A review of John Kelly, Contemporary Trotskyism: Parties, Sects and Social Movements in Britain (Routledge, 2018), £29.99
Leon Trotsky, the organiser of the October 1917 insurrection and founder of the Red Army, cannot be dismissed by anyone lightly. However, amid the academic literature on social movements the role played by Trotskyists has often been a much maligned, caricatured and marginalised phenomenon—dismissed as part of the “old” left rather than the “new”. This is despite the fact that—or perhaps because—Trotskyist activists and organisations, certainly in Britain, have often had a presence, resilience and staying power greater than shorter-lived autonomist and anarchist style formations.
Indeed, it is a little puzzling that there is such a general weakness in the academic literature on social movements. Trotskyists have played a critical, leading role in many mass movements in post-war British history such as the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (1966-71), the Anti-Nazi League (1977-81), the Anti Poll Tax Federation (1989-91) and the Stop the War Coalition (2001-). There is a welcome sign, however, that this vacuum is beginning to be filled, with the recent edited collection Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956 by Evan Smith and Matthew Worley,1 and now a well-researched and generally well-informed monograph from John Kelly analysing contemporary British Trotskyism. Kelly is a sociologist and the author of an important 1988 work Trade Unions and Socialist Politics which was the subject of a debate, to which Kelly himself contributed, in the pages of International Socialism.2
However, Contemporary Trotskyism is not without its flaws, and not merely because, as a former member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, Kelly falls into occasional minor errors—for those errors are themselves arguably revealing of a more general lack of understanding. Critically, both the strengths and limitations of Kelly’s work flow from his approach and methods, which are those of an academic sociologist. He is at pains to try to understand Trotskyist groups not through a revolutionary Marxist lens but instead as “comprising elements of the political party, the doctrinal sect and the social movement”. Nonetheless, despite his weak underlying theoretical framework, Kelly has undertaken painstaking empirical research into the records and publications of various groups, archival studies of internal bulletins and papers and interviews with leading members of different Trotskyist organisations. His book is thought-provoking and in some senses provides a useful frame through which to reflect and take stock of where the revolutionary socialist movement in Britain currently stands, just over a century after the Russian Revolution of 1917. He has discussions of all manner of aspects of political activism associated with British Trotskyism, including for example its relationship to building wider social movements, levels of party recruitment, organisational resources, international affiliations, electoral performance and, last but not least, work in trade unions. His overall periodisation of the British Trotskyist movement, from formation (1932-49), the “bleak years” of 1950-65 and the “golden age” of 1966-85, through to “disintegration” (1985-2004) and “stasis” from 2004 to the present, is generally persuasive and will ring true with the experiences of activists.
From 500 or so members—mainly organised trade unionists—in the Revolutionary Communist Party in 1944, by the start of the 1950s and after a series of splits, the movement, as Kelly notes, “comprised no more than 100 people in three small groups, all working inside the Labour Party but with almost no presence or influence inside the trade union movement”. Kelly sadly does not dwell on the major theoretical crisis of the 1940s. This arose when Trotsky’s rather catastrophist prognosis and perspectives for the future, outlined in his 1938 The Transitional Programme with its talk of “the death agony of capitalism”, made it difficult for the movement to orientate towards what became the greatest economic boom in the history of capitalism after the Second World War. The continuation of the Soviet Union, and indeed expansion of the Stalinist regimes across Eastern Europe, also confounded Trotsky’s expectations about its likely ability to survive the war. The three small groups during the 1950s—the Socialist Review Group around Tony Cliff (which later became the International Socialists and then the Socialist Workers Party, associated with this journal), the Club around Gerry Healy (later the Socialist Labour League and then the Workers Revolutionary Party) and the Revolutionary Socialist League around Ted Grant (later the Militant Tendency)—grew into substantial organisations from the mid-1960s to the 1980s, as the level of class struggle rose to its height in the 1970s. “From a little over 1,500 members in 1965 the movement grew rapidly over the next 20 years, reaching almost 4,000 by the 1970s, nearly 10,000 by 1980 and peaking at over 20,000 in 1985”.3
The downturn in industrial struggle by this point—and the refusal of many Trotskyist groups to face up to this reality—led to the disintegration of, for example, the WRP (analysed by Duncan Hallas at the time4). The Militant Tendency, with its long-term “entryist” approach to the Labour Party, had benefitted from the rise of left reformism around Tony Benn in the early 1980s, as thousands of former revolutionaries, disillusioned by the collapse of the movements of the 1960s and 1970s, joined the Labour Party. Yet the Militant were not strong enough to resist Neil Kinnock’s witch-hunt against them, leading to their collapse and split in 1992, and the formation of the Socialist Party (SP) outside Labour.
The SWP, thanks to Cliff’s analysis of the Soviet Union as bureaucratic state capitalist, had better weathered the collapse of Stalinism than its competitors on the far-left, who generally saw the Soviet Union as in some sense “socialist” or a “workers’ state”. But the generally falling levels of class struggle during the 1990s meant the party was unable to sustain its membership. Accordingly, as Kelly notes, by 2004 “the entire Trotskyist movement had shrunk to 6,500 members, less than one-third of its 1985 peak”. Since 2005, amid right-wing Labour governments under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and then the economic crisis and brutal austerity pursued by the Tories since 2010, and amid various further splits and crises, Kelly notes a “limited and uneven recovery” of membership to around 9,500 or so in 2016. The generally very low level of class struggle has, however, meant ideas of “working class self-emancipation” through revolution from below still seem very abstract to most, and many radicals young and old instead look to the more “realistic” option of change through parliamentary socialism, in part explaining the return of left reformism around Jeremy Corbyn.
It is a pity in a sense that Kelly’s book did not come out a year or so earlier. Amid the rise of Corbynism since 2015, the Labour right around Tom Watson and various others in the liberal media made repeated attempts to whip up hysteria and a “red scare” around apparent “Trotsky entryists” in the Labour Party, with various purges of Labour members carried out by Blairite apparatchiks, who apparently jokingly referred to what they were doing as “Operation Icepick”. If Kelly’s book had been available at the time, it might have been possible to keep a sense of proportion about the potential influence of 9,500 Trotskyists in Britain while hundreds of thousands joined (or re-joined) the Labour Party, and not least because the two largest and most important British Trotskyist groups—the SWP and the SP—were not even trying to encourage their members to engage in “entryism”.
Kelly’s main underlying analysis is that a Trotskyist group—and essentially any Marxist group—represents “an organisational hybrid” of party, sect and movement. This argument is problematic in the sense it applies abstractions from political science—for example, the bourgeois “political party”, to attempts to build a revolutionary workers’ party for very different ends and purposes.
Kelly argues that the Trotskyist group comprises “elements of the social movement”, suggesting that “Trotskyist organisations occasionally seek to build broad coalitions of social forces around a specific issue or demand and to that extent they function as social movements”. Of course, the challenge and task for any Trotskyist group is to grow to a size where it can become not only embedded and make a difference in shaping the outcomes of the wider labour movement and class struggle, but also help to form and shape wider “social movements” such as those around fighting austerity, cuts, racism, fascism, climate change and so on.
Yet we also have a much greater task and historic mission. Without understanding the sense in which “contemporary Trotskyism” in general sees itself as standing in a longer tradition going back not only to Leon Trotsky but the whole wider tradition of classical, revolutionary Marxism associated with Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Antonio Gramsci—and even before that to pioneering revolutionary socialists such as Gracchus Babeuf, one can only wonder—as Kelly does—at why “the Trotskyist movement is remarkably resilient despite the failure to achieve its overarching objective”—revolution. Because Kelly avoids discussing the 1930s and 1940s period in any detail, he fails to understand fully the conditions in which Trotsky and his tiny band of followers fought “against the stream” to keep alive the genuine revolutionary socialist tradition amid the rise of fascism and Stalinism and so fails to understand the intellectual and political formation of those who would lead British Trotskyism in the post-war period. The likes of Cliff, Grant and Healy saw how close the genuine Marxist tradition was to being extinguished in that period. Therefore, it is not surprising they had the tenacity to emerge as leading figures during the “bleak years” of the 1950s and give younger comrades a sense of revolutionary experience and tradition. Cliff was able to console despondent comrades during the downturn in class struggle during the 1980s by saying, “if you think this is bad, you should have seen the 1930s”.
Kelly’s real detachment from understanding this essential aspect of the Trotskyist movement as part of a longer revolutionary socialist tradition is highlighted when he terms the Marxist doctrine underpinning contemporary Trotskyism as “rigid and unhelpful” and its vision of world revolution as “millenarian”. Of course one does not have to look far to find examples of tiny Trotskyist sects that are resilient, but also seemingly stuck in a 1938 time warp and hence with a dogmatic outlook on the world that is far removed from 21st century realities. However, the key issue that has to be explained is not this phenomenon as such, intriguing to some as it no doubt is, but the continuing relative resilience and resonance among a wider audience on the left of bigger groups like the SWP and SP—and this can only be done with detailed reference to their actual specific political theory and practice, which Kelly sadly does not do.
Those hoping for a narrative that might seriously build on the pioneering historical work undertaken by Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson in the 1980s on the early years of British Trotskyism5 and take the story to the present will therefore only be disappointed by Contemporary Trotskyism. Of course to undertake such a historical work may be asking too much of any individual—it took Ian Birchall a decade to work on his fine biography of just one key individual, Tony Cliff. For someone to extend that kind of work to the movement as a whole would be a labour of love that it is hard to see anyone completing anytime in the foreseeable future.6
While Kelly’s work is then scholarly and sophisticated in its own way, its framing academic sociological method and approach mean he necessarily misses much of interest and importance about the contemporary British Trotskyist movement—not only aspects of the institutional, political and organisational history but also the sense of personality, lived experience and cultural dimensions of the movement in all its richness (and, yes at times, also ridiculousness). To be fair there are glimpses of this here and there—Kelly notes how: “an invitation to an International Marxist Group cadre school in 1980 listed the usual attractions with speakers such as Tariq Ali, Robin Blackburn and Ernest Mandel, as well as movies and then continued, ‘An event not to be missed is the Saturday afternoon cricket match between Socialist Challenge and Socialist Worker’.”7
But it might have been nice for example to have included at least some passing acknowledgement of the role played by Trotskyist activists in the formation of Rock Against Racism, which Stuart Hall called “one of the timeliest and best constructed of cultural interventions, repaying serious and extended analysis” (and then its subsequent organisational form, Love Music Hate Racism).8 Or how the Redskins band, whose first single was called “Lev Bronstein” and their album titled Neither Washington Nor Moscow, helped take the revolutionary socialist politics of the SWP to a wider popular audience in the “golden age” of British Trotskyism.
Kelly rightly acknowledges many critical moments where British Trotskyist groups punched above their weight and helped make a significant difference to wider national politics, from the role played by the International Group (later better known as the International Marxist Group) in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, the Militant Tendency in the Anti Poll Tax Federation, and the SWP in the Anti-Nazi League and the Stop the War Coalition.9 As Kelly notes, “Trotskyist involvement in social movements has contributed significantly to their standing and reputation”, but “paradoxically, social movement success has rarely translated into Trotskyist organisational success and indeed it is more common to find an inverse relationship between the two: during the heyday of the ANL and the Anti Poll Tax Federation their respective creators (the SWP and the Militant Tendency) both suffered significant erosion of membership”.10
One of the many reasons Kelly suggests for this is that “the downplaying of doctrine that has proved essential for social movement success obscures the relevance of Trotskyist ideas and the perceived necessity for a Trotskyist organisation”. Joseph Choonara, in his review of Kelly’s work in Socialist Review, has discussed this issue in some detail, rightly noting that there is not such a contradiction between “social movement building” and Marxist “doctrine” as Kelly maintains: “organisations such as the ANL and, more recently, Stand Up to Racism, embody the spirit of Trotsky’s united front, creatively applied to the present”.11 However, Kelly’s more general point remains pertinent—and raises a key question about how, when Trotskyist groups take on organisational responsibilities for wider social movements, they can often fail fully to engage in political debate and argument alongside joint work, leading to “united fronts” being a route out of revolutionary politics instead of helping the growth of revolutionary organisations. In some ways British Trotskyism benefitted in the past from the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) putting party resources into running wider social movements (for example around CND or the Anti-Apartheid Movement), leaving Trotskyists freer to concentrate their resources and energies on “party-building”. Rightly, British Trotskyists have tried and often succeeded in filling the vacuum resulting from the long decline of the CPGB in the post-war period in “social movement organising”. But Kelly’s work is a timely reminder that it is not at all automatic that the revolutionary left will be the beneficiaries of such campaigning work.
Moreover, while it is often the case, as Kelly argues, that “the conditions for movement success—specific and achievable goals, the downplaying of doctrine and a broad coalition of social forces—calls into question the necessity for a fundamental challenge to capitalism”, this is not always the case. The Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, Anti Poll Tax Federation and Stop the War Coalition could be said to be limited in a sense to specific and achievable goals—such as stopping the war. But the fact that the Stop the War Coalition continues to operate points not only to its limited success in stopping imperialist interventions but also to the fact that we are in a period of permanent warfare as a result of intensifying inter-imperialist rivalries. The Anti-Nazi League played a critical role in smashing the fascist National Front, and could be described as a coalition that came together for that specific purpose. But the continued need for anti-fascist and anti-racist campaigning does raise a wider issue about a crisis-ridden system under which both racism and fascism continue to regenerate themselves.
Choonara also rightly notes the slightly problematic nature of the characterisation of what Kelly calls “the seven Trotskyist families”—“mainstream”, “third camp”, “orthodox”, “institutional”, “radical”, “workerist” and “Latin American”. Though to try and unpick and more accurately make sense of all the nuances of the different varieties of Trotskyist groupings—Kelly estimates there were some 22 “contemporary British Trotskyist organisations” in existence in 2017, and 23 “Fourth Internationals” 80 years after Trotsky founded his original in 1938—would probably be a feat beyond even the most dedicated student of Trotskyism. It also says something about the weakness of Kelly’s approach that he tries to give more or less equal attention to minuscule outfits that barely even deserve the name “sect”, and groups like the SWP and SP, as if they were somehow comparable in terms of significance. Alex Callinicos’s 1990 work Trotskyism far more usefully underlines some of the major fundamental theoretical differences which emerged in the Cold War period, and should be consulted by those who want to explore this issue further. As Callinicos noted, after Trotsky’s murder at the hands of a Stalinist agent in 1940:
The subsequent history of Trotskyism was shaped by the great crisis of the 1940s, precipitated by the refutation of Trotsky’s predictions about the Second World War and its outcome. The differing responses made to this crisis irrevocably shattered the unity of the Trotskyist movement and produced three main theoretico-political strands, radically different from one another but all deriving from Trotsky: the “orthodox Trotskyism” of the various Fourth Internationals; those revisions of orthodoxy which tended to imply a break with classical Marxism ([Max] Shachtman and [Cornelius] Castoriadis, for example); and the International Socialist tradition founded by Cliff, whose critique of orthodox Trotskyism was conceived rather as a return to classical Marxism.12
What Kelly calls the “extraordinarily fissiparous character of world Trotskyism” is undeniable. Kelly blames Trotsky himself for some of this, noting for example that in 1933 Trotsky wrote “with real enthusiasm about the benefits of a split” among his French followers in the Communist League, on the grounds that “what will be lost—partly only temporarily—will be regained a hundredfold already at the next stage”. It is of course right that sometimes organisational splits are indeed necessary—Kelly quotes Trotsky in 1931, again writing to the Communist League in France: “at times a split is a lesser evil. An organisation that is smaller but more unanimous can have enormous success with a correct policy, while an organisation which is torn by internal strife is condemned to rot”.13
Yet Kelly might have also noted that Trotsky and his followers tried to work in the Stalinised Communist International right up to the rise of the Nazis in 1933—the greatest defeat in the history of the workers’ movement—and the bankruptcy of Stalinism that this exposed. Only then did Trotsky work to rebuild a new International from scratch. As Trotsky himself wrote in 1923, while arguing for trying to remain and reform the Communist Party in the Soviet Union in the face of the rising Stalinist bureaucracy:
A Bolshevik is not merely a disciplined person; he is a person who in each case and on each question forges a firm opinion of his own and defends it courageously and independently, not only against his enemies, but inside his own party. Today, perhaps, he will be in the minority in his organisation. He will submit, because it is his party. But this does not always signify that he is in the wrong. Perhaps he saw or understood before the others did a new task or the necessity of a turn. He will persistently raise the question a second, a third, a tenth time, if need be. Thereby he will render his party a service, helping it to meet the new task fully armed or to carry out the necessary turn without organic upheavals, without fractional convulsions.14
As Charlie van Gelderen, a South African Trotskyist who had been active in Britain since the 1930s and who had attended the founding conference of the Fourth International in 1938 noted (when reflecting on the 60th anniversary of this event in 1998): “Sectarian splits have been a chronic ailment of our movement. Minorities split off on the slightest pretext to form tiny sects, impotent and without any future. How different to Trotsky who persisted in his adherence to the Third International until 1933 and the utter defeat of the German working class”.15
Kelly is unable to make sense of this characteristic tendency of Trotskyist groups towards sectarian splits, with its original roots in the legacy of Trotsky’s mistaken perspectives and the theoretical crisis it bequeathed the 1940s Trotskyist movement after his murder. Matters were not helped by Trotsky’s tactical error to launch the Fourth International in 1938, at a time when the Trotskyist movement was minuscule and facing a barrage of Stalinist slander and terror. Modelled on the Communist International—which had been a mass organisation—but without even Trotsky’s leadership after 1940, the leaders who subsequently came to take the helm of a few thousand Trotskyists aspiring to be the “world party of socialist revolution” could only suffer inevitable delusions of grandeur. Yet as Callinicos noted, there were other critical issues as well—the very small size of the movement and its general historic isolation from the mass of working class struggles meant “the inability to influence events is itself likely to encourage splits: since there is no way of settling differences in analysis or policy by practical tests, why not break away?”.
In the 21st century, the growing volatility of international politics and continuing instability of the world economy, the resurgence of a racist populist right internationally emboldened by Trump, and the historic experience of left reformist governments in office, lessons confirmed by failings of the current Syriza government in Greece, mean that the importance of renewing Marxist theory to help make sense of the contemporary world crisis, and of continuing to build mass anti-racist and anti-fascist movements alongside revolutionary socialist organisation with roots in the British working class movement cannot be understated. If revolutionaries today want to understand something of the history of British Trotskyism in order to arm themselves for the struggles ahead, the writings of Duncan Hallas—a veteran British Trotskyist in his own right—on Trotsky and Trotskyism will arguably serve as a far better guide than John Kelly’s book. One of Hallas’s 1982 essays, on “Revolutionaries and the Labour Party”, on the historic experience of entryism, repays particular re-reading today given Corbynism. His conclusion to that essay remains relevant for the period we find ourselves in today:
The task of revolutionary socialists is to face reality, to recognise things as they are, to fight very hard in support of all the struggles that do occur, to seek to increase their numbers and influence on that basis, to apply the united front approach systematically and untiringly. It is also to patiently explain, to clarify what is and what is not revolutionary work. Both these tasks require a revolutionary party, operating openly under its own banner.16
Christian Høgsbjerg teaches history at the University of Brighton and is the co-editor of Marxism, Colonialism and Cricket: C L R James’s Beyond a Boundary (Duke University Press, 2018).
1 Smith and Worley, 2014.
2 Kelly, 1988; see also Kelly, 1989.
3 Kelly, 2018, p40.
4 Hallas, 1985.
5 See Bornstein and Richardson, 1986a and b.
6 Birchall, 2011. Birchall’s own review of Kelly’s Contemporary Trotskyism appears at Review 31. Go to http://review31.co.uk/article/view/553/was-it-all-futile
7 Kelly, 2018, p84.
8 For more on Trotskyist involvement in Rock Against Racism, see Goodyer, 2009 and Huddle and Saunders, 2016.
9 Clearly this sentence simplifies and obscures the role played by the other Trotskyist groups in the respective campaigns highlighted, for example IS/SWP were involved in the VSC and also Anti Poll Tax Federation, if not in leadership positions.
10 Kelly, 2018, pp213-214.
11 Choonara, 2018.
12 Callinicos, 1990.
13 Quoted in Kelly, 2018, p30.
14 Trotsky, 1923.
15 O’Malley, 2002.
16 Hallas, 1982.