From: Preparing For Power

The text of the thesis adopted at the National Pre-Conference of Workers' International League, August 22 and 23, 1942. Edited for publication in The Unbroken Thread, full version available on the Ted Grant archive.

The whole world is now involved in the agonies of the imperialist conflagration. The few remaining 'neutrals' are neutral in name only. They have been compelled to restrict consumption of the very essentials of life just in the same way as the actual belligerents – and sometimes to an even greater extent. Besides this, most of them are turning out armaments to the peak of their capacity for one or another of the great powers – with all that this implies. Few of them will avoid the actual shedding of blood. Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Turkey, and even Vichy France[1] will all be involved in the war in one way or another.

The Fourth International predicted long in advance that wherever the war started, it would inevitably and very rapidly, envelop the whole world. Everything had pointed to this: the contradictions of capitalism which the growth of the productive forces had intensified and aggravated; the sharpening imperialist antagonisms throughout the world; the incapacity of the leadership of the Second and Third Internationals to solve these contradictions. Between the first and second world imperialist wars, terrible national and social antagonisms were engendered and aggravated. With the failure of the workers' leadership to take power out of the hands of the bourgeoisie, these led inevitably to world war.

But the developments which have given the war its universality have at the same time, far from strengthening imperialism, weakened it in the extreme. The very contradictions which led the imperialists to seek a way out in war will lead directly to revolutions. It is no longer a question of attempting to estimate where the weak link in the chain of capitalism might be. There are no strong links. There is not a single country, not even mighty America, which has the possibility of escaping terrific social convulsions and even civil war. Just as no one could state for certain where the war would begin, so it is with the social revolution. It may be Japan, China, Germany, the continent of Europe, Britain, or perhaps a colonial revolt in Africa. But just as the war had to spread inevitably throughout the world, so will the social revolution spread from country to country and continent to continent – and at an even greater speed.

Britain's Decline as a World Power

The decline of Britain as the invincible mistress of almost half the world is best seen in the loss of her position on the seven seas. Britannia has ceased to rule the waves. America, even before she had fired a shot in either hemisphere, announced a programme of naval expansion which would alone assure her unchallengeable superiority in a sphere which Britain has for centuries considered her own exclusive preserve; and a sphere too, in which the loss of first position exposes Britain to particular vulnerability in any conflict with the new master. Britain is thus at the mercy of her transatlantic 'saviour'.

Not only metropolitan Britain, but the empire too is in this position. Australia has already passed under the direct domination of America. The Australian Premier has openly proclaimed that they must look to America for succour. The pooling of the industry of the United States and Canada is but a pale reflection of the penetration of American finance capital into what is now but a province of the USA. New Zealand and South Africa, although not so far on the road, are already travelling in the same direction.

South America, which in the past provided one of the biggest fields for British investments, has now become an American preserve. In the Far East, the situation is just as gloomy for the British bourgeoisie. Not only have Malaya and Burma fallen to the Japanese, but China now looks to America for arms and subsidies in her war against Japan. And in India, American influence makes itself felt more and more.

The British bourgeoisie and their man of the hour, Churchill, are compelled to accept this overlordship of American imperialism. There is nothing else they can do. Defeat in the present war at the hands of Germany means the end of imperialist Britain as a power of the first rank. Victory will mean a less spectacular decline to a second rate position under the patronage of America. This is the best that the British ruling class can hope for. 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. The shattering blows of German and Japanese imperialism have served to reveal the true position and exposed the senility and decay of British imperialism.

The revelation of this weakness, particularly through the Japanese advance, to the hundreds of millions of colonial slaves in the British empire will lead to action on their part on the morrow. The colonial masses are being stirred by mighty events out of their apathy and indifference. It will be impossible for the paralytic hand of Whitehall to keep them in continued enslavement.

In addition, the working class in Britain is becoming more conscious and critical of 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. A realisation of the enfeeblement and decline of the ruling class is beginning to crystallise itself in the consciousness of the masses. A mood of criticism on the basis of the past defeats has penetrated all strata of the population.

Britain's Internal Situation

Even before the crisis of world capitalism had resolved itself into the agony of a protracted death struggle between the imperialist rivals for world domination, the ruling class had perceived the necessity for a violent settlement with the British workers. The whole policy of the guiding layer of the bourgeoisie in the years before the war, was conditioned by a preoccupation with the problems and tasks of civil war.

While the leadership of the mighty mass organisations – trade unions, Labour Party, Communist Party, not to speak of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) – was lulling the masses with the soothing routine of parliamentarism, the leadership of finance capital, soberly assessing the situation, was overhauling its plans for an armed struggle with the masses.

In the two years preceding the present war, army manoeuvres were, for the first time, based on the assumption that civil war was raging in Britain.

All these plans of the ruling class (utopian in any event except in the case of the complete paralysis of the leadership of the workers' vanguard) have been shattered by the course of events. The war has resulted in the fusion of the army with the working class far more than in any other period in history. (It may be remarked in passing, that it is in an effort to minimise or overcome this that the bourgeoisie has spent so much effort in attempting to incite the soldiers against the workers by demogogically contrasting 'high' wages of the workers with low rates of pay in the army.)

The almost complete destruction of the European labour movement in the past eight or nine years has been accompanied by an apparently inexplicable strengthening of the British labour and trade union bureaucracy. Alone on the European continent (with the unimportant exceptions of Switzerland and Sweden, which exist by gracious consent of Hitler) the British labour organisations remained intact. This is explained by the fact that while her rivals were preoccupied with internal social conflict or intensive preparations for the coming war, Britain managed, for the last time perhaps, to increase her trade to nearly all markets. By these means she was enabled to grant slight illusory concessions to the working masses. As a result the few years preceding the war were among the most peaceful in the history of British capitalism. The class struggle suffered a lull with far fewer and less bitter strikes on the industrial field. The labour and trade union bureaucracy became more than ever associated with the interests of the employers as obedient and interested servants.

Because of the super-exploitation of the colonial masses the British imperialists were enabled to grant concessions to a privileged stratum of the British working class, and even to a certain extent, to raise the level of the whole of the British workers above that of the European workers. Basing herself on this, Britain's industries became archaic and outdated, instead of advancing as in Germany and America, on the basis of modern technique. Hopelessly outmoded from a technical standpoint, she has been fighting on the shoulders of the colonies. But the war is having its full effect on the British economy.

In the first nine months of 1941 Britain spent £3,495,761,703, while her ordinary income during that period was only £1,221,567,147. Less than a decade ago in 1931, the financial oligarchy engineered a crisis in order to throw out the Labour government ostensibly because of its refusal to cut unemployment benefit by £2,000,000 per year. Today the deficit amounts to more than this sum in a fortnight, and all the burdens of this are laid on the shoulders of the workers.

In every sphere the ruling class has revealed its complete senility and incapacity to even conduct its own war. The corruption and incompetence industrially and militarily, raises sharply in the minds of the workers the question of the regime. In the factories, chaos, waste and mismanagement, the incapacity to organise production because of the fetters of the profit system, assume a particularly baleful character when counterposed to the ever-increasing exhortations for the workers to 'go to it'. This is especially so when military defeats are justified by the 'lack of equipment'. Meanwhile the combines and big monopolies are assuming a stranglehold on the economic life of the nation. An unbridled clique of monopoly capitalists who control the banks, armaments manufacture and food combines are drawing greater dividends today more than ever before. It is not merely the despoliation of the working class, but the middle class is being completely ruined. The small shopkeepers and business people, professionals and clerks have been hard hit by the war.

The decay of the ruling class is so great that big sections are beginning to lose confidence in themselves. For the moment they have no substitute for Churchill. The complaints of Conservative members of Parliament of the inefficiency in industry and the army are but a glimpse of the fissures and internecine strife which are opening out within the ranks of the ruling class. And this at a time when the masses are not yet moving into action! All these symptoms are a reflection of the profound processes taking place within British society. Deep disillusionment and discontent at the moment find no outlet, but are simmering deep within the masses. All the conditions for social explosions are rapidly maturing

The Possibilities of Fascism in Britain

The reluctant taking up of arms by British imperialism to defend her interests, compelled her to base herself on the hatred of the population for fascism – and even demagogically and confusedly, to intensify this hatred. Automatically this compelled the ruling class to dispense with its reserve weapon – the organisation of Mosley[2] fascists. Robbed of his basis, like the fascists in occupied Europe, Mosley logically became an agent for German imperialism – a British Quisling. Under these circumstances he could not hope to retain what small support he had gained prior to the war. Fascism finds its mass basis essentially among the petty bourgeoisie and the most backward strata of the population. British fascism had not penetrated the decisive sections of the petty bourgeoisie, not to speak of the backward strata of the working class. Mosley's position was untenable and the capitalists were compelled to put him in a safe place (comfortably, to be sure) behind bars as a protection against the working class and a sop to public opinion. Not to have done so would have led to his being torn to pieces by an infuriated British working class. His organisation vanished from the scene. It can be seen therefore, that there can be no question of fascism in Britain in the period opening up. Mosley could only come to power on the basis of German bayonets.

The bourgeoisie has no reserve weapons at the present time. The ruined middle class; the dissatisfied workers; the lack of confidence of the rulers themselves: all lay the basis, not for a turn in the direction of fascism, but for the most revolutionary period in British history. The fragile basis for the rule of the bourgeoisie rests in the failure of the leadership of the workers to offer an alternative to capitalist rule, which they justify by the threat from 'foreign fascism'.

Nevertheless the distrust and hostility towards the ruling class is increasing within all strata of the population. The eyes of the workers cannot remain closed to the incapacity and corruption of bourgeois rule. It confronts them in every sphere of their daily lives. This awakening is preparing for a revolutionary wave of such titanic proportions that even the great struggles of Spain and France will appear Lilliputian.

Fascism could only arise in the event of the defeat of this movement resulting from the betrayal of the Labour and Stalinist parties, and if we do not succeed in gaining the support of the decisive section of the British workers. On the basis of such a defeat the bourgeoisie would gradually regain confidence and prepare for its revenge. Basing itself on the despairing middle class and even backward sections of the workers disappointed in the failure of the revolutionary wave, the bourgeoisie could, in a short space of time organise a fascist movement – a 'British Empire Protection Society,' or some such organisation – and attempt to establish a precarious rule by a bloody and horrible repression of the working class. Lacking a social base, faced with the fact that the working class is the decisive section of the population – 75 per cent – a fascist regime in this country would of necessity be even more ruthless than Franco's.

The Role of the Labour Party in British Society

Immediately after the declaration of the war, the cloven hoof of the bourgeoisie was revealed. Draconic legislation, which if carried out would turn Britain into a totalitarian state on the approved model, was placed on the statute book with the tacit support of the Labour leaders. Nevertheless, in contradistinction to the 'democratic' ally, France, no immediate attempt was made to put these laws into effect. The French bourgeoisie was compelled by the severity of the social crisis and the bitter mood of the workers to carry its repressive legislation into immediate effect, and, in the last analysis, at the decisive moment – as a safeguard against their own masses – to surrender to Hitler.

The same military crisis which resulted in the obliteration of Blum, Jouhaux[3] and company in France, placed the Labour leaders in Britain more firmly in ministerial positions. Much more than in the last war the capitalists lean for support upon their Labour agents. The course of the struggle on the continent; the chains which German imperialism has riveted upon the conquered and subject peoples, enabled the Labour bureaucracy to move confidently and surely to the path of open surrender to the bourgeoisie. The working class, not without some murmuring, faced with no alternative that they could see other than nazi totalitarianism or support for their 'own' government, supported the entry of the Labour ministers into the government. Thus the worsened international position and the difficulties of British imperialism strengthened the role of the Labour bureaucracy in the internal calculations of the bourgeoisie. Morrison and Bevin have been placed in those posts where the bourgeoisie expected there would be the most pressure from the masses – Home Security and Labour. Under the sign-post 'Against Hitlerism' the Labour leaders have called for the utmost exertion on the part of the workers as exemplified by the 'inspiring' 'GO TO IT' slogan of Morrison.

In the last war the ministerial coalition of Labour with the bourgeoisie which commenced in 1915, was ended in 1917 through the pressure of the disillusioned workers exasperated by the privations at home and the predatory imperialist policy abroad. A tremendous effect was created by the Russian Revolution which had immediate repercussions in Britain. The widespread swing to the left was reflected in the attitude of the Labour leaders, who, scenting danger, were compelled to put forward pseudo-revolutionary speeches to maintain their hold on the rank and file.

The revolutionary left, which later crystallised into the Communist Party of Great Britain, destroyed its chance of winning a mass basis, precisely because it failed to understand the necessity of keeping in close touch with the unclear feelings and aspirations of the masses, which in their beginnings could not but be in the direction of the Labour Party. As Lenin had occasion to lecture the ultra-lefts: it is very useful to chronicle the crimes of the Labour bureaucracy but that is not sufficient to win the masses. This was the key to the weakness of the revolutionary forces in the first years. It is the key to all the subsequent developments, coupled of course, with the betrayal of Stalinism.

The experience of the first Labour government once again demonstrated the strong roots which reformism has within the working class. The Communist Party, at that time not yet completely degenerated, failed to gain a mass support, despite the fact that Labour had shown itself utterly incapable of introducing even one major reform in the interests of the masses. The embittered toilers turned from the political to the industrial struggle. A revolutionary radicalisation of the masses began. It reached its culmination and greatest expression in the general strike of 1926. The trade union wing of the Labour bureaucracy were compelled by the upward swing to place themselves at the head of the movement which they hated and dreaded, if that movement was not to get completely out of their control. In order to cloak their activities they utilised the Russian trade unions through the Anglo-Russian Committee[4]. This they were enabled to do because of the policies of Stalin.

The defeat of the general strike, instead of 'finally' exposing the role of the Labour and trade union leaders to the organised workers, led to the reinforcement of the Labour bureaucracy. The striving of the masses found its outlet in the formation of the second Labour government. The debacle of 1931 soon followed; the leadership revealed its true colours and went openly over to the camp of the class enemy. Yet, despite this, the masses of workers, with ranks almost intact, remained under the banner of Labour. Not of course without inner convulsions; the pressure from within forced a split of the left-wing – the ILP broke away from the Labour Party.

The Swing to the Left of the Labour Bureaucracy

Since the crisis of 1931, even before the outbreak of the war, the top stratum of the Labour and trade union bureaucracy has completely degenerated and become more closely integrated with the bourgeois state machine. Simultaneously, they have taken to the outlook and ideology of the bourgeoisie. While the capitalists lean more heavily upon this strata, the dialectic of the process reveals that under the pressure of events a section of the bureaucracy is becoming completely separated from any mass basis. The deeper this process evolves, the more will the bourgeoisie find itself leaning on a vacuum. It is only the temporary inertia and inaction of the workers which enables these leaders to play their present role. But the reawakening of the masses will destroy their basis completely. The Labour bureaucracy has always operated the Labour Party as an electoral machine. It was purely for this purpose that a certain amount of activity was tolerated. But with the outbreak of the war and the fusion of the bureaucracy with the bourgeois state, there is no activity for the Labour Party branches as such. Moreover, the bureaucracy finds any sign of life within the party irksome, as it can only bring the tops into collision with the rank and file. On the other hand the trade unions, which have always been the backbone of the Labour Party, are continuing their existence and becoming more lively. This is reflected in the move of millions of workers to become organised.

But the unions too are becoming alienated from the stratum of the bureaucracy which has entered the government and upon whom the bourgeoisie lean most heavily, thus forcing them to come into sharp collision with the workers. This is leading directly and inevitably to a split within the trade union and Labour bureaucracy. The MacDonald experience[5] will at a later stage, be enacted once again, but now with different social implications. This tendency is already visible in the preliminary skirmishes between Citrine and Bevin[6] on the one hand, and more glaringly in the development of a left wing within the Labour Party. Even in the distorted reflection of parliament, the pressure of the rank and file is evidenced. Aneurin Bevan, Shinwell, Laski, etc, represent this tendency. The 'revolt' on the issue of conscription of the masses but not of wealth is a first indication of what is to come. Although the 'lefts' made haste to come to peace on the welcome pretext given by Japan's entry into the war, tomorrow the differences within the working class will assume wider and more bitter proportions.

A split in the Labour Party is inevitable. The thoroughly rotten and decayed elements of the extreme right wing will step over into the camp of the ruling class as did MacDonald. The left will be driven to break the coalition and form an open opposition in Parliament, and what is more, they will almost certainly gain a majority. In 1931, in spite of the demoralisation among the masses, only the most degraded and corrupt of the Labour bureaucracy went openly over to the camp of the class enemy.

Already at the first signs of a critical spirit awakening, the Labour 'lefts' have been forced into opposition. On the basis of the rising wave of discontent with potential revolutionary implications, it is inevitable that the decisive section of the trade union and Labour bureaucrats, including the majority of the parliamentary representatives, will be forced into an open clash with the capitalist class and a breaking of the coalition. In words at least, they will assume an extremely radical attitude. This process will depend to a large extent on a number of factors; especially the events which take place on the military fronts. These will have a greater or lesser effect on the subjective consciousness of the British masses, heightening or lowering the growth of the mass movement. For example, continued defeats in the Far East on a background of Russian successes will incense the workers and hasten their differentiation and regroupment towards the left. On the other hand, a defeat of the Soviet Union would temporarily have profound repercussions on the British as well as the international working class. Under these circumstances the workers would see no alternative but to cling to the coat-tails of the bourgeoisie. The activity of the Stalinists will delay the more extreme manifestations among the workers, nevertheless the processes taking place have an inexorable logic in their development and direction.

Whatever delays may be imposed, these cannot be of any great duration – even in the event of the greatest catastrophe the working class movement of the world has ever suffered, the defeat of the Soviet Union. Despite all the efforts of the Labour leaders to canalise and give a parliamentary expression to the movement of the workers, it will be impossible for them to succeed. In this period the Tribune group of left social patriots will in all probability step forward as the main organising centre of the leftward swing.

The Communist Party

Despite the handicaps of Stalinist policy, the revolutionary traditions of the October Revolution and the militant activity conducted by the party over a period of years, resulted in the key militants in a number of areas turning to the Communist Party. Nevertheless, the Stalinists succeeded in penetrating only the advanced layer of the working class without gaining a widespread support among the masses.

During the 'anti-war' period, despite their adventurous industrial policy they succeeded in extending their influence among the advanced sections of the Industrial workers. It is a fact that the untiring work of the best CP militants (without any real lead from above) redounded to the credit and prestige of the Communist Party. In South Wales and in some parts of Scotland they succeeded in capturing leading positions among the miners.

On Clydeside, among the most class conscious sections of the British workers, their roots extend deep into the ship-building and engineering industry. In other parts of the country they have succeeded in gaining influential points of support. The National Council of Engineers and Allied Shop Stewards came completely under the domination of the CP. With the extension of the aircraft industry they bade fair to completely dominate the leadership of the workers. Indeed in the event of a big upsurge among the workers, the Communist Party had the opportunity to capture a leading role, as did the French Communist Party at the beginning of the stay-in strikes in France.

However, with the new turn to class collaboration and strikebreaking, some sections of the party, already disillusioned with the rapid shifts in the policy of the tops, have become bewildered and disoriented. Hundreds of the best militants in the local areas have been driven from the party as 'Trotskyists' and 'agents of Hitler'. Meanwhile wide sections in the factories and unions which followed in the wake of Stalinism because of past militancy in the industrial field, have become alienated. This strike-breaking policy has made it possible, by bold and militant leadership in the factories and unions, to win over those politically unclear militants who followed in the wake of Stalinism in the past.

The prospects of the Communist Party are dependent greatly on the fortunes of the Soviet Union. The peculiar situation is developing by the logic of the struggle, that where the party has its greatest grip – among the advanced workers – here it is fast losing ground. But from the backward strata now coming into political activity partly on the basis of their chauvinism and partly by their association with Russia, the CP is recruiting a new membership up and down the country. This shift was particularly noticeable in the composition of the delegates to their 1942 Conference where more than half the delegates had been in the party not more than three years. The new element replaces in greater numbers those who have dropped out in disillusionment or attempted opposition to the 'new' policy. But of course these are not so active as those they are replacing. However, despite the turn, large numbers, with secret misgivings perhaps, even the big majority of former members, remained within the party.

Big successes for the Soviet Union or the failure of Hitler's offensive cannot but lead to more support for 'communism' which will find distorted expression in the Communist Party. Stalemate on the Eastern front will have a similar result.

A complete destruction of the Soviet Union on the other hand would lead to the obliteration of the Stalinist tendency, the most corrupt section of the apparatus, as with Doriot[7] in France, going over directly to the bourgeoisie; another section fusing with the Labour and trade union bureaucracy; while the remainder will drop out of politics altogether.

Given the continued resistance of the Soviet Union, the revolutionary wave will lead inevitably to a temporary strengthening of the CP. But this influence could not be of long duration. The strike-breaking policy which is already repelling a section of the advanced strata of the workers will force the workers away from the Stalinists.

Despite the expulsions and attempts to stifle criticism by the use of a police regime within the party, the discontent of the workers is reflected in the ranks of the party. A reflection of this is in the statement of the Political Bureau issued in mid-1942 which admits to the fact that more energy is expended by the party membership in discussing the electoral policy of support for the Tories than in carrying out the party's agitation for the 'second front.' This criticism, which extends to all aspects of party policy has forced the leadership to allege that the Trotskyists have become members of the Young Communist League and Communist Party and are doing serious harm to the party. This opposition, which is essentially revolutionary, must be reached and gained as adherents to the Fourth International. From here some of the best forces of the Fourth International will be recruited.

The Independent Labour Party

After years of complete isolation from the masses, the ILP is beginning to revive. Numbers of workers, especially from the youth, disgusted with the policy of the Labour Party and hostile to Stalinism, particularly in its present shameless phase of support for Churchill, are moving towards the ILP. The 'left' policy, veiling centrist confusion, has resulted in a definite increase in membership. Whereas in the last few years it had completely lost touch with the workers in the trade unions and industrial movement, it is now beginning to penetrate the fringes of the movement. As the only opposition force at by-elections of national importance, it has gained a certain standing among the workers who are becoming disillusioned with the present government.

In addition, the long-standing tradition of the ILP within the working class as the left wing of the workers' movement makes it inevitable, that without any other organisation in sight, leftward moving workers should gravitate almost automatically towards the ILP.

A steady growth within the coming months and years will be inevitable. Revolutionary repercussions will push the more 'left' section of the workers towards the ILP. Under these conditions the ILP will be one of the most important recruiting grounds for the revolutionary party. It is not excluded in the event of a mass upsurge, that a fusion of the extreme left of the Labour Party with the ILP will take place to form a new centrist organisation. But even if it became a mass party, the ILP could not exist as such for long. The conflicting currents within it would break out in fractional struggles; splits and disintegration would take place and speedily shatter it to pieces. Even the relative stability which was achieved by the POUM in the Spanish revolution could not be attained by the ILP. The present cohesion in the ILP, is based on its divorce from the necessity of any real activity. Its entry into the arena of mass politics would doom it to complete destruction.

On the other hand, a change in the weather-cocks of the Labour Party, always sensitive to the mood of the masses, might lead the ILP leadership to drag at the tail of the Labour Party. But on whatever course events drive the ILP, it is necessary that the organisation prepare now to influence the worker revolutionaries in that party. A great part of our activity must be devoted towards the ILP. Even now in large numbers of branches there are workers who are thoroughly dissatisfied with the rotten compromising policy of the parliamentary clique and the whole centrist leadership. They are looking for a way out, honestly and sincerely seeking the revolutionary policy of Bolshevism.

The older layer of confirmed and crusted centrists has been supplemented by a younger and fresher layer entering politics in large numbers of cases for the first time. Numbers have entered since the war and are not anchored to the ILP like the older and more conservative elements. Especially necessary is the supplementing of the pressure of the revolutionaries within by pressure on the ILP from the outside. Proposals for joint activity against the bourgeoisie as well as against the Stalinist slander campaigns, etc, can break down the hostility which the leadership attempts to foster towards the Trotskyists.

The tactic of our organisation up to and including the first eighteen months of the war was to place the main emphasis on the Labour Party and especially the Labour League of Youth. That this was correct up to the outbreak of the war was indicated by the orientation of the ILP. Finding themselves isolated from the mainstream of the workers' movement and falling into complete decay, the ILP was compelled by the force of events, to turn towards the mass organisation of the working class. The leadership entered into discussions and conducted negotiations for re-entry into the Labour Party.

That advice of Trotsky which they so carelessly rejected in 1934, to turn to the Labour Party, they tardily adopted before the outbreak of war, giving it an opportunist tinge, and found no other course except capitulation to the Labour leaders. At that stage it seemed the most likely course of events that the political awakening of the masses would move completely on the traditional course and pass through the Labour Party.

But the outbreak of the war cut across the development of events and produced a different pattern. Far from growing in activity and political membership, the Labour Party machine in most areas has fallen to pieces. Branches and wards, executives of divisions and towns do not meet for months on end.

At the present time, political life within the working class exists in the unions and in the factories. Most of the members of the Labour League of Youth have been called up to the armed forces or work long hours in industry. Already enfeebled by the heavy hand of Transport House[8], the League of Youth has disappeared as a political force, it is in the trade unions, factory and shop committees where the militant workers are to be found in a mood receptive to revolutionary ideas.

The situation dictates that our tasks lie in making known our banner among the widest strata of the working class; and struggling for leadership amongst the reactionary and reformist organisations.

The present period is characterised by a radicalisation and ferment within the working class without a mass political vent for this dissatisfaction. Insofar as the workers are moving at all at present, they are expressing themselves on the industrial field.

Careful attention must be paid to the processes taking place within the working class, but the necessity remains for the main activity round the general agitational and transitional demands, including the demand that Labour break with the capitalists and take power on a socialist programme.

Trade Unions and Factory Committees

In Britain, more perhaps than in any other country in the world, a correct policy towards the trade unions and factory committees is necessary for a young revolutionary party. Without a correct attitude on this question, our organisation would doom itself to vegetate in sectarian isolation. This is especially the case today when the workers are beginning to stir and awaken – from the period of relative 'peace' in industry which followed the debacle of the Labour Party in 1931, and when the whole of the working class is undergoing a transformation in its outlook.

This awakening of the working class is shown by the number of strikes that are taking place in formerly backward areas which were only partially organised before the war. Commencing with Betteshanger Colliery, the unrest among the miners – always a barometer of the temper of the British workers – has been followed by strikes on one coalfield after another. Small strikes have taken place among the dockers, railwaymen, engineers and ship-building workers. All these have for the present been limited to a local scale. But they are the first rumblings that give warning of the coming eruption.

The bourgeoisie and the Labour bureaucracy are looking with alarm on these signs of discontent among the workers, and have been compelled to retreat and compromise. They are afraid that by too stubborn opposition, they might release forces beyond their power to control. This process, however, is developing in a contradictory fashion. It can be seen, for example, that despite the terrific discontent among the highly class conscious workers in South Wales and Clydeside, no big movement is taking place in these traditional storm centres. The reason for this has not been unwillingness on the part of the workers to fight. It is the stranglehold exercised by the Stalinists over the shop stewards and leading militants in these districts. Undoubtedly, but for this feature, there would already have been a general strike on the Clydeside, at least among the ship-building workers. Had the Stalinists been pursuing their pseudo-left line of the 'people's government' period, they would today be at the head of a mass movement throughout the country. It is no exaggeration to say that they would probably have captured the rank and file militants in every union in industry. But the changing of the party line after Hitler's attack on Russia, revealed the true face of Stalinism: the Communist Party has come forward as the principal strike-breaking force at the service of the ruling class.

This offers a tremendous opportunity to the Fourth International, and one which must be utilised to the fullest possible extent. Once again it must be emphasised – face to the factories, the unions, the factory committees!

It is impossible for the Stalinists to dam up the tide of militancy of the British workers for any length of time. Their attempts to divert it into joint Production Committees will merely serve to discredit them at a later stage. The workers will learn from experience that this road leads not so much to increased production as to increased slavery. Revolutionaries must take into account the attitude of the workers to the question of production. In a false and distorted fashion the Stalinists have themselves raised the question of 'control' of production through these committees. Their failure to achieve results will lead the workers to draw the conclusions of workers' control on the morrow.

In is noteworthy that already throughout the country militants in the factories and trade unions are becoming aware of the role of joint Production Committees and the strike-breaking role of the Stalinists. This is especially so where we have members who can crystallise this opposition mood.

In the past, the best workers who sought a militant industrial policy were almost automatically dragged in the wake of Stalinism – even where they did not support the whole policy of the Communist Party. Now, many of them are instinctively refusing to accept the Communist Party's class collaboration policy. Such workers can be won to the programme of the revolution. They must be won to that programme and to the banner of the Fourth International!

Today our Transitional Programme takes on flesh and blood before our eyes. The response to our industrial slogans and propaganda has underlined the vital importance of partial, transitional demands. Our tiny voice and our inadequate forces have received a wonderful response from that part of the working class we have been able to reach. With an energetic application of our Transitional Programme this influence can be increased a hundred-fold in the period which lies immediately ahead.

The Stalinists have added their shrieks to the hallelujah of the Labour leaders' chorus of 'go back to work' just at the time when the workers are becoming increasingly opposed to the treachery of Transport House. The Stalinist demagogues are, of course, much more skilful in putting over their blackleg policy, but, armed with a correct programme and attitude, these gentlemen can be dealt with by our comrades on the spot.

The struggle must be waged against the trade union bureaucracy no less than against Stalinism. The propaganda to remove strike-breakers from the leadership of the trade unions, now comes to the fore. Within the unions there is developing a critical attitude towards the leadership. Some of the local officials of the unions are becoming radicalised and are pushing forward as militant leaders. Others of the local officials have remained with the bureaucracy through inertia. Either they will learn, or they will have to be thrust aside. What is outstanding at the present time is that the rank and file are to the left of even the militant elements among the leadership. But only a tiny section of workers have drawn the logical conclusions from the sabotage of the leadership. The majority are in opposition to the strike-breaking officialdom, but are not fully conscious of the next step in the struggle. It is our task to provide that consciousness. We must fight to renew even the topmost strata of the trade-union leadership; we must fight to convert the unions into organs of the revolution.

Even more vital than work in the unions, is work among the shop stewards in the factories. These are directly under the pressure of the workers on the job, and this is assuring that old reformist elements (and now the Stalinists) are being replaced by a fresh layer of militants. Workers who previously took no active interest in union affairs are today being pushed to offer themselves as alternative 'unofficial' stewards.

As the struggle develops it will extend through the efforts of the local leaders, to other factories; from single localities to a regional and finally to a national scale. Spontaneously the workers will create fighting committees on a local and national scale which will embrace not only one industry but all the industries in the areas affected. This movement will give expression to the long dormant energies and power of the British proletariat and will assume tremendous scope. The Stalinists and Labour leaders will use 'left' phrases in attempts to divert these energies into the channels of the bourgeoisie. They will only succeed in this if we fail to play our part in the struggle.

The leadership of this movement can be won if our key militants in the decisive areas can give a lead to the workers. Our small forces must be trained and prepared to give leadership to the workers on all problems that face them in industry. Our opportunities in the factories are unlimited. With a correct policy and a true orientation we can grow at a tremendous pace, a pace that will enable us to face the gigantic tasks which confront us, with confidence.

Britain Entering a Pre-Revolutionary Period

Among the backward elements in the ranks of both civilians and soldiers there is to be observed an undercurrent of reactionary and anti-semitic moods. The bourgeoisie has attempted to canalise these tendencies to suit its own interests, particularly by giving its campaign against the black market, a veiled anti-semitic slant. But these moods are not based on, and do not represent, the dominant current, which is to the left.

Under the influence of the war and of Britain's changed position in the world, profound processes are taking place in the consciousness of broad sections of the working class. The age-old 'conservatism' of the British masses had its real basis in the privileged position of Britain in the markets of the world, and the super-exploitation of the colonial masses. Now with that foundation crumbling, so also is the outlook, upon which it had been built. The main burdens of the war are now being shifted on to the shoulders of the British workers. Millions of them have been violently torn out of their customary routine and inertia by the war. The basis of 'family life' has been shattered.

Women, the most oppressed and backward strata of the working class, as well as the youth, have been forced into industry and the armed forces. The old conception of a 'tranquil' and 'ordered' existence is being shattered by events. And as the conditions of the masses have changed, so has their consciousness. They have become responsive to new ideas and perspectives. The old faith in the ruling class and the acceptance of the continued coexistence of classes has virtually vanished. The unemployed have become re-proletarianised and the demoralised elements placed under the. discipline and organisation of the army and industry. Large sections of the middle class have been reduced to the level of proletarians and forced into the factories.

The mood of discontent simmering among the workers and middle class has had no outlet yet. In fact, a great deal of it has been directed, for the present, even into patriotic channels.

Aroused principally by the incompetence of the ruling class in 'fighting fascism' and backed up by the lessons of France where the capitalist class acted as direct capitulators to Hitler, this discontent has found no channel which leads to a genuine fight against fascism. The Labour and Communist Parties accept the continued rule of the capitalists, and utter shrill warnings that any break in 'national unity' will mean victory for Hitler! The ILP offers only pacifism.

In spite of this, the molecular changes within the ranks of the workers have proceeded apace. The 'Churchill myth' has passed its apogee and is now on the downward grade. The mood of the masses has become increasingly critical and its waves are beating ceaselessly against the walls of class collaboration. Despite the efforts of the Bevins and the Pollitts[9] to stop the first little gaps in the dyke with their fists, the mighty mass pressure cannot for long be resisted. In a short space of time the wall must crumble.

If the ruling class, under the threat of revolution, were to attempt to capitulate to Hitler as the French bourgeoisie did, they would immediately provoke an uprising among the masses. Such an attempt at capitulation would compel the Labour leaders to place themselves at the head of the masses in order to continue the war. Because of the feeling that would be aroused among the masses, and because their own heads would be at stake, they would be compelled to wage a struggle to take control into their own hands. At least the left wing would do so. This would immediately precipitate the socialist revolution. But such a development is improbable in the extreme.

If, on the other hand, complete victory over Germany and Japan were to be gained by Britain (in reality the USA) this too could not prevent revolutionary repercussions among the masses. The programme of finance capital is utopian and insane. The idea that the British masses would tolerate the forcible holding down of the continent of Europe and Asia, not to mention Africa, is absurd. Once the masses compare the glittering promises about 'after the war', of which they are sceptical even today, their indignation will rise to unprecedented heights when confronted with reality.

Freed from the nightmare of victory for the nazis, neither the workers nor the soldiers would tolerate for long the outcome of the conflict which the capitalist class is preparing. Revolutionary explosions would be inevitable.

The prospect of stalemate and a compromise peace is even more remote. The antagonisms which brought about the war and have been sharpened by it, have now reached an unbearable tensity. Compromise could only come after the contestants were completely exhausted and the whole world was drained dry. This could only lead to further explosions. 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.

All three possibilities in regard to the war, therefore, lead to the same conclusion. The struggle between the classes in Britain must inevitably lead to the socialist revolution.

In the event of the failure of the working class to show a way out of the crisis in which the bourgeoisie has placed society, a terrible social and political reaction would rage in Britain. The worsened position of British imperialism in the world market would dictate the need for the bourgeoisie to destroy all working class resistance to its imposition of lower standards of living, etc. A failure of the coming revolutionary wave would provoke outbursts of despair and hopelessness among the petty bourgeoisie and the backward strata of the working class. Basing itself on this mood, the bourgeoisie would, within the shortest space of time, create a fascist party and attempt to obliterate the organisations of the working class. But this reaction would only arise after a defeat of the inevitable revolution.

Taking the situation as a whole, it can be seen that more favourable opportunities exist for the British Trotskyists and for the success of the socialist revolution in Britain than for almost any other country.

The British working class has not suffered a severe defeat since the general strike of 1926 and the debacle of Labour in the general election of 1931. No big class struggles were waged in the last years before the outbreak of the war. The British workers are fresh and unjaded. They possess an overwhelming weight in British society. Concentrated as it is in big industrial cities, London, Glasgow, Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester, Swansea, etc, the working class finds its preponderating social weight still further increased.

That two and a half years after the outbreak of the most sanguinary battle for survival among the imperialist powers, most of the democratic rights of the working class, although formally abolished, are still intact, is a testimonial not of the strength of British imperialism, but indicates its Achilles' heel.

The ruling class is compelled to seek salvation in deceit and demagogy rather than in force. The continued, if precarious, existence of democratic rights gives us possibilities of growth in the most favourable of conditions. It arises out of the necessity on the part of the ruling class to disguise their imperialist war as one between democracy and dictatorship. It also arises, of course from the present dependence of the bourgeoisie on the shell of the organisations of the working class. All this gives us a unique opportunity of conducting our work legally, unhampered by the trammels which fascism and occupation have attached to our comrades on the continent.

The Future is Ours

The possibility exists for an unprecedented growth in influence and numbers in the shortest possible time. Today the problem consists mainly in preparing the basis for a rapid increase in growth and influence. The Workers International League will grow with the growth of the left wing. It is necessary to break sharply and consciously, as the group is already doing, with the psychology and perspectives of the past. The most difficult period is in the past -isolated membership and the hostility or indifference of the masses. Big movements and big events which we can influence are on the order of the day. The group must not be caught unawares by the development of events.

It is necessary that the membership systematically face the workers and penetrate among the masses. Above all, it is necessary to bring the Fourth International before the masses of the workers as an independent tendency.

It is necessary that the organisation face up critically to the most vital of all factors: the leadership and the organisation are lagging behind the development of events. Objectively, conditions are developing and have already developed, which make for the speediest and most favourable growth and entrenchment of our organisation. But the basic weakness lies in the lack of trained cadres. The membership is for the most part young and untrained and lacks theoretical education. The organisation, despite the leap in influence, still maintains for the most part the habits and attitude of mind of the past – that is, of propaganda circles rather than of branches for agitation among the masses. The difficulties and tasks of the past period of the group's life are still reflected in its ideas and work. On the basis of the new perspective a sharp break must be made with the past.

It can be stated without exaggeration that the decisive question of whether the organisation will be able to face up to events will be determined by whether the leadership and membership can base themselves thoroughly in the shortest space of time, on these perspectives and face up to implementing them in the day to day work of the organisation. To develop deep and firm roots and to become known as a tendency and organisation throughout the country, and above all, among the advanced workers in the factories is the basic task of the organisation.

The disproportion in the situation in Britain lies in the lack of relationship between the ripeness of the objective situation and the immaturity and weakness of our organisation. Prospects of a swift impulsion of the masses leading to a spectacular growth of the organisation on the lines of the POUM in the Spanish revolution, are rooted in the situation. But only if we realise the scope of the tasks and possibilities which history has placed before us. We will rise to the situation only if in the interim, skeleton cadres are built throughout the country. These cadres would serve as the bones on which the body of a powerful organistion could be built up from the new and fresh recruits who will come towards us as the crisis develops.

These tasks must be accomplished. Our untrained and untested organisation, will, within a few years at most, be hurled into the turmoil of the revolution. The problem of the organisation, the problem of building the party, goes hand in hand with the revolutionary mobilisation of the masses. Every member must raise himself or herself to the understanding that the key to world history lies in our hands. The conquest of power is on the order of the day in Britain – but only if we find the road to the masses.

Revolutionary audacity can achieve everything. The organisation must consciously pose itself and see itself as the decisive factor in the situation. There will be no lack of possibilities for transforming ourselves from a tiny sect into a mass organisation on the wave of the revolution.

Go back to The Unbroken Thread contents page or go on to next section The Rise and Fall of the Communist International


[1] In June 1940 the French Prime Minister, Petain, signed an armistice with Hitler which allowed one third of France to remain unnocupied, with a government based at Vichy. The Vichy regime collaborated with the nazis.

[2] Oswald Mosley entered British politics as a Tory, switched to Labour, then split to form the New Party, which he transformed into the British Union of Fascists in 1932. Thereafter he organised various fascist groups. The term Quisling came from Vidkun Quisling, a Norwegian army officer and nazi collaborator, who became 'minister president' in nazi occupied Norway from 1940.

[3] Leon Blum Socialist Party Prime Minister in the 1936-7 Popular Front government, Leon Jouhaux general secretary of the trade union federation, the CGT (1909-40).

[4] Formed in 1925 as a bloc of the trade union leaderships, it helped to give left wing credentials to the British TUC leaders who were to betray the general strike in 1926. The committee folded when they walked out from it in 1927.

[5] Ramsay MacDonald was Prime Minister in the 1929-31 Labour government. When he was unable to gain support for cuts in unemployment benefit in 1931, he split from Labour to form a National Government with the Tories and Liberals.

[6] Walter Citrine was TUC general secretary 1925-47, Ernest Bevin general secretary of the TGWU 1921-40 and Minister of Labour in Churchill's wartime coalition. Aneurin Bevan was regarded for years as the leader of the left in the Labour Party (hence the term Bevanites used for lefts in the party in the 1940's and 1950's) editor of Tribune 1940-45. Harold Laski was chairman of the party 1945-50. Emanuel Shinwell was a cabinet minister 1945-51.

[7] Jacques Doriot, a leading CP member was expelled in 1934. He moved sharply to the right and founded the pro-fascist French People's Party.

[8] Transport House, the headquarters of the TGWU, was also the head office of the Labour Party for many years.

[9] Harry Pollitt was general secretary of the British Communist party 1929-56, except during the period of the Stalin-Hitler pact, when he favoured a Soviet agreement with British instead of German imperialism.

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