Trotskyism: a rejoinder to John Kelly

Issue: 162

Christian Høgsbjerg

I am grateful to John Kelly for taking the time to respond to some of the issues raised by my review of his history of the British Trotskyist movement, Contemporary Trotskyism.1 I will here just aim to reply briefly to his three central points. First, with respect to how the Trotskyist movement might overcome its tendency towards splits, Kelly challenges what he calls “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”. He points to the sobering fact that when the movement was growing during what he calls “the Golden Age of British Trotskyism (1966-85)”, the “escape from isolation did not lead to fewer splits…but to a meteoric rise in splits, 20 all told in the space of just 20 years”.2 Yet it is worth noting that, despite its growth to some 20,000 activists in various groups by the mid-1980s, the British Trotskyist movement had clearly still not “escaped isolation” in an important sense—the longer, older political tradition of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) still existed and, more critically, Labourism still held hegemony among the hearts and minds of the most organised workers in Britain. The Labour Party remained and (at the time of writing) remains a united mass party without suffering a serious split away to the left.

Critically, as Tony Cliff put it in 1969, just after the tumult of the international revolutionary year of 1968, “a declining interest in the traditional reformist organisations (the Labour Party, Communist Party, trade unions, etc), did not mean the overcoming of reformist ideology” in the wider working class. “The old forest of reformism is withering away. The trees are without leaves, the trunks are dying. But in society old ideas are not wiped away unless they are replaced by new ones, and the shoots of revolution are very small indeed in the British labour movement”.3 So, while Trotskyists could now engage in the upturn in class struggle during the early 1970s in a more meaningful manner, launching rank-and-file papers and so on, tragically, they remained too small to be able critically to influence, for example, the outcome of the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-5. Revolutionary groups such as the Socialist Workers Party would have had to have been considerably bigger and with deeper roots among miners and the wider movement to have been able to overcome the conservative weight of the trade union bureaucracy and the Labour Party leadership on the one hand, or to match the CPGB’s influence on Arthur Scargill on the other. However, when the Trotskyist movement was growing, and the wider class struggle was advancing, it is worth recalling that there were not just splits taking place. The “Golden Age” also allowed at least for discussions of the possibilities and potentialities for “unification” or “regroupment” on the revolutionary left. Though in the event most of these came to little, the fact remains that, as Kelly himself records in his book, such talks took place. For example: “Unity talks [between the International Marxist Group and] the International Socialists began in 1968 but broke down after several years of discussion…fresh overtures to the SWP ended acrimoniously in 1979”.4

Secondly, Kelly makes much of the “richness” and “variety” of British orthodox Trotskyism, noting that some orthodox Trotskyists in Britain “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”.5 It should not really surprise anyone that long-standing orthodox Trotskyist groups develop their own distinctive theoretical traditions and traits over time—often emphasising particular aspects of Trotsky’s thought and practice and downplaying others in a generally dogmatic fashion. It is certainly a legitimate matter worth registering and discussing in any history of Trotskyism. But to try and elevate what are often primarily tactical concerns for British Trotskyist groups—such as whether to try and “enter” the Labour Party after Jeremy Corbyn became leader or not—into big theoretical questions and even talk of the “seven ideological families of Trotskyism”, as Kelly does, is unconvincing both in the general and in its particularities.6

Thirdly and finally, Kelly raises the question of theory, and after a brief mention of John Molyneux’s fine 1978 work Marxism and the Party argues that “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”.7 It is certainly a novel and quite refreshing criticism to argue that one of the main problems of the contemporary Trotskyist movement is that it doesn’t spend enough time theorising the question of the revolutionary party—Trotskyists traditionally get caricatured by others on the left for spending far too much time on these sorts of questions. Of course, the point about a revolutionary party is that its structures and policies are precisely there to be tried and tested in practice, and developed and honed over time, particularly once a revolutionary organisation has established organic roots within the wider working class movement—just as Lenin built the Bolshevik Party. I may be accused of seeking the “consolation of familiar ideas” in urging comrades to read or re-read works like the first volume of Cliff’s biography of Lenin, Building the Party. But Cliff’s work gives the lie to the idea that there is just one “testable set of propositions about party structures and policies” that can be compiled and deemed “the Leninist Party” and then taught by rote.8 As Cliff put it: “Organisation must always be historically determined (not drawn from some ‘general theory’), and changed to fit major changes in the class struggle…Lenin’s contribution to showing how a revolutionary party should work is contained in the history of his activity, not in some abstract theory”.9

Building a revolutionary party in this sense then is as much a creative work of art as it is a science—and, in part because it recognises this, revolutionary Marxism remains far superior to allegedly “new and more critical modes of analysis” deriving from bourgeois political science for theorising what Kelly calls “the profound difficulties of the contemporary Trotskyist movement” and working out a way forward. After all, to end with a quote from Lenin, people do not become revolutionaries because they think life is necessarily always going to be easy and straightforward.

Historical action is not the pavement of Nevsky Prospekt, said the great Russian revolutionary Chernyshevsky. A revolutionary would not “agree” to a proletarian revolution only “on the condition” that it proceeds easily and smoothly, that there is, from the outset, combined action on the part of the proletarians of different countries, that there are guarantees against defeats, that the road of the revolution is broad, free and straight, that it will not be necessary during the march to victory to sustain the heaviest casualties, to “bide one’s time in a besieged fortress”, or to make one’s way along extremely narrow, impassable, winding and dangerous mountain tracks. Such a person is no revolutionary, he has not freed himself from the pedantry of the bourgeois intellectuals.10

Christian Høgsbjerg teaches history at the University of Brighton and is the co-editor of The Red and the Black: The Russian Revolution and the Black Atlantic (Manchester University Press, forthcoming).


1 Kelly, 2019, responding to Høgsbjerg, 2018.

2 Kelly, 2019, p188.

3 Cliff, 1969.

4 Kelly, 2018, pp84-85.

5 Kelly, 2019, p188.

6 According to Kelly’s schema, the Socialist Party would fall into the camp of “Institutional Trotskyism”, marked by “a commitment to working within the Labour Party and parliament”, yet the SP are currently outside the Labour Party—and indeed, were not so long ago arguing that, with the rise of Blairism, such a phenomenon as Corbynism was theoretically impossible as the Labour Party was now a bourgeois, capitalist party and what instead was needed was “a new workers’ party”. Conversely, a tiny grouplet that Kelly labels the “Radical Trotskyist” Workers’ Power group, committed to “the necessity for a revolutionary [Fifth] International organisation” have entered the Labour Party—Kelly, 2018, pp90-92.

7 Kelly, 2019, pp189-190. It is perhaps a legacy of Kelly’s own time spent in the CPGB that for him “a theory of the revolutionary party” involves—in a slightly bureaucratic manner—taking “party structures and policies” as its starting point rather than the broader questions such as the uneven consciousness of the working class under capitalism, the centralised nature of the capitalist state, the historic lessons to be learned from the experience of reformist social democratic parties in office and so on.

8 Cliff, 1975.

9 Cliff, 1973.

10 Lenin, 1918.


Cliff, Tony, 1969, “On Perspectives”, International Socialism 36 (first series, April-May),

Cliff, Tony, 1973, “Lenin and the Revolutionary Party”, International Socialism 58 (first series, May),

Cliff, Tony, 1975, Lenin, volume 1: Building the Party (1893-1914) (Pluto Press),

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

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

Kelly, John, 2019, “The Consolation of Familiar Ideas: a Reply to Christian Høgsbjerg”, International Socialism 161 (winter),

Lenin, V I, 1918, “Letter to American Workers”, in Collected Works, volume 28 (Progress),