A Review of Contemporary Trotskyism by John Kelly, and Against the Grain, edited by Evan Smith and Matthew Worley
This review-essay contends that Trotskyism is an essential ingredient of the reconfiguration of the British left underway in the era of Corbynism. Followers of the tradition inaugurated by Trotsky have played an indispensable role in the survival of the notion of working-class self-emancipation into the twenty-first century. Nevertheless, Trotskyists have made a number of strategic and tactical misjudgements since the Second World War, as recounted in Contemporary British Trotskyism by John Kelly and Against the Grain, edited by Smith and Worley. Coming to terms with this legacy is vital to the future of radical left politics in the UK. The two volumes reviewed here both make valuable contributions to such an evaluation.
Trotskyism – permanent revolution – entryism – united front – Keynesianism – internationalism – Corbynism – identity politics – Stalinism – reformism
John Kelly, (2018) Contemporary Trotskyism: Parties, Sects and Social Movements in Britain, Abingdon: Routledge,
Evan Smith and Matthew Worley, eds., (2014) Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
In the summer of 2016, Jeremy Corbyn found himself challenged for the leadership of the Labour Party after just one year at the helm. Among those who would probably have preferred Corbyn not to be the leader was his own deputy, Tom Watson. The latter used the leadership campaign as an opportunity to lash out at the influence of what he regarded as a malign minority within the party: ‘There are Trots that have come back to the party, and they certainly don’t have the best interests of the Labour party at heart. They see the Labour party as a vehicle for revolutionary socialism, they’re not remotely interested in winning elections, and that’s a problem’. Watson’s colloquial reference to the Trotskyist movement in the UK represented an unwitting acknowledgement of the remarkable resilience of this strain of the far left in British politics. It also marked the revival of a pejorative term that many thought had disappeared from mainstream discourse, rendered obsolete in the era of apparently all-conquering neoliberalism.
Almost eighty years after a Stalinist assassin ended the life of its progenitor in Mexico, Watson’s ham-fisted intervention turned the spotlight once again on a political current that has had seemingly negligible impact on the hegemonic echelons of the British political system, and yet which continues to consistently attract adherents, albeit in modest numbers. The particular target of Watson’s ire was the Momentum group, which operates as a semi-detached pressure group both within and without the Labour Party. Watson compared Momentum in unflattering terms with the Militant Tendency that had challenged Neil Kinnock’s project in the 1980s to re-set the party on the trajectory that would ultimately lead to Blairism. Kinnock spectacularly confronted Militant at the 1985 party conference, in which a memorable exchange of hostile finger-jabbing and yelling led to a walkout by the far-left contingent.
As an adherent of the centrist wing of the party, Watson clearly hoped his attempt to draw parallels between the activities of Militant and Momentum would adversely affect the authority of Corbyn. Alas for Watson, not only did Corbyn enhance his majority in the 2016 leadership campaign, the following year Labour came within an electoral whisker of taking the keys to Number Ten itself. In the 2017 election, Momentum was widely credited, even by its ideological opponents within the party, as playing a major role in increasing the Labour vote by almost 10% from the previous poll two years earlier. Momentum is explicitly not a Trotskyist grouping but the relevant point is that many of its enemies – and some of its supporters – believe it to be. Corbyn’s attachment to policies that Watson and his ilk regarded as synonymous with the far left had clearly not damaged his electoral appeal; in fact, for those in the labour movement who look more beneficently on the role of ‘Trots’, it was precisely his unambiguous commitment to principles such as anti-austerity, nationalisation and anti-imperialism that was responsible for Labour’s remarkable performance.
In light of this apparent revival of the relevance of Britain’s Trotskyist current, it is timely that John Kelly, Lecturer in Management at Birkbeck, University of London, has published the most thorough and informative guide to the movement so far. Contemporary Trotskyism: Parties, Sects and Social Movements in Britain accumulates a wealth of statistical, historical and political sources to provide a scrupulously balanced assessment of the far left in the UK which is refreshingly free of the bile and invective that have blighted debates within the movement itself for decades. Kelly is a former member of the Communist Party and evidently does not regard himself as a follower of the USSR’s most famous dissident, yet he is frequently willing to recognise moments in postwar British political history when Trotskyists have been integral to progressive change. He notes, for example:
The Anti-Nazi League, initiated and led by the SWP, played a significant part in rolling back the electoral advance of the far right National Front in the late 1970s whilst the Anti-Poll Tax Federation was even more successful, helping to destroy Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax and at the same time contributing to her downfall as Prime Minister.
In addition to Kelly’s book, any reader looking to deepen their understanding of the Corbyn-inspired optimism of revolutionary socialists today can learn a lot from the slightly wider focus of Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956, edited by Evan Smith and Matthew Worley. As well as incorporating alternative accounts of the history of British Trotskyism, this collection includes insightful assessments of other components of the radical fringe beyond the Labour Party, such as anarchism, feminism and the multiple iterations of the Communist Party. Together, these two volumes provide not only insightful analyses of the evolution of the British far left but also vital clues as to why its importance is surely far from over, especially in light of the resurgence of its nemesis on the far right.
Both works help fill a lacuna in the chronicling of British Trotskyism that has been evident since the turn of the century. The last full-length analysis was John Callaghan’s British Trotskyism, published in the mid-1980s. Since then, of course, we have witnessed the full playing-out of the neoliberal counter-revolution that has not only permeated the thinking of the premier party of the British ruling class but also that of its rival from the social-democratic tradition. The Blair and Brown eras of New Labour appeared to have sealed the tomb of Trotskyist influence in the UK forever. Callaghan’s study was indubitably the best guide to the movement at that point, but the political water that has flowed under the bridge renders much of his analysis obsolete. For example, he concluded that volume with an observation that ‘unless, in opposition to all the historical evidence, it is believed that these radicals will obtain political satisfaction by transforming the Labour Party, independent socialists must expect that they will once again seek a genuine socialist alternative’. Callaghan was not alone in his judgement that it was inconceivable that figures such as Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott would one day occupy the upper echelons of the party.
The other essential guides to British Trotskyism predating the subjects of this review were the two volumes written by Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson, also from the 1980s. Against the Stream and War and the International were rigorously detailed accounts of the organisations that operated in this tradition in the periods before, during and just after the Second World War. These volumes remain indispensable for that era, but, similarly to Callaghan’s book, can offer few insights to the reader looking for an understanding of the impact of Trotskyists in the UK in this century.
To some non-adherents of the Trotskyist tradition, its history and politics are absurdly reminiscent of the legendary scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, in which Reg (played by John Cleese) and his miniscule People’s Front of Judea hurl abuse at the one-man Judean People’s Front sat nearby, denouncing him as a splitter! Meanwhile the Roman army looks on in bored incomprehension as the ridiculous bands of revolutionaries offer more of a threat to each other than to the imperial status quo.
John Kelly identifies 22 organisations in modern Britain that non-Trotskyists might label as the twenty-first-century equivalent of the squabbling sectarians depicted in the film (in addition to six so-called Fourth Internationals!). The author is to be commended not least for disentangling and decoding in a systematic manner this plethora of labels and allegiances, which can be disorientating even for those who have spent decades of activism on the far left. The range of acronyms alone is enough to give even the most dedicated political analyst a headache. It is often impossible not to be reminded of the Python scene when reading about some of the cleavages that have occurred among Trotsky’s followers in the UK – the author recounts, for example, how:
The League for Socialist Action, Marxist Worker Group and the Socialist Labour Group all joined the IMG and successor organisations whilst the Revolutionary Marxist Group joined Big Flame only a few years before the latter’s dissolution. The Marxist Worker Group was a splinter from Workers Power; the LSA split from IMG in 1976; and the SLG broke from the WRP in 1974.
Frequent passages such as this illustrate the exasperation that some who are initially attracted to far-left politics can feel after a period of immersion in its often-Byzantine manoeuvrings. Kelly’s study also provides one or two moments of unintentional humour when exploring how this rivalry between some of these factions takes on laughable proportions. The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty grandly declared in 1983 that it would not be discussing cooperation with the Socialist League because ‘we are not at one with the SL, we are at war with them’. Similarly, when the possibility of working alongside another organisation was broached in the 1990s, the AWL response was: ‘We are gearing up for war with the Socialist Party. The SP have invited us to talks. OK. But we are still out to supplant and replace them.’
It is easy to mock these episodes of delusional recrimination as examples of what the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges might describe as ‘two bald men fighting over a comb’. However, such ideological contestations are not unique to the Trotskyist movement, and in earlier eras of the history of the left Marx and Lenin conducted theoretical battles in an equally ferocious manner, sometimes with world-historical consequences. Many observers of the 1903 London conference of the Russian Social Democrats probably felt that the schism between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks was unnecessary, and yet no-one now would dispute its monumental significance. This does not justify every accusation of ‘splitter’, of course, but it should be a reminder that theoretical and tactical battles are unavoidable among revolutionaries seeking to grapple with the protean nature of the capitalist system. In noticeable contrast, the Labour Party is notorious for downplaying theoretical interchange in the name of an anodyne ‘broad church’ approach to internal differences.
Trotskyism and its Enemies
Kelly’s attempt to explain the supposedly intrinsically fractious nature of the Trotskyist movement, however, is less helpful. He falls back on a hackneyed analogy with religious sects, particularly those within the Christian tradition, which are equally infamous for discovering apparently abstruse reasons for splitting off from one another. Citing the definition of a sect as supplied by US sociologist of religion Bryan Wilson, Kelly posits that the behaviour of the multiple versions of the Trotskyist paradigm can be comprehended as secular versions of groups such as the Moonies and Jehovah’s Witnesses:
most groups regard themselves and their members as the vanguard of the working class, a term as elitist in meaning as the religious notion of the elect. Many operate probationary periods of membership and extensive education programmes; expulsions are not uncommon … and there have been, and still are, many charismatic Trotskyist leaders, past and present, most notably Tariq Ali, Tony Cliff and Gerry Healy.
No one who has spent a significant period in or around Trotskyist groups would deny that these features are frequently evident. However, as an analytical device, the comparison with religious sects is only a marginally more sophisticated one than the Monty Python scene. The fragmented nature of the movement surely has to be placed in the larger context of the hostile forces that sought to throttle it in its infancy. The contested creation of the Fourth International in 1938 took place amid a backdrop of abductions, assassinations and infiltrations by the Stalinist-dominated Comintern. The Trotskyist movement within the USSR itself was annihilated with ruthless ferocity.
Trotsky and his followers were also confronted with the unprecedented theoretical dilemma of a state that was formally committed to the ideals of Marxism and yet appeared to be reproducing all the worst aspects of exploitation and oppression under capitalism. The kudos acquired by both the Communist and Labour parties during and immediately after the Second World War created immense pressure on the left outside those two organisations to conform to the notion of a non-revolutionary road to socialism. In addition to these constraints, Trotskyists have had to deal with not inconsiderable subversion by the secret services of the British state.
In light of these external pressures, the point of interest is surely not so much that British Trotskyists turned on each other at regular intervals, but that they survived in any form at all. Gratuitous and personalised polemics clearly have occurred persistently in the history of the movement, but the milieu of paranoia and suspicion in which Trotskyists have operated is not entirely self-created. Exacerbating these tendencies among those whose commitment to classical Marxism went beyond lip service was clearly in the interests of the ruling classes on either side of the Berlin Wall. A certain amount of messianism and utopianism, it could even be argued, was necessary for Trotsky’s followers to inoculate themselves against the siren songs of Western capitalism and Eastern Stalinism, as the two hegemonic systems appeared to carve-up the globe in the postwar era.
Kelly’s exposition commences with a characteristically incisive discussion of the definition of Trotskyism. The casual and unconsidered use of the term by the likes of Tom Watson belies the decades of life-and-death struggle by Trotsky and the first generation of his followers to construct a living and theoretical tradition that would equip them to survive the twin menaces of fascism and Stalinism in the inter-war period. The author condenses the concept into nine constituent elements:
The theory of permanent revolution, the united front tactic, transitional demands, critical analysis of the Soviet state, the necessity for a new fourth international, the necessity to build revolutionary, democratic-centralist vanguard parties, the necessity to build militant organisations to challenge trade union bureaucracy, the insistence on revolution not reform and the characterisation of the imperialist epoch.
Of course, the vituperative activities of certain Trotskyist groups imply that any attempt to summarise the core beliefs of the tradition would trigger an instant rebuke from certain quarters, but most interested observers would probably accept the validity of Kelly’s selection. His expositions of each of these, however, is not always as sure-footed. Trotsky’s application of the united-front tactic is contrasted with ‘Lenin’s dismissive (and ill-informed) claim that parliamentary elections merely allow workers “to decide once every few years which member of the ruling class is to repress and crush the people through parliament”’. This is a crass simplification of Lenin’s attitude to the role of bourgeois elections, which was, in reality, consistently informed by their relative significance in the ebb and flow of class struggle. August Nimitz has collated substantial evidence that Lenin always closely followed the outcomes of elections in capitalist states and would recommend participation in them by revolutionaries when tactically appropriate.
Kelly also re-treads the wearily-familiar notion that the Stalinist distortion of the legacy of 1917 was rooted in ‘the restriction of political pluralism, authoritarianism and coercion, the willingness to use violence against political opponents as practised by Lenin and Trotsky in the early years of the workers’ state’. Kelly thankfully avoids tired Cold War stereotypes most of the time, but he is amiss here by not contextualising such measures in terms of invasions by twenty-nine foreign armies and the atrocities committed by deranged counter-revolutionary generals such as Wrangel and Yudenich.
Aside from these caricatures, perhaps the only significant omission from Kelly’s criteria of Trotskyist politics is the centrality of the self-emancipation of the working class. The inviolability of this principle was apparent in Trotsky’s political practice on numerous occasions: notably his advice to Lenin that the October insurrection should take place in the name of the soviets, and not just the Bolshevik Party; and his refusal to initiate a military coup against Stalin in 1927 when it was apparent the bureaucratic apparatus was steering the state away from proletarian priorities. Some Trotskyist organisations have not necessarily adhered to this principle, but that does not detract from its role as arguably the defining principle of the best attempts to reproduce the strategy of the founder in the modern era.
Kelly’s coherent exposition of the history of British Trotskyism guides the reader through this often-treacherous labyrinth with alacrity and concision. He identifies three broad strands of the movement that took shape in the aftermath of the Second World War: labelled by him as the Orthodox, Mainstream and Third Camp, respectively.
These three tendencies emerged out of the Revolutionary Communist Party that briefly unified the factions of Trotskyists in the UK in the second half of the 1940s. This fleeting period of unity was terminated, according to Kelly, because the postwar economic and political landscape did not match the expectations of the movement as handed down to them by Trotsky himself in his voluminous commentaries of the 1930s: ‘Stalinism in the USSR had survived and spread into Eastern Europe; social democratic and communist parties were still strong; Trotskyist forces were extremely weak; and the world capitalist economy had not sunk into a new depression but was in the early stages of what would prove to be a prolonged period of growth.’
The sobering realities of the capitalist order that unfolded in the years following 1945 took many within the movement by surprise, largely because Trotsky himself had presumed the conclusion of the second great inter-imperialist conflict of the twentieth century would follow the pattern of the first. In other words, a wave of proletarian revolutions, the crumbling of parties committed to the status quo, and massive economic dislocation. In addition, Trotsky had assumed the USSR, traumatised by the cumulative impact of collectivisation and the Great Purges, would not withstand the burden of waging war against the powerhouse of the Nazi state. Instead, as the postwar global order took shape, the Trotskyists had to make sense (without their figurehead) of Western economies re-invigorated by Keynesian demand-management, the Stalinist state expanding its sphere of influence deep into Eastern Europe, and the expeditious absorption of Communist resistance movements into the tepid reformism of social democracy. The inability of many of Trotsky’s followers, coalesced as the Fourth International, to read the political situation perhaps attained the point of reductio ad absurdum with James Cannon’s declaration in 1946 that, as Stalin remained in power, the Second World War was clearly not over but was simply moving into a new phase!
The disorientation experienced by the postwar Trotskyists became the trigger for the fragmentation of the RCP into the three broad lineages identified by Kelly. What the author defines as Orthodoxy was embodied in the faction led by Gerry Healy that evolved into the Workers Revolutionary Party. The premise of this organisation, counter-intuitively for most observers, was that Trotsky’s projections of the postwar landscape had actually not been invalidated by events and would, in fact, be affirmed by a crisis of the system that lay just around the corner. The apocalyptic and hyperbolic rhetoric of Healy’s party would be sustained right up to its implosion in the mid-1980s. Even in 1980, as Thatcher’s neoliberal revolution was eviscerating the left, WRP members were put on standby for insurrection:
The Tories have been preparing, training and equipping the forces of the capitalist state for mass violence and mass repression … the party must actively prepare for semi legality and possible illegality. Semi legality means building a secret apparatus in the party which runs parallel with its public work...
The chiliastic mentality lampooned by Monty Python was most evident in this branch of the British Trotskyist tradition. A more sober response to the reconfiguration of the post-1945 world came from Tony Cliff, the exiled Palestinian Jew whose breakaway from the RCP would emerge as the modern Socialist Workers Party, characterised by Kelly as part of the Third Camp tradition. Cliff and his followers at least pioneered a more creative approach to the intellectual legacy of Trotsky by characterising the USSR as a variant of the trend for state capitalism that had emerged in other economies in the 1930s, and which explained the long boom of Western capitalism as being driven, not only by Keynesianism, but also by turbo-charged military spending to off-set the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.
Kelly argues there was a greater level of theoretical rigour and sophistication apparent in Cliff’s organisation: ‘for the more heterodox SWP, the pull of orthodoxy is always present but less compelling. An additional factor behind the greater degree of internal debate in the IS/SWP derives from group composition because it is clear that Cliff’s group has proved far more successful than any of its rivals in recruiting a substantial number of intellectuals.’ The SWP sustained this promotion of theoretical innovation for many decades, but after the death of key figures at the start of this century such as those of Cliff himself, Duncan Hallas and Chris Harman, the party has unsurprisingly struggled to retain its reputation for pioneering applications of the Marxist method, and has more recently been plagued by internal disputations leading to schisms.
A second broad framework of the movement identified by Kelly is identified as Institutional Trotskyism, with the aforementioned Militant Tendency as the best-known exponents in the modern era. The differentia specifica of this brand for many decades was the conviction that the best place for supporters of the Trotskyist tradition is inside the Labour Party. Ted Grant, the most high-profile theoretician associated with Militant, justified this approach – known as entryism – with reference to Trotsky’s guidance in the 1930s to his followers in France to pursue membership of the country’s biggest reformist party. Phil Burton-Cartledge, in his chapter ‘Marching Separately, Seldom Together’, recounts the high tide of British entryism in the 1980s:
The discipline of entry work allowed Militant activists to capture party structures and use them to advantage to open up more of the host to their influence. By adapting itself with some success to the political conditions of postwar working class politics, it built itself up as a distinctive Trotskyist brand that became something of a household name.
It is the folk memory of this period within Tom Watson’s centrist iteration of Labour politics that led him to lash out in 2016 at the prospect of a similar phenomenon taking place during Corbyn’s leadership. The Militant Tendency succeeded in grabbing headlines in the mid-1980s and probably created a larger audience for Trotskyist ideas in Britain than has ever occurred before or since; but their moment in the spotlight was short-lived, as the Labour Leader of the time, Neil Kinnock, mobilised the apparatus of the party and purged the entryists for at least a generation. The meteoric rise and fall of Grant’s entryism led most members of Militant to abandon the ‘Institutional’ road in 1991 as a proven failure, and form what today is known as the Socialist Party.
Kelly briefly outlines other, more isolated strains of British Trotskyism such as the so-called Radical and Workerist traditions that can be included among the ‘seven families’ of the movement, but his systematic and helpful delineation of the three main versions above lies front and centre of his study. The author is to be applauded for not only creating a coherent and systematic mental map of the Trotskyist tradition but also for keeping up with its ongoing fissiparous tendencies; noting, for example, that the SWP has recently experienced an inauspicious four splits in just five years.
The fault lines that have ruptured the British Trotskyist movement over several generations have consistently run along a number of crucial strategic questions. Tom Watson’s outburst in 2016 highlighted how its relationship with the Labour Party is one of these issues that has bedevilled the movement. The controversy has its roots in Trotsky’s advice to his French followers in the 1930s to insert themselves into the dominant French reformist party of the era, the SFIO. This was partly informed by his painful awareness that lack of unity between the forces of the left in Germany had permitted Hitler to rise to power; and a more optimistic feeling that the radicalisation coalescing around the figure of Leon Blum in France had created a new audience for the far left in that country. At the same time, Trotsky had advised his British followers to conjoin themselves to the equivalent of the SFIO, initially the Independent Labour Party and subsequently the Labour Party’s youth wing. Trotsky illuminated the thinking behind the French turn with a typically brilliant metaphor:
In the revolutionary struggles that are beginning, our frail cruiser will throw itself into battle – but in the wake of large political formations, which are starting to put their ranks in battle order through the united front. The manoeuvre itself absorbs the entire attention of the crew, whose ideas are fixed anxiously on the horizon, and the tougher the struggle becomes the more the respective general staffs will be able to isolate our frail ship, even to sink it.
Entryism was also posited on the analogy of using a reformist organisation as a protective womb in which to safeguard the fragile gestation of a genuine, revolutionary movement. The questions inevitably arose, however, of the duration of the gestation and in what conditions birth should actually take place. For Trotsky himself, the essential basis of entryism was that it should involve no compromising of the explicitly revolutionary principles of the embryo and that it should be a short-term manoeuvre. As Burton-Cartledge recounts in his chapter contrasting the practices of Militant and the SWP on entryism, the founder of the former, Ted Grant, deployed Trotsky’s words to justify more lasting immersion into the Labour Party, beginning in the 1950s. Grant told his supporters at the beginning of the 1950s: ‘when the masses first begin to move, they always turn to the traditional mass organisations. They will turn to the Labour Party time and time again because there is no alternative – no mass revolutionary party.’
Contrary to Trotsky’s guidance, Grant’s supporters regarded the manoeuvre as a long-term operation and it was almost three decades later that the denouement took place with Kinnock’s theatrical attack on Militant at the Labour Party conference in 1985. As Burton-Cartledge rightly observes, Militant had created unprecedented wider awareness of the Trotskyist agenda. However, their rapid capitulation to the Kinnockite offensive indicated that Trotsky was right to warn of the corrosive effects of long-term entryism. Two Militant MPs were expelled from the Labour Party as mainstream media ‘Trot’-hunting intensified, and then Grant’s organisation itself fractured in 1991 over the issue of whether to pursue or abandon the entryist tactic. The lesson from this episode would appear to be that attempts to change the Labour Party from within will only have the incremental effect of changing the entryists themselves from revolutionaries into reformists. Kelly also reflects on the problems this type of experience creates for contemporary Trotskyists:
Factional work inside radical left parties, or external support for leftist parties such as Corbyn’s labour party, also raises a far more profound question, first aired in the early 1950s debates about deep entryism. If some Trotskyist policies and demands can be successfully promoted through the medium of a radical left party, then what is the point in building independent revolutionary parties?
Entryism in the Age of Corbyn
The relationship contemporary Trotskyists in the UK seek to establish with Corbyn’s Labour must surely be the defining question for them in this period. The current Labour Leader has succeeded spectacularly in popularising socialist ideals for a mass audience and has reproduced the enthusiasm for the left that has been apparent elsewhere with Greece’s SYRIZA, Spain’s Podemos, and La France Insoumise. Even the heart of the capitalist beast, the US itself, has witnessed Bernie Sanders’ remarkable 2016 bid for the Democratic nomination on an explicit platform of socialist commitments. There is clearly a current of left radicalisation underway in this austerity-ridden era that parallels the one Trotsky detected in the 1930s.
The astonishing swelling of Labour membership under Corbyn (approaching 600,000 members) is no doubt partly made up of formerly disillusioned middle-aged revolutionaries who had despaired of ever seeing a mass mobilisation of the left in Britain. The liberalisation of the party’s membership rules in the 2016 leadership campaign must have been especially tempting for radical leftists to re-enact a version of the entryist tactic. Workers Power, one of the smallest fragments of contemporary Trotskyism, opted for this route: ‘200,000 people decide that they want to be in the Labour Party, they’re going to want some action and they want to see some results, they obviously want to discuss where to go and what to do … this is the place to be.’
Aside from the history of Militant, however, there are significant indicators that the project of incubating revolutionary socialism in the Labour Party remains a forlorn one. For all his undoubted personal and political qualities, Corbyn is outgunned in his own parliamentary party by the entrenched power of the keepers of the Blairite flame. The battles inside the party today over Brexit, Trident renewal, the role of Momentum and antisemitism are all skirmishes in a conflict between left and right that has been fought many times before and always with the latter prevailing. Even if Corbyn and the Labour left were to achieve dominance in the party itself, there would be, of course, the even greater structural obstacles to the reformist project erected by the British state: the FPTP electoral system, the hostility of the mainstream media, the unelected and unaccountable bastions of bourgeois power in the police, civil service and army. Trotsky’s warning to socialists in the 1930s about the nature of Labour remains impressively prescient today: ‘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. The lefts have no such system, nor by their very essence can they … with them [i.e. the right] stands bourgeois society, as a whole, which slips them ready-made solutions.’
Permanent Revolution Then
The outbreak of a revolutionary wave in the Arab world in 2010–11 highlighted another issue that has frequently proven contentious in the ranks of Trotsky’s British followers: attitudes to revolutions in states outside the Western capitalist heartlands of the global economy. The concept of permanent revolution is integral to the theoretical legacy of the founder, and for many commentators is the defining feature of the entire Trotskyist corpus of thought. The idea, in its original formulation by Trotsky, was posited on the basis of the peculiar relationship between revolutions in the developing world and the established capitalist powers such as Britain, France and the US. Nascent proletariats were emerging in the former category that were politically capable of linking up with their equivalents in the core to construct a unified challenge to the entire system.
In Kelly’s articulation, a revolution outside the West ‘would not stop at the stage of democratic reforms because the power and demands of the working class would push it in the direction of a socialist revolution: one revolution would thus flow inexorably and uninterruptedly into the other in a process of permanent revolution.’ Furthermore, the October Revolution had appeared to be the triumphant vindication of this grand strategy as the toppling of the tsarist autocracy had triggered a wave of insurgencies and revolts across the entire globe, particularly in Central Europe. The internationalism implicit in this outlook became another defining characteristic of the Trotskyist tradition that set it apart from the Stalinist mutation that came to dominate the established Communist parties with their ‘national roads to socialism’.
The post-World War II global system, however, created a problem for the theory of permanent revolution that was to prove as troublesome for Trotskyism as the rebooting of the world economy and the consequent durability of social democracy. The second inter-imperialist war had triggered a seismic wave of upheavals across what used to be called the Third World that lasted deep into the 1960s. Often blurring into national-liberation struggles, these revolutions inaugurated regimes in locations such as China, Cuba and Vietnam that were explicitly committed to versions of ‘Marxism’. The quandary confronting Trotskyists in Britain was whether to display allegiance to such states in the name of permanent revolution or to reject them as distortions of the template. The case that would lead the SWP to adopt the latter position was that the urban working class was not central to any of these upheavals and that other social forces, such as rural guerrillas or middle-class intellectuals, appeared to be at the helm.
Other factions of the movement eagerly embraced ‘Third Worldism’ as an alternative to the apparently-quiescent working class of the West and the monstrous tyrannies of the East. Sometimes this commitment took some remarkably direct forms. One unexpected revelation in Ian Birchall’s illuminating contribution, ‘Vicarious Pleasure: The British Far Left and the Third World’, concerns the activity of Labour MP John Baird in the 1960s. Birchall states that the MP for Nottingham was ‘probably a clandestine member of the Fourth International’ whose support for the nationalist regime in Algeria included overt activity such as lobbying in Parliament and covert activity such as currency smuggling. Birchall also cites a Militant member from the UK who, in the same cause, used his expertise as an electrical engineer to disable electric fences in the North African desert.
Predictably, this era also witnessed further examples of the contradictions and tensions within the British Trotskyist movement. As a notable case of the movement’s ability to periodically pool its resources and collectively apply pressure at one point, most of the factions converged to support the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign in the late 1960s. The iconic demonstration outside the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square attracted 100,000 people and was, according to Birchall, primarily the consequence of preparatory work by the International Socialists, the predecessors of the SWP. One year later, however, Birchall recounts how Chris Harman, one of the most prominent members of this group, was vociferously heckled by other sections of the far left at a meeting to mark the death of Vietnamese premier Ho Chi Minh.
Harman was one of the key organisers of the Grosvenor Square event, but also insisted that support for Ho’s struggle against US imperialism should not preclude discussion of his role in purging Vietnamese Trotskyists just after World War II. Birchall concludes his insightful chapter by soberly noting how the regimes that once inspired passionate support from sections of the Trotskyist movement are now clearly embarked on policies of re-integrating themselves into the global capitalist system, and no longer attract the aspirations of revolutionaries in the West:
Today of the erstwhile array of so-called workers’ states and regimes supposedly moving beyond capitalism, only Cuba retains any significant body of supporters. If China is praised nowadays, it is not for egalitarianism and spreading world revolution, but for its proactive and interventionist role in international financial affairs.
Permanent Revolution Now
The debate about the nature of revolutions in the developing world has resurfaced in the Trotskyist movement in the wake of the Arab Spring that exploded across the Middle East at the start of the second decade of this century. On the one hand, these events would appear to vindicate key elements of Trotsky’s theory, as uprisings in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia have decapitated comprador ruling elites due to large-scale urban mobilisations, often organised by trade unions and socialists. However, the scarcity of embedded revolutionaries in any of these locations ensured that the notion of a transition to socialism in the style of 1917 remained a forlorn hope. The revolution in Syria, in particular, has proved to be a cause of divisive and protracted dispute among British Trotskyists. That country’s descent into a centrifugal labyrinth of horror and sectarianism has re-ignited arguments from the 1960s about the attitudes of revolutionaries in the West toward those battling for change in the peripheral and semi-peripheral sectors of the global system. Kelly cites one modern Trotskyist group, Socialist Fight, which even expressed support for ISIS and its operations in Syria and Iraq. Most supporters of the far left would struggle to understand how any socialist could defend an organisation that terrorises urban populations and feeds off sectarian hatred. The problem the Syrian imbroglio has highlighted, however, is not dissimilar to the dilemma confronted by the followers of Trotsky in previous generations and discussed by Birchall.
Struggles in the developing world will often challenge the local and global elites, but in the absence of Bolshevik-type organisations with a critical mass, such struggles are likely to be spearheaded by other social forces. In the case of Syria in 2011, an authentic challenge to a neoliberal regime by a mass movement with significant input from leftist elements has metastasised into a militarised cul-de-sac with an appalling cost in human lives. The intervention in the conflict by regional and global powers has further complicated the question of how far the theory of permanent revolution can be regarded as a viable perspective in the age of Trump and Putin.
Neil Davidson, a former member of the SWP, constructed a formidable critique in his study, How Revolutionary were the Bourgeois Revolutions?, coincidentally published shortly after the Arab Spring erupted. Davidson’s argument, in essence, is that the classical phase of bourgeois revolutions – encompassing the revolutionary ruptures that facilitated the rise of capitalism in England, the US and France – was actually atypical and that the later ‘revolutions from above’ in states such as Germany, Japan and Italy, with reduced proletarian input, have proved to be the more familiar route for subsequent transitions occurring in pre-industrial societies. Consequently, according to Davidson, the scenario of a bourgeois challenge to the feudal order being co-opted by an insurgent working class – pace 1917 – is simply a non-starter in the twenty-first century.
The tumultuous events in the Middle East since 2010 clearly do not fit neatly within the template established by the events of 1640, 1776 or 1789. However, Tony Cliff’s innovative refinement of Trotsky’s paradigm in the form of the theory of deflected permanent revolution perhaps provides the best tool for assessing the current situation in the region. Significant subaltern mobilisations in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and elsewhere have failed to convert mass activity into explicitly socialist bids for power. Although courageous revolutionaries guided by a broadly Marxist perspective have been present in these locations, the resources available to them have been dwarfed by those afforded to reformist or Islamist elements. Applying Cliff here, it might be said that the Sisi regime in Egypt and the meteoric rise and fall of ISIS in Syria represent deflections – albeit of dissimilar natures – of permanent revolution by non-proletarian forces.
A defence of the overall Trotskyist approach to revolution outside the West could certainly take encouragement from the scale of urban insurrection in the Arab Spring. The inability of leftist groups to flourish in its wake is perhaps less a consequence of deficiencies in the theory of permanent revolution and more a reflection of decades of political contortions by the region’s Stalinised Communist parties.
Kelly’s concluding balance sheet of the achievements and weaknesses of Trotskyism in the UK alludes to some flaws and failings that any attempt to maintain the tradition must take seriously. The author recounts how many of the key leaders associated with Trotskyist parties have been middle-aged, white males who have displayed characteristics that might be described as charismatic by supporters, or as tyrannical by sceptics. According to Kelly, a ‘dysfunctional consequence of the pattern of leadership in Trotskyist organisations is aggressive behaviour by leaders towards those beneath them in the hierarchy, particularly where the leader in question has an abrasive and authoritarian personality’.
Furthermore, this egregious tendency, he argues, has sometimes manifested itself in episodes of misogyny and sexual assault that have blighted the reputation of the brand. The most infamous of these was the damning exposure in 1985 of Gerry Healy’s reign of terror within the WRP; but even as recently as 2013, the SWP was ruptured by allegations of a rape cover-up within the senior echelons of the party. Sue Bruley in ‘Socialist Women and Women’s Liberation’ claims this strain of sexism also featured in that party’s earlier history. Describing her experience in the 1980s, she observes: ‘IS/SWP in particular was so keen to recruit male industrial militants that it was prepared to overlook the reproduction of traditional gender roles within the organisation and in members’ private lives, thus perpetuating patriarchal ideology and women’s oppression.’
Kelly links this problem to what he claims is the ongoing issue of the ‘tensions and problems at the interface between identity politics and Trotskyist politics’. As the former have emerged as perhaps the dominant paradigm of oppositional ideology in the neoliberal era, the author contends adherents of the latter have struggled to reconcile themselves to the new and diverse strands of struggle: ‘Whereas the exploitation of labour by capital is self-evidently a product of the capitalist mode of production, the oppression of women and gays has existed for millennia, sanctified by the patriarchal and misogynistic values of Christianity and Islam, and its relationship to capitalist exploitation is therefore problematic and contentious.’
Kelly’s negative assessment of the ability of Trotskyist theoreticians to accommodate identity politics might appear to some to have been vindicated by the controversy that erupted within the movement in autumn 2017 over the status of the struggle for transgender rights. However, defenders of the tradition would point out that the subsequent debate has generated a number of sophisticated re-formulations of a Marxist approach to sexuality by female activists who occupy leading roles in one contemporary Trotskyist organisation. Such interventions serve the dual purpose of obviating Kelly’s contentions that contemporary far-left groups are paralysed by ‘a persistent inability to engage in critical self-reflection’ and that they are still male-dominated. High-profile female activists from a Trotskyist background have featured prominently in major mobilisations in the UK in the twenty-first century, and hopefully this would suggest that any residual misogyny on the far left will not survive the rise of the #MeToo generation.
Adherents of Trotskyism today need to assimilate Kelly’s most fundamental criticism that there is an inverse relation between the scale of the goals of the tradition and its performance over four decades: ‘Neither in Britain nor in any other country have Trotskyists been able to move beyond small groups of militants and build a stable, mass party wielding substantial political influence. Allied to this failing is the fact that almost 80 years after the foundation of the Fourth International no Trotskyist group has ever led a revolutionary struggle for power in any country in the world.’
Phil Burton-Cartledge makes an equally sobering observation on the prospects of organisations in the UK that seek to sustain the praxis of the revolutionary left: ‘The political space for party-centred Leninist-Trotskyist politics has contracted and the continued commitment by the present government to even greater flexibility in the labour market will work against developing the constituency the far left needs’.
These are stubborn facts that cannot be casually wished-away by upholders of the tradition. Kelly’s valuable dissection of the movement, however, is primarily aimed at an academic audience and does not attempt to offer a practical alternative to the laborious task of constructing the formations that Trotskyists have embarked upon with a resilience the author himself acknowledges. Leftist alternatives to the party-building paradigm have emerged in this decade, but all have failed to offer a sustained challenge to the system.
Likewise, Smith and Worley’s collection of essays contains a plethora of insightful analyses of the numerous alternatives to Trotskyism that have featured on the British far left, such as anarchism, Maoism and Eurocommunism, but falls short of outlining a new trajectory that might succeed where these have largely failed.
Autonomist thinking flourished in the wake of the Occupy movement, but then withered under the onslaught of militarised police forces. SYRIZA appeared to rally the Greek anti-capitalist movement until the EU rammed a heavy dose of austerity down its throat. Bernie Sanders’ valiant endeavour to radicalise the US Democrats culminated in the debacle of Trump’s election win. Corbynism has galvanised the British left but its figurehead is looking increasingly isolated as his enemies from within and without the Labour Party look to terminate his leadership. However, the remarkable rise of Corbyn in 2015 (and his re-election to the party leadership the following year) actually illustrates, in part, the irreplaceable role of Trotskyism in the contemporary British left.
A crucial part of his initial appeal to disillusioned Labour supporters was his consistent support over decades for causes such as the anti-apartheid struggle, Palestinian rights and rejection of Britain’s craven support for US military adventures in the Middle East. Many of these movements have not only featured Trotskyist activists in central roles but also would probably not have survived without the exceptional commitment of such individuals. Corbyn’s stunning capture of the leadership of the Labour Party (and its subsequent transformation into Europe’s biggest political party) should be seen partly as a reflection of a molecular shift to the left in British social and political attitudes. Political support for policies such as nationalisation of public utilities, progressive taxation and independence from the US in foreign policy have been matched in the social sphere by increasing tolerance of gay rights, mixed marriages and religious diversity. Trotskyists over multiple generations who have campaigned for these values, alongside inevitably greater numbers of non-Trotskyists, deserve a greater level of recognition than Kelly awards them.
Few would have predicted a generation ago that a visiting US President in 2018 would not be able to set foot in the capital city of his closest ally because of the fear of public opposition on a grand scale. This is the outcome of countless activists over many decades deploying Trotsky’s strategy of the united front – consciously or otherwise – to confront racism, sexism, militarism and all the other social pathogens embodied by Trump. Valid questions remain over the most appropriate organisational form for revolutionary socialists in the UK. It would be inconceivable, however, that whatever vehicle might emerge in the future would not include substantial input from the more-perspicacious followers of the Prophet who have absorbed the spirit, if not always the letter, of his message. In this sense, it might be said Trotskyism has become the untranscendable horizon of the modern British left.
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