Introduction to The War Years

By 1938, while the rest of Europe was hurtling towards another carnage even more bloody than the last, in Spain the civil war was drawing inexorably towards defeat for the Republic.

The Spanish working class had taken the election of the Popular Front government in 1936 as the beginning of the socialist revolution and had moved spontaneously to occupy mines, offices, factories and the land. It was only the movement of the working class, arming itself and mobilising independently of the Popular Front government, that prevented a complete and immediate victory for the rebellion of General Franco in July 1936.

But what began as a civil war between a fascist regime and an incipient socialist revolution was transformed within two years into a conflict between fascism and the capitalist republic. With the enthusiastic backing of the Stalinists the revolutionary movement triggered by the Popular Front was crushed and the capitalist state firmly established. So much so that towards the end of the war there was little to choose between the two governments on either side of the line as far as the workers were concerned.

In Britain, the newly-formed Workers International League (WIL) published a pamphlet by Trotsky, entitled The Lessons of Spain. In this 'the Old Man' analysed in particular the failure of the Workers' Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) to play the role of a Spanish Bolshevik Party, providing the clear, decisive and determined leadership that had been available to the Russian workers in 1917.

The intention of the WIL in publishing Trotsky's pamphlet was to draw attention to the need for a Marxist leadership in Britain, in view of the inevitability of a new world war and the revolutionary shocks that would come in its wake. The introduction to the WIL pamphlet, reprinted here, was actually seen and commanded by Trotsky himself. Although it was originally signed 'JRS', it was in fact written jointly by Ted Grant and Ralph Lee, both leading WIL members.

When the imperialist war began in Europe, there was at first a period of disorientation in the whole Trotskyist movement. But on the basis of the advice of Trotsky, especially in the most recent writings before his assassination in August 1940, it was possible for the WIL to re-orientate itself to the new situation it faced. Trotsky advocated the adoption of a 'proletarian military policy' based upon the militarisation of everyday life of the working class.

It was not correct, Trotsky argued, to advance the slogan of revolutionary defeatism – of the defeat of 'one's own' imperialism – in a bald and simplistic manner. Lenin, in any case, brought forward the slogan in a different context – where he sought to re-educate the cadres of the Marxist movement in the spirit of internationalism, not address the masses directly. It would be wrong, Trotsky insisted, to give the impression to workers that the Marxists favoured support for the 'enemy' imperialism, especially given the loathing that workers in Britain and America felt for the nazi regime which had bloodily crushed the organisations of the German labour movement.

Without, therefore, giving any concession to principles, or giving any support to British capitalism in its alleged war aims, the WIL was able to utilise the genuine fears of the workers of a nazi invasion – especially after the fall of France in 1940 – to raise class demands and to win supporters to the banner of Trotskyism. But in so doing, the WIL drew criticism from the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL), a largely middle class coalition of Trotskyists without the same decisive working class orientation of the WIL. Both organisations supported the Fourth International, founded by Trotsky in 1938, but the RSL was the official British section, up to 1944.

A whole series of polemical articles and correspondence flowed between the WIL and the RSL over the question of the war: the RSL accusing the WIL of holding a 'defencist' position, the WIL replying by pointing to the petit-bourgeois pacifism of the RSL. When the WIL published their document entitled Preparing for Power (see below) the RSL wrote a lengthy criticism of it. The reply of the WIL to this criticism, written by Ted Grant, was a brilliant exposition of the whole question of the military policy, a comprehensive statement that effectively terminated the debate.

Extracts of this WIL document are published here, and although they are dated by the meeting of the Political Bureau of the WIL of June 1943, they are included here as the second item because in a political sense the issues cover the whole period of more than two years up to that point.

The third item in this section is composed of extracts from Preparing for Power written by Ted Grant in June 1942 as the main perspectives document of the WIL, and published in Workers International News in September. It especially underlines the historic decline of British capitalism and the inevitability of further decay, even in the event of a victory over nazi Germany: 'Defeat...means the end of British imperialism as a power of the first rank. Victory will mean a less spectacular decline to a second rate position under the patronage of America. This is the best that the British ruling class can hope for.'

Three years before the end of the war, the document anticipates the revolutionary wave that would grip the working class, affecting the shop stewards' committees, the trade union branches and the Labour Party: 'On the basis of the rising wave of discontent with potential revolutionary implications, it is inevitable that the decisive section of the trade union and Labour bureaucrats, including the majority of the parliamentary representatives, will be forced into an open clash with the capitalist class and a breaking of the coalition. In words at least, they will assume an extremely radical attitude.'

It was on the basis of these perspectives that the WIL conducted its war-time work and established a basis in industry far greater than that of other Trotskyist groups, which remained small sects.

For the WIL there was no class 'truce' in the factories and workplaces during the war. But after the invasion of the USSR in 1941, the Communist Party of Great Britain did a complete somersault, from being opposed to the war, to being one hundred and twenty per cent in favour. The Party became the most fervent supporter of the Churchill government, vociferously denouncing any strikes or workers' struggles that cut across production.

Unaccustomed to the CP being, in effect, a strike-breaking organisation, many of its best militants left in disgust and quite a few found their way into the ranks of the Workers International League. A considerable part of the political work of the WIL was directed towards winning the best activists of the CP away from the grip of the Stalinist leadership.

When Joseph Stalin dissolved the Communist International in 1943, without any reference to its national sections or the communist rank and file around the world, the WIL immediately rushed out a pamphlet, directed towards Communist Party members, explaining how it could have happened. This document is reprinted in its entirety and forms the fourth part of this chapter on the war years.

In 1944 the WIL formed the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), the British section of the Fourth International by, in effect, taking over most of the remnants of the RSL. By this time, when a victory over Hitler seemed certain, the RCP found it necessary to counter the campaign of vicious chauvinism that was being directed against the German nation as a whole, not only by the capitalist press, but even more hysterically, by the 'communist' Daily Worker. In fact the nazis had come to power, above all, with the aim of destroying the German labour movement and Hitler's accession to power signalled the wholesale destruction of the flower of the German working class.

In opposing the crude nationalism of the CP, therefore, the RCP repeatedly reminded workers how Hitler had come to power in the first place, and the disgraceful role played by Stalinism. It re-issued a pamphlet written by Trotsky in 1931 entitled Germany, the Key to the International Situation.

The introduction to this pamphlet (also printed as an article in the RCP newspaper Socialist Appeal, reproduced here, describes the baleful role played by the German Stalinists up to 1933, and the wholehearted support given at the time by the Communist Party of Great Britain. The RCP pamphlet, with much other material published in Workers International News and Socialist Appeal, educated the best worker-activists about precisely those issues that the CP was trying to cover up – and still tries to cover up to this day.

Go back to The Unbroken Thread contents page or go on to next section Lessons of Spain