Trotsky’s writings on Britain: a treasure trove of lessons for today

We publish below Rob Sewell's full introduction to Leon Trotsky's Writings on Britain, which was recently republished by Wellred Books. With the class struggle sharpening, and revolutionary explosions impending, this incredible collection of material has never been more relevant. Get your copy today!

Given the deepening crisis of world capitalism; the catastrophic position of British capitalism in particular; and the reawakening of the British working class, the republication of Leon Trotsky’s Writings on Britain could not have come at a more opportune moment.

Leon Trotsky was not only the outstanding leader, along with Lenin, of the October Revolution in Russia – he was also one of the greatest Marxist theoreticians of the twentieth century. His voluminous writings cover a wide range of topics and constitute a rich treasure house for those who want to understand the Marxist method and how it can be applied concretely. Today, his extensive writings on Britain are of particular interest to a growing audience, politically awakened by the convulsions taking place in Britain and internationally.

While not all of Trotsky’s prognoses worked out as predicted, his general analysis of British capitalism, and the revolutionary conclusions he drew from this analysis, are clearly more timely and relevant than ever, given today’s prolonged crisis and decline. History tends to repeat itself, and when it does, it does so on a higher level. All the contradictions of capitalism mentioned by Trotsky nearly 100 years ago have come to the fore at the present time, in the most graphic and aggravated fashion. Britain has once again entered a pre-revolutionary period, in which the crisis of the capitalist system is being brought home ever more sharply, and with it the need for revolutionary leadership.

Of course, for the ‘Left’ cynics and sceptics, who wallow in their own self-pity, and who accept the ‘market economy’ in practice, these writings are worthless. For them, the very idea of the socialist revolution is a utopian dream. Instead, they look to Keynesianism and the discredited ideas of the past. Such useless pessimists, mostly disillusioned intellectuals, make up a modern-day ‘League of Abandoned Hopes’. In fact, they constitute an additional barrier in the fight for the emancipation of the working class, and are of no interest to us in the slightest. We concur with the advice of the Bible: “Let the dead bury the dead.”

For the class-conscious worker and the revolutionary youth awakened by the capitalist crisis, on the contrary, Trotsky’s writings offer a veritable gold mine of ideas, which will greatly assist them in raising their political level, broadening their horizons, and equipping them for the struggles that lie ahead.

For our part, we are proud to republish this collection of Trotsky’s writings on Britain, which was first published by New Park Publications nearly fifty years ago, but which has long been out of print. These writings cover an array of subjects, which reveal the encyclopaedic scope of Trotsky’s knowledge and his grasp of the material. In his short work, Where is Britain Going? (1925), which can be found in this collection, Trotsky predicted revolutionary upheavals that were inherent in the situation. His prognosis was confirmed in the 1926 General Strike. The book was translated and promoted by the British Communist Party, which at that time was a young revolutionary party, unaffected by Stalinism. Trotsky explained:

“… whatever the partial fluctuations in the economic and political conjuncture, everything points to a further aggravation and deepening of those difficulties which Britain is currently undergoing and thereby to a further acceleration of the tempo of revolutionary development.”

He showed how this would affect the Labour Party, which was in the grip of the reformists and opportunists. The coming to power of a Labour government under crisis conditions would, he believed, lead to divisions and splits:

“But in these conditions it seems highly likely that the Labour Party will come to power at one of the subsequent stages, and then a conflict between the working class and the Fabian top layer now standing at its head will be wholly unavoidable.”

In fact, such a crisis Labour government came to power in 1929, and under the impact of the world slump, ended in the betrayal of Ramsay MacDonald and a split in 1931. This pushed the Independent Labour Party (ILP), which was affiliated to the Labour Party, to split away in the following year. This propelled the ILP far to the left, towards centrism – a tendency standing between reformism and Marxism. Sadly, the revolutionary opportunities that arose were squandered by the centrist leaders of the ILP, as well as by the Communist Party, which by now had succumbed to Stalinism.

Given that it had been the first capitalist country in the world, and the pre-eminent world power of the time, Britain had always been of great interest to Marx and Engels, theoretically and politically. Engels’ book The Conditions of the Working Class in England in 1844 – a product of his stay in Manchester – remains a classic text and essential reading for activists to this day. Marx, like Engels, lived in exile in London, where he studied the writings of the English classical economists and the workings of British capitalism first hand. These studies laid the basis for his discovery of surplus value and later for the production of Capital. Both Marx and Engels were involved in the struggles of their day, and they collaborated with the leaders of revolutionary Chartism in an attempt to rearm the movement with a scientific programme.

With the demise of Chartism, British capitalism enjoyed a spectacular growth and a monopoly over world trade, whilst its empire grew to cover a quarter of the globe. On this basis, the British ruling class could share its plunder with a privileged layer of the working class, an aristocracy of labour. These concessions provided a certain social stability, which permitted an extended period of relative peace between the classes. This period was described by Engels as a “forty year slumber” of the British working class, lasting until the late 1880s. But Britain’s monopoly over world trade was broken by the rise of Germany and the United States, leading to a new period of social upheaval and the emergence of New Unionism and the creation of the Labour Party.

Chartism Image public domainBoth Marx and Engels were involved in the struggles of their day, and they collaborated with the leaders of revolutionary Chartism / Image: public domain

Lenin also followed the fortunes of British capitalism and the development of the working-class movement. While the workers had shown class militancy, its leaders were thoroughly imbued with opportunism and reformism, priding themselves on their ‘pragmatic’ outlook and displaying an open contempt for theory. In What Is to Be Done?, Lenin quoted Engels, who, while praising the strength of organisation of the British labour movement, believed that it crawled on its belly in the domain of theory.

However, the First World War and the victorious Russian Revolution transformed the entire world situation, shaking British imperialism to its foundation. The loss of its dominant position on the world arena further undermined its position at home. Trotsky also paid a great deal of attention to the fortunes of British imperialism, especially in his role in the new Soviet government as Commissar of Foreign Affairs, then as Commissar for War. At this time, Britain was in the forefront of a campaign of military intervention to overthrow the young workers’ state, and Trotsky’s immediate attention was absorbed in the struggle against counter-revolutionary intervention. But his interest and profound grasp of Britain’s history and its working-class traditions extended far wider.

A simple glance at Trotsky’s writings on Britain is sufficient to see what a host of questions he tackled, covering a wide range of historical, social, diplomatic, philosophical, and cultural questions, as well as questions of tactics and strategy facing the revolutionary movement in Britain. He analysed the origins of Britain’s meteoric ascent, in the course of which her ruling class would become the most confident and far-sighted rulers in the world. “Not for nothing has it been said of the British imperialists that they do their thinking in terms of centuries and continents”, explained Trotsky. The philosophy of the British bourgeoisie was based upon empiricism, guided by decades of experience. On Britain’s road to becoming a world power, this practical instinct and ‘rule of thumb’ served them well. They had little regard for theoretical generalisations, for the simple reason that their forebears had achieved success without the aid of such abstract understanding.

The rise of the British working-class movement, the first of its kind in history, posed a whole host of challenges before the capitalist class. All attempts to subjugate and crush the early workers’ organisations, with the use of class laws and state repression, had failed. They sprang up like mushrooms after a storm. The bourgeoisie thus opted instead for a policy of repression and concessions. Part of this flexible approach entailed schemes to buy off and corrupt the leaders of the labour movement – a method that, in most cases, proved very effective.

Nevertheless, such bribery could not prevent the class struggle in Britain from continuing to break through the surface, as it did with the awakening of the working class towards the end of the nineteenth century. The growing rivalries between the imperialist powers eventually led to an attempt to redivide the world in the form of world war. Revolution was its by-product, epitomised by the Russian Revolution. This opened up a new and dangerous situation for the British ruling class, reflected in the outlook of its political representatives. At this time, Trotsky noted that Winston Churchill represented the extreme, rabid wing of the British imperialists, while Lloyd George, the sly old fox, had a more sober and cunning feel for the situation. It was precisely these latter skills that were needed to navigate and defuse the post-war revolutionary crisis. His clever engagement with the trade union leaders disarmed them.

The same period also witnessed the rise of the Labour Party as the mass party of the British working class. The parliamentary leadership of the party, however, represented by Ramsay MacDonald and Co., championed Fabianism, gradualism, and a rejection of the class struggle. “The leaders of the Labour Party represent essentially the bourgeoisie’s political agents”, remarked Trotsky, whose aim was to forestall revolution.

He continued to elaborate their role:

“These pompous authorities, pedants, and haughty, high-falutin’ cowards are systematically poisoning the labour movement, clouding the consciousness of the proletariat, and paralysing its will. It is only thanks to them that Toryism, Liberalism, the Church, the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the bourgeoisie continue to survive and even suppose themselves to be firmly in the saddle.”

He concluded by saying:

“The Fabians, the ILPers, and the conservative trade union bureaucrats today represent the most counter-revolutionary force in Great Britain, and possibly in the present stage of development, in the whole world.”

RMcD Image public domainThe parliamentary leadership of the Labour Party championed Fabianism, gradualism, and a rejection of the class struggle / Image: public domain

Trotsky’s writings cover one of the stormiest periods of British history: the period of the 1920s, which saw the General Strike and its aftermath; as well as the development of Trotskyism in Britain in the 1930s – all of which contain a wealth of analysis that remains startlingly relevant today. This is especially true of Where is Britain Going?, which applies the Marxist method concretely to the British context, and outlines the challenges facing the working class. In doing so, he explained:

There is no abstract yardstick applicable to all spheres of life. It is necessary to take living facts in their living, historical interaction. If we master this dialectical approach to the question, the latter becomes much clearer to us.”

We are republishing this material in order to bring this method, together with this wealth of knowledge, to the attention of the new generation of workers and youth, to arm and enrich them and prepare them for the tasks of the coming period. The present is pregnant with revolutionary possibilities and challenges, foremost among which is the challenge of forming a revolutionary leadership. Of course, there will be defeats as well as victories. There will be periods of retreat and of passivity. But they will give way to further advances in the class struggle. The republication of these writings forms part of the continuation of Trotsky’s struggle to build a revolutionary leadership capable of putting an end to capitalism. This historic task is, once again, posed point blank before the new generation.

The ruling class of Britain today is utterly degenerate, and has become the complete inverse of what it once was. It was once a great revolutionary class, which, under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell in the English Revolution, did away with the absolute monarchy of Charles I, and that cleared the way for capitalist development. Although, if truth be told, it was the shock troops of the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie, rather than the big bourgeoisie, that carried things through to the end. In fact, the latter, after the destruction of royal absolutism, came to a compromise with the landed classes, which was consummated in the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688. From then on, the new bourgeois class used the squirearchy, monarchy, House of Lords, and state church to cement its rule, although this was not fully consummated until the Reform Act of 1832 and the Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846.

“Thanks to this exclusive historic privilege of development possessed by bourgeois England, conservatism combined with elasticity passed over from her institutions into her moral fibre.”

Britain’s colossal wealth and privileged position allowed the bourgeoisie to, in turn, create a labour aristocracy, imbued with the prejudices of conservatism. These prejudices were based on ‘tradition’, monarchy, greed, religiosity, servility and class rule, built up over centuries. Such qualities were relayed into the upper strata of the working class by the petty-bourgeois moralists and ‘educators’. Through the agency of the petty bourgeoisie, this effluent seeped down, through the top layers of the working class, and even into the class as a whole. “Official morality”, explained Trotsky, “is a bridle to restrain the oppressed.” This reflected the posterior of the working class. But there is another side of the working class, namely its face. There is a different tradition, which comes to life in times of crisis and turmoil. These are the revolutionary traditions of the proletariat, as represented by early revolutionary trade unionism and, above all, by the rise of physical force Chartism – the world’s first ever independent working-class political party.

Today, British capitalism has suffered a reversal of fortunes. The once-mighty power of British imperialism has collapsed. The Empire has gone. Britain has been reduced to a second-rate power on the fringes of Europe, in fact, it has become the ‘sick man of Europe’. All the contradictions, accumulated over decades, have come to the fore, creating one crisis after another. As a result, Britain has been transformed from one of the most stable countries to one of the most profoundly unstable. No longer far-sighted, the representatives of the bourgeoisie are now decrepit and degenerate, a product of capitalist decline. They have become narrow ‘Little Englanders’, or Brexiteers, eaten up with their baseless self-importance. They are caught in a vice. Everything they do is wrong. An old proverb aptly fits: “Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad.”

As an aside, Trotsky drew attention to the extreme ruthlessness of the British bourgeoisie, and the cold cruelty it displayed towards the colonial peoples under its domination. With this cruelty came the racial arrogance that it displayed towards those it considered racially inferior. It sought, and still seeks, to inject this chauvinist poison into the more politically backward layers of British society, creating divisions, setting one group against another, all the better to rule over them.

In the past, Trotsky noted that the religion of ‘capitalist progress’ had sunk deeper roots in Britain than anywhere else. This was certainly the case for quite a long period. While this idea was undermined in the interwar crisis, it was revived in the period of the post-war upswing, during which capitalism was able to grant reforms and was seen to be ‘delivering the goods’. This period, roughly from 1945 to the slump of 1974, was the heyday of reformism. It was the era of Keynesianism, of ‘managed capitalism’, and of the granting of important reforms, such as the health service. As living standards improved, there was a certain optimism in the future. For the most part, this was a period of widespread illusions in capitalist progress. But the world economic upswing only served to mask the long-term decline of British capitalism. Britain’s exports as a percentage of world trade fell from almost 12 per cent in 1948 to around 4 per cent in 1974. The UK’s trade deficit rose from £200 million in 1948, to £4.1 billion in 1974. But for a whole period, this decline was to a large extent disguised by the fact that the world market, in which Britain took a diminished share, had grown and was far larger.

By now, the optimism of the past has completely evaporated. In fact, it has turned to widespread despair and anxiety for the future. The period of upswing has turned into a period of downswing, representing an epoch of capitalist decline. A report by the Resolution Foundation revealed that Britain has seen weaker GDP per capita growth in the years 2004 to 2019 than at any time since the period 1919 to 1934 – precisely the period covered by Trotsky in these writings. The failure to invest and modernise industry meant that British capitalism has now based itself on a low-wage, low-skill service economy. The ruling class has become completely parasitic, a class of rentiers and speculators. By the mid-2000s £1 in every £12 of British economic output was generated by financial services: i.e., by the moneylenders. The British capitalist class has long forgotten the fact that real wealth is material, and is the product of manufacturing.

The collapse of industry was accompanied by massive attacks on the working class, in the hope of restoring the declining rate of profit. The failing capitalist system could no longer afford the reforms of the past. An epoch of counter-reforms and austerity has therefore opened up, and with it a crisis of reformism. Now we have reformism without reforms, and even ‘reformists’ carrying out counter-reforms and austerity.

The deep slump of 2008 marked a watershed moment, and it affected British capitalism far worse than other major capitalist economies. Overproduction was universal. The recovery that followed was weak and drawn out. In 2020, the new slump, aggravated and deepened by the COVID-19 pandemic, resulted in the biggest collapse in UK output in 300 years. Only massive bailouts by the capitalist state prevented another Great Depression, but the consequences were a mountain of debt.

Starmer Image Socialist AppealAn epoch of counter-reforms and austerity has opened up, and with it a crisis of reformism / Image: Socialist Appeal

The idea of a recovery was short-lived. The dislocation of supply chains, the disruption of the world market, the costly war in the Ukraine, the resulting energy crisis, and spiralling inflation are pushing capitalism into a new deep slump. Now, as always, the working class is being asked to pay the bill. But this situation has served to reignite the class struggle, starting in Britain, on a scale not seen in generations. “Class War”, screamed the front page of the Murdoch papers, as Britain was hit with a rash of strikes. Even the idea of a general strike has become inherent in the situation. As I write today, there is wave after wave of strikes involving new layers who have never been on strike before. This represents a qualitative change and the reawakening of the British working class.

For decades, consciousness was shaped by the idea that today is better than yesterday and tomorrow will be better than today. This was the basis of reformism. But, as Marx explained, social being determines social consciousness. That period has come to an end. For millions, tomorrow will no longer be better than today. Everything has been turned on its head. Living standards are falling as never before. Millions are being thrown into poverty and must rely on food banks. Many have to work two or three jobs just to survive. Life is going from bad to worse. As a result, consciousness is being transformed under the hammer blows of events. We are in a period of sharp and sudden changes. Events, events, events are creating enormous instability and shaking people up. Millions are discussing politics at the bus stop, in the supermarkets, at the hairdressers, on the street corners, which they never did before. Even the middle class are affected. In the words of Trotsky, this is nothing less than the “molecular process of revolution in the minds of the masses”.

Of course, while it is true that every epoch is different, nevertheless, experience is demonstrating that the knot of history is being retied, but on a higher level. The 1920s in Britain was a period of deep crisis, especially in the coal industry, which was the key industry at the time. Britain was being undermined by stiff competition from Germany. The ruling class came to the conclusion that the working class must be prepared to shoulder the burden of the crisis to “put industry back on its feet”. This was the message of Stanley Baldwin, the Tory prime minister. This meant savage wage cuts across the board. The showdown began in the coal industry, where the coal owners were demanding big wage cuts. In 1925 the Conservative government granted a subsidy for nine months, whilst forming a Royal Commission to look into the plight of the industry. The labour movement heralded this as a tremendous victory and called it ‘Red Friday’. But the ruling class were simply buying time to better prepare an all-out offensive against the working class. The labour leaders, meanwhile, did nothing but lull the working class to sleep and made no preparations for the inevitable showdown.

It was at this time that Trotsky wrote Where is Britain Going? In it, he analysed the position of British capitalism and the challenges faced by the working class. It is a brilliant Marxist analysis, which has many lessons for today, not least the crucial role of leadership. It was written as guidance for the young British Communist Party, which at that stage was struggling to assert itself.

It was also the time when, in the wake of Lenin’s death, the triumvirate of Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev had taken over the leadership of the Russian Communist Party so as to exclude Trotsky. They then created the myth of ‘Trotskyism’, which they contrasted to ‘Leninism’ and launched a campaign against him.

The isolation of the Russian Revolution in such terrible backwardness resulted in the growth of a mighty bureaucracy within the state and the party. Stalin became the figurehead of this bureaucratic caste, which now yearned for peace and stability so as to enjoy its privilege. The Stalinists therefore adopted the anti-Marxist theory of ‘socialism in one country’, which meant the rejection of world revolution. In 1928 Trotsky brilliantly predicted that the adoption of this theory would lead to the nationalist and reformist degeneration of the Comintern.

In early 1925, Trotsky was dismissed from his post as Commissar of War, and was gradually removed from all positions of authority. The Communist International was being transformed from an instrument of world revolution into a mere border guard for the Soviet regime.

However, by 1926 the triumvirate broke up and Stalin entered a bloc with Bukharin. This served to push the Communist International in an opportunist direction. In China, the Communists were directed to enter the nationalist Kuomintang and to subordinate themselves to the ‘progressive’ bourgeoisie, which led to the bloody suppression of the Communists in 1927 at the hands of Chiang Kai-shek, while in Britain, the Communists were pushed to align themselves with the left reformist trade union leaders, such as Purcell, Hicks and Swales.

The idea had been raised in Moscow – firstly by Zinoviev, who was always on the lookout for shortcuts – that the socialist revolution in Britain might come ‘through a different door’, namely through the agency of the ‘lefts’ of the Trades Union Congress (TUC). This was clearly falsified by the betrayal of these same ‘lefts’ in the General Strike of 1926. Trotsky’s book was an attempt to counter this idea of a ‘different door’, posing instead the need for the British Communist Party to fight to become a mass party that could lead the working class to power.

In Where is Britain Going? Trotsky brilliantly analysed the situation in Britain, the objective conditions preparing the way for revolution, and the real traditions of the working class, contrasting its revolutionary and conservative sides. He also gave a description of the character of the bourgeois leaders and the leaders of the workers’ movement. While he dealt with the ruthlessness of the British bourgeoisie, Trotsky displayed nothing but contempt for its agents within the labour movement: the MacDonalds and other carpetbaggers. He also accurately described the shortcomings of the official ‘lefts’ in the movement.

Within the Labour Party, “there took shape the so-called left wing, formless, spineless, and devoid of any independent future”, wrote Trotsky, referring to their ideological weakness and confusion.

In contrast, the right wing drew its strength from the fact that:

“… with them stands tradition, experience and routine and, most important, with them stands bourgeois society as a whole which slips them ready-made solutions. For MacDonald has only to translate Baldwin’s and Lloyd George’s suggestions into Fabian language. […]

The weakness of the lefts arises from their disorder and their disorder from their ideological formlessness.”


“It would be a monstrous illusion to think that these left elements of the old school are capable of heading the revolutionary movement of the British proletariat and its struggle for power.”

He outlined the historic challenges before the working class, and explained how these would be overcome:

“The ideas and prejudices which have been handed down from generation to generation become a factor of great historical force… But material facts are nevertheless stronger than their reflection in ideas and traditions… Living facts are more powerful than dead ideas. […]

All her national traditions will undergo a test. What was shaped by centuries will be destroyed in the course of years.”

The greatest test to confront the British working class came with the General Strike of May 1926. It was called in defence of the miners, but it posed the question of workers’ power point-blank. In such a situation there was no room for prevarication or compromise. The strike would usher in either the greatest of defeats or the greatest of victories. The right wing, naturally, worked to betray the strike from the very beginning. But the ‘lefts’, lacking any perspective of taking power, simply capitulated to the right.

general strike Image public domainThe greatest test to confront the British working class came with the General Strike of May 1926 / Image: public domain

Where is Britain Going? was published by the British Communist Party in 1925, and Trotsky’s analysis was defended by the party’s theoreticians, despite the beginning of the campaign against Trotsky emanating from Moscow. This was reflected in Palme Dutt’s favourable review, and his criticisms of the TUC ‘lefts’.

The Anglo-Russian Trade Union Committee had been established by the leaders of the Russian and British trade unions following a visit to Russia by members of the TUC in 1924. The supposed aim of the Committee was to fight against the threat of imperialist war. This agreement served to provide the TUC leaders with a certain revolutionary ‘aura’, which they certainly did not deserve. The British Communist Party leaders, for their part – under pressure from Moscow, emanating initially from the Stalin-Zinoviev faction, and later from the Stalin-Bukharin faction – took at face value the pronouncements of the TUC ‘lefts’. This attempt to trail after these ‘lefts’, who subsequently betrayed the General Strike, prompted the Communist Party leaders to issue such disastrous slogans as “All power to the General Council”. This recognition of the General Council as the real representative of the working class only served to disorientate the ranks of the party and the advanced workers that looked to it for guidance.

Following the betrayal of the General Strike, the Russian Left Opposition led by Trotsky, which had been formed in 1923, argued for the breaking off of relations with the TUC leaders. The Russian party leaders of course refused.

“The attempt to cling to the bloc with the General Council after the open betrayal of the General Strike, and even after the betrayal of the miners’ strike, was one of the greatest mistakes in the history of the workers’ movement.

[…] the Anglo-Russian Committee merely shielded and covered over the base and treacherous work of the General Council.”

In fact, the initiative to break with the Anglo-Russian Committee was taken by the General Council itself in 1927 – by both the right and ‘left’ trade union leaders alike.

“The masses knew as the leaders of the movement only Purcell, Hicks and Cook, whom, moreover, Moscow vouched for. These ‘left’ friends, in a serious test, shamefully betrayed the proletariat. The revolutionary workers were thrown into confusion, sank into apathy, and naturally extended their disappointment to the Communist Party itself which had only been the passive part of this whole mechanism of betrayal and perfidy.”

Of course, this does not take anything away from the heroism displayed by the ordinary members of the Communist Party on a local level, who made colossal sacrifices, many of whom were beaten, persecuted, victimised, and imprisoned.

The criticism raised by Trotsky of the Party was intended as a means of drawing vital lessons, of reorienting the Party, and of preparing it for the revolutionary leadership of the British working class. However, the growing bureaucratic reaction within the Soviet Union under Stalin destroyed this potential and served to wreck this promising young movement.

Under Stalin, the Communist International lurched from opportunism between 1926-27, to the criminal policies of the so-called ‘Third Period’, characterised by an insane ultra-left policy between 1928-33. This resulted in a debacle in Germany with the victory of Hitler in 1933, which stemmed from the Stalinist theory of ‘social-fascism’, which fatally split and demoralised the German working class. And yet, the Stalinist heralded this policy of ‘social-fascism’ as correct and talked of, “after Hitler, our turn”! Having burned their fingers, they then made a 180-degree volte face to the strike-breaking policy of the Popular Front in the 1930s.

The Left Opposition was banned in the Soviet Union and its members expelled. Trotsky was exiled and deprived of Soviet citizenship. In Britain, a small group of oppositionists, known as the Balham group, was expelled from the Communist Party, and entered into contact with Trotsky. To overcome the group’s isolation, he urged these supporters to enter the Independent Labour Party (ILP), which was at that time moving in a centrist direction, and to make contact with the party’s rank and file with the aim of winning them to Bolshevism. However, Trotsky stressed that it was important to be flexible in relation to tactics and organisation, while being firm on principles.

“If you enter the ILP to work for the Bolshevik transformation of the party (that is, of its revolutionary kernel), the workers will look upon you as upon fellow workers, comrades, and not as upon adversaries who want to split the party from outside.”

However, he advised these comrades to avoid, at all costs, sectarianism and opportunism.

Nevertheless, the leaders of the group opposed the turn to the ILP, which led to a split, with only about a dozen inexperienced comrades entering the party. Ted Grant, who had arrived from South Africa, was involved in this group that entered the ILP. His experiences were published in his History of British Trotskyism.

Trotsky paid close attention to developments in Britain, which were moving in a revolutionary direction. Unfortunately, the forces of Trotskyism were too small and inexperienced to influence events at this stage. Trotsky pointed to the fact that “not all our comrades entered the ILP and they developed an opportunistic policy so far as I could observe, and that is why their experience in the ILP was not so good.”

The centrist leaders of the ILP displayed a complete inability to understand the political situation or to draw the necessary revolutionary conclusions. They made one mistake after another, in particular in trailing after the ‘Third Period’ Stalinists. They therefore remained mired in the fog of centrism, which led to the demise of the ILP.

Trotsky produced a wealth of writings dealing with tactics and approach, particularly of Marxists towards the mass organisations.

“The policy of a united front with reformists is obligatory but it is of necessity limited to partial tasks, especially to defensive struggles. There can be no thought of making the socialist revolution in a united front with reformist organisations. The principal task of a revolutionary party consists in freeing the working class from the influence of reformism.”

Eventually, Trotsky advised his supporters to leave the ILP and enter the Labour Party, which had recovered from the betrayal of 1931, and which was shifting to the left. He urged them, above all, to concentrate on the youth. As with the previous proposed entry into the ILP, this turn once again led to resistance within the group, leading to a further split.

This period can be regarded as the early pre-history of British Trotskyism, which was plagued with organisational weaknesses and political confusion. Only with the emergence of the Workers’ International League in 1938, and the launch of the Revolutionary Communist Party in 1944, did a genuine Trotskyist current develop in Britain, in which Ted Grant played a crucial role. His work, in particular, kept the flame of revolutionary Marxism alive and it is from these roots that our present tendency emerged.

In answering his critics, Trotsky did not rule out that the working class could come to power by parliamentary means, but not in the utopian reformist fashion advocated by those who simply worship bourgeois democracy. There must be no illusions on this score.

“The conclusion to be drawn from all this is that the British proletariat must not reckon on any historic privileges. It will have to struggle for power by the road of revolution and keep it in its hands by crushing the fierce resistance of the exploiters. There is no other way leading to socialism.”

This, in turn, required the building of a revolutionary party that was prepared to take the necessary measures to overthrow capitalism. In 1938, given the bankruptcy of the Second and Third Internationals, Trotsky launched the Fourth International as the party of world revolution. This was in a period of defeats for the working class, above all in Spain. However, the prospect of world war would inevitably provoke revolution. The Marxist movement needed to prepare itself for that perspective, politically and organisationally. The founding conference of the Fourth International adopted as its programme, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, drafted by Trotsky, known as The Transitional Programme.

Unfortunately, following the assassination of Trotsky by a Stalinist agent in 1940, the leaders of the Fourth International proved incapable of rising to the challenge, leading to its demise. They were incapable of understanding Trotsky’s method, and instead simply repeated his words when the situation had fundamentally changed following the war. This, together with prestige politics, destroyed the movement.

A revolutionary party is first and foremost its ideas, programme, tradition, and method. Only lastly is it an organisation. Despite the destruction of the Fourth International, these ideas and traditions were preserved by the tenacious work of Ted Grant in the post-war period, and today they constitute the theoretical heritage of the International Marxist Tendency.

We have no illusions as to the immensity of the task before us, given the weakness of the forces of Marxism in Britain and on a world scale. However, the objective basis is being prepared for revolution in one country after another. This will be a protracted period, extending over many years, given the weakness of the bourgeoisie in imposing its own ‘solution’ on the one hand; and on the other the strength of the working class internationally, which is nevertheless hampered by the weakness of the forces of Marxism that are too small to lead the working class out of this impasse. Nonetheless, despite all the ups and downs and the many detours to come, the general line of march remains. In the process, the consciousness of the working class, and indeed of all classes, will be transformed again and again, posing ever more sharply the need to change society.

As Trotsky explained:

“Today in Britain the question is not one of assigning a ‘day’ for the revolution – we are a long way from this! – but in clearly understanding that the whole objective situation is bringing this ‘day’ closer and into the ambit of the educational and preparatory work of the party of the proletariat, and at the same time creating conditions for its rapid revolutionary formation.”

The question of questions, raised by Trotsky throughout these writings, is the crisis of proletarian leadership. As he pointed out in Where is Britain Going?,

“The contradictions undermining British society will inevitably intensify. We do not intend to predict the exact tempo of this process, but it will be measurable in terms of years, or in terms of five years at the most; certainly not in decades. This general prospect requires us to ask above all the question: will a Communist Party be built in Britain in time with the strength and the links with the masses to be able to thaw out at the right moment all the necessary practical conclusions from the sharpening crisis? It is in this question that Great Britain’s fate is today contained.”

This question still remains the task of the hour, but now, given the increased tempo of events, it is posed with even more urgency. We believe the republication of Trotsky’s Writings on Britain will greatly assist in this endeavour, educating the future cadres, and laying the basis for a successful socialist revolution in Britain and elsewhere.

Rob Sewell,
February 2023

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