History of British Trotskyism Postcript

By Rob Sewell

[Section 3]

Flexible tactics

In a document also written by Ted, entitled The Present Situation and Our Political Tasks (1957), the need for flexible tactics towards Communist Party dissidents was sharply posed:

"Large numbers of key and important cadres can be won for the Fourth International from this work. To accomplish this task, any attempt at the imposition of a line a la Stalinism is impermissible. For example, many of the best elements will not be prepared for an entrist perspective immediately. The first necessity is the winning of a nucleus among them to the programme and banner of the Fourth International. At a later stage, the problem of work within the mass organisations and of perspectives for the coming epoch must be discussed. But at the present stage of development, immediate entry of such a grouping into the Labour Party would mean the drowning of many excellent people in the social-democratic swamp, and the complete disillusionment of others in the possibility of real Labour Party work. Actually the best, most hardened elements in the Forum movement is at present the most antagonistic to entrism."

The document continued: "The situation demands above all a flexible tactic. Entry must not be made a fetish - any more than the concept of open work. Our tactic at the given time is dictated by the opportunities open to us and the possibility of perspectives for the future. It would be greater madness to adopt a formalistic attitude and turn our backs on the immediate possibilities of work under the independent banner - the modest successes of Workers International Review have underlined this. The essence of tactics, in politics as in war, is to concentrate the greatest forces in that sector of the battlefield where the state of the fight most favours victory. Successful work in the open field can prepare the ground for greater successes in the future within the Labour Party, where the decisive struggles will take place." [7]

Ted and other comrades made contact and discussed with a layer of CP dissidents, but were shocked at their very low political level. "In the past," recalled Ted, "the old Stalinists would first of all ask about your programme. But the first question these people would ask is: how many are you?" After decades of miseducation by Stalinism, it was not easy to win such people to a small organisation and the results were very modest. As an example of the pernicious effects of Stalinism on worker activists, it is sufficient to cite the following example.

The Stalinists had controlled the electricians' union (ETU) from the top, by completely bureaucratic means, including ballot rigging. But in 1956, a series of important ETU leaders broke from the CP and began an opposition fighting for internal democracy within the union. Among those with whom Ted had discussions was Frank Chappel, the leader of this group, who then was still on the left. He did not join and later swung far to the right and became a reactionary witch-hunting leader of the union.

Basically, ideas, theories and principles did not attract these former Stalinists. They were more impressed by Healy's organisation, which was bigger and had far greater resources, including a printing press. As a result, Healy managed to recruit a whole layer of people, including Brian Behan (the brother of Brendan Behan, the famous Irish playwright), Peter Fryer (the former correspondent of the Daily Worker in Hungary) and Brian Pearce. Using Healy's resources Fryer became editor of the newly launched weekly Newsletter, which became the organ of the Club in 1957.

However, rather than convincing these ex-Stalinists of Trotskyism, they seemed to have recruited Healy to a version of "third period" Stalinism. Within a few years, Healy had abandoned his extreme opportunist version of work in the Labour Party and launched the Socialist Labour League early in 1959. They swung wildly from the most cowardly opportunism to the most insane ultra-leftism. But the honeymoon did not last long. Healy's internal regime of bureaucratic centralism, based on bullying and terror, soon led to the expulsion of Behan, Fryer and a whole host of others.

Years later, Healy's stooge, Bill Hunter cynically turned against his long-standing mentor. He revealed what everyone already knew - that Healy was a petty tyrant and a dictator within his organisation. "Walking out of meetings", states Hunter in his autobiography, "which he used as a deliberate method of pressure later in the 1970s, the attempt to resolve party problems with force of will, fear, administrative actions and violence..."[8]

It was clear to anyone with the slightest grasp that Healy had absolutely nothing to do with genuine Trotskyism. However much he hides, Hunter cannot escape the fact that he uncritically supported the Healy regime - until it collapsed in 1985 with the expulsion of Healy. "Healy could never have acted as he did without the support of a whole group of other people around him in the leadership", remarks Harry Ratner, "people such as Mike and Tony Banda, Bill Hunter, Cliff Slaughter and Bob Shaw, and the failure of people like myself to speak out."[9]

As already stated, Ted Grant believed that Healy entered the Labour Party at the wrong time, and would also leave the Labour Party at the wrong time. This prediction proved to be absolutely correct. Nevertheless, the zigzags of the Healyites produced a certain questioning within the tendency, so Ted used this experience to write a document in March 1959 to answer these doubts and clarify the situation. The document gave a short history of the Labour Party tactic and analysed the differences with Trotsky's conception of entrism and the long-term work that we were conducting within the mass organisations.

Clearly the classical conditions for entry, as laid down by Trotsky, did not exist in Britain at that time. The work of the Marxist tendency in the Party was based on the perspective of a future mass left wing, which would develop at a time of political and economic crisis. It was inevitable that the mass of workers, who would turn towards their traditional organisations in times of social crisis, would serve to create mass left reformist and even centrist currents. But this did not mean, as the sectarian groups tried to claim, that the Marxists were "burying themselves in the Labour Party." What was necessary was to combine Party work with independent work, fighting at all times for Marxist ideas and policies. The overwhelming majority of the new supporters came from outside of the Labour Party, but was won over by the clarity of our ideas and our orientation towards the mass organisations.

"From every point of view the work is impossible without an understanding of the perspectives, whatever the momentary situation may be", explained Ted. "Otherwise the work proceeds purely empirically as with the Healyites, in a series of convulsive leaps and jumps in all directions. The tendency is at the mercy of every episodic conjuncture and turn in events, blown hither and thither by momentary favourable and unfavourable winds, instead of - while taking these into account in everyday work and explaining to the membership the meaning of all events - nevertheless fitting them into broad perspectives of the movement. It is the failure to understand the tactic of entrism, and its application, which has resulted in the new tactics of the Healyites. They will produce an abortion."

Opposition in the USFI

Although we were the official section of the International, we were always in political opposition to the leadership on a whole range of questions. Despite the fact that the Hungarian events found us on common ground, other developments produced sharp disagreements. In the Sino-Soviet dispute, for instance, rather than viewing it as a national conflict between two bureaucracies, the International decided to give critical support to the Chinese bureaucracy as allegedly more "progressive". In the meantime, Pablo, who had moved into opposition, supported the Russian bureaucracy, claiming that Khrushchev's "de-Stalinisation" campaign opened the door to the "self-reform" of the bureaucracy. Neither position had anything in common with Trotskyism.

Juan Posadas, a leader based in Argentina, went so far as to support the Chinese bureaucracy's call for a nuclear war on the United States! Eventually he set up his own "Fourth International" based in Latin America and at an Extraordinary Conference in 1962, declared:

"We are preparing ourselves for a stage in which before the atomic war we shall struggle for power, during the atomic war we shall struggle for power and we shall be in power [sic!]. There is no beginning… there is an end to atomic war, because atomic war is simultaneous revolution in the whole world, not as a chain reaction, simultaneous. Simultaneous doesn't mean the same day and the same hour. Great historic events should not be measured by hours or days, but by periods… The working class will maintain itself, [and] will immediately have to seek its cohesion and centralisation…

"After destruction commences, the masses are going to emerge in all countries - in a short time, in a few hours. Capitalism cannot defend itself in an atomic war except by putting itself in caves and attempting to destroy all that it can. The masses, in contrast, are going to come out, will have to come out, because it is the only way to survive, defeating the enemy… The apparatus of capitalism, police, army, will not be able to resist… It will be necessary to organise the workers' power immediately."[10]

So, in Posadas' mixed-up mind, those who are left after an atomic war, terrified and in a state of shock at millions dead, would rise up and take power! This showed how far these people had regressed theoretically and politically. These ideas have nothing in common with Trotskyism, and much more in common with the ideas emanating from the lunatic asylum. After capitulating to Stalinism, Posadas became a mouthpiece for the Maoist bureaucracy, only in an even more extreme form.

The Lanka Sama Samaja Party

The only authority that a Marxist leadership can have is a political and moral authority. This was what Lenin and Trotsky based themselves on in the formative years of the Communist International. It never occurred to them to use organisational methods to impose their ideas on the International. Only after Lenin's death, in the period of the bureaucratic degeneration, did Zinoviev begin to use the apparatus to impose the "Moscow Line" - a development that inevitably ended in the destruction of the Third International.

In the 1930s, despite all the difficulties, the colossal personal authority of Leon Trotsky kept the small forces of the Bolshevik-Leninists together. He waged a stubborn struggle to defend and preserve the genuine ideas and traditions of the October Revolution and the Bolshevik Party. But the other leaders were not at all on a similar level. Like Zinoviev, Cannon, Mandel and the others imagined that it was possible to demand authority and obedience. Lenin once warned Bukharin: "If you want obedience, you will get obedient fools". They dissipated all the political and moral authority which the Old Man had bequeathed to the Fourth International, and attempted to make up for their lack of authority by using organisational methods against their critics - as with the British section. This was a sure way to destroy the Fourth International even before it had had a chance to build a serious mass base. Most of the sections remained small and isolated from the mass movement of the working class. One of the main exceptions was Sri Lanka (Ceylon).

The Ceylonese Trotskyists in effect founded the labour movement in that country. They even invented the word for socialism, which did not exist in Sinhala. They coined the word Sama Samaja - which means literally "equal society". It is not particularly scientific, but it is the nearest equivalent they could find to "socialism".

Whereas in other countries the Stalinists expelled the Trotskyists, in Ceylon it was the other way around. The Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) was the traditional mass party of the working class in Ceylon. As a result of its courageous stand against British imperialism in the Second World War, the LSSP gained mass support, and became the second major party next to the bourgeois UNP. In 1953, it had led a successful general strike on the island, and had established Trotskyism as the leading force in the working class. However, in comparison to its successes, the failures of the leaders of the International gradually undermined their authority in the eyes of the leaders of the LSSP.

The false positions of the leaders of the Fourth International led them to make one mistake after another. This served to further undermine the credibility of the International leadership. Over a period of time, this was to have major repercussions in the largest section of the International, the LSSP. They did not possess a shred of political and moral authority with the LSSP leaders, who had a mass organisation. Ted recalls that in meetings of the International in Paris, the LSSP leader, N.M. Pereira would sit with an ironical expression. "I believe N.M. was never a Trotskyist", says Ted. "But whereas Trotsky - one man alone - would always be listened to with respect, Mandel, Pablo and the others had no authority at all with the LSSP leaders. They would sit there thinking: 'We are mass leaders. What do these people represent? They do not have correct ideas. They do not have the masses. So what good are they?' And in fact, they had a point."

Without the check of an authoritative political leadership internationally, the opportunist pressure on the LSSP leadership inevitably took their toll. In the late 1950s, under the pressures of the adverse objective situation, the LSSP vacillated politically, taking a conciliatory attitude towards the government of the newly emerged SLFP, a split-off from the UNP. Eventually, in 1964, the LSSP voted to enter the bourgeois government. This was finally too much for the International leaders to swallow. Having failed to correct the opportunism of the LSSP leaders for years, in order not to offend them, they were compelled to condemn the Party's turn to popular frontism. Needless to say, the complaints from Paris were contemptuously dismissed by the LSSP. Then, when the damage was already done, the International Secretariat split the section, causing a deep blow to Trotskyism in Sri Lanka.

"The International leadership played a shameful and destructive role in Sri Lanka," Ted states emphatically. "Having remained silent for years about the opportunist policies of the LSSP leaders (which was quite evident), Mandel and the others suddenly performed a somersault of 180 degrees and organised a split off of the Left led by Edmund Samorakody. He came to London and we had a friendly discussion, during which we tried to persuade him to stay in the LSSP and organise a left opposition, but he refused. He was sincere but a bit ultra-left. Naturally, the split led nowhere. Later on we contacted the left wing of the LSSP and we won a sizeable section out of it - the NSSP, which was unfortunately wrecked by the adventurism of Bahu. But that is another story."

[To be continued]

Back to Contents


[7] The Present Situation and Our Political Tasks (1957), p.7

[8] Bill Hunter, Life and Times of a Revolutionary, p. 155.

[9] Ratner, Reluctant Revolutionary, p.228.

[10] Robert J. Alexander, International Trotskyism, pp.663-4.