Trotsky on the Labour Party

Issue: 153

Tony Phillips

“In passing across a narrow and unreliable bridge, a small but reliable prop may prove one’s salvation. But woe to him who clutches at a rotten prop that crumbles at a touch—for, in that case, a plunge into the abyss is inevitable”—Leon Trotsky, 1927.

The surge in support for Jeremy Corbyn, his election and then re-election as leader of the Labour Party is unprecedented in the history of the party.2 Never before has the Labour left been in such a strong position, enjoying the support not only of the mass of the membership but also of the leaders of most of the trade unions. But a situation of dual power has arisen with most of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) continuing openly to oppose their democratically elected leader, despite his overwhelming mandate. Just 18 months ago it appeared that the Labour Party was firmly under the control of the neoliberal heirs of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Suddenly it has taken a dramatic left turn. This unprecedented situation raises major questions for revolutionary socialists. Does it change our previous analysis of the party? What does it mean for the fight against austerity? And how do we relate to the hundreds of thousands of Corbynistas flooding into the party?

A good place to start in answering these questions is the writings of Leon Trotsky. As part of the collective leadership of the Communist International, the world organisation of revolutionary socialist parties in the years after the Russian Revolution, Trotsky played a leading role in the debates on how the newly formed Communist Parties should relate to mass reformist parties in the advanced capitalist countries. In the run up to the General Strike of 1926 he produced Where is Britain Going? his classic analysis of the crisis of British capitalism, the labour movement and the prospects for socialist revolution. From the late 1920s until the end of his life, he challenged the disastrous Stalinist leadership of the world’s Communist parties and guided his supporters—organised in the Left Opposition and later the Fourth International—in laying the basis for a revolutionary Marxist opposition to Stalinism around the world, including in Britain. Then as now the attitude of revolutionaries to the Labour Party, which commanded the loyalty of the vast majority of class conscious workers in this country, was crucial.

This article looks at Trotsky’s views on the roots of reformism in Britain, the nature of the Labour Party, the ideas of its leaders, both right and left, and revolutionary strategy and tactics in relation to the party. In conclusion, it considers briefly the understanding of reformism developed by writers in the International Socialist tradition (in which this journal stands) where it differs from Trotsky’s. Finally it looks at the relevance of Trotsky’s analysis for revolutionary socialists in Britain today.

Labour and British imperialism

Trotsky’s starting point was the position of British imperialism in the wider world and how that impacted on the British working class and its leadership. He pointed out that Britain was the oldest capitalist state in the world (with the possible exception of the Dutch Republic) led by the richest, most experienced and cunning ruling class. Unlike in France, where the later bourgeois revolution had completely smashed and swept away the institutions of feudalism, in Britain the monarchy and the House of Lords had survived into the 20th century, but had been subordinated to capitalism and adapted to the purposes of the bourgeoisie. Following Lenin’s Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism,3 Trotsky argued that the ruling class had used the super-profits from its vast empire to buy off a narrow upper layer of the working class, dominating it ideologically through religion and the empirical philosophy of the radical bourgeoisie and politically through parliament and Britain’s conservative version of bourgeois democracy generally. Lenin called this layer the labour aristocracy. Trotsky believed that this explained the conservative worldview of the trade union leaders and the leaders of the party they had founded. For Trotsky “the strength of the British bourgeoisie lay in its maturity, its wealth, its world power, the crumbs which it shared with the upper strata of the working class, thereby demoralising also the weakened masses”.4

However, as Trotsky pointed out, by the early 1920s British imperialism was in decline. It had temporarily come out on top in its fight with Germany for control of the territory and resources of the world in the First World War and had even added to its colonial possessions through the sharing out of the defeated Ottoman Empire’s Middle Eastern territories with France. But the United States had overtaken it as the most advanced economic power and was now challenging it militarily through its growing naval strength as well. Britain had entered the war as a creditor nation but had ended it in debt to America with the dollar replacing sterling as world capitalism’s reserve currency. Britain had lost many of its overseas markets through the shift of the economy during the war to munitions production and Germany’s U-boat campaign against merchant shipping.

This was the background to the increasing attacks on the working class after the war and the explosion of militancy that followed it. Trotsky argued that the crisis of British capitalism threatened to undermine the material roots of the Labour Party and trade union leaders in that the ruling class was no longer able to buy off resistance with minor concessions as it had done throughout the 19th century. The rising militancy of the working class contained the potential for the leadership of the Labour Party and trade union leaders to be thrown off and replaced by a mass communist party:

It became clear during the final quarter of the last century that Britain was being elbowed out of her position of world domination: and by the beginning of the present century this had produced an internal uncertainty and ferment amongst the upper classes and a deep molecular process of essentially revolutionary character in the working class.5

In Where is Britain Going? Trotsky argued that the revolutionary potential of the working class had been clearly shown by a huge strike wave in the years immediately before the war, the Great Unrest. This unprecedented wave of class struggle had been brought to a halt by the outbreak of war in August 1914, only to spring up again in the last two years of the war culminating in the upsurge of 1919 when Britain appeared to be on the brink of revolution.6

What sort of party is the Labour Party?

For revolutionaries of Trotsky’s generation, the Labour Party was a new and unusual phenomenon. Unlike other mass reformist parties of the world, which had been mostly set up by socialists, the Labour Party had been established by the trade unions in 1900 as the Labour Representation Committee to defend the interests of the trade union bureaucracy in parliament. In its early years it had tailed the bourgeois Liberal Party. Unlike the German SPD or the French SFIO, it did not adopt any socialist policies until 1918 when it agreed the famous Clause 4 of the party constitution committing it to “common ownership of the means of production”.7 Trotsky argued that the LRC was not really a party at all but more of a federation consisting of the unions, the Parliamentary Labour Party and affiliated parties and societies, most importantly the Independent Labour Party (ILP), which provided most of the Labour Party’s early leaders, but also the nominally Marxist British Socialist Party and the Fabian Society, a middle class ginger group. As Trotsky put it in 1906, “the Labour Representation Committee…can in no instance lay claim to the role of the central committee of a workers’ party. It is a special organ, promoted for the most part by the trade unions with the object of independent labour representation in Parliament”.8

In 1918, as well as adopting Clause 4, the party turned itself into a mass membership organisation for the first time, establishing constituency Labour parties which the leadership hoped would marginalise the increasingly militant membership of the trade unions and the pacifist ILP. Speaking on behalf of the leadership of the Comintern at its second congress in 1920, Lenin rejected the idea put forward by a British delegate that the Labour Party was simply a party of the trade unions:

The concepts “political department of the trade unions” or “political expression” of the trade unions are erroneous. Of course most of the Labour Party’s members are working men. However, whether or not a party is really a political party of the workers does not depend solely upon a membership of workers but also upon the men that lead it, and the content of its actions and its political tactics. Only this latter determines whether we really have before us a political party of the proletariat. Regarded from this, the only correct point of view, the Labour Party is a thoroughly bourgeois party because, although made up of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that, who act quite in the spirit of the bourgeoisie.9

Lenin captured the highly contradictory nature of the party in that, despite the fact that its members and those who voted for it were overwhelmingly working class, its leadership was committed to the interests of British imperialism and maintaining the capitalist system. Trotsky went on to build on this analysis in the stormy years leading up to the General Strike. This period saw Labour win mass working class support, replacing the declining Liberal Party as the main opposition to the Tories, entering government for the first time in 1924 and beginning to entrench itself in local government.

For Trotsky the Labour MPs who led the new party and the trade union leaders were very closely linked:

The Labour Party which in Britain, the classic country of trade unions, is only a political transposition of the same Labour bureaucracy. The same leaders guide the trade unions, betray the General Strike, lead the electoral campaign and later on sit in the ministries. The Labour Party and the trade unions—these are not two principles, they are only a technical division of labour. Together they are the fundamental support of the domination of the British bourgeoisie.10

Trotsky believed that both the Labour Party and the trade union leaders were rooted in the labour aristocracy meaning that they had a material interest in supporting British capitalism through the receipt of crumbs from its table. He argued that:

The leaders of the Labour Party represent essentially the bourgeoisie’s political agents. For the fact is that there are periods when the bourgeoisie rules through agents like Curzon (who was the British Viceroy of India) but there are also moments when it is compelled to move to the left and govern the masses through [Labour Party leaders Ramsay MacDonald, Arthur Henderson] and others.11

However, reflecting the other side of the contradictory nature of the party as identified by Lenin, Trotsky argued that: “there is no other country in the world where the class nature of socialism has been so objectively, plainly, incontestably and empirically revealed by history as in Britain, for there the Labour Party has grown out of the parliamentary representation of the trade unions, ie the purely class organisations of wage labour”.12

Trotsky believed that the fact that the Labour Party was supported by a political levy paid by millions of workers through their trade unions was of enormous significance. In Where is Britain Going? he argued that “in the compulsory, anti-Liberal, ‘despotic’ collection of the political levies there is contained, like the future stem and ear in a grain of wheat, all those methods of Bolshevism against which MacDonald never tires of sprinkling the holy water of his own indignant narrow-mindedness”.13

The Labour Party leadership and the trade union bureaucracy were fighting a desperate battle against the rising class consciousness of the workers. Labour had played no role in the Great Unrest while the union leaders had been temporarily swept aside. The leaders of those struggles were syndicalists who rejected what they called political action (ie standing for parliament) partly in reaction to the passivity of the early Labour MPs. Trotsky argued that the foundation and growth of Labour into a mass party was at once a sign of the growing power and consciousness of the working class and at the same time a product of its conservatism. On the positive side, he argued that “a special Labour Party arose as an invaluable historical conquest which nothing can now take away”.14 However, he argued, the conservative nature of the party was a reflection of the consciousness of the broader working class, not just the labour aristocracy. The working class had become disillusioned with the Liberal Party and transferred its loyalty to Labour but without losing all of its illusions in Parliament and the possibility of winning real reforms in a period of declining British imperialism.15

Labour’s replacement of the Liberals as the main opposition to the Tories was a product of the slaughter of the trenches, growing worker militancy and the impact of the Russian Revolution, but it was also a product of the subsequent defeats. The election of the 1924 Labour government followed Black Friday in April 1921, when the rail and transport unions’ leaders abandoned the miners, and the employers’ lock-out of the engineering unions the following year. These defeats of the most militant sections of the class brought the post-war upsurge to a close. The election of the second Labour government of 1929 followed the General Strike, still the worst single defeat in British working class history. As Trotsky put it, “Paralysed in the sphere of economic action, the energy of the masses was directed onto the political plane. The Labour Party grew out of the earth itself”.16

The election of the first Labour government inspired an increase in militancy with an unofficial docks strike and a strike on the London buses and trams. The government opposed both strikes and made secret preparations for a scabbing organisation that would later be used by the Tories during the General Strike. Trotsky referred to the “deeply compromising character of the first Labour government”.17 He regarded the Labour Party leaders as equally complicit with the TUC in the betrayal of the General Strike: “In calling off the great strike, the leading politicians and trade unionists went hand in hand”.18

The ideology of Labour

Trotsky devoted much of Where is Britain Going? to an examination of the ideology of the Labour Party leadership and its roots in British history and capitalist society. He argued that the prevailing ideas of the ruling class were refracted through the ideas of the Labour Party and trade union leaders: “the outlook of the leaders of the Labour Party is a sort amalgam of Conservatism and Liberalism partly adapted to the requirements of the trade unions, or rather their top layers”.19 There was no doubt, as Trotsky noted, that the crisis of the Liberal Party in the early 1920s brought in an influx of Liberal intellectuals to the Labour Party, most of whom had not significantly changed their ideas, but the conservatism of the leadership had much deeper roots. While the leaders of the mass reformist parties of Germany, France and other countries at least paid lip service to Marxism, the ideas of the Labour Party’s leaders owed more to the British bourgeois radicals of the 18th and 19th centuries. MacDonald and even leaders of the Labour left such as George Lansbury based what Trotsky sneeringly described as their “numbskulled conservatism”20 on non-conformist Protestantism. They shared the arrogant and insular disdain of the bourgeoisie for “foreign” ideas such as Marxism, worshipping parliament and the monarchy.

Trotsky devoted much of the second chapter of the book to a withering critique of MacDonald’s political philosophy. MacDonald advocated what he called “social solidarity”, ie a denial of the conflicting interest between workers and capitalists and the class struggle, and argued for class collaboration. He was a pacifist who had verbally opposed but not actually fought against Britain’s involvement in the First World War. But his pacifism was one-sided, excluding workers fighting back against the bosses even in self-defence. As Trotsky pointed out: “the social solidarity that MacDonald preaches is the solidarity of the exploited with the exploiters, that is, the maintenance of exploitation”.21 MacDonald’s ideas were about channelling the anger of workers through the capitalist system rather than challenging it, let alone overthrowing it. Trotsky ridiculed MacDonald’s Christian socialism: “Our sage is an evolutionist, that is to say he believes that everything is changing and with God’s help is changing for the better. MacDonald does not believe in leaps except for one that happened 1,925 years ago!”22 Trotsky concluded that:

MacDonald lacks class consciousness, while [the fact that] the leaders of the bourgeoisie have such consciousness is absolutely beyond doubt and it means that at present the British Labour Party is walking without a head on its shoulders while the bourgeoisie does have such a head—with a very thick skull and an equally solid neck at that.23

Trotsky argued that the backward nature of the Labour Party leadership’s ideas was rooted in the early development of British capitalism. The insularity and arrogance of Labour Party leaders in relation to foreign labour movements were related to the fact that the British bourgeoisie was the first capitalist ruling class. It had no precedents to look to which forced it to develop its own methods and ideology and led it to look down on other later rising bourgeoisies, feeling that it had nothing to learn from them. This was the root of the empiricist outlook inherited by Labour Party leaders and its adherence to the ideas of the 18th and 19th century radical bourgeoisie, rather than Marxism, Trotsky believed.

Trotsky noted that the middle class gradualist ideas of the Fabian Society had an influence in the party leadership, including the slightly more left wing ILP, out of all proportion to its numbers. He argued that this was an expression of bourgeois pressure on the workers’ movement. Like the rest of the leadership’s ideas, Fabian gradualism was a hangover from the past. “The vulgarly optimistic Victorian epoch when it seemed that tomorrow would be a little bit better than today and the day after that a bit better than tomorrow has found its most finished expression in the Webbs, Snowden, MacDonald and the other Fabians”.24 In their 1923 book The Decay of Capitalist Civilisation leading Fabians Sidney and Beatrice Webb argued that the capitalist system must be changed but it “may be by considerate adaption made to pass gradually and peacefully into a new form”.25 Sidney Webb believed in what he called “the inevitability of gradualness”.

The demolition of this view was a central argument in Where is Britain Going? Trotsky argued that the development of capitalism in Britain had been far from gradual. The ruling class denied its own origins in the English Revolution of the 17th century to deny the possibility of workers’ revolution in the 20th century. Trotsky devoted a whole chapter of his book to England’s bourgeois revolution, highlighting Oliver Cromwell’s resort to armed struggle to overthrow the feudal aristocracy, culminating in the execution of the king and the installation of a dictatorship of the radical wing of the bourgeoisie to safeguard the gains of the revolution through the Rump Parliament backed up by the New Model Army.

Trotsky also drew attention to the Chartists, the first revolutionary workers’ movement in world history, and its dominant physical force wing. Even the political reforms of the 19th century had been driven by revolutions in Europe and America and fear of them spreading to Britain. As recently as 1920 the Liberal-Tory coalition government had introduced insurance for the unemployed “to forestall a revolution”.26 Having explained the conservatism of the labour movement, Trotsky argued that this was not a permanent state of affairs and believed that given the growing crisis of British capitalism and attacks on the working class, revolutionary consciousness would deepen and broaden:

To be sure, there exists a prejudice that the British working class supposedly lacks a revolutionary temperament. There is a subjectively nationalistic theory that the history of a nation is to be explained by national temperament. This is rubbish… Whoever knows the history of the British people and the British working class…will know that the Englishman has a devil inside him.27

This had been shown very recently in both the Great Unrest and the struggles of 1917-21.

Trotsky on the Labour left

In the run up to the General Strike there was a shift to the left in both the ILP and the trade union leadership. The so-called Red Clydesiders, ILP MPs such as John Wheatley, James Maxton and Davie Kirkwood were increasingly influential. The editor of the ILP paper New Leader, H N Brailsford, even wrote the introduction to the English edition of Where is Britain Going? to Trotsky’s chagrin. But Trotsky was as scathing about the Labour left as he was about the right, arguing that it shared all its reformist illusions. Its policies were rhetorically more radical, but its means of achieving them were the same. He predicted that “those who will in all probability form the first substitutes [for MacDonald, etc], people of the ilk of Lansbury, Wheatley and Kirkwood, will inevitably reveal that they are just a left variant of the same basic Fabian type. Their radicalism is constrained by democracy and religion and poisoned by the national arrogance that ties them spiritually to the British bourgeoisie”.28 He did not believe that the left offered any real alternative to the right, arguing that “the left muddleheads are incapable of power; but if through the turn of events it fell into their hands they would hasten to pass it over to their elder brothers on the right. They would do the same with the state as they are doing now in the party”.29

Trotsky questioned whether the left could ever really take control of the party, arguing that:

The extreme rights continue to control the party. This can be explained by the fact that a party cannot confine itself to isolated left campaigns but is compelled to have an overall system of policy. The lefts have no such system, nor by their very essence can they. But the rights do: with them stands tradition, experience and routine and, most important, with them stands bourgeois society as a whole which slips them ready-made solutions.30

He believed that “the weakness of the lefts arises from their disorder and their disorder from their ideological formlessness. In order to marshal their ranks, the lefts have first of all to rally their ideas”.31 He pointed out that George Lansbury, one of the key leaders of the Labour left, shared the pacifism of MacDonald. He may have been more sincere in this than the hypocritical MacDonald, and had led the successful struggle of Poplar Council, winning real gains for workers by using the Town Hall as a rallying point for mass action, but his pacifism meant in practice admitting defeat in advance. Trotsky argued that “to renounce liberating force amounts to supporting the oppressor’s force which today governs the world”.32

Trotsky believed that in certain circumstances the Labour left was actually more dangerous than the out and out imperialists such as MacDonald and Thomas in that they misled the workers, providing left cover for the right only to betray the workers equally badly when the crunch came. He argued that in reality the left challenged the system no more than the right and in fact propped it up: “The ‘left’ criticises the government within such limits as do not interfere with its role as exploiter and robber. The ‘left’ gives expression to the dissatisfaction of the masses within these limits so as to restrain them from revolutionary action”.33 He continued that “the ‘left’…is the useful, appropriate, necessary, succouring ballast without which the ship of British imperialism would long ago have gone down”.34 Despite being the minister responsible for local government in the 1924 Labour administration, Wheatley did nothing to help Poplar Council in its struggle to redistribute income from the rates35 from the rich Tory controlled boroughs to the impoverished working class areas. The left did not prevent the right working with the TUC leaders to sell out the General Strike.

Reform or revolution?

Trotsky went on to point out the limits of democracy in Britain, despite the illusions of the Labour Party leaders both left and right. Workers in Britain had only won the right to strike and the vote through struggle. Britain in 1925 was not a democracy even in the formal sense. Trotsky pointed out that women under 30 and men under 21 were still denied the right to vote. Parliamentary constituencies were rigged so that one Tory vote was worth two Labour votes. This was not to mention the survival of the monarchy and the House of Lords. Even if Britain itself had been perfectly democratic, it continued to rule over millions of subjects in colonies such as India who had no democratic rights and who were shot down when they tried to fight for them.

Trotsky believed that serious change in Britain, as in every other capitalist country, would only be won through mass struggle and ultimately revolution: “We have shown above that the present British Parliament forms a monstrous distortion of the principles of bourgeois democracy and that without adopting revolutionary force one can hardly obtain in Britain even an honest division of parliamentary constituencies or the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords”.36 It was only 11 years since the Tories in alliance with the Orange capitalists of Ulster and the army high command had threatened the then Liberal government with civil war if it agreed to Home Rule for Ireland, he reminded his readers. There was every reason to expect a similar reaction if a Labour government attempted reforms that threatened the interests of the capitalist class: “the Conservatives…would do everything in their power to sabotage all the measures of the Labour government by means of the Civil Service, the judiciary, the military, the House of Lords and the courts”.37

A Labour government that was serious about fighting for its supporters’ interests would be forced to challenge the institutions of the capitalist state and big business and could expect a huge response from the workers:

A workers’ government created by parliamentary means would be forced to construct new revolutionary organs for itself, resting on the trade unions and working class organisations in general. This would lead to an exceptional growth in the activity and initiative of the working masses. On the basis of a direct struggle against the exploiting classes the trade unions would actively draw closer together not only in their top layers but at the bottom levels as well, and would arrive at the necessity of creating local delegate meetings ie councils (soviets) of workers’ deputies. A truly Labour government, that is to say, a government dedicated to the end to the interests of the proletariat would find itself in this way compelled to smash the old state apparatus as the instrument of the possessing classes and oppose it with workers’ councils.38

Trotsky understood that workers’ mass self-activity could not be turned on like a tap—it needed political preparation:

but heroic promises to put up lightning resistance in the event the Conservatives should “dare” and so forth are not worth a rotten egg. One cannot lull the masses day in and day out with claptrap about a peaceful, painless transition to socialism and then at the first solid punch on the nose summon the masses to an armed response. This is the surest way of assisting reaction in the rout of the proletariat. To prove equal to a revolutionary repulse, the masses must be ideologically, organisationally and materially prepared for it. They must understand the inevitability of a sharpening of the class struggle and its turning at a certain stage into a civil war. The political education of the working class and the selection of its leading personnel must be adjusted to such a perspective. The illusions of compromise must be fought day in and day out, that is to say, war to the death must be declared against MacDonaldism.39

Revolutionaries and the Labour Party

Helping to build a revolutionary party that could challenge the grip of the Labour Party leaders and trade union bureaucrats and lead the working class to power was the purpose of all Trotsky’s writings on Britain. As he put it in Lessons of October, published in 1924:

Without a party, apart from a party, over the head of a party, or with a substitute for a party, the proletarian revolution cannot conquer. That is the principal lesson of the past decade. It is true that the English trade unions may become a mighty lever of the proletarian revolution; they may, for instance, even take the place of workers’ soviets under certain conditions and for a certain period of time. They can fill, however, such a role, not apart from a Communist party, and certainly not against the party, but only on the condition that communist influence becomes the decisive influence in the trade unions. We have paid far too dearly for this conclusion—with regard to the role and importance of a party in a proletarian revolution—to renounce it so lightly or even to minimise its significance.40

The first three decades of the 20th century had seen a dramatic radicalisation of the working class and repeated demonstrations of its power and militancy. The trade unions and the Labour Party had grown in strength, but as Trotsky pointed out, this was both a help and a hindrance in the struggle for socialism. The Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) was founded in 1920 and did not really get off the ground until the following year. It faced a huge challenge in building mass influence, let alone leading the British revolution. The second congress of the Communist International in 1920 not only debated the nature of the Labour Party, but the relationship of the new Communist Party to it. Lenin pointed out that the British Socialist Party (BSP), the biggest component of the CPGB, was affiliated to the Labour Party and was able to publish its own publications and freely criticise the leadership. He argued therefore that the CPGB should also affiliate:

We must say openly that the Communist Party can be affiliated to the Labour Party if it is free to criticise and to conduct its own policies… In the case of the Labour Party it is a question of the advanced minority with the great majority of British workers. All trade union members participate in the Labour Party. It is a very unusual formation of a kind that is not found in any other country… The BSP can openly say that Henderson is a traitor and still remain in the Labour Party… This is so important for the whole movement that we absolutely insist that the British communists must form a link between the Party, that is the minority of the working class, and the remaining mass of the workers.41

The CPGB duly applied to affiliate but was repeatedly turned down. In its early years Trotsky also argued that British Communists should enter the Labour Party and fight to stay in it. He wrote in Where is Britain Going? that the CPGB could replace the ILP as the leading political force in the Labour Party. But such hopes were dashed by the anti-Communist witch-hunt that followed the General Strike which saw the final expulsion of Communists from even individual membership of local Labour Parties and the disaffiliation of those local parties that resisted.42

By this time Trotsky was in growing conflict with the Stalinist faction which was increasing in power in Russia and the Communist International. For the first time the policies of Communist parties internationally were being deliberately subordinated to the interests of the bureaucrats in the Kremlin rather than the interests of world revolution. This first became apparent in Comintern policy in Britain and China which were connected in that the Kremlin feared war with Britain over its intervention in China—where revolution was raging between 1925 and 1927. At the time Russian trade unions and the TUC were allied in a body known as the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Unity Committee (ARTUUC) which the Stalinists hoped would help prevent Britain attacking Russia.

Comintern president Grigori Zinoviev had told its fifth congress in 1924:

In England, we are going through the beginning of a new chapter in the labour movement. We do not know whither the Communist Mass Party of England will come, whether only through the Stewart-McManus door [the CPGB] —or through some other door. And it is entirely possible, comrades, that the Communist Mass Party may still appear through another door—we cannot lose sight of this fact.43

For Trotsky, it was clear that Zinoviev’s “other door” was the TUC or the Labour Party. This revealed dangerous illusions in the left rhetoric of the Labour and trade union leaders at the time and a search for a shortcut to building a mass Communist party. The Comintern instructed the CPGB not to criticise its newfound allies in the TUC or to warn of the possibility of a sell-out of the miners so as not to jeopardise the ARTUUC. This was a disaster, particularly in the run up to and aftermath of the General Strike, as was the Kremlin’s refusal to break with the ARTUUC after the sell-out. It prevented the CPGB from becoming the alternative leadership among the most angry workers when the TUC called the strike off. Comintern leader Nikolai Bukharin wanted to “leap over” the CPGB, but for Trotsky there was no substitute for the struggle to build an independent revolutionary party, no matter how difficult that was in the short term.

In 1927 Trotsky was expelled from the Comintern and then exiled from the Soviet Union. For the rest of his life he saw fighting the counter-revolutionary influence of Stalinism in the international labour movement and passing on the experience of the Bolsheviks to a new generation of revolutionaries as his most important work.

Trotsky did not mince his words when analysing and criticising reformism. However, he was not a sectarian. He proceeded from the overall interests of the working class, strongly advocating that revolutionaries should work alongside reformist leaders and their followers while relentlessly criticising them. Some of Trotsky’s greatest writings are contained in four pamphlets published by his followers in Germany between 1930 and 1932 in which he urged the Communist Party to form a united front with the mass reformist SPD against Hitler who posed a mortal threat to the whole working class.44

Trotsky argued that the united front tactic could not only unite the class against its enemies, but enable revolutionaries to undermine the influence of the big reformist parties and win a mass audience. Revolutionary socialist parties should propose agreement on launching common struggles to the leaders of reformist parties and trade unions around key issues affecting all workers. The one proviso was that the revolutionaries should maintain their political independence and freedom to criticise. The broad unity hopefully achieved would boost workers’ confidence to fight, and through the common experience of struggle revolutionaries would gain the opportunity to prove the superiority of their politics in practice. As the theses of the third congress of the Comintern on the united front had stated, “workers awakened to activity long to achieve unification of all workers’ parties and even of the workers’ organisations as a whole hoping in this way to increase their capacity of resistance to capitalism.” The theses continued: “The Communist vanguard can only win if new layers of workers become convinced through their own experience that reformism is an illusion and that compromise in policy is fatal”.45

Trotsky argued:

The struggle for the united front has such importance in Britain precisely because it answers the elementary requirements of the working class in the new orientation and grouping of forces. The struggle for the united front will pose the problem of leadership, that is of programme and tactics and this means the party. Yet the struggle for the united front will not itself solve this task but will merely create the conditions for its solution. The ideological and organisational formation of a genuinely revolutionary, that is of a communist, party on the basis of the movement of the masses is conceivable only under the condition of a perpetual, systematic, inflexible, untiring and irreconcilable unmasking of the quasi-left leaders of every hue, of their confusion, of their compromises and of their reticence.46

In the 1930s Trotsky advised his British supporters that “the Labour Party should have been critically supported…because it represented the working class masses”.47 He told them that they should say to Labour supporters: “The Labour Party will deceive you and betray you, but you do not believe us. Very well, we will go through your experiences with you but in no case do we identify ourselves with the Labour Party programme”.48

Throughout the last decade of his life Trotsky struggled for ways in which his embattled and tiny band of supporters around the world could break out of their isolation from the working class movement. One of the ways in which he argued that they could do this was through the tactic of so-called entryism. Trotskyists would openly enter leftward moving centrist groups such as the ILP in Britain, which in 1931 had severed its ties with the Labour Party. In the case of the ILP Trotsky believed that his supporters could win real influence in what was by then a small organisation.49

For most of the time the more modest aim for Trotskyists was to find an audience for revolutionary politics and recruit to their ranks. Only in the case of the French SFIO was the entryist tactic attempted with a mass reformist organisation, albeit with limited success. Trotsky’s argument for this was that French society in 1934 was experiencing a period of rapid mass radicalisation due to the threat of fascism, including the growth of the left inside the SFIO. Trotsky did, however, suggest that his British followers should join the Labour League of Youth, the Labour Party’s youth wing, as a way of making contact with young workers.50 For Trotsky entryism was never a principle but a short-term tactic which should only be undertaken when it was possible for revolutionaries to be open about their politics, organise openly and publish their own papers. The ultimate aim was always to build an independent mass revolutionary party.51

The relevance of Trotsky’s analysis today

Trotsky’s writings are a rich source of insight for us today. His portrait of the Labour leadership has strong echoes with recent times—the pomposity and sanctimoniousness of Tony Blair and his Catholicism, his propping up of the monarchy following the death of Princess Diana and his worship of imperialist aggression are strongly reminiscent of Trotsky’s portraits of MacDonald, Thomas and co. The grovelling of successive Labour Party leaders to Rupert Murdoch and their twaddle about “British values” echo the class collaboration and nationalism of Labour leaders of the 1920s. Just as Labour chancellors in 1924 and 1931 slavishly accepted the need to balance the books, the vast majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party of today accepts the neoliberal orthodoxy of the ruling class lock, stock and barrel. Regrettably we were reminded recently that the Fabians too are still with us by Stephen Kinnock and Rachel Reeves’s disgraceful Fabian Society report aping UKIP’s racist policies on immigration. Kinnock said: “we must recognise that having concerns about the impact of the dynamic of immigration, as separate to immigrants, is legitimate”.52 From the “inevitability of gradualness” of Sidney Webb to the neoliberalism of the PLP today, the common thread between Trotsky’s time and today is that much of the leadership of the party uncritically accepts the prevailing ideas of the capitalist class in theory and manages rather than challenges the capitalist system in practice. Reading Trotsky’s writings today shows the golden age of a militant working class, socialist Labour Party before the arrival of New Labour to be a myth.

However, as brilliant and prescient as Trotsky’s analysis was, it is too crude to reduce the roots of reformism to the material interests of a labour aristocracy. Lenin and Trotsky argued that an “infinitesimal minority” of workers had a conflicting interest with the mass of the class.53 They believed that they enjoyed better wages and conditions than the mass of workers thanks to the super-profits of imperialism and that this was the basis of reformism. Tony Cliff demonstrated that this is not in fact the case. There is no evidence that the profits of exported capital benefit only a minority of the working class although they may affect general wage levels. There is no conflict between the interests of skilled and unskilled workers. The better the state of the economy, the narrower the differentials tend to become. So the existence of a labour aristocracy is a myth; all workers have an objective interest in the common struggle to defend and improve their pay and conditions.54 Even in Trotsky’s lifetime highly skilled workers such as engineers on the Clyde and Berlin metal workers were often the most militant and revolutionary. It is worth noting here that Marx also did not identify any qualitative difference between skilled and unskilled labour: “the distinction between skilled and unskilled labour rests in part on pure illusion”.55

Trotsky believed that the decline of Britain as a world power would undermine the grip of reformism as British capitalism would lose the ability to buy off the upper layer of the working class. Sadly, despite Britain’s much reduced role in the world today, reformism is very much with us, hence this article. The labour aristocracy theory does not explain the prevalence of reformism today in its many forms in countries such as Egypt, Brazil or South Africa which are not imperialist powers. More generally Trotsky argued in the Transitional Programme:

In an epoch of decaying capitalism…in general, there can be no discussion of systematic social reforms and the raising of the masses’ living standards; when every serious demand of the proletariat and even every serious demand of the petty bourgeoisie inevitably reaches beyond the limits of capitalist property relations and of the bourgeois state”.56

But as Cliff pointed out, the long post-war boom led to a revival in reformism in Britain and elsewhere on the back of rising living standards for all workers. In his writings on Germany, Trotsky argued that in a period of crisis reformists are prepared to give away all the reforms won in the past to defend the interests of capital. They are not even prepared to defend the bourgeois democracy on which they depend if the fight to do so carries the risk of workers going further and taking things into their own hands.57 Chris Harman argued, however, that the continuation of reformism since the return of economic crises shows that the survival of reformism is not dependent on the ability of the system to grant reforms.58 The Corbyn phenomenon, like the rise of left reformist organisations across Europe, also shows that, contrary to many predictions on the left, reformism as a political current is able to renew itself and provide a popular focus for working class anger.

Trotsky was correct to refer to the division of labour within the British labour movement between economics and politics, between the trade union bureaucracy on the one hand and the Labour Party leadership on the other but tended to lump them together in many of his writings. The present conflict between the Parliamentary Labour Party and most of the trade union leaders over support for Jeremy Corbyn shows that while their interests may coincide in the sense that they both want to see a Labour government, there is a conflict between the austerity lite favoured by the PLP and the interests of the workers that the trade union leaders need to at least look like they represent. The trade union bureaucracy is a conservative social layer with a distinct interest in negotiating the terms of the exploitation of the working class under capitalism. It has no interest in a level of struggle that could marginalise it, let alone the overthrow of the system that would make it redundant. The professional politicians that make up the PLP, on the other hand, are insulated from the direct pressures of the working class. They have a material interest in the continuation of bourgeois democracy through the parliamentary gravy train, not to mention the more subtle malign influences that come with membership of this elite club.

The mass support for Corbyn is an enormously exciting and welcome development. It has massively increased the audience for socialist ideas. It is a reflection of the anger with austerity and the political elite and the widespread desire among working people for real change. The Labour left rejects austerity while the PLP in essence accepts it. The Labour left has far more support inside the Labour Party today than it had in the 1920s and 1930s in spite of, or perhaps because of, the much lower level of class struggle in Britain today. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell’s views appear to be more radical than those of the Labour left leaders of the 1920s. Lansbury’s pacifism, for example, would doubtless have prevented him from supporting the struggle of the Palestinians today, as Corbyn does. McDonnell flirts with Marxism, while Kirkwood and Wheatley based their views on the New Testament. But Trotsky’s analysis remains completely apt when he said that the ideas of the Labour left may be formally more radical than those of the right, but their means of achieving them are the same—they are therefore doomed to fail without a massive increase in the level of class struggle. While sincerely supporting strikes and campaigns against austerity, Corbyn and McDonnell believe that real change can only be won through parliament. The content of Corbyn’s programme for government as announced so far, while very welcome, is not particularly radical and would have been considered mainstream Labour fare before the advent of New Labour. Likewise McDonnell’s economic policies only amount to the most moderate Keynesianism and only appear remotely radical in comparison with what went immediately before. Corybn’s promises to renationalise the railways, increase public spending, safeguard the NHS from further privatisation and cuts and repeal the Trade Union Act would all be very important reforms if they could be delivered but would not transform Britain by themselves. Labour’s 1945 and 1974 election manifestos, for example, contained far more thoroughgoing demands for change.

Lansbury’s theoretical feebleness did not stop him leading one of the most dramatic and successful struggles of the 1920s as leader of Poplar Council. Poplar remains to this day the only Labour council to have taken on the Tories and won, mobilising the mass of working class people in the borough and beyond in the process. No one on the Labour left today has led anything like this or even remotely considered it. Labour councils have played a disgraceful role in recent years in pushing through cuts that hit the poorest in society in particular, the very people that Corbyn is pledged to support. Labour authorities such as Haringey and Southwark in London, for example, are systematically demolishing council housing, one of Labour’s greatest historic achievements, and driving out working class tenants only to replace them with yet more luxury homes for the super-rich. Corbyn clearly does not support Labour councils pushing through Tory austerity and privatisation but has not publicly opposed it. He has rightly expressed his support for teaching assistants in County Durham who have voted to strike against savage pay cuts pushed through by the local Labour council, but he has not criticised the council, let alone tried to use his influence to reverse the pay cuts. The conduct of Labour councils is something that much of the Labour left prefers not to talk about, partly because their electoralism means that they do not envisage the sort of mass resistance necessary to beat the cuts, and partly so as not further to upset the right.

There are some parallels between Momentum, the new organisation of the left within the party, and the ILP, although unlike the ILP Momentum does not have the status of being a separate party affiliated to Labour.59 The ILP moved sharply to the left during the 1920s, ultimately breaking with Labour altogether in 1931. But, despite claiming to be a revolutionary party for a period in the mid-1930s, in reality it did not break from left reformism and went into a steady decline, being squeezed between the Labour Party and Stalinism. Momentum expressly states on its website that it is “committed to supporting the Labour Party winning elections and entering government”, with no mention of support for extra-parliamentary struggle.60 Like the ILP, Momentum is a contradictory organisation, varying enormously in its political orientation from area to area. There is a fight within the organisation between those who want to see it as an active campaigning body and those who see Momentum supporters as passive cheerleaders for Corbyn. The primary focus of the leadership is on fighting the right within the party structures over issues such as increasing the number of seats on the NEC representing ordinary members. This is a further illustration of how electoralism hampers the fight against the right by failing to look seriously to the struggles outside the party that can really put the right on the back foot and deepen support for Corbyn and the left in society as a whole. There is a danger that the preoccupation with elections and inner-party manoeuvres could reinforce passivity rather than advance the struggle against the Tories. Trotsky would have described Momentum as “centrist”, ie radical in words but reformist in practice.

In practice the Labour left reflects the separation of politics and economics, the division of labour that Trotsky talked about, that has dogged the labour movement historically both in Britain and internationally. Politics is seen in the most narrow sense as the responsibility of MPs and local councillors while economics is regarded as the exclusive preserve of the unions. There is no concept of mobilising the economic power of the workers to bring political change. For a left wing leader of the Labour Party to enjoy the support of the leaders of the big trade unions is unprecedented. However, that support is highly conditional. Unite leader Len McCluskey has made it clear that his union supports the renewal of Trident nuclear weapons, while scrapping it is a key principle for Corbyn. Corbyn’s need to keep Unite on board, not to mention the PLP, has led him to appoint two successive shadow defence spokespersons who both quickly stated that they support Trident renewal. The Unison union disgracefully dragged its heels over balloting the Durham teaching assistants for strike action until rank and file pressure forced its hand, something that Corbyn was again silent about, presumably in fear of further alienating general secretary Dave Prentis. The latter has made a number of cryptic statements about the need for unity in the Labour Party that appear to be directed more at Corbyn and his supporters than the right. Despite the overwhelming support for Corbyn among Unison activists, the union’s representatives on the party’s NEC have voted with the right on several occasions; history shows that the union leaders will move against a party leader that does not represent their interests.

Trotsky believed that the Labour left could never lead the party. The election and then re-election of Corbyn appear to disprove that. But the right remains a serious barrier to the Corbyn leadership, let alone a Corbyn government. As Trotsky argued, the role of the PLP and the trade union leaders is in reality to prop up the capitalist system, not overturn it. The commitment of the PLP to the interests of big business and not those of its working class supporters is very clear. Deputy leader Tom Watson, the leader of the attempted coup against Corbyn last summer, told the Labour Party conference in September that “in the past, big businesses were too easily cast as predators…we ended up sounding like we were anti-business; anti-prosperity; anti-success. We’re not and we never have been. Capitalism, comrades, is not the enemy. Money’s not the problem. Business isn’t bad”.61 The continuing coordinated attempts by the establishment—the Tories and the mass media including the BBC—in alliance with the PLP to block Corbyn and discredit him at every turn also shows this. The PLP enjoys significant power because of its autonomy within the party structures, which it has enjoyed since Labour was founded, and because MPs cannot be held accountable between general elections.

But the most crucial weakness of the left, which is what Trotsky was actually talking about, is political not structural. In other words the left’s reliance on winning elections to achieve its goals means that it feels forced to make concessions to the right to maintain party unity which it regards as essential to win power. Like the left ILP leaders of the 1920s, Corbyn is anxious about challenging the PLP too strongly. For example, he felt obliged to agree to campaign for Remain in the EU referendum to appease the PLP. Support for Leave would have challenged the grip of the racist right on the Leave campaign and enabled the left to connect with millions of disaffected working class people who, in the event, were left to the tender mercies of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. The right feels no such inhibitions. The PLP leaders have made it abundantly clear that they would rather lose the next election than win it with Corbyn as leader. Defending Labour’s neoliberal agenda of recent decades is far more important to them than forming the next government. The fact that the anti-Semitism row broke out the week before the London Mayor election was no coincidence. The coup attempt after the Brexit vote was prompted by fears of a snap general election. The right feared this not because they believe that Corbyn is an electoral liability, as they claim publicly, but in reality because they thought that Corbyn did in fact have a chance of winning. They will continue to fight to prevent a Corbyn government. Will he be able to stand up to these pressures? The signs so far are not good.

As the record of Labour in power shows, not to mention the experience of Syriza in Greece and Hollande in France, even the most radical-sounding reformist government can succumb very quickly to the pressures of managing the capitalist state. As Trotsky made clear, a parliamentary majority does not bring real power. A Corbyn government that sticks to its guns would be subject to major economic disruption by the Bank of England, big business and institutions of international capitalism, blocking and sabotage by the civil service, systematic attacks by the mass media and ultimately the threat of overthrow by the state. There have already been threatening noises from the army top brass over Corbyn’s opposition to Trident. As Trotsky argued in the 1920s, the only way a Corbyn government would be able to stand up to these pressures is by mobilising its working class supporters in the streets and the workplaces.

We are living in a period in which the level of struggle is a lot lower than it was in the 1920s. Where is Britain Going? was written when Britain had just been though two of the greatest periods of working class struggle ever seen in this country. Trotsky knew that Britain was heading for a major confrontation around the coal industry so his perspectives for the struggle, particularly the prospects for the growth of the influence of revolutionaries, were very optimistic. Sadly he was proved to be wrong by the role of Stalinism and left reformism, particularly that of the left trade union leaders. But while the power of the bosses lies in the boardrooms and the deep state, the power of the working class remains at the point of production. As Trotsky argued, the mobilisation of that power requires political preparation with clear and principled leadership which seeks to encourage it, not hold it back. It means encouraging and supporting every struggle big and small in the here and now—not waiting until a Corbyn government is under attack. It is already clear to some of Corbyn’s more thoughtful supporters that the treacherous behaviour of the PLP and its ability to continue to defy the will of the majority of Labour Party members would make it impossible for the party to provide that leadership, whatever Corbyn wishes.

Revolutionary socialists need political clarity and clear principles on the one hand and tactical flexibility on the other. To take forward the struggle against austerity, fight for real change and build the revolutionary organisation we need, we have to relate to the hundreds of thousands inspired by Corbyn while telling the truth about how we can win a socialist transformation of Britain.

Whether revolutionaries should seek to do that by entering the Labour Party or not is, as Trotsky argued, a tactical question rather than one of principle. But the Labour Party of today is not the open federation of Lenin’s time, when a Marxist party such as the BSP could affiliate and openly argue its politics, including criticising the leadership with impunity. Even in the 1920s that space was rapidly closing. Today it is not possible for revolutionaries to enter the Labour Party while being open about their views as the PLP’s witch-hunt of Momentum shows.

Revolutionaries will be far more effective by using the tactic of the united front that Trotsky contributed so much to developing. By applying the principles of the united front laid down by the third and fourth congresses of the Comintern, and in Trotsky’s writings on Germany in particular, we can work with Corbyn supporters in the trade unions, in the fight against racism in all its forms, in campaigns in defence of the NHS and council housing and against cuts and seek to prove in practice where the power lies to win real change in Britain. The Corbyn phenomenon has created more opportunities for united front activity. But the application of the united front tactic depends on the existence of independent revolutionary organisation with which membership of the Labour Party as it is currently structured is incompatible. As Trotsky concludes in Where is Britain Going?: “The Communist Party must develop and come to power as the party of proletarian dictatorship. There are no ways round this. Whoever believes there are and propounds them can only deceive British workers. That is the main conclusion of our analysis”.62

Tony Phillips is a member of the SWP based in Walthamstow in London and a Unison trade union branch secretary working in the fire service.


1 Quoted in Trotsky, 1974, volume 2, p222.

2 Thanks to Alex Callinicos, Esme Choonara, Donny Gluckstein and John Rose for their helpful comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of this article.

3 Lenin, 1977, pp144-146.

4 Trotsky, 1974, volume 1, p22.

5 Trotsky, 1974, volume 2, p8.

6 Trotsky, 1974, volume 2, p8.

7 Quoted in Cliff and Gluckstein, 1996, p72.

8 Trotsky 1974, volume 1, p165.

9 Publishing House of the Communist International, 1977, volume 1, pp183-184.

10 Trotsky, 1974, volume 2, p248.

11 Trotsky, 1974, volume 1, p184.

12 Trotsky, 1974, volume 2, pp47-48.

13 Trotsky, 1974, volume 2, p104.

14 Trotsky, 1974, volume 2, pp113-114.

15 Trotsky, 1974, volume 2, p114.

16 Trotsky, 1974, volume 2, p8.

17 Trotsky, 1974, volume 2, p118.

18 Trotsky, 1974, volume 2, p198.

19 Trotsky, 1974, volume 2, p36.

20 Trotsky, 1974, volume 2, p118.

21 Trotsky, 1974, volume 2, p47. Emphasis in the original.

22 Trotsky, 1974, volume 2, p44.

23 Trotsky, 1974, volume 2, 46.

24 Trotsky, 1974, volume 2, p57.

25 Trotsky, 1974, volume 2, p55.

26 Trotsky, 1974, volume 2, p65.

27 Trotsky, 1974, volume 1, p171.

28 Trotsky, 1974, volume 2, p42.

29 Trotsky, 1974, volume 2, pp136-137.

30 Trotsky, 1974, volume 2, pp137-138.

31 Trotsky, 1974, volume 2, p138.

32 Trotsky, 1974, volume 2, p60.

33 Trotsky, 1974, volume 2, p210.

34 Trotsky, 1974, volume 2, p210.

35 A predecessor of the council tax levied by local borough councils to fund services.

36 Trotsky, 1974, volume 2, p69.

37 Trotsky, 1974, volume 2, p75.

38 Trotsky, 1974, volume 2, p69.

39 Trotsky, 1974, volume 2, pp79-80.

40 Trotsky, 1988, p252.

41 Publishing House of the Communist International, 1977, volume 1, p70.

42 Trotsky, 1974, volume 2, p119.

43 Quoted in Cliff, 1993, p169.

44 Trotsky, 1971.

45 Riddell, 2012, p1165.

46 Trotsky, 1974, volume 2, p136.

47 Trotsky, 1974. Volume 3, p117.

48 Trotsky, 1974, volume 3, p118.

49 Trotsky, 1974, volume 3, pp86-87 and 88-89.

50 Trotsky, 1974, volume 3, p122.

51 Hallas, 1982.

52 Kinnock, 2016.

53 Quoted in Cliff, 1982, p109.

54 Cliff, 1982, pp108-117.

55 Marx, 1983, footnote 1, p192.

56 Trotsky, 1938.

57 Trotsky, 1971, p143.

58 Harman, 2003.

59 Thanks to Donny Gluckstein for this comparison.

60 Go to

61 Sparrow, 2016.

62 Trotsky, 1974, volume 2, p123


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