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tedspeakers1.jpgToday we publish in 3 parts a history of British Trotskyism by Martin Upham. This was a PhD thesis on the subject, and while we would not agree with all the points raised in it, we believe it deserves a wider audience, particularly for those interested in the history of our movement. For a more in-depth study of the subject readers are urged to consult Ted Grant's book on the the History of British Trotskyism

This week we will publish in 3 parts a history of British Trotskyism by Martin Upham. This was a PhD thesis on the subject, and while we would not agree with all the points raised in it, we believe it deserves a wider audience, particularly for those interested in the history of our movement. For a more in-depth study of the subject readers are urged to consult Ted Grant's book on the the History of British Trotskyism.


 

The History of British Trotskyism to 1949

being a Thesis submitted for the Degree of

Doctor of Philosophy

in the University of Hull

by

Martin Richard Upham, B.A., M.Sc.

September 1980

 

PREFACE

Trotskyism has been neglected by historians excavating those ever more popular quarries the 1930s and 1940s. Their disinterest is my main case for devoting a full-length thesis to Trotskyist activity before 1949. It may be objected that Trotskyism was unimportant throughout my chosen period. But while it was certainly no major influence before 1949, even in the restricted area of the labour movement during that time, Trotskyism maintained activity and conditioned in part the behaviour of other movements and individuals who are thought fit subjects for historical enquiry. There is therefore a job of recovery to be done in order to establish whom Trotskyism affected and why. Yet there is, simultaneously, a larger question to pose: if Trotskyism was unimportant throughout, why was this so? There is no iron law of labour movements which inevitably permits communist parties to eclipse Trotskyism. In a number of metropolitan countries Trotsky received early and significant support from noted communist leaders. Since this did not happen in Britain where the communists themselves never gathered mass support, the historian must ask why. It is also necessary to allow for those occasions when Trotskyism passed out of the shadows into the floodlights: these moments have also been skipped, for the most part, by historians, and need to be put in their proper setting within the labour history of the time.

My claim to have undertaken original work rests chiefly on the lack of secondary material on the subject. The main lines of development of the Trotskyist movement laid down in this thesis I have derived from contemporary manuscripts and published material, and from conversations with participants. Invariably my investigation took me from a working knowledge of labour movement history into uncharted waters. Sometimes I floundered and occasionally I was misled by red herrings: at all events I had to make my own charts and I hope they will help others. Yet I do not seek to give the impression that there has been no secondary work at all. How do I relate to what has been written? The last five years have seen a spurt of scholarly interest in the non-communist left of the labour movement. Two theses on the I.L.P. have been written which span a period similar to that of this thesis and discuss Trotskyist influence on the party. [1] At the end of 1979 a thesis by John Archer was completed covering Trotskyist movements between 1931 and 1937. [2] Since I had at that time a first draft of my own thesis, I did not, on the advice of my supervisor, read Archer’s work. There has also been written a shorter bibliographical thesis on the Trotskyist press by Alison Penn which is a useful tool although it lacks absolute authority. [3]

Published work which discusses British Trotskyism in whole or part falls into two categories. There are the articles written by Brian Pearce under a variety of pseudonyms some twenty years ago, several of which have now been republished. [4] Pearce always went to the sources and unearthed many forgotten episodes or facets of better known events. Hugo Dewar’s Communist Politics in Britain (1976) is broader though less sure in content but only marginally concerned with the Trotskyists. Reg Groves has published his recollections as The Balham Group (1974), an invaluable memoir which yet leaves much unsaid. Harry Wicks has also written briefly of the early years of Trotskyism. [5] Wartime and the controversy over Military Policy (q.v.) have stimulated interesting articles in the socialist press. [6] Finally there have been accounts of the post-war controversies within the Fourth International arising from European economic recovery. [7]

Consigned to the not recommended category must be those squibs written by political activists in order to cancel out the past or to justify the present: I have responded to these by seeking to establish fact and demolish myth but they are mentioned in my bibliography.

It seems to me that the history of Trotskyism in Britain has a natural periodicity. There was no organised movement in the 1920s. The years to 1938 when the Fourth International was launched were in Britain years of survival and sectarianism. Toeholds were established but conditions were most unfavourable for the gathering of support. From 1938 to 1944 there was a contradictory development as the official British Section of the Fourth International splintered repeatedly and finally ceased to be a coherent political force, while an unofficial group, regarded as a pariah by official Trotskyist opinion, built the strongest position yet for the movement in Britain drawing to it some who were disaffected and others who were new. The process was thus simultaneously one of fission and fusion. 1944 to 1949 were years when the Revolutionary Communist Party declined as its perspectives collided with reviving capitalism and it was progressively debilitated by internal disputes. Just as in the 1930s, but now for quite opposite reasons, there were no major industrial conflicts and this absence blighted Trotskyism’s prospects. My argument is that the major influences on the British working class were established at the beginning of the 1930s while Trotskyism was still incipient. Only the peculiar political conjuncture induced by the war permitted Trotskyist growth. The end of the war brought a return to traditional political loyalties, the objects of which had not yet been tested to the full. There was simply no room for a strong Trotskyist organisation and all the characteristics accurately or unfairly imputed to it were secondary in effect to the brutal centripetal tendencies of the British labour movement.


1. P.J. Thwaites, The Independent Labour Party, 1938-50 (University of London Ph.D. thesis, 1976); G. Littlejohns, The Decline of the Independent Labour Party, (University of Nottingham MPhil. thesis, 1979).

2. J. Archer, Trotskyism in Britain: 1931-1937 (Polytechnic of Central London Ph.D. thesis, 1979).

3. A.M.R. Penn, A Bibliography of the British Trotskyist Press (University of Warwick M.A. thesis, 1979).

4. See M. Woodhouse and B. Pearce, Essays on the History of Communism in Britain, 1975.

5. H. Wicks, British Trotskyism in the Thirties, International, Vol.1, No.4, 1971, 26-32.

6. W. Hunter, Marxists in the Second World War, Labour Review, Dec. 1958, 139-46; B. Farnborough (B. Pearce) Marxists in the Second World War, Labour Review, April-May 1959; D. Parkin, British Trotskyists and the Class Struggle in World War 2, Trotskyism Today, March 1978, 27-30.

7. Notably P. Jenkins, Where Trotskyism Got Lost, 1979.

 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

This thesis was begun as a piece of research in the Summer of 1972. In the eight years that have passed since then I have been helped in my research by a great many people. Whenever I needed it I have been assisted by my supervisor John Saville, who read critically whatever I wrote and made me a little less unscholarly than I originally was. It was he who was responsible for acquiring the Haston Papers, now lodged at the University of Hull, and who cleared the way for me to research them. Latterly, he carefully read my penultimate draft and his comments were always stimulating. I am deeply in his debt. Equally responsible for my research falling into the minority category of completed doctoral theses was my wife Chitra who encouraged me to take up anew a project which had all but lapsed and who transformed my scribbled first draft into clear typewritten pages. I also owe a huge debt to Sally Boston, Assistant Librarian of the University of Hull, whose responsibility it has been to classify the Haston Papers. She was heroic in coping with the arrival of a researcher so soon after they were deposited and helped me on countless occasions, sometimes at some personal inconvenience. To their names must be added those of Joyce Bellamy who put me to work to acquire the rudiments of scholarship on the Dictionary of Labour Biography even before my research officially began and from whom I continued to learn, together with those of David Rubinstein and other members of the Department of Economic and Social History at the University of Hull with whom I have had many rewarding discussions.

Among the others who have helped me, especially in the early stages of my research, were such former and continuing activists as John and Mary Archer, Margaret Johns, Brian Pearce, Sam Bornstein, Sam Levy, Reg Groves, Harry Wicks, John Goffe, Ted Grant, Jock and Millie Haston, Roy Tearse and Sid Bidwell. My thesis would have had a very one-dimensional character without their help and – not infrequently – their hospitality. I have been most fortunate also in the help I have received from the staff of a number of libraries. Much of the early reading was undertaken in the Brynmor Jones Library of the University of Hull where I was able to feast off strong Labour and socialist history sources. I am grateful also to Richard Storey, Senior Projects Officer of the Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick, and his present and former staff on whom I often descended and demanded vast numbers of photocopies. This was of critical importance for one who had to work in his spare time. Special mention must also be made of Margaret Kentfield, Nick Wetton, and the staff of the Marx Memorial Library, an institution geared, in its opening hours and desire to place the minimum of obstacles between reader and source, to the needs of those who are not full-time students. I also worked at the L.S.E. library and that of Nuffield College at the University of Oxford, at the British Museum Reading Room and at its Periodicals Library in Colindale, at the Public Records Office and the Fitzwilliam Library, University of Cambridge.

In my first year of work I was maintained by the Social Science Research Council on the recommendation of the Department of Economic and Social History, University of Hull. In my second year I was fortunate to receive an award of equivalent value to that from the S.S.R.C. from the A.J. Horsley fund at the University of Hull. For a short time after the completion of that year I worked on a part-time basis for the Dictionary of Labour Biography under the direction of Doctor Joyce Bellamy and Professor John Saville of my department. After that I encountered the vicissitudes of completing this kind of work under part-time conditions, constrained by absence from easy access to a community of scholars and a good library and by being unable to devote the whole of my mind to the project. It was therefore of tremendous assistance that I should be granted by my employers, the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation, a sabbatical leave of two calendar months in the Summer of 1980, during which time I was able to devote all my time to writing the penultimate draft. Mr. Bill Sirs, the ISTC General Secretary, showed no hesitation in granting me leave although my request came at a critical moment in the Union’s fortunes.

Finally I am deeply indebted to Carol Tarling who quickly mastered the intricacies of thesis lay-out and the almost unfathomable mysteries of my handwriting to present me with a finished product which is a pleasure to the eye.


LIST OF APPENDICES

A. A Note on British Trotskyists and Spain.

B. Reg Groves and the Aylesbury Divisional Labour Party (1937–1945).

C. Articles in Workers International News While it was Published by Workers International League (January 1938–February 1944).

D. Peace and Unity Agreement (1938).

E. Industrial Programme of Workers International League.

F. Trotskyism and the I.L.P.

G. Programme of the Revolutionary Communist Party.

H. War Cabinet. The Trotskyist Movement in Great Britain – Memorandum by the Home Secretary.

 

A NOTE ON REFERENCES

In the footnotes to the text I have tried to reduce details in references to the minimum consistent with precision. Where possible details of references are given in full in the bibliography. There are no references to works published after 1979 at which date the first draft of the thesis was complete.

In the footnotes and in the bibliography the following abbreviations occur:

BSSLH: Bulletin of the Society for the Study of Labour History

Inprecorr: International Press Correspondence

JCH: Journal of Contemporary History

JSLHS: Journal of the Scottish Labour History Society

PQ: Political Quarterly

Unless otherwise stated in the bibliography, the place of publication is London.



Introduction

TROTSKY AND THE BRITISH LABOUR MOVEMENT IN THE 1920s

The failure of Trotskyism to establish a presence in the 1920s is to be explained partly by reference to the character of the Communist Party of Great Britain and partly by the quality of British Marxism itself. Lack of interest in theory and the absence of intellectuals who would make major contributions to Marxist thought had already separated Britain from the Continent before 1914. [1] Detachment from ideological controversy was carried over into the infant CPGB, whose formation had been the subject of historical debate. [2] Respect for Trotsky as a revolutionary leader spanned the labour movement spectrum at the start of the decade. By the end it had narrowed to liberal and independent socialist intellectuals. The Communist Party, which had promoted him enthusiastically up to the middle 1920s turned, with the Comintern, away from him. For the Labour Party, twice in government, he was too revolutionary. Trotsky had support against both parties, but no organised following. The low level of Party life, incomprehension at the debate within the Russian Party and the Comintern, a lack of intellectuals among the membership [3], all might be urged as reasons why the Communist Party produced no Trotskyist opposition for nearly ten years. The Party observed the line from Moscow until the late 1920s when a combination of Comintern pressure and a rank and file revolt precipitated a leadership purge. Support for Trotsky came from outside the Party, from people who had stayed aloof from the attempt to build a Bolshevik Party in Britain or who had taken part and then left as individuals. [4] In neither case were they the people to organise a movement. Until 1930 Trotsky was left in Britain only with admirers.

No one in Britain in 1923 grasped the significance of the clash between the Left Opposition and the Russian Communist Party which burst into the open that year. In other countries there were fierce disputes within the Communist Parties over the critique advanced by the Opposition in its platform. [5] In Britain this did not occur. Lenin’s death in January 1924 physically removed from Russia an influence neutralised for some time. Since the battle between the Party leadership and the Left Opposition continued, pressure began to build up for national parties to declare themselves. The British Communist press, like the bourgeois press, was at first content to report. [6] This was, after all, not the first instance of debate within the Russian Party. Inprecorr, originating from Moscow, mirrored developments there more closely and, moreover, without a timelag. Trotsky’s views on the New Course were printed as well as those of Stalin and Zinoviev, [7] but Trotsky’s progressive isolation would soon be apparent. “Trotskyism” as an identifiable phenomenon was categorised as such by April 1924. [8] But the Comintern journal Communist International ran no campaign against Trotsky until the broad offensive after the General Strike, and he himself was still a contributor. [9] However, British representatives at the Fifth Comintern Congress in July 1924 endorsed the condemnation of Trotsky’s attitude by the CPSU. although no discussion in the CPGB had yet taken place. [10]

In November 1924 a definite lead was given in Inprecorr as Russian and foreign communists began to react to Trotsky’s The Lessons of October. [11] A sequence of rubbishing articles was begun which lasted until 6 February 1925. [12] Trotsky’s introduction to The Lessons of October only appeared after three months. No reader of Inprecorr could possibly doubt, after such a sustained onslaught, that this was more than an ordinary policy difference. The British Party reacted swiftly to the debates at the Fifth Congress of the Comintern. On 30 November, a party council approved the stand on Trotsky adopted there and in the CPSU. [13] Within a week Tom Bell had published the first authentic British article against Trotskyism. [14] Yet at this point the party leaders had not read The Lessons of October [15] and that certainly meant that the membership, in general, had not read it either. One exception was Arthur Reade, member of the London District Committee and business manager of Labour Monthly, who read German and had access to Comintern documents. He knew Trotsky’s views and expounded them at classes he gave to the Battersea Young Communist League. [16] He and several of these young communists attended the Party’s London aggregate meeting of 17 January 1925 to hear Andrew Rothstein and other speakers. When J.T. Murphy put down a resolution endorsing the Party’s condemnation of The Lessons of October, Reade moved an amendment from the London District Committee supporting the Opposition and regretting the haste with which the Party Council had taken a stand. [17] He was defeated with ten or fifteen votes in support. [18] But an attempt was made to delay the vote until the case for both sides had been put and this fell by only 81 votes to 65. [19] The meaning of these votes seems to be not an endorsement of Trotsky’s views by a minority of London communists, but a fairly widespread feeling that party leaders had been too eager to put themselves on record. England could join the triumphant list of countries where Trotskyism was completely isolated [20], but it was the manner rather than the ideas of the leaders which had occasioned protest. Yet Rothstein’s article of a week later suggests by its title more alarm among the party leaders after the aggregate than before. [21]

The introduction to The Lessons of October was published on 26 February 1925. [22] By then, however, the attack on Trotskyism had broadened out and stretched back in time. [23] Bell published Trotsky’s 15 January letter to the central committee of the Russian Party with a preamble arguing that its rejection proved the Party to be still a Bolshevik one. [24] He and Gallacher attended the extended plenum of the Executive Committee of the Communist International, which met from 21 March to 6 April. [25] They took no part in the debate on theoretical matters, but in the eleventh session, devoted to Trotskyism, Bell followed Treint and Neumann in a speech composed entirely of slogans. [26] The British delegates supported a motion calling for a drive against deviations to be conducted by all parties. Back in Britain Reade had been suspended from the London District Committee of the Party following the January aggregate. He appealed, but was turned down by the Party Executive on 26 April. [27] Some time after this he left the Party and the country. Perhaps the first British Trotskyist had departed, apparently making little impression. The Seventh Party Congress of the CPGB met at the end of May, and Bell implemented the ECCI decision by moving a motion agreeing with the Russian Party Central Committee in its estimate of Trotskyism and the measures taken against it. [28] There was now published The Errors of Trotskyism by Bukharin and Kamenev, a reply to The Lessons of October, with an English edition introduction by J.T. Murphy. [29] It has been suggested that, even at this late date, the British Party leaders had seen only a summary of Trotsky’s book [30] and indeed this was what was published with The Errors of Trotskyism.

There would be no support for Trotsky from Party leaders when he was out of step with Moscow, though for more than a year he was to remain a legitimate figure with the British Party. With a minor manifestation of Trotskyism in the CPGB dispelled, support for the Opposition leader now appeared outside the Party. [31] The response to Lenin (1925) illustrated the point well. Reviewers in the Party press tended to regret Trotsky’s loss of form. [32] Communists writing in non-party publications were hostile. [33] The ex-communist M. Phillips Price was friendly, [34] and Frank Horrabin was able to enjoy himself over communist inconsistency. [35] This divergence was important now and later. Many of the independent Marxists around The Plebs met Max Eastman [36] during his 1924 stay in Britain following a twenty one months spell in Russia. Eastman had met Trotsky in Russia and witnessed the debate around Opposition criticism of the Party programme, details of which he must have passed on. In the spring of 1925 he published Since Lenin Died. [37]

Though formally disowned by Trotsky, Eastman offered a detailed account of the clash within the Russian Party during the last two years – the only one available. He analysed Lenin’s suppressed Will, with its celebrated member by member assessment of the CPSU Central Committee. He reproduced a passage on Trotsky from Lunacharsky’s Revolutionary Silhouettes. It was a definite and radical challenge to the prevailing version of recent events in Russia. [38]

The Communist Party was accustomed to speaking with authority about the Soviet Union. Eastman could be the butt of unqualified attacks. For tactical reasons Trotsky had disowned the book [39] and Party reviewers in Britain therefore took the line of separating author from subject. Arthur MacManus bracketed Eastman with Party renegades Price and Levy. “Under the guise of defenders of Trotsky” they were all attacking the Russian Party. [40] Jackson predicted that Trotsky would be furious at the way his name had been used. [41] Palme Dutt ridiculed the book. [42] The Party went to some lengths to separate Eastman from Trotsky which suggests considerable embarrassment. [43] The belief that Eastman’s account might be true and Trotsky deserving of sympathy surfaces only in the non-party press. [44] Support from outside the Party was a mixed blessing when it was offered by lapsed members. Nor did it provide any profound analysis of what had taken place in Russia: Postgate, for example, expressed the wish that the two factions might speedily be united and win success for the revolution. [45] A journal like The Plebs might be an alternate outlet for news, but was not likely to provide fundamental criticism of the kind Trotsky himself had offered in The New Course. He was defended as a revolutionary hero, not as a theoretician, [46] a point sometimes overlooked. [47] The communist press continued its attempts to clarify the status of Eastman’s book well into the summer. [48] After the controversy died, [49] the British Party seems to have been uncertain about Trotsky’s status. He could still be reviewed [50] but articles published were not on immediate issues. [51] It was only his decision to devote his next important book to Britain which brought him again to the attention of the communist press.

Though certain subjects were taboo, Britain was not one of them. [52] Where is Britain Going?, a sparkling polemic against British labour and trade union leaders and their gradualist philosophy was published in February 1926. It was published not by the Party but by George Allen and Unwin who attached a preface by Brailsford. [53] Where is Britain Going? was very much part of Trotsky’s case against Comintern policy. It appeared during a phase of the struggle in Russia between the Joint Opposition and Stalin and Bukharin. It did not handle roughly the British Party’s support for left wing figures on the TUC General Council, but Trotsky later wrote:

“The book was aimed essentially at the official conception of the Politbureau, with its hope of an evolution to the left by the British General Council, and of a gradual and painless penetration of communism into the ranks of the British Labour Party and Trade Unions.” [54]

It has been suggested that the British Party did not understand the book. [55] No other communist had written anything as relevant for the year of the General Strike, however, and it was well enough suited to the party mood after May for a second edition to be published. Trotsky confronted the entire working class leadership, left and right. His critics were the party’s critics, and he wrote as a party member. The CPGB could only rally to him.

Where is Britain Going? scattered its shot so widely as to stimulate many of its victims into print. Norman Angell was provoked into writing a full length book to show “the futility of revolution”. [56] For MacDonald, Trotsky was a pamphleteer not an historian, a devotee of theories not a slave to facts; he had concocted “an oriental riot of fancy regarding facts and events”. [57] Brailsford in his introduction to the first edition, had observed that the imprisoned CPGB leaders had been sentenced for the opinions expressed in the book. While allowing Trotsky force of argument, Brailsford did not believe his Russian approach would convince. Russell [58] allowed that Trotsky was “remarkably well-informed” on the politics of the British Labour movement, but considered that he was advocating an English revolution for Russian advantage. Lansbury [59] gave much support to Trotsky while defending himself. Transport Workers” leader Robert Williams, a former Labour Party Chairman, and yet another former communist, had been pilloried by Trotsky in the book for having “ratted”. Like Lansbury he had both to defend himself against Trotsky and to defend Trotsky against his critics. [60] Cleverly he pointed out that the charge of renegacy presented by Trotsky against him was advanced against Trotsky himself by the Russian leadership two years before. He recalled the persecution of Trotsky and the suppression of Lenin’s will:

“ ....those in charge of the machine were so afraid of the criticism of one who had rendered more service to the revolution than all of them combined that they deliberately suppressed it.”

The non-communist reviewers generally took the line that Trotsky did not understand the peculiarities of the English. Communist reviewers believed they detected another common factor in these reactions: hostility to the proletarian revolution. [61]

Through the reviews of MacDonald and, especially, of Williams, the fact of Trotsky’s downfall was kept to the fore in the labour movement press. The Communists, with their front rank leaders in jail and their attention on the imminent expiry of the coal subsidy showed no public awareness of Trotsky’s deeper purpose. [62] His book was a welcome friend at a critical time as Palme Dutt strongly underlined: “A challenge may safely be issued to the critics to name a single book by a single English author or politician, bourgeois or labour leader, which is as close to the essentials of the English situation as Trotsky’s book”. [63]

Dutt was not prepared to allow the critics a single point, not even disavowing Trotsky’s claim that the Liberal election victory of 1905 was partially a result of shock waves from the Russian Revolution of that year. Indeed, he continued,

The English working class has cause to be grateful to Trotsky for his book; and to hope that he will not stay his hand at this short sketch, but will carry forward his work of interpretation, polemic and elucidation, and elaborate his analysis further which is so much needed in England. [64]

It may be that the British party leaders were mostly dense in matters of theory. They had, moreover, no public guidance from Moscow, where it had first been published, as to the attitude they should adopt to Trotsky’s book. Trotsky’s polemic could only assist those more astute party leaders who were later to gain control of the party. The authority of Dutt and Labour Monthly was growing and both must have influenced the reading of Party members. [65] It soon became impossible to quote Trotsky as an authority, but that did not prevent borrowing from the theoretical arsenal of one who had been cruelly vindicated by events.

International developments soon impelled Stalin to decisive moves against the Joint Opposition in Russia. Repercussions in the CPGB could not fail to follow. The British crisis of 1926 was merely the current event on which Trotsky was honing his polemical scalpel to a fine sharpness. He returned to the subject several times in an independent way during the General Strike. He pressed especially for severance of the trade union connections established through the Anglo-Soviet Trade Union Committee established in 1923. Under the title Problems of the British Labour Movement some of Trotsky’s later thinking appeared in the communist press. [66] It was a sterilised Trotsky that was allowed into English, free of uncompromising references to the left members of the TUC General Council, with whom the Soviets retained a connection until 1927.

In July 1926 Stalin spoke of the British party as being one of the best sections of the Communist International. [67] He made it quite clear, however, that his commendation did not derive its inspiration from the party’s influence. It continued to gain members through 1926, even approaching 11,000, but then shrank. [68] Yet Britain had held the attention of the entire Communist International during 1926 and the setback of the General Strike had to have repercussions. In Russia Bukharin and Stalin increased their power, while measures were taken rapidly against the Joint Opposition. Criticism of Trotsky grew more strident. Those who had access to Inprecorr could follow the new Comintern leaders“ orchestrated attack. Articles in it were intended “for the widest possible publicity”. Dead disputes with Lenin were resurrected. Opposition prophecies of doom were refuted by reference to the greater size and more proletarian composition of the party. The Joint Opposition was deemed to be a Social-Democratic deviation, a theoretic consensus with Otto Bauer. Communist International, no longer Zinoviev’s organ, analysed the clash in the USSR, and attacked Trotsky by implication through Zinoviev and Kamenev. [69] Readers of Communist Review were treated to Bukharin’s lengthy treatment of the Opposition platform between September and December. The actual words of the Opposition leaders were available to British communists only through Inprecorr. [70] Dire warnings were attached that “Field Marshal” Trotsky wanted “to lead the opposition of all countries” and that the dissidents must choose between Lenin and Otto Bauer.

Problems of the British Labour Movement had been allowed to surface in the English pond, but the CPGB was anxious there should be no misunderstanding about where it stood. [71] On 9 August the political bureau adopted a resolution on the Discussion in the CPSU. [72] which rejected Trotsky’s call to sever the Anglo-Russian Committee and condemned Problems of the British Labour Movement. [73] It was still possible to discuss Opposition ideas [74] (those that were known), but the leading figures in Russia had little time left as party members. And in Britain even Opposition views on economics could be disregarded no longer. [75]

After 1926 it took a determined party member to discover details of the much abused platform of the Joint Opposition. Communist International carried no articles by opposition leaders during 1927, but kept its readers informed about their successive downgrading. Tom Bell reported to Communist Review on the fifteenth conference of the CPSU. but, while he witnessed the debate on Trotskyism and Trotsky’s own speech in it, he passed little on. [76] Those who read Inprecorr would know that the opposition platform was a major preoccupation of the conference. [77] Bell had spoken in the debate on the Opposition, but he was unwilling or unable to subject its ideas to any theoretical analysis. He condemned its factiousness and disloyalty however, and went on to reassure the Russian comrades:

Though our experience with oppositions is very limited (probably our time will come when we too shall have to deal with serious political oppositions) nevertheless, our experience, limited as it is, justifies our complete identity with the measures taken by the Party of the USSR to deal with its opposition.

Since there is little evidence to indicate any profound grasp among British communists of the Opposition platform, Bell’s support for Stalin rested on a narrow base. Smith, a colleague, attempted to shore him up with some purely British complaints of substance. He objected to Trotsky referring to the British Party as a brake on the revolution and complained that Lansbury, Plebs, and other Lefts were using Trotsky’s call for the exposure of left reformism:

... this group of liquidators, of renegade Communists, of Left elements in the labour movement, seize with joy on every attack which Trotsky makes upon the leaders of the Party and of the Communist International.

Comrade Trotsky’s policy is objectively helping these liquidators, while the article to which I referred was of direct assistance to them. [78]

The climax of the clash in the CPSU was ill-reported in the British communist press: only publicity from outside forced the party to deal with it in any detail. Trotsky’s own speech to the conference, and indeed Smith’s, was reported verbatim only in Inprecorr. What was more, the performance of the more left wing members of the TUC General Council during the General Strike could only nurture doubts which Trotsky was free to nourish. The pride of the British party was punctured. CPGB membership continued to grow after the General Strike but apparently went into a consistent decline from Autumn 1926 [79] which was not reversed until 1930. Factors in this decline were the effectiveness of Labour Party action against the National Left-Wing Movement a natural depression following the failure of the General Strike and growing sectarianism on the part of the Party itself. There were some in the Party who leaned towards intransigence, but their influence was increased by pressure from Moscow which was displeased with lack of progress in Britain and at loggerheads with CPGB leaders over the colonial question. [80] Malcontents lacked the strength to displace the Party leadership at the January 1929 Party congress, but this was accomplished with Russian support at a special congress in December. [81]

The staggered passage into what became known as the “Third Period” (following the years of revolution and then stabilisation), was accompanied in Britain by increased vigilance against Trotskyism. The honour of proposing Trotsky’s expulsion from the ECCI. In September 1927 fell to a British communist, J.T. Murphy. [82]

Murphy’s own Sheffield District telegraphed Moscow endorsing disciplinary measures against the Opposition leaders and called for action to further the struggle against war. [83] The Russian leaders were pleased and noted that the British party was innocent of Oppositionism. [84] When British delegates attended the Moscow conference of the Friends of the Soviet Union a fortnight after Trotsky’s expulsion from the CPSU, they took the initiative in moving a resolution (passed with one opposed), approving the measures taken against him for trying to set up a second party. Indeed they went further, and demanded “more severe measures”. [85] Inprecorr was deluged with anti-Opposition articles: “Trotskyism” was assuredly the issue of the hour. The British Party ventured into the field of theory. Jackson, who had written of Trotsky with such awe two years earlier, now discovered that the Opposition leader’s views on the danger of reaction were diametrically misplaced. It was, concluded Jackson, Trotsky himself, with Zinoviev, who represented the danger of Menshevism and Thermidor. [86] His colleague Gallacher developed the theme for an international audience. “In Britain every rotten reactionary, every reformist trickster, looks with hope to the Opposition’s; which statement he wisely left without explanatory footnotes, since Smith had been complaining the previous month that Trotsky handled the Left too harshly. [87] Gallacher’s claim that “every attack on the party by the Trotskyists was hailed with delight in the war mongering press of Britain” would have proved equally hard to sustain.

There were still traces of interest in Trotsky – pictures on walls, enthusiastic delegates to the Y.C.L. congress of 1928. [88]They added up to little. The parties had been warned that the exclusion of Trotskyism from the CPSU must of course, also result in “the end of Trotskyism in the Comintern”. [89] Rust reassured the international that Trotskyism had no following among “the active conscious sections of the workers”, [90] which verdict was confirmed. [91] Yet the new broad definition of Trotskyism, obscurely commingling with reaction, is to be gathered from his affirmation that the British Party had “tremendous duties” in the fight against it, especially since the Baldwin government led the Anti-Soviet bloc. [92] Stalin’s praise for the party gains in significance when the glassy smoothness of the British Party is compared to turmoil elsewhere.

The Communist press ground on about Trotskyism throughout 1928 and into 1929. Publicly it now presented Trotskyism as a non-communist current, supported by reaction and used (consciously or unconsciously) against the USSR. Original Opposition documents were rare. They were not being printed in Britain, and were only just becoming available in English through the efforts of American communists sympathetic to Trotsky. [93] The only exception (and this partial because of Inprecorr“s small print run), was the last letter of Adolf Joffe with its celebrated final words to Trotsky proclaiming that he had always had the better of the argument politically. But this was forced on the communists by publication in the Western press, and issued with a gloss. [94] Periodically, the Communist press would carry further material against the Opposition. [95] The stimulus would invariably be external, as when Rothstein took the opportunity provided by Eastman’s The Real Situation in Russia to reduce to rubble the Opposition documents of recent years. [96] The CPGB had survived the twenties relatively intact by making the right noises, but its hour was approaching. Manuilsky wondered: How does it happen that all the fundamental problems of the Communist International fail to stir our fraternal British Party? It is not that the British Communist Party does not pass resolutions or take a stand upon all important questions. No, this cannot be said. Nevertheless, one does not feel any profound organic connection with all the problems of the world Labour Movement. All these problems have the appearance of being forcibly injected into the activities of the British Communist Party. [97]

Trotsky intruded once more into British politics in the 1920s, this time over an issue which would not alienate the liberal intelligentsia but draw them towards him. He had arrived in enforced exile in Turkey in February 1929 and shortly began to cast around for a visa. The possibility of British asylum for him was first raised in the Commons under the Tories that same month. [98] He told the press that his favoured place of exile would be Germany but Britain did appeal since it offered a chance to revisit the British Museum. [99] He professed puzzlement that the subject of a visa for him should bring the House (of Commons) down in laughter. [100]

Before the second Labour Government was formed, Trotsky received several celebrities of the left in Prinkipo. Cynthia Mosley was one of them. She admired him greatly, though her esteem was not reciprocated. [101] Sidney and Beatrice Webb called on him in May 1929. They were not impressed by his arguments and disputed that the Labour Government was obliged to offer him asylum. [102]

The return of Labour to office in May 1929 provided an opportunity for Trotsky to cash his cheque of goodwill – or at least to discover the extent of his credit. Two fairly sustained efforts were made to secure asylum for him in Britain, one in the early, the other in the dying days of the Labour Government. Those who favoured his entry included Emrys Hughes who compared his case with that of Marx, and many ILP branches, who wrote to their Head Office urging his admission. [103] Perhaps in response the Party invited him to deliver a lecture at its party school. [104] Trotsky requested a visa of the British Consul in Constantinople and then, in early June, cabled MacDonald. He later wrote to Beatrice Webb and Snowden, and telegraphed Lansbury. [105] To the public he declared that he hoped, given asylum, to supervise the publication of his books in England and to pursue (social) scientific work. [106] What was more he had a special interest in seeing if “the difficulties created by private ownership can be surmounted through the medium of democracy”. Democracy which planned to overlap the greatest obstacles, he observed, could hardly begin by denying the democratic right of asylum. [107] An impressive list of celebrities of radical England spoke up for Trotsky’s right of asylum, but the Webbs (Sidney was now a minister), were crucial exceptions. Beatrice Webb wrote that those who preached the extension of revolution would always be excluded from the countries in view. As Caute remarks [108] she thus indicated her ability to miss the whole purpose of asylum. She also showed ingratitude for her reception by Trotsky when he was in and she was out. Of the major British papers, only the Manchester Guardian (which was to befriend him over the years) and the Observer supported his claim. [109] The Times believed his presence in Constantinople a ruse by arrangement with Stalin to screen revolutionary activity in Germany. [110] Other rumours abounded. There was a general disinclination to take at face value Trotsky’s protestations that his interest in British asylum was exclusively personal.

Magdeleine Paz had been among the 280 signatories of a January 1926 complaint to the Comintern about dictatorship in the PCF. [111] Later, her group Contre le Courant, was an early vehicle for the ideas of the Left Opposition in France. She now became the central organiser of a campaign to win Trotsky a British visa, and she it was who put to the government the strict conditions which Trotsky was prepared to observe, if admitted. [112] Clynes hesitated under the pressure and then in July 1929 came out against a visa for Trotsky. The government seems to have feared that his entry would provide difficulties for them, found his ideology distasteful, and worried as to whether, once in Britain, he might be difficult to expel [113], Clynes suffered “a chorus of frantic personal abuse” but he had no wish to jeopardise his relations with Russia and stood firm. Later he was to find solace for his rectitude in the verdict of the Trials. [114]

There was another attempt to raise the matter in the House in November 1929, but the second sustained effort to secure entry for Trotsky occurred in the spring of 1931. Ivor Montagu [115], who had met Trotsky in Prinkipo, employed George Lansbury as an intermediary to Clynes. One request was that Trotsky be allowed to change boats at an English port en route for Norway. [116] It is now clear that it was certain Labour ministers, rather than – as might have been expected the Liberal Party, which barred Trotsky. Samuel (who was related to Montagu), intervened repeatedly, as did Lloyd George himself. Keynes, Scott, Bennett and Garvin all urged the government to reconsider its decision. It is noteworthy that there was stronger support from Labour intellectuals at this time than there was to be later over the Moscow Trials. Laski protested to the government. Shaw wrote Clynes a lengthy letter, [117] and joined with Wells in composing two statements against barring Trotsky’s entry. Ellen Wilkinson added her name. But there was no success in this classic liberal issue. MacDonald, Clynes and Henderson overrode Lansbury’s protests in Cabinet. [118] Possibly they were still smarting from the treatment they had received in Where Is Britain Going? With only minority support, they may have felt their parliamentary position at risk. There might also have been a sense of insecurity in the labour movement. An astute cartoon by David Low in the Manchester Guardian depicted a supplicant Trotsky having the door shut in his face by the determined Clynes. “But I am an old friend of the House”, protests the exile. “Yes, that’s why”, comes the reply.

No Trotskyist movement emerged in Britain before 1930 due to meagre awareness of, and involvement in, the Russian and Comintern debates by communists and, perhaps, the small size of the CPGB Party leaders dealt uncertainly with Trotsky as an individual and as a theoretician unless they first received guidance from Moscow. The Where Is Britain Going? episode occurred because of lack of this guidance and also because nobody in Britain, and perhaps elsewhere, was equipped to give the CPGB such a boost. Trotsky’s standing in Britain, which was high at mid-1926, collapsed abruptly as a direct result of the new drive against Trotskyism in the Comintern.

Outside the Party, reactions to Trotsky separate into three groups. The Labour and Trade Union leaders had a conventional fear of him and their experience in 1926 and even i

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