Trotsky's ‘Writings on Britain’: lessons for class war

Wellred Books is pleased to announce a new edition of Leon Trotsky’s Writings on Britain. Out of print since the 1970s, this republication will be a much-needed weapon in the arsenal of revolutionaries around the world. This new edition brings together all of Trotsky’s works related to Britain from 1906 to 1940, originally released in three volumes, into one single book. It also features a new introduction by Rob Sewell, editor of Socialist Appeal and author of the books Chartist Revolution and In the Cause of Labour: A History of British Trade Unionism. Click here to order your copy!

Some people might wonder why texts written so long ago are of any importance to us today. However, the fact is that, if we want to change society, we must learn the lessons of history. There is a logic to the class struggle, which develops according to certain laws, which can be identified and understood. We can understand this logic by looking at how this struggle has played out historically. Trotsky had a deep understanding of this logic, and it was this understanding that allowed him to play a leading role, along with Lenin, in the 1917 Russian Revolution. In this book, Trotsky uncovers the deeper laws that underlie the political developments in Britain. Reading and studying Trotsky allows us to learn to use this same method today.

In this volume, Trotsky deals with the General Strike of 1926, one of the most important events in the history of the British labour movement. Such was the power of this movement that it ground the whole country to a halt and posed the question of power.

The nation-wide strike lasted nine days, during which ‘councils of action’ were formed, through which workers across different sectors of the economy coordinated the strike. These councils had the potential to become ‘soviets’, embryos of a new proletarian state. In Russia, the soviets that seized power in 1917 began, after all, as strike committees that extended their role. In Britain, so powerful were these councils of action that in some areas the government even needed their permission for the transport of food! This was nothing less than a revolutionary situation, right in the belly of one of the most powerful imperialist empires in the world.

Despite this immense potential, the General Strike eventually went down to defeat. What was lacking was not the will on the part of the working class to fight, but a leadership prepared to go all the way. As Trotsky explains: “A general strike is the sharpest form of class struggle. It is only one step from the general strike to armed insurrection.”

The leaders of the labour movement did not want to call the General Strike in the first place, and did everything they could to put a brake on the masses. With no consultation of the rank-and-file and no concessions won, the leadership called off the strike. They lacked any vision of an alternative to capitalism and had no trust in the working class to run society. For this reason, they kept the movement within the bounds of capitalism.

We see the same thing time and again with reformist leaders. On a much smaller scale, very recently, in the latest round of strikes by the University and College Union (UCU) in Britain was called off by the union’s General Secretary, Jo Grady, without consulting the union’s membership and with no significant developments in negotiations. Throughout this dispute, which has been ongoing since 2018, the UCU leadership has been afraid of letting the movement slip out of their control, giving the bosses and the Tories the upper hand.

generalstrike1926 Image public domainIn this volume, Trotsky deals with the General Strike of 1926, one of the most important events in the history of the British labour movement / Image: public domain

Alongside the recent escalation of strike action by teachers, civil servants, junior doctors, and many more, ferment amongst public sector workers is reaching boiling point. Under the right leadership, it might reach a sweep capable of toppling the Tory government, opening a new phase in the class struggle in Britain. The problem is precisely one of leadership.

So what can revolutionaries do about this? In his analysis of the General Strike, Trotsky not only draws out the lessons of the movement, but also discusses questions of revolutionary strategy and tactics for communists in Britain.

In general, people are quite conservative. They will hold on to old ideas, traditions and parties for as long as they can, until events force them to abandon them. The mass of the working class does not tend to learn from books, but from big events. This is not because they lack intelligence, but they lack the time required to read and study. After a long day at work on top of childcare and other domestic responsibilities, most working-class people will not have the time and energy to devote to studying history or the way the economy works. Given the state of official ‘politics’ today, workers don’t exactly have much encouragement to undertake this sort of study either!

Given all of this, the tenacity of the illusions that the mass of workers hold – in Trotsky’s time as in ours – is quite understandable. However, with the correct tactics, a revolutionary leadership can break the masses away from these leaders and towards the ideas of Marxism.

By supporting the left reformists where they take a step forward against the right wing on certain practical questions, whilst at the same time maintaining an independent, revolutionary programme and not hiding their criticism of the left reformists where they demonstrate pusillanimity or take steps backwards, revolutionaries can demonstrate that they are on the same side as the workers. They can gain the ear of these workers and expose the reformist leaders all the more effectively. This is a far more productive approach than denouncing these leaders from the sidelines.

As Trotsky explains:

“It is necessary to make use of vacillating leaders while the masses are pushing them ahead, without for a moment abandoning criticism of these leaders. And it is necessary to break with them at the right time when they turn from vacillation to hostile action and betrayal. It is necessary to use the occasion of the break to expose the traitorous leaders and to contrast their position to that of the masses. It is precisely in this that the revolutionary essence of the united front policy consists.” (Trotsky’s emphasis)

In the build up to the 1926 General Strike, the Communist International that was then under the leadership of Stalin, failed to adopt this strategy. They instead formed not a temporary alliance with the left reformists against the right, but a permanent body for joint cooperation with the left reformists in Britain, the Anglo-Russian trade union committee.

The British Communist Party, guided by the Communist International, attempted to maintain an alliance with the reformists despite the betrayal in 1926. In turn, the Communist Party was tainted by the betrayal, and failed to gain any significant influence amongst the masses.

Even after the defeat of the strike, the Communist Party had the potential to educate the most conscious layers of the working class on the lessons of movement, and Trotsky urged them to evaluate their mistakes in order to learn from them.

Unfortunately, they did not follow this advice, and the Communist Party remained on the fringes of the working class and failed to significantly grow its influence in the class struggle in Britain.


Marxists are often accused, quite falsely, of being economic determinists who believe that economic crisis automatically leads to radicalisation. But whereas the Great Depression that set in after the Wall Street Crash spurred a massive rise in industrial struggle in the United States, in Britain, high unemployment coupled with the demoralisation after the General Strike of 1926, served to damp the industrial struggle. Instead, radicalisation tended to express itself on the political front. The consciousness of classes develops in a complex, dialectical manner, and is conditioned by all the events of the preceding period. To understand consciousness, you need to look at how all the processes in society are coming together. As Trotsky explains:

“While Marxism teaches that class relations arise in the process of production and that these relations correspond to a certain level of productive forces; while Marxism further teaches that all forms of ideology and, first and foremost, politics correspond to class relations, this does not at all mean that between politics, class groupings and production there exist simple mechanical relations [...] It is possible to interpret dialectically the course of a country’s development, including its revolutionary development, only by proceeding from the action, reaction and interaction of all the material and superstructural factors, national and world-wide alike [...]”

This dialectical method permeates Trotsky’s analysis of British politics. To shine a light on the contemporary situation, he takes a long view of the development of British capitalism, dating right back to the origins of capitalism in Britain and the English Revolution of the 17th century, showing how these events left a legacy in the traditions and psychology of the different classes in society.

Trotsky demonstrates how the early rise of the British bourgeoisie lent certain particularities to the outlook and character of the contemporary ruling class, as well as the leaders of the labour movement:

“Britain developed without historical precedents. She could not seek and find a model for her own future in more advanced countries. She went forward gropingly and empirically, only generalising her experience and looking ahead insofar as was unavoidable. Empiricism is stamped on the traditional mode of thought of the British – that means above all of the British bourgeois; and this same intellectual tradition has passed over to the top layers of the working class.”

We see, therefore, that the slow, gradual development of capitalism in Britain shaped the consciousness of both the ruling class and the working class. On the one hand, Britain became the home of empiricism, producing thinkers such as Francis Bacon, John Locke and David Hume. On the other hand, it bred a certain conservatism in consciousness that also affected the working class.

In contrast, as Trotsky explains, revolutionary consciousness in Russia developed at a breakneck pace, precisely because of the rapid and forceful introduction of industry by foreign capital. The peasantry were torn from the countryside and combined into industrial armies lacking any tradition in the towns. Without the ballast of a conservative leadership, this nascent working class took to the ideas of revolutionary Marxism very quickly. The early and gradual development of capitalism in Britain resulted in a certain tendency towards conservatism in the labour movement, at the same time it forged a mighty industrial working class. So despite the British masses being slow to move, when they did move, their struggle reached enormous proportions, as shown by the 1926 General Strike.

Trotsky understood this dynamic. In his book Where is Britain Going? (1925), included in this collection, he showed that a revolutionary clash of classes was inherent in the situation. The reformists at the time had their eyes shut to the real situation developing, and lulled themselves into thinking that a revolution in such a ‘civilised’ country was impossible. As Trotsky explains after the strike: “The official leaders of British socialism treated it as the fantasy of a foreigner who did not know British conditions and dreamt of transplanting a ‘Russian’ general strike onto the soil of the British Isles”. And only a few months after Trotsky made his prediction, the workers burst onto the scene in the General Strike.

This shows the contrast between the Marxist method and that of the reformists. Marxism, being based on a study of the dynamics of society rather than fanciful hopes and wishes, provides the benefit of foresight over astonishment. As Trotsky explained, “even the British social revolution will take place according to laws established by Marx”.

This book provides an excellent insight into the revolutionary history of Britain, but it is a book that should be read by a much wider audience than those just interested in British history. It covers a wide range of topics including: the colonial revolutions and the theory of permanent revolution; an analysis of imperialist wars and the Marxist approach to war; an analysis of on the defeats of the Chinese, German and Spanish working class, and the role played by Stalinism; the intervention of British imperialism in the Russian Civil War, and much more.

In the eighty years since Trotsky’s death, the contradictions of capitalism have now been generalised across the whole world. Decades of the development of capitalism have developed a very large and powerful working class. At the same time, this process has greatly heightened the contradictions in the capitalist system, which is now a truly global system.

In the process of their struggle, the working class learns the real nature of society. During a revolutionary period, all previously held notions are put to the test. Defensive struggles can very quickly turn into offensives that can take on revolutionary proportions. The period we have entered into is one of crisis, instability, and revolution. And, despite the historical and cultural characteristics of each particular nation, in the final analysis they too will unfold according to the laws established by Marx.

As shown by the increase in strikes and unionisation in Britain, the US and elsewhere in the recent period, the working class is beginning to move. But as history has shown, revolutionary leadership is required to show the way forward. Such a leadership has to be built. This book provides revolutionaries with the tools to develop a deeper understanding of the Marxist method of analysis and the lessons of the class struggle.

It is a book that should be read and studied by all revolutionaries, so get your copy today and encourage your friends and colleagues to do the same!

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