By Joseph Choonara
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Trotskyism under the Spotlight

This article is over 5 years, 8 months old
A new book analyses the history of the British groups that have based their political strategies on the works of Leon Trotsky. Joseph Choonara looks at its strengths and contests its weaknesses.
Issue 436

There is something quite peculiar about the first history of contemporary British Trotskyism being written by someone who was, during the 1980s, a member of the Communist Party — rather like a version of the Acts of the Apostles penned by Pontius Pilate.

Nonetheless, John Kelly’s Contemporary Trotskyism is a serious and scholarly book whose content deserves to be pondered and, in some cases, contested. It should also be said, it is hard for me to hate a book that portrays me as an instance of “younger members” reaching “leading positions” in the Trotskyist movement (even if I have “done little to disturb oligarchic rule”).

Kelly’s conception of Trotskyism is a broad one, encompassing all organisations claiming to stand in the tradition of Leon Trotsky, including those such as the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) which, early in its history, rejected elements of the Trotskyist orthodoxy.

Although at times the narrative is coloured by what seems like a deep residual antipathy towards Trotsky and Trotskyism, Kelly commends the resilience of the tradition, its commitment to political education in Marxist ideas and, in particular, what he sees as the achievements of Trotskyism “in the field of social movements”:

“The Anti-Nazi League (ANL), initiated and led by the SWP, played a significant part in rolling back the electoral advance of the far-right National Front in the late 1970s while the Anti Poll Tax Federation…was even more successful, helping to destroy Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax and at the same time contributing to her downfall as prime minister… Although the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and People’s Assembly failed to achieve their ostensible aims, they did succeed in organising some of the largest demonstrations ever seen in Britain.”


In other respects, he is more damning. He tends to see these mass campaigns as achievements in spite of the Trotskyist ideas of their originators. He writes: “The paradox of those success stories is that they were achieved precisely because Trotskyist groups set aside core elements of Trotskyist doctrine and focused on building broad-based, single-issue campaigns around non-revolutionary goals.”

Indeed, central to his argument is the idea that Trotskyist organisations are hybrids, combining elements of political parties and social movements, but also sects.

As a result of their sectarianism, he argues, despite being in existence for almost 80 years, the Trotskyist movement has not yet yielded “a mass Trotskyist party anywhere on the planet” or “led a socialist revolution, successful or otherwise”. Instead the Trotskyist family is beset by schismatic debates over “rigid and unhelpful doctrine” and a “millenarian, revolutionary vision”.

In some respects, Kelly has an easy target here.

There are, in his account, 22 Trotskyist organisations in Britain. Only two of these have a membership of over a thousand. Most are tiny. The “Fourth International (Lambertist)” and the “Revolutionary Communist International Tendency in Britain” have two members each — enough for a split but not much else. While Kelly does not give equal billing to the different organisations, there is much discussion of groups that even seasoned socialist activists are unlikely to have encountered.

Since the implosion of the Workers Revolutionary Party and the International Marxist Group (IMG) in the 1980s, the only groups with real weight and significance have been the SWP and the Militant Tendency — later the Socialist Party — joined recently by a few significant splits from these organisations with a hundred or so members each.

In discussing the sect-like character of Trotskyism, Kelly has fun quoting the Socialist Equality Party, which in its three decades of existence has gathered about 50 members, proclaiming that it is “the sole political tendency on the face of the planet that sets as its aim the revolutionary mobilisation of the working class against imperialism”.

Kelly partially recognises the problem of overgeneralisation by presenting a typology of different kinds of Trotskyism. For instance, Militant Tendency and its successors are presented as instances of “institutional Trotskyism” because of their historic focus on the Labour Party and because they advocate a peaceful transition to socialism.

Unfortunately, and weirdly, the SWP is grouped together with the Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL) as examples of what Kelly calls “Third Camp Trotskyism”. This refers to the fact that both organisations rejected the orthodox Trotskyist idea that the Soviet Union was some kind of “degenerated workers’ state”. In the case of the SWP (but unlike the AWL), it was instead characterised as a variant of capitalism, dubbed “bureaucratic state capitalism”.

However, on most substantive issues, the SWP and the AWL could not be further apart. For instance, the SWP helped initiate the Stop the War Coalition to oppose the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq — and were clear in doing so that the main enemy was US and British imperialism. The AWL managed to alienate themselves from pretty much everyone on the left with their equivocation on the war and concessions to Islamophobia.

However, I think some of Kelly’s other propositions are more serious and deserve a considered response.

There has been a genuine problem of sectarianism in the Trotskyist movement. This has, in fact, been acknowledged by some authors within that broad tradition. So Alex Callinicos writes in his own brief account of Trotskyism: “It is perhaps appropriate here to consider why it was that the Trotskyist movement should so often have displayed the characteristics of religious sectaries.”

The most important component of the answer is that Trotskyist currents were isolated from mass workers’ movements, not simply through their small size but, in the decades following the break between Trotsky and Stalin, by the conscious efforts of Communist movements.

In relative isolation, with no real ability to influence events on the ground, it was easy for Trotskyists to turn inward — emphasising Trotsky’s legacy but transforming his provisional account of how capitalism would develop in the wake of the Second World War, and what should be done about it, into a rigid dogma. If the dogma becomes the central thing, the logic is to split over the interpretation of that dogma.

Real involvement in workers’ movements is the antidote to this, because it allows ideas to be tested in practice, rather than through abstract intellectual debate, and because the need for effective intervention reinforces the need to hold together organisations.

For Marx, sectarianism reflected, above all, a relationship between revolutionaries and the working class movement: “The sect sees the justification for its existence and its ‘point of honour’ — not in what it has in common with the class movement but in the particular shibboleth which distinguishes it from it.”

The International Socialists (IS), the forerunner to the SWP, managed to undercut any sectarian tendencies by throwing itself into workers’ struggles as well as engaging in an iconoclastic revision of central tenets of Trotsky’s theory.

In a 1973 text, recently unearthed by Ian Birchall and John Rudge, Sam Farber, a Cuban socialist who visited Britain, reports:

“The IS is successfully making the transition from sect to party. This is not just a matter of numbers although its rapid growth…is certainly noteworthy. It is also a question of its social composition, real influence on working class and national politics and several other considerations…

“The group’s influence in national politics is growing… It is a leading force in various opposition groups in trade unions… The IS has begun to attract people who would never consider joining a sect and probably would not even hear about them… Refreshingly, there is little posing and swagger in the outside world as well as inside the organisation…it was quite gratifying to see such modesty.”

What of Kelly’s argument that creating broad movements is a violation of “Trotskyist orthodoxy”? Here I think Kelly mistakes the practice of some sectarian groups for the actual tradition that Trotsky stood in. Kelly offers only a rather cursory account of the tactic of the united front, developed by Trotsky and other Bolshevik leaders in the 1920s, and then promoted by Trotsky in the context of the rise of the fascism in the late 1920s and 1930s.

Kelly acknowledges that the Communist Party’s initial response to fascism, preposterously equating Germany’s social democrats to the Nazis, was “disastrous” and split the potential anti-fascist forces in the working class.

From 1935, the Communist movement performed a volte-face, endorsing the “Popular Front” — an alliance of all those opposed to fascism, including straightforwardly pro-capitalist organisations. This shift was also met by scorn by Trotsky. For Kelly this is a consequence both of Trotsky’s knee-jerk opposition to Stalinism and his underappreciation of the role of parliament. But, contrary to Kelly’s implication, Trotsky never equated fascism with ordinary capitalist rule — he merely opposed the subordination of the working class movement to pro-capitalist parliamentary forces, which he argued would make the anti-fascist struggle less powerful.

This does not mean that Trotsky believed participation in a united front should be premised on acceptance of revolutionary ideas or even revolutionary leadership. For him, participation was open to all those who accepted the need for activity to resist fascism, including reformist organisations and their leaders. Those who were excluded were those who sought to smother activity in the interests of attaining parliamentary power. Provided revolutionaries had the freedom within the context of the struggle to criticise reformists and to advance their own tactics and ideas, the united front remained the best vehicle for fighting fascism.


In this sense, organisations such as the ANL and, more recently, Stand Up to Racism, embody the spirt of Trotsky’s united front, creatively applied to the present.

A second argument Kelly makes — that Trotskyist forces do not automatically grow in the context of united front activity — has more purchase. According to his figures, Tariq Ali’s IMG, the group most strongly associated with the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, grew by just 115 members from 1966-69, whereas the International Socialists grew 564, Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labour League by 666. During the high point of the ANL, 1977-79, the SWP shrank by 500, whereas the Militant Tendency grew by 428. During the Anti-Poll Tax movement, Militant Tendency lost 1,000 members. During the Stop the War Coalition years, the SWP shrank by 2,880.

There are some issues of interpretation here. First, the published membership figures of Trotskyist groups should be treated with caution. The decline in the SWP from 2001-2004 reflects, in part, the rectification of an unrealistic membership figure of 10,000 claimed in the 1990s. Second, the declines often reflect other factors. The fall in SWP membership during the ANL period also partly reflects the downturn in industrial struggle, which helped to lift its membership from 1968 until the mid-1970s, while Militant, by contrast, benefited from the flood of leftists into Labour. Later, during the campaign against the Poll Tax, Militant were expelled from the Labour Party — losing members and suffering a split as a result.

Nonetheless, I think it is correct to argue that simply playing a role in initiating and carrying much of the organisational burden of united fronts does not automatically result in growth.

The solution is neither to give up on building revolutionary organisation in favour of liquidation into broad campaigns nor to succumb to the sectarian temptation of only participating in purist revolutionary movements.

Engagement with real working class forces must be combined with a degree of ideological clarity — particularly if the revolutionaries are in a small minority. What we lack in size we can make up for by explaining the problems generated by capitalism — and offering a clear way forward for the struggles we participate in. As Trotsky put it: “A sharp axe can hew heavy beams.”

Why, though, has no political party originating from Trotskyism ever made the transition to a mass party?

The most obvious problems is that Trotskyism was, in its earliest period, eclipsed by Stalinism, which claimed the mantel of the Russian Revolution, and which had at its disposal the power of the Soviet state and the large Communist Parties that existed in many countries outside of the Soviet Union.

The hold of Stalinism only really weakened in the West in 1956 in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Hungary and Soviet leader Krushchev’s “Secret Speech”, in which he acknowledged some of Stalin’s crimes. This opened up a small space for Trotskyist groups.

However, forging a mass revolutionary organisation also requires the emergence of a self-confident mass workers’ movement that begins to question elements of capitalism. This did exist, in many countries, in the period from 1968 through to the mid-1970s, when an extraordinary cycle of radicalism erupted.

During this period groups grew impressively — but from a tiny base. The International Socialists had a loose organisation of a little under 500 members going into 1968. In the years that followed it grew six-fold — impressive, but not enough to entirely displace the Communist Party, let alone Labour, to become the hegemonic force in the workers’ movement. What would have happened if the Trotskyists had begun 1968 with the 30,000 or so members the Communists retained?

It was not until the 1980s that the Communist Party was overtaken by Trotskyist organisations. By then the workers’ movement was in decline, and the mood shifting to the right. To survive, some groups sank deep roots within the Labour Party or embedded themselves in unions or campaigns. The SWP protected itself from the mood of demoralisation by emphasising its theoretical distinctiveness, while engaging in movements such as the ANL when the opportunity arose.

The situation today is different. It is not one of a straightforward rightward shift, but rather of political polarisation, and, as Corbyn’s rise shows, the left’s audience is substantial. But the limitation of the radicalism remains the continued low level of working class self-activity.

This is not a situation that will last indefinitely. The history of capitalism is one of ongoing reorganisation of the working class, throwing up new forces that, over time, discover their capacity to challenge the system.

The goal for revolutionary socialists today is to engage in the painstaking work of strengthening and giving leadership to those struggles that do emerge, while renewing our theory and presenting it as clearly as possible to those we fight alongside. In doing so, we can hope to enter whatever new upsurges of struggle lie ahead with sufficient forces to build a genuine mass revolutionary party.

I doubt such a party will look much like the Trotskyist organisations of today. But it will contain at its heart notions of internationalism and workers’ self-emancipation that Trotsky helped to preserve.

Trotsky and Trotskyism

Leon Trotsky was, along with Lenin, one of the key leaders of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Trotsky’s perspective was that the revolution could succeed only if it formed the prelude to an international series of revolutions that would allow Russia to break out of its isolation. Unfortunately, the revolutionary wave that swept Europe in the wake of First World War, did not achieve such breakthroughs.

Russia was encircled and invaded by armies from several major capitalist powers — and the civil war that resulted decimated the working class. In the place of the working class democracy that had flourished in the revolution, a party-led bureaucracy established itself as the ruling force in Russian society. At the head of this bureaucracy was Joseph Stalin.

In the 1920s Trotsky challenged Stalin’s growing power. Yet the social forces Stalin represented were simply too powerful — Trotsky was exiled and, in 1940, assassinated by a Stalinist agent. Trotskyism established itself in several countries as a minority current challenging mainstream Communist Parties.


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