The consolation of familiar ideas: a reply to Christian Høgsbjerg

Issue: 161

John Kelly

In his critical but not hostile review of my book Contemporary Trotskyism, Christian Høgsbjerg notes, on the positive side, that it is “generally well-informed”, based on “painstaking empirical research” and is “thought-provoking”.1 He agrees that the social movement activity of Trotskyist groups, such as the creation of the Anti-Nazi League and the Stop the War Coalition, has often failed to translate into increases in party membership, although the reasons for this outcome are unclear. On the other hand he also castigates the book’s “weak underlying theoretical framework”, complains about its “more general lack of understanding”, and argues that it “misses much of importance”. By way of an alternative view he therefore repeats many of the familiar and comfortable tropes of Socialist Workers Party (SWP) thinking, about the dynamics of organisational splits, the history and structure of the Trotskyist movement and the role of the revolutionary party.

The general tone of the review exudes confidence, some might say complacency, in the perspectives and actions of the SWP despite the fact that the party’s membership is no higher today than on the threshold of the 2008 financial crash. If that comparison is thought to be unfair because it overlooks the three major splits—Counterfire (2010), International Socialist Network (2013) and rs21 (2014)—more recent evidence is equally disappointing. Following the launch of Stand Up To Racism in 2013, the subsequent opening of almost 50 local branches and a succession of well-attended conferences and demonstrations, the SWP total membership figure has barely moved. This type of problematic evidence is also absent from Høgsbjerg’s discussion of splits in the Trotskyist movement where he repeats the widely-held view that splits arise in small groups whose isolation from the class struggle and the labour movement prevents them from testing their ideas in practice and overcoming sectarianism. This contention is simply wrong. During the “Bleak Years” of British Trotskyism, from 1950 to 1965, the small and isolated movement experienced just two splits (from Ted Grant’s Revolutionary Socialist League aka the Militant Tendency and from Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labour League respectively). During the Golden Age of British Trotskyism (1966-85) the movement grew enormously, sinking roots into the trade unions and the Labour Party and becoming a visible presence on the left. Yet the escape from isolation did not lead to fewer splits, as Høgsbjerg’s argument clearly implies, but to a meteoric rise in splits, 20 all told in the space of just 20 years (and seven of those were from the IS/SWP).

Høgsbjerg is equally unimpressed with the delineation of seven ideological families of Trotskyism in my book, preferring to rely on Alex Callinicos’s claim that the movement split in the 1940s into three broad and enduring currents: Orthodoxy, the IS tradition and the followers of Max Shachtman and others who eventually abandoned Marxism.2 If we ignore the ex-Marxists, then Høgsbjerg (and Callinicos) are claiming in effect that there are only two strands of Trotskyism, the (inspiring and creative) tradition of the IS/SWP and the dogmatic adherents of Orthodoxy. As a guide to the Trotskysist movement circa 1950, this is a reasonable approximation; as a guide to the contemporary movement, it does not even begin to do justice to the many substantial differences in perspective to be found among the variety of organisations that self-identify as Trotskyist. Some work inside the Labour Party, others do not; some are focused on the trade unions, others focus on broader social movements; some are avowedly national in orientation, others have an international focus; some contest elections, others don’t; some boast of their adherence to orthodoxy, others of their attachment to heterodoxy. To collapse all of these variations into the crude binary of IS/SWP vs Orthodoxy does no justice to the richness and variety of the Trotskyist movement.

Finally, Høgsbjerg contrasts the framework of party, sect and social movement drawn from “political science” with the “revolutionary Marxist lens” of the Trotskyist left. It is not entirely clear what this latter phrase denotes, whether a theory of revolution, of class consciousness or of the revolutionary party, to name only three possibilities. But since he ends his review with a quote from Duncan Hallas on the role of the revolutionary party, I shall focus on that issue. The Hallas quote is clear if unhelpful because the ideas it expounds could be (and have been) set down countless times in the past 80 years and many are no more than vague generalities: “face reality”, “seek to increase numbers”, “clarify what is and what is not revolutionary work”, etc. Hallas was one of the contributors to the widely quoted collection of essays on this topic, Party and Class,3 but the most detailed analysis of the party from the IS/SWP tradition is John Molyneux’s 1978 volume, Marxism and the Party (inadvertently omitted from Contemporary Trotskyism). The book discusses classical theory, from Karl Marx to Antonio Gramsci via Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky, before summarising the nine defining attributes of the revolutionary party as follows: it is a vanguard that seeks working class unity and aspires to become hegemonic. It is independent, organised internationally and is democratic centralist; it organises only workers, whom it seeks to educate in Marxism, and it is an organisation of combat.4

In what sense, if any, does this set of elements constitute a theory of the revolutionary party? Several points are merely statements of aspiration rather than being attributes of any actually existing party, eg the party as vanguard and the desire for hegemony and for class unity. Others are attributes shared to varying degrees by mainstream political parties, eg the necessity for an international organisation (most social democratic parties belong to the Socialist International) or the desire to recruit predominantly workers (also true, albeit to a lesser degree, of social democratic parties). Democratic centralism, the idea of open democratic debate leading to unity in action around an agreed position, is not quite as novel as revolutionaries seem to imagine. Centralised parties in many countries, both right and left, debate policies in annual conferences and then try to enforce adherence to the party line on their activists and elected representatives. It is true they rarely succeed; but the presence of factions in many Trotskyist groups suggests that unity of action can also elude the proponents of democratic centralism.

We are then left with only two truly distinctive features of the ­revolutionary party: its orientation to “combat” or class struggle and its educational or consciousness raising role. Yet even in Molyneux’s account these are broad generalisations that tell us little about the nature of class struggles, the forms they take and the modes of party intervention. In short, what passes for a theory of the revolutionary party in Trotskyist discourse is a broad and commonplace set of aspirations and injunctions rather than a testable set of propositions about party structures and policies.

The repetition of familiar ideas in the face of adversity and failure is doubtless consoling, particularly when coupled with the rejection of new and more critical modes of analysis of Trotskyist organisations. But, however reassuring it may be to reread the classics of the IS/SWP tradition, such as Hallas and others, and to reiterate their ideas, this mode of intellectual work falls well short of providing a serious analysis of the profound difficulties of the contemporary Trotskyist movement.

John Kelly is a Professor of Industrial Relations at Birkbeck, University of London and the author of many books and articles on trade unionism, industrial conflict and socialism. He is also a UCU local branch president.


1 Kelly, 2018, reviewed in Høgsbjerg, 2018.

2 Callinicos, 1990.

3 Cliff and others, 2017.

4 Molyneux, 1978, pp164-169.


Callinicos, Alex, 1990, Trotskyism (Open University Press).

Cliff, Tony, Duncan Hallas, Chris Harman and Leon Trotsky, 2017, Party and Class (Haymarket Books).

Kelly, John, 2018, Contemporary Trotskyism: Parties: Sects and Social Movements in Britain (Routledge).

Høgsbjerg, Christian, 2018, “Trotskyology”, International Socialism 160 (autumn),

Molyneux, John, 1978, Marxism and the Party (Pluto Press),