to the situation in the Labour Party in the previous government. An instructive episode was the difference in attitude of the late James Maxton of the ILP, who welcomed enthusiastically the programme of the Third Labour Government and its suggested legislation.

"The collapse of the 'lefts' at the past two conferences of the Labour Party since the formation of the Labour Government, especially the miserable and ignominious defeat at the last one, was not at all accidental but rooted in the objective development of events. In contrast to the previous Labour Governments, far from the lefts gaining in support, the present period has been marked even during the dollar crisis, by a strengthening of the right wing leadership in the Labour Party. It reflects the mass consciousness in the past two years. It is a law of development within the mass organisations of the working class, that left reformist or centrist currents develop on the basis of deep-seated opposition to the right wing leadership on the part of the rank and file. Currents of opposition within the Labour movement will not flourish without mass backing. The 'leaders' are pushed from below by the pressure of the rank and file. It is thus that the processes in the country reflect themselves through the opportunist leaders inside parliament and within the mass movement. Where deep-seated processes of differentiation have not taken place, the 'opposition' can only make the feeblest of gestures."

Only on the basis of huge events would the situation change. However, in the meantime, this difficult situation was having repercussions in our ranks. The so-called leadership of the International, and Healy in particular, were attempting to feed on the understandable mood of disappointment. As always, under such circumstances, some comrades began to look for miracles or some short cut to solve our problems and offer a way out of this impasse. Then Pierre Frank - the Molinierite of yesterday (who incidentally had the delusion that we would actually win the seat in the Neath by-election), gave Healy the idea of entry into the Labour Party.

Healy moves to a split

Having been decisively defeated in the organisation on all the other questions, Healy began to beat the drum for immediate entry into the Labour Party and, given the prevailing mood, began to get an echo on this question. This was especially the case among those sections of the tendency that were faltering and becoming increasingly tired and disillusioned. These layers began to see entry into the Labour Party as a magic solution and it began to gain certain support. In the North East, T. Dan Smith and a few other ILP people went over to Healy's position. Smith was actually absorbed by the Labour Party, where he went to the right, gained a controlling position on the council and eventually achieved national notoriety in a huge corruption scandal. A similar process took place in a number of branches throughout the country. Those comrades who were worn out, and were in effect moving towards reformism, or even dropping out of the movement entirely, found in the slogan of Labour Party entry a golden excuse to pursue their inclinations. So, whereas Healy and his supporters had been a tiny minority in the past, for the first time he was now able to build a certain base inside the RCP.

We explained in the discussions that this position was entirely false. Examining the question objectively it was quite clear that the classic conditions for entry as laid down by Trotsky did not exist in any shape or form. These conditions were the development of a pre-revolutionary crisis, the capitalist regime in a blind alley, and the radicalisation of the working class. This would in turn reflect itself within the Labour Party as the development of a mass left wing, the growth of centrist tendencies, a weakening of the Labour bureaucracy, and the possibility of a rapid development of a revolutionary tendency. Of course, there had been a certain radicalisation preceding the election of the Labour Government, arising from the war, and just after the election, which stemmed from the measures that the Labour Government initially took. But this certainly was not the radicalisation Trotsky spoke of, and did not constitute even the beginnings of the classical conditions for entry into a reformist organisation.

The internal life of the party was at a very low ebb at this time. Rather than a party in the throes of crisis, the grip of reformism inside the Labour Party had been greatly increased. The Party was solidly in the grip of a right wing that was confident and moving forward. It was firmly controlled by a reinforced and strengthened bureaucracy. This was especially the case in the early post-war years. There were objective reasons for this. In contradiction to what we had predicted, the reformists, were actually carrying through reforms. From the standpoint of the Labour Party rank-and-file the reformist leadership appeared to be implementing a socialist programme of the nationalisation of the basic industries. Of course, as revolutionaries, we knew that the Government was only carrying through a certain re-organisation of the system in the interests of capitalism. Expressed in Marxist terms it was a programme of state capitalism. But this is not how the members and supporters of the Labour Party saw it.

The very first act of the Labour Government was to repeal the anti-trade union Trade Disputes Act of 1927, introduced by the Tories after the defeat of the General Strike. They also introduced the National Health Service which for the first time provided a universally free health service. In contrast to the great depression that preceded the war, there was full employment. Living standards were beginning to rise. These factors conditioned the outlook of the workers. Such was the credit extended by the working class to the Labour Government, that by 1948, both the TUC and the Labour Party Conferences had accepted without protest the need for "austerity" to assist the Government, including a wage freeze.

Knowing this to be the case, Healy and the others attempted to dress things up, presenting a completely false perspective and going from one mistake to another. Healy now maintained that the conditions for entrism would quickly develop as Britain was facing immediate slump, mass unemployment, and so on. The Healy faction spoke of the situation as if it was the beginning of the end of capitalism and the last crisis of capitalism. They echoed all the stupid arguments of the Stalinists in the "social-fascist" period. Mirroring the arguments of Mandel and Pablo, Healy really believed that we were in a classical slump. When the fuel crisis hit Britain, they repeated the same things, saying it was the end of capitalism. We had to explain to them that the fuel crisis was only temporary, and that in fact it was caused by a lack of fuel, precisely as a result of the expansion of the economy. This was clearly the opposite of what they were arguing - not a crisis of over-production, but a crisis of under-production. Britain at that time was certainly not experiencing the capitalist crisis that Marx spoke of!

Despite this, Healy wrote a document in the middle of 1946 saying that Britain was on the edge of an economic disaster:

"In Britain itself there has been an absolute and relative decline in the conditions of industry, a deterioration of the productive apparatus and a fall in the productivity of labour, with the exception of the war industries - aviation, engineering, shipbuilding and chemicals, etc...

"From this it is evident that British capitalism is on the edge of an abyss... the carefully patched-up internal economy will collapse into either uncontrolled inflation or later, when the competition relates to world price values, into equally disastrous deflation...

"Our perspectives must be based upon the developing crisis which will exceed in scope and magnitude the depression that set in during the winter of 1920."[5]

The "theoreticians" of the International backed up this ridiculous view. Ernest Mandel is apparently regarded as an expert on Marxist economics, on account of a very bad book on the subject that he wrote some years ago. In fact, Mandel was a vulgar eclectic with an extremely superficial grasp of Marxist economics and Marxism in general. This will immediately become evident to anyone who takes the trouble to read what he wrote over the years, beginning with the period we are considering here.

In reply to the RCP leadership, Mandel wrote that "in the period of capitalist decadence British Industry can no longer overgrow the state of revival and attain one of real boom." There was "at most a boom in some isolated industries which does not determine the general aspect of the economy", and that "the situation of the British economy is not that of a boom if one wishes to give this term the significance that Marxists have always given to it." The history of the last fifty-five years has dealt rather harshly with his remark that "if the comrades of the RCP majority were to take their own definition seriously, they would logically conclude that we are confronting a 'boom' in ALL CAPITALIST EUROPE, because in all these countries production is 'expanding'".[6] This shows how shallow this great Marxist "economist" really was when dealing with real process, despite his later economic tomes.

At the time, all the International leaders were peddling this line. Closing their eyes to reality, they obstinately refused to admit that capitalism had entered into a phase of economic upswing. In the IS Pre-Conference resolution, they stated that "this restoration of economic activity in the capitalist countries hit by the war, and in particular in the countries on the European continent, will be characterised by its particularly slow rhythm and these countries will thus remain on a level approaching stagnation and slump."[7]

The only ones who resolutely opposed this position was the leadership of the British section. In an amendment on economic perspectives to the World Congress, drafted by myself, the RCP explained that

"the argument of the comrades of the American SWP, which has been echoed by the Minority of the British Party, that only after the proletariat has been decisively defeated would American imperialism give loans to assist the recovery of Western European capitalism, has already been demonstrated to be a false one. The proletariat has not been defeated, but loans have already been granted. Equally false is the argument that only if the proletariat is decisively defeated can economic recovery and revival take place. Such an argument lumps together political-economic problems visualising an immediate reflection of one upon the other.

"Undoubtedly, a decisive defeat of the proletariat gives the bourgeoisie stability and confidence. But unless the economic pre-conditions for a boom are present, a boom would not necessarily follow even in that event. It is not a law of the development of capitalism that only the defeat of the proletariat in a revolutionary situation can lead to a boom, any more than a slump automatically leads to a revolution. History teaches us that capitalism, even in its death agony, recovers after a slump, despite the revolutionary possibilities, if the proletariat is paralysed or weakened by its organisations and rendered incapable of taking advantage of its possibilities...

We also stated in the amendment that "apart from these political considerations, there are laws of capitalism which themselves ensure the upswing of economy and make a new 'boom' inevitable. Particularly in view of the fact that this crisis is not a crisis of over-production and that the capitalists are not being attacked in Western Europe by the mass organisations, but receive the direct assistance and support of social democracy and Stalinism a cyclical upswing is inevitable." (WIN, Nov-Dec 1946)

Healy discovered economic crisis and mass unemployment at a time of full employment in Britain. He actually argued that in order to deal with mass unemployment in Britain, the government was setting up factories in Wales to build alarm clocks so that the unemployed would wake up in time to sign on the dole! Of course, it was all nonsense. The purpose of it was to convince people that a crisis was imminent and that therefore the conditions for entry would be present.

In the same way, they also tried to discover a phantom left wing in the Labour Party. When some semi-fellow traveller in the Labour Party got through a resolution about foreign policy, they made a big fuss: "there look, there's the left wing". In answer, we explained that this was an anecdote, and entirely without importance. Our comrades in the Labour Party - and we had far more than Healy's minority - were asked to give us concrete evidence of any left developments within the party. As Trotsky had suggested, the time for entry will be shown by the people that you already have inside the party. They would give you a realistic picture according to the results they were achieving, and in the mood that existed.

When we asked these comrades in the Labour Party to report on the situation, they unanimously held the opinion that the time was not right. In the report to the 1946 RCP conference, our Labour Party fraction stated "gains in this sphere have been negligible. Our Labour Party faction paper Militant has found no echo inside the Labour Party, and reflecting the situation within the Labour Party expresses no live movement within itů"[8] And this was also the opinion of the former Harberites, who were very keen to develop this work. There was nothing much happening in the Labour Party, and no left wing developing at that stage. So on all accounts, the time was not ripe to enter.

However, this cut no ice with the minority. Healy had the support of a minority - perhaps 20 percent of the organisation. Of these, however, a layer went out of the movement very quickly. T. Dan Smith was one of them. Healy could count on the support of 60 or 70 people out of around 350 RCP members. Healy's minority convinced very few industrial workers. He mainly attracted the more middle class elements in our ranks - the typical weathercocks of the party. Under difficult conditions, they were dropping away from the movement and they found a way out in their support for Healy's entrist platform.

The RCP was an extremely democratic party with a healthy internal regime. We did not fear differences but made use of them to educate the membership. For two years or so - from 1945 to 1947 - the conferences of the RCP had conducted full and exhaustive debates on a series of questions, and in particular on entry. Regular bulletins were published covering all the political positions. We had six to eight weeks of intensive discussion before every conference, as well as access to the internal bulletin on disputed questions. These should be reprinted at some stage. They are of great importance historically and essential for the education of the newer comrades in the history of our movement.

Throughout the whole of 1946, the International was pressing the RCP leaders to enter the Labour Party. At the June International Executive Committee (IEC) a resolution was passed urging the British section to concentrate our forces within the Labour Party. The only people to vote against this proposal at the IEC were the RCP comrades. Once again they pressed us in early 1947 to dissolve the RCP and enter the Labour Party. They were backing the Healy minority all the way along the line. In the middle of the year Healy's supporters stated that if they failed to get a majority for entry, they would urge the International to split the British section and allow the minority to enter the Labour Party under their own discipline. The RCP leadership correctly saw this as an ultimatum and a threat to split the organisation. Our conference, which had a further discussion on the question of entry, opposed this attempted split. Positions were now entrenched and Healy failed to gain any further adherents. The factions were set and we had the overwhelming majority of the organisation supporting us - some 80 percent of the tendency. Despite the support of the International and the difficulties we faced in Britain Healy still failed to convince a majority of his position.

At the conference, we decided that we had had a full and free discussion for two years on the question of entry. It had been an exhaustive discussion and that there was no more to be said on the question for the time being. We therefore moved a resolution at the conference that the question was now closed. The discussion could only be opened again in the internal bulletin or at the following conference, when, of course, all questions were open for discussion. Healy and the others opposed this and voted against it. But it was overwhelmingly carried by the conference.

It was clear that the support for Healy had reached its peak. They weren't going to win anybody else and feared that their existing support would melt away if they remained within the organisation. It was only the Labour Party issue that gave them a basis. This was Healy's last opportunity. There was no better time to act. So Healy raised the question of a split. No doubt pre-planned, the IS intervened to back the Healy minority. Healy, now with the open support of the International, wanted to carry through the "international policy" of entrism. He demanded the separation of his tendency from the organisation. Against our wishes, and against the statutes of the International, the IS decided to separate the two organisations under the guidance of the International. Eventually, under protest, the RCP leadership had no alternative but to accept this fact as a fait accompli. The RCP majority accurately described this action as "a disgraceful manoeuvre to get rid of the democratically elected leadership of a section of the Fourth International."

The International supported Healy's plan for his faction to enter the Labour Party under their own banner, with their own discipline, and as a recognised official section of the International. They were to be rewarded for what they had done in later years, when Healy would turn against them, but for the time being they were united with Healy against the Haston-Grant leadership. So in October 1947 Healy and his tendency entered the Labour Party, while the RCP carried on the construction of a revolutionary party independently. "After the split took place", according to one of the leading members of Healy's group, "we were instructed to break off all personal relations with supporters of the majority!"[9] This was an indication of what was to come later. The split-off group began to operate the policy known as "deep entrism", or liquidationism, functioning clandestinely within the Labour Party, concealing their ideas and referring to themselves only as "The Club".

In a certain sense, the departure of the Minority was greeted with great relief. We could now concentrate on building the movement free from factional activity. A thorn had been removed from our side - or so we thought. But the removal of the Minority did not change the fact that the objective situation both nationally and internationally was adverse to the building of a revolutionary tendency. Despite all our efforts we became further isolated from the working class, as illusions in the Labour government became more widespread. Of course, there were times when we would intervene in the class struggle and give a lead. There were times when we succeeded in connecting with the workers, but these successes were becoming less and less frequent. We felt ourselves getting boxed in.

[To be continued]

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Notes

[5] H. Finch, G. Healy, J. Goffe and J. Lawrence, The Turn to Mass Work, 17 July 1946, in Internal Bulletin of the RCP. pp.1-6, quoted in War and the International, p.189.

[6] Quoted in War and the International, p.190.

[7] Quoted in WIN, Nov-Dec 1946.

[8] The Party Organiser, No. 8, September 1946, p.7.

[9] Ratner, op. cit., p.123.