Duncan Hallas

Pioneers of the tradition

(March 1985)

From Socialist Review, No.85, March 1985, pp.31-2.
Transcribed and marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Against the Stream: A History of the Trotskyist Movement in Britain 1924-38
Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson
Socialist Platform £5.95

THIS is a serious and substantial work. Although the publishers’ claim that it is written “from wholly unpublished material” is a considerable exaggeration, it is true that nowhere else is such comprehensive documentation brought together and the oral sources (recorded interviews) are uniquely rich.

Why, though, should today’s reader be interested? The first Trotskyist organisation (the Communist League) dates from late 1932 and the book’s coverage ends, more or less, with 1937. Such a short period and so long ago. There are three reasons why. First, as the authors say, we owe a debt to the people described in this book’ because they maintained and transmitted the authentic revolutionary Marxist tradition in a time when it was nearly completely destroyed by Stalinism. Second, because it illuminates the problems of small revolutionary groups (very small by today’s standards) in extremely adverse circumstances. Third, because the issue of entrism soon became central for the British Trotskyists of this period. It is still an issue and much can be learned from the experiences, both positive and negative, of the pioneers.

The book has two interesting chapters on the ‘prehistory’ of Trotskyism in Britain (1924-31) but, of course, it is with the Balham Group, which became the Communist League soon after the CP expelled Reg Groves, Harry Wicks, Hugo Dewar and ten others in 1932, that the story really begins.

The Communist League was oriented on the CPGB, in line with Trotsky’s view that the task was to reform and reorientate the Comintern, and they had some success: “By the end of 1933 they had accumulated 52 members.”

However, by that time Hitler was in power, the German Communist Party and the whole German workers’ movement were smashed and Trotsky had completely reversed his position.

The central thrust of the Trotskyist criticism of the Comintern parties in the early thirties had been the call for a workers’ united front against fascism, which involved rejecting the then Stalinist position that the reformist workers’ parties were ‘social-fascist’ themselves.

The German disaster (and the Comintern’s pretence that its line had been right all along) convinced Trotsky that the cause of ‘reform’ of the CPs was now hopeless. New parties and a new International were needed.

This one hundred and eighty degree turn met with opposition at first in the British group (as well as in the others iñtérnationally) but it was the tactical consequences for Britain that produced the real conflict and the first split.

To understand this it is necessary to go back a little. In August 1931 Ramsay MacDonald, Labour Party leader and prime minister, had deserted (along with Snowden, Thomas and others) and formed a coalition with the Tories and Liberals. In the subsequent general election the Labour Party was routed.

Then the ILP, the most important non-trade union affiliate of the Labour Party, seceded (July 1932), moved sharply to the left and was soon talking of ‘revolutionary socialism’. The CPGB, in line with Comintern policy, denounced the newly independent party as ‘left social-fascist’ and lost the chance of doubling or trebling its forces (the ILP took nearly 17,000 out of the Labour Party; the CPGB had then a little under 3,000) by its sectarian stupidity.

Here, surely, was a great opportunity for the little band of Trotskyists. Trotsky was quick to see it. In the late summer of 1933 he proposed that the British Trotskyists enter the ILP en bloc, abandoning their monthly paper in the process.

It is important to grasp that there was, as yet, no proposal to enter a reformist party. The ILP was described by Trotsky as “left centrist” and, still more important, as “moving leftwards”. The object of the entry was to win it, if at all possible. “It is worth entering the ILP”, Trotsky wrote, “only if we make it our purpose to help this party, that is its revolutionary majority [emphasis in the original – DH], to transform itself into a truly Marxist party.” Of course, he allowed for the possibility that this maximum aim might well not be achieved; but, in the struggle to achieve it, at least a significant number of revolutionary-minded workers could be won.

A big majority of the 50 or so British Trotskyists rejected the idea. And here is a paradox and a lesson. The leaders of the Communist League, and a good number of their supporters, were working men and women who had five, ten or more years of active involvement in the class struggle.

They were very active in, and well- integrated with, the left wing of the labour movement in South West London. They had good and close relations with the local ILP people. Their activities are well described in the fourth chapter of Against the Stream and, more vividly, in Reg Groves’ The Balham Group (first published in International Socialism, 1973). They were anything but sectarian. Yet for various plausible-seeming reasons, they rejected Trotsky’s proposal.

A little group of young people, vastly less experienced and without roots in the working class movement, split away in December 1933, entered the ILP and set up shop as the Marxist Group within it. There were just 11 of them, led by an ex-LSE student, D.D. Harber.

There can be no doubt who was right. The Marxist Group grew to some 200 within a year. The Marxist League (as the old majority soon became) stagnated. It was a vivid demonstration of the fundamental importance of a realistic perspective and tactical flexibility. The Marxist Group seized a fleeting opportunity which led, if not to fortune, then at least to a three figure membership.

However, this first entry – the most successful of all – produced its own problems. Maximum success was gained very quickly. The ILP was slowly disintegrating under the twin pulls of Stalinism (as the CP moved out of its ultra-left phase and grew) and reformism (as the Labour Party revived strongly in 1934).

Trotsky quickly realised that the centrist mish-mash that was the ILP had no future and offered no further prospects for growth by the revolutionaries. He urged a break with it and an orientation on the Labour Party, which, given the relationship of forces, could only mean entry into it.

The leaders of the Marxist Group, now dominated by a brilliant and dynamic recruit, the West Indian C.L.R. James, refused to recognise that yesterday’s perspective was now a nonsense. The group became factionalised and started to splinter.

Harber, almost alone this time, broke away and joined the Labour League of Youth at the end of 1934. Around him, a third Trotskyist organisation-the Bolshevik-Leninist Group-was created. The Marxist League also turned to the Labour Party and particularly to the Socialist League, the then organised Labour left. Groves, especially, soon became prominent in it.

None of this activity reproduced the gains of the first years. Although the relationship of forces between the three groups altered over time; this was largely a result of transfers of allegiance by members. There was no net growth.

There are a number of reasons for this. The mere existence of three rival groups, all proclaiming exactly the same politics in their rival publications and divided on purely tactical questions, is one. Another is the growth of institutionalised factionalism, a product of the conflicts and splits, but outliving them. Another is the strength of reformism in the Labour Party.

One reason, though, overshadows all others – the growth of Stalinism and the Moscow Trials. Trotskyism had already been denounced as counter-revolutionary in the early thirties. Now, with the trials and confessions, it was portrayed as an ally of Hitler and the Trotskyists as Hitler’s agents.

With the Popular Front line, the CPs grew fast. The Spanish Civil War, the International Brigades, the successes of industrialisation in Russia, the obvious and growing expansion of Nazi Germany, all strengthened the appeal of Stalinism. The Trotskyists were marginalised even where (as in Britain) they could not be murdered.

When the three groups were eventually re-united in the second half of 1938 their claimed total membership was 200, less than the combined total in late 1934. Moreover, as events were to prove, many of them were so ‘hooked’ on entrism that they could not break with it even when, from 1940 on, it was ludicrously inappropriate.

Nevertheless, the positive achievement, although very modest, was real. We are the descendants of these pioneers. If their errors sometimes seem gross, we should remember that hindsight is easy. Without their efforts, without their continuation of a living tradition under enormous difficulties, we should not be where we are today.


Last updated on 8.11.2003