A criticism by the RSL of the WIL pamphlet Preparing for power
By Revolutionary Socialist League
In our document Our political criticism of the WIL we state: “on the two fundamental issues which face our movement today, that of our attitude to the imperialist war and that of the method of building the new revolutionary party, the WIL has adopted policies basically opposed to those of Bolshevism. It is an organisation, not moving politically in our direction, but moving away from us.” If any further evidence of the fact that the WIL is a centrist body, and moving away from Bolshevism, were needed, their recent document Preparing for power provides all that is necessary.
In order to confine this discussion, as far as possible, to the most important issue, we are refraining from raising here criticisms regarding matters of secondary importance. A whole series of criticisms could, in fact, be raised and their omission here does not preclude us from raising them at some suitable opportunity. Meantime, however, our criticisms will centre round the WIL attitude towards the war and the problems raised by it, and the WIL attitude towards the Labour Party.
A basic defect of the WIL document lies in the complete omission of any real explanation for the decline of British imperialism and its defeats. The weakness of British imperialism lies in the fact that, owing to the uneven development of capitalism, its accumulated imperialist booty is now out of proportion to the relation which its economic (and, consequently, military) strength bears towards that of rival imperialisms. Hence it finds it difficult or impossible to maintain its conquests unaided. Hence, therefore, its defeats and its forced reliance on the USA.
But, according to the WIL document, everything is explained by “the old school tie blimps in the colonial service and the armed forces, whose stupidity and incompetence is but a reflection of the fact that the British bourgeois system has completely outlived itself,” and by the “enfeeblement and decline of the ruling class.”
It is true that we also read “in reality the process of decline has been going on for many years before the war. The altering relationship of forces between the powers was bearing less and less relationship to Britain’s nominal position.” But this “altering relationship of forces” is apparently considered to be due to the “senility and decay of British imperialism,” the causes of which are unexplained, not to the fact that certain of its rivals have experienced a relatively more rapid rate of economic and military development.
It is, of course, quite true that “the British bourgeois system has completely outlived itself,” but this is true of all bourgeois systems in this epoch of the general world decline of imperialism. Even Britain’s rivals in this war are decaying. Thus the WIL gives us no real reason for Britain’s defeats and difficulties and, moreover, by stressing and exaggerating the weakness of Britain and ignoring those of her rivals, gives a totally false picture of the position.
The British ruling class is far from being “completely senile and incapable of even conducting her own wars.” Today it can claim a greater volume of production per head of the population than any of the Allied powers and one that is possibly greater than any other country in the world. British imperialism is far from losing confidence in itself. It is not our job to uphold the conduct of British imperialism nor its military prestige, but such gross distortions as those contained in the WIL analysis lead inevitably to false policies.
Nor are these false policies long in emerging. “The corruption and incompetence, industrial and militarily, raises sharply in the minds of the workers the question of the regime.” There is no question of misunderstanding this sentence. It means that the workers are questioning the right of capitalism to continue as the system in this country. This, before the workers have even begun to display a mass sentiment for peace, while they still support the imperialist war and are, in fact, anxious to see it more efficiently and more offensively conducted. Either all previous history was accidental and from it no lessons can be learned, or else the WIL utterly misunderstands and distorts not only the present position of British imperialism, but also the present stage of development of working class consciousness. We incline to the latter theory. The mood of the masses is still predominantly in support of the imperialist war and the British bourgeoisie is conducting the war as efficiently as the limitations of “democratic capitalism” permit.
These factors do not provide for the “rapid maturing” of “all the conditions for social explosions.” What social explosions do come, as come they will, they will not arise upon the basis of demands by the workers for a more efficient prosecution of the war. No class struggles can arise on this issue because it is not a class issue as far as the workers are concerned. This is not their war and they have no class interest in victory in it.
At present the masses are under the ideological leadership of the bourgeois and petit-bourgeois and hence support the imperialist war.
Many defeats have been suffered by the British bourgeoisie in this war and sections of the workers have, as a result, criticised the leadership of the bourgeoisie and demanded a more efficient prosecution of the struggle. But this is not a proletarian class reaction to the situation, it is a petty bourgeois reaction and is possible only because the workers are still imbued with alien class ideology. Such working class discontent will stop at grumbling, in the same way as the similar and even more vocal discontent of the petty bourgeois does, and may even be transformed by British victories into greater support for the imperialist government.
It cannot lead to working class action, just because the demand for a more efficient prosecution of the imperialist war is not a class demand for the workers. Moreover, class action by the workers, as they know, would yet further impair the efficiency of British imperialism. British defeats can lead to social explosions, but they will be explosions caused by war weariness, by a desire to end the fruitless slaughter, to escape from the economic hardships of war and to bring an enduring peace and prosperity to the world.
Class action by the workers against the bourgeoisie is at present in an early stage and confined to relatively small sections of the proletariat. It is taking the form of strikes on economic issues. But during an imperialist war such strikes inevitably bring the workers into conflict with the imperialist state machine. The inevitable increase in this strike movement will bring about breaches in the class truce and will eventually smash it.
This process will be accompanied by a profound change in the workers’ attitude to the war. The present desire for a more efficient prosecution of the war will be replaced by the demand for peace. There is no mention of this demand in the WIL document. Yet in War and the Fourth International we read “The revolutionary struggle for peace, which takes on ever wider and bolder forms is the surest means of ‘turning the imperialist war into a civil war’.” But omission of all mention of the slogan of peace by the WIL is, of course to be expected, for they do not raise the slogan of “turning the imperialist war into a civil war”; their slogan, nowhere explicitly stated in the document, it is true, but implicit in it and in their other propaganda is “turn the imperialist war into a workers’ anti-fascist war.” In other words, their main attack is directed not against the British bourgeoisie, but its rivals, the fascist regimes. Their main charge against the British bourgeoisie is that it does not fight those rivals efficiently enough!
It is illuminating to observe that the perspective of workers’ conquest of power during the war is pushed right into the background by the WIL, indeed, it is barely mentioned. They give three possible terminations of the war. The first is by the ruling class capitulating to Hitler, “under threat of revolution… as the French bourgeoisie did”. Incidentally, where can the WIL show the slightest real evidence that the French bourgeoisie capitulated “under threat of revolution”? But this, say the WIL, would be “immediately to provoke an uprising among the masses”, with the object of continuing the war(!!). We would ask the WIL here to explain to us why, on their premises, no such uprising took place among the French workers? The WIL even believe that not only are the workers better patriots than the capitalists, but that the “Labour leaders” would “place themselves at the head of the masses in order to continue the war”(!!!). Once again, why did none of this take place in France on the WIL’s premises, and, yet more to the point, why was the development of the Russian revolution in 1917 so very different? In the past it has been the practice of our movement to regard the Russian revolution as typical, at least in broad outline, of the proletarian uprisings during the imperialist war. It has been left to the WIL to treat it as an exception.
The second possible termination to the war is given as the victory of Britain and her allies over the Axis powers.
“Once the masses compare the glittering promises about ‘after the war’ [with what they are to compare them is not given – RSL] their indignation will rise to unprecedented heights and revolutionary explosions would result.”
“The prospect of stalemate and a compromise peace” which is the WIL’s third choice is correctly regarded by them as “even more remote.”
“Long before the war had reached such a stage, and it would require several years, the endurance of the masses would have reached breaking point and the stability of the imperialist regimes would be put to the test. Revolution would begin in Europe or Asia and alter the whole balance of forces.”
And this is the only reference to revolution through “war weariness” in the whole of a document, written during an imperialist war and entitled Preparing for power and emanating from an organisation that claims to be revolutionary! The termination of the imperialist war which we envisage and for which we are struggling is precisely this fourth possibility which the WIL so contemptuously push into the background. But then we are “old fashioned” enough to base our activity upon turning the imperialist war into a civil war.
Our basic criticism of the WIL’s centrist policy with regard to the war can be found in greater detail in our conference resolutions and to these we refer the members of the WIL for further details.
With regard to the section entitled The possibilities of fascism in Britain, we must suggest to the WIL that they are in error in stating that “Mosley could only come to power on the basis of German bayonets.” This suggests that the German bourgeoisie, if victorious could set up a fascist regime here. This is false and in contradiction to the experiences which have taken place on the continent. Fascism cannot be imported in this way. All that the Germans could do would be to set up some form of Bonapartist regime. Actually the position of British fascism would be greatly weakened by such conquest by German imperialism. But we, of course, realise that the WIL needs this picture of Mosley triumphing with the help of German bayonets in order to provide a background for their policy of veiled support for the imperialist war.
So far as the Labour Party tactic is concerned, we do not intend to deal with it here at great length. The WIL reader may find our attitude set out in our conference resolution Industrial work and our perspectives. Some of their own past internal documents up to so recent a date as 1941 should also be of assistance to them in this connection. We shall confine ourselves to a few comments here.
The WIL confirms the correctness of the tactic of entry into the LP up to the end of the first 18 months of the war by referring to the fact that the ILP was at that time turning towards the LP. While it is, of course, natural for centrists respectfully to observe the orientations of other centrists, to attempt to model their conduct upon them, we would point out to the WIL that when, towards the end of 1936, Trotsky and the IS first raised the question of our entry into the LP, no such attitude existed on the part of the ILP.
The WIL state:
“The whole idea motivating the entrist tactic is to enter a reformist or centrist organisation which is in a state of flux, where political life is at a high pitch, and where the membership is steadily moving towards the left. It is essentially a short term perspective of work in a milieu where favourable prospects exist for obtaining results in a relatively short space of time.”
So far as the first statement is concerned, it is manifestly false so far as the entry into the British Labour Party was concerned. If the WIL members entered the LP expecting to find it in a state of flux, with a high pitch of political life, etc., they have been a long time discovering their mistake! So far as the second sentence is concerned it is also false so far as our entry in this country was concerned. The greater reserve strength of British imperialism has made developments inside the British LP slower than on the continent. We knew this when we entered. We also knew, incidentally, that imperialist war would at first delay this internal development still further, only to accelerate it greatly at a later stage.
The WIL admit that “at a later stage” the workers “will turn to the Labour Party”. They admit that at present the only movement is on the industrial field. But though realising that the political expression of this industrial movement will come first inside the LP, they refuse to attempt to orientate the workers today towards the LP, i.e. to facilitate and hasten this movement. They fear that if they do so the workers will turn to the CP and the ILP, although they have already agreed that the workers will turn to the LP.
But with regard to this same question of the workers turning to the LP at a certain stage in their struggles, we find in the WIL document a certain ambiguity, which savours strongly of the double book-keeping of “third period” Stalinism. In one place we read:
“Insofar as the workers are moving at all at present, they are expressing themselves on the industrial field. At a later stage they will turn to the Labour Party.”
This is a clear statement of the position and perspectives. But we also read:
“At that stage [i.e. before the war – RSL] it seemed the most likely course of events that the awakening of the masses would move completely on the traditional course and pass through the Labour Party. But the outbreak of war cut across the development of events and produced a different pattern.
“It is useless to base the tactics of today on the possibilities of tomorrow.
“If [our emphasis – RSL] as the result of the mass upsurge, hundreds of thousands and millions participate actively in the organisation of the Labour Party…
“But history never repeats itself in exactly the same way. The masses of the workers, above all the advanced stratum, have a certain scepticism towards the Labour leaders.”
All these statements are obviously intended to throw doubt on the first quoted statement that the masses will turn to the LP. The WIL or its leaders, have not yet had the courage to deny openly, in writing, that the workers will turn first to the LP, but they are preparing the way for doing so. We may hear in the future that the masses are “skipping over” the LP phase and turning directly to… the WIL.
In finishing this section on the LP tactic, let us quote to the WIL a few passages from their document Contribution by the Workers’ International League to the discussion on the tasks of Bolshevik Leninists in Britain, issued in 1938. We would point out, in advance that none of the ideas contained in these passages originated in the WIL, they were merely borrowed by the WIL from our organisation.
“For the Labour Party, functioning as it does in bourgeois democracy, war time is election time, and in the peace periods between elections, it becomes a mere skeleton, passively supported by its individual, trade union and co-operative members. At the present moment, except for the passive ripples of by-elections, its work is carried on by a small minority consisting in the main of the bureaucracy, a sprinkling of ambitious careerists, a few veterans who support the bureaucracy and the factions sent in by external organisations.”
Hardly, we would note in passing, an “organisation which is in a state of flux”, “where political life is at a high pitch” and “where the membership is steadily moving towards the left”!
“The mass membership for whose benefit the various postures are adopted are [sic – RSL] notably absent from the auditorium…
“But far from negativing the activity of the revolutionary socialists within the Labour Party, the peace time structure gives them a political weight out of all proportion to their numerical strength…
“As the crisis forces increasing numbers of workers from passive to active support of the Labour Party, they find within the party a nucleus around which to gather, and party growth means growth of the left wing.”
In conclusion, we must state that the basis for all the main political mistakes of the 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. Defencism rarely shows itself in its open, naked form when it first arises, especially in a left-centrist organisation.
Concealment is especially necessary in an organisation still professing to stand upon the principles of revolutionary defeatism. The WIL is attempting to conceal the essential chauvinism of its policies by using today slogans which are revolutionary in a period of acute class struggle, e.g. workers’ control of production, election of officers, etc. It is using these slogans in such a way as to imbue them with a counter-revolutionary content, e.g. workers’ control of production in order to increase production for the war. And, in order to justify its abuse of these demands, it has to attempt to describe the present situation as though it was, in fact, one of acute class conflict.
Hence its absurd under-estimation of the strength of British imperialism, its exaggeration of the discontent of the masses. Hence even its policy with regard to the Labour Party tactic. For though the WIL attitude on this subject seems to be ultra-left, and is in fact so, if taken in isolation, it links up with and forms an essential part of their general opportunism. For to justify this opportunism, to be able to cover it with a cloak of revolutionary phrases, the WIL has to paint its picture of the present situation in revolutionary colours, it has to speak as though it were on the eve of the seizure of power! And, with such a perspective, the Labour Party tactic not only cannot be used, but actually becomes a hindrance.
We are well aware that the WIL can point to a number of passages in their document which state or imply a contrary estimate of the present situation. But these are merely yet further examples of that thoroughly dishonest system of double bookkeeping which we have mentioned above. In practice, the WIL claim that, for instance Lenin’s remarks on the “threatening catastrophe” (written on the eve of the seizure of power!) apply today, and such is the basis of their propaganda.
Adopted by majority of CC by postal ballot on December 22 1942.
 Our source is a 1975 reprint. Unfortunately it has not been possible to locate a copy of the original.
 Ted Grant, Writings, Volume 1, p. 296-317.
 Leon Trotsky, War and the Fourth International, June 10 1934.
 Ted Grant, Writings, Volume 1, p. 40-45.
Correspondence December 1942 - January 1943
Ted Grant to Jimmy Deane
London, December 14 1942
Many thanks for your letters. I am sending you back the correspondence for which you ask. I have just received the internal bulletin and will send it on to you as soon as I have read it.
I received the cash OK from Millie, and so far as I can judge the organisational proposals seem quite good and if you can carry them out the basis for a sound growth in the area should have been laid. The group as you know is making big strides throughout the country and we look to Merseyside, this containing some members, more experienced and with longer membership than most groups in the country. We expect gains organisationally, politically and financially as there is every reason that you should be able to do this especially with the new reorganisation.
The RSL are up to their old tricks and our relations with Lawrence and Co. are still the same. From information we have Stuart will be visiting us very soon. Anyway, let us hope in the next year the whole mess will be cleared up. In your last letters you didn’t raise any political questions so there is nothing much for me to raise with you. You should be able to make a good headway with the ILP and if you do systematic work in the outside areas as you indicate.
I hope you will be able to visit London soon and am looking forward to seeing you.
Ted Grant to RSL
London, January 19 1943
We understand that your organisation is holding a conference early in February. To facilitate and speed up the unity negotiations between our organisations, we propose that two representatives of our CC should participate in your sessions, and in particular the session dealing with the question of relations with the IS and unification.
Ted Grant to Jimmy Deane
London, January 30 1943
Pleased to hear from you again. We will discuss the Irish question fully with you when you are in London. As the CC meeting takes place next week, February 6 1943, I will not make any comment as we can thrash out the questions when you are here.
A central study circle running three times a week seems rather excessive, but this and other local group work can be discussed fully at the CC.
You will be interested to hear that the latest position re the RSL is absolutely farcical. The whole of the so called “right” has been expelled. Not only that but knowing these people as we do and their irresponsible social-club politics, if you remember we predicted that within a few months of the “right” being expelled that Harber would expel Robinson, or that Robinson would expel Harber. We were wrong. Apparently these maniacs could not wait as long as that. Robinson had a resolution up for the expulsion of Harber at the forthcoming conference. Harber who is in control of the organisation then pulled a fast one on some pretext or other, expelled Robinson and the whole of his faction. So that the situation now is that three-quarters of the organisation is either suspended or expelled but we will tell you all the news when we see you in person.
If you can get something going in Manchester, that would be a real step forward for the organisation. It is a serious omission that this is the only large industrial city where we have not a group established.
Unfortunately we are sold right out of Appeals and have not a single copy to spare. Millie says she has sent one hundred copies of the January issue of SA to Dublin – and this can be left to her. We will send you the other material you need.
Give Frank our regards and tell him we hope he will soon be better and active again.
With Warmest regards and hoping to see you at the weekend,
PS: The treasurer is after your scalp!
Ted Grant to RSL
London, January 30 1943
To the RSL,
In reply to your letter of January 14th you will see comrade A’s [Armstrong] fine record of working class activity in the current issue of the Socialist Appeal. Owing to the magnificent response of militant workers both in this country and Belfast, sending resolutions to the North Ireland prime minister, and rendering financial assistance, the desired result has been achieved and comrade A. has been released.
Ted Grant to Jimmy Deane
London, February 8 1943
Unfortunately we received your letter and the minutes too late to be able to do anything. We are rather annoyed that you did not think of telegraphing, as you did on the last occasion. Had you done so we would have telegraphed the money to you immediately. In future, if there is any urgency on any matter, please do not write but wire.
The next central committee meeting is arranged for April 3rd and 4th, and we will see you then.
It is particularly unfortunate you were not present for this meeting as there were many important items to discuss. At this meeting G. Healy resigned from the organisation and announced his intention of joining the ILP. The CC, faced with this situation unanimously decided to expel GH from the organisation. He refused to make any statement, but nevertheless, for purposes of clarification a general membership meeting has been called for all the London groups, for Sunday, February 14th. Despite the fact that he has been expelled, GH has been invited to place his case before the membership, in order to ensure full democratic discussion of the position. The situation is bad, but perhaps inevitable in view of GH’s attitude in the past. It has come as no surprise to those who were aware of his position. Together with all groups you will receive a copy of the minutes giving full details.
I see that Liverpool is attempting once again to reorganise and place the group on a sound financial basis. Let us hope that this time you will succeed in establishing a strong group politically and financially.
We are rather disappointed to receive no material for the Socialist Appeal from the Merseyside, or any of the areas that you are covering. The CC has decided to issue regular supplements to the paper. If these are to be maintained it is vitally necessary that we should receive industrial and local material from all over the country. Even if you cannot send articles, at least send the material which can be worked up into articles.
If any of the political questions you wish to raise are urgent, write and let us know, otherwise you can raise them at the next CC meeting.
PS: Thank you very much for the Fourth Internationals and the pamphlets you sent us. If you have any more material please send it as we have received nothing from SWPers for months.