John Archer (1909-2000)
JOHN Archer, who died aged 91 at his home in Upper Denby, near Huddersfield, on 23 December 2000, was an active Trotskyist for 66 years. He was born in Walthamstow, East London, on 25 October 1909. He came from the lower middle class: his father was an inspector of taxes, and his mother had been a teacher. The family was from near Leeds in Yorkshire. From 1919 to 1927, John attended the local Merchant Taylors grammar school. At the age of 18, he enrolled at the London School of Economics to read for the degree of Bachelor of Commerce.
Against a background of family difficulties, which had earlier precluded him from taking up a scholarship at Cambridge University, John dropped out of full-time study in 1929. He worked at a variety of jobs, with a tobacco company, at Harrods, and, for two years before he was made redundant, selling furniture at Peter Jones’ store in Sloane Square. He pursued his studies in his spare time, and took his degree in 1931. He worked for a year as a clerk with the Wheat Commission, an agricultural quango, before becoming a civil servant in the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, where he remained until 1951.
An unhappy family life, his break with his parents and their subsequent divorce, as well as the exigencies of making a living in the insecure and servile blackcoated world of work in the late 1920s made John an outsider. He was radicalised by the influence of the young Socialist students he met at the LSE and by the capitalist crisis which developed from 1929. In later years, he recalled the particular impact of the socialist ideas he picked up at open-air meetings of Communist and Labour Party orators, and the guidance of two of his fellow students at the LSE, Stuart Kirby, who was Secretary of the London University Labour Club, and John Rees, a former Welsh miner. In late 1929, Kirby joined the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). Denzil Dean Harber, then an acquaintance of Archer’s and in later years his strongest political influence, was also a member of the party. But John’s recollection was that he was a slow developer, awkward with ideas, and that no attempt was made to recruit him. By 1933, however, Kirby had left the CPGB and had joined the Trotskyist Communist League led by Reg Groves, Harry Wicks and Hugo Dewar. In the autumn of 1934, together with the Canadian Trotskyist and poet Earle Birney, with whom he shared a flat in Great Russell Street, Kirby recruited Archer to the Marxist Group, which was working within the Independent Labour Party (ILP).
The following year, the Ministry of Agriculture was looking for civil servants willing to transfer from London to the provinces, and John saw this as an opportunity to extend the work of the Trotskyists in the North of England. By this time, he had met Mary Miller Smith, who had begun studying at the LSE in 1931 when she was 19. They commenced a lifelong political and personal partnership which was terminated only by Mary’s death in 1983. Mary went north with John, working for a time as a social worker in Durham, and they were married in 1936.
John’s first port of call was Liverpool, where the Trotskyists had their strongest base outside London. Here he worked with the old seaman Henry Cund, who was the caretaker of the ILP club in St Hilda Street, the energetic Don James and the already veteran Socialist IP Hughes to build up the Marxist Group. He was elected from the East Liverpool ILP to the Lancashire Divisional Council, and was prominent locally in all the ILP’s controversies in 1935-36. But under his newly-acquired nomme-de-guerre PJ Barclay — civil servants were barred from political activity — he ranged as far afield as Hull and Durham, searching for recruits and making propaganda. To take one example, contemporary documents of the ILP leadership complain about the situation in the Dewsbury branch where ‘as a result of the influence of PJ Barclay a programme of lectures had been arranged including a number of Trotskyist speakers’. It was agreed to circulate the ILP leadership in the north, ‘authorising them to inform their branches that they should not accept advances made by Barclay’ (ILP NAC Minutes, 12 December 1936).
John and Mary arrived in Leeds in the long ago spring of 1936. By that autumn, in the wake of the movement of the Bolshevik-Leninists out of the ILP, they had established themselves in the Harehills Ward of Leeds North-East Labour Party. In December 1936, a piece by Mary arguing the case for the Fourth International appeared in the local Labour Party paper, the Leeds Weekly Citizen. The journal was soon noting: ‘John Barclay is one of the most controversial figures in local politics. Hated by some and admired by others.’ (Leeds Weekly Citizen, 23 September 1938) Among the admirers and recruits to what became known as the Militant Group were the popular Lance Lake, a young engineering worker and the son of John Willie Lake, one of the founders of the Labour Party in West Yorkshire, and Dulcie Yelland, the Secretary of Roundhay Ward Labour Party. Together with their companions Lily Lake and Charles Yelland, they would keep the Trotskyist flag flying in Leeds into the 1960s.
The Archers were also taken up by older, more prominent members of the local Labour establishment, by Len Williams, the full-time Secretary of the City Labour Party, and by Fred Shaw, the North Yorkshire organiser of the National Council of Labour Colleges (NCLC, the working-class educational organisation). Williams, a former Birkenhead railwayman who had been in the Young Communist League in the 1920s, was never, as Gerry Healy used to claim, a Trotskyist. But in the 1930s, he was still a long way from where he ended up as General Secretary of the Labour Party and Governor-General of Mauritius. He read the Trotskyist press in pursuit of his enmity towards the CPGB and his project of constructing a reformist anti-Stalinist, anti-Popular Front Marxism. It was to this end that he encouraged the Archers, with whom he enjoyed discussing Marx and Lenin and criticising the CPGB. But he speedily discarded them when Trotskyism as a critique of Stalinism passed over to Trotskyist organisation within the Labour Party.
Fred Shaw was Huddersfield born and bred; he had been the National Chairman of the British Socialist Party and a member of the first Executive Committee of the CPGB, which he left in 1923. Together with another respected Yorkshireman, the railway trade unionist Rowland Hill, Shaw signed the appeal for an international commission to investigate the persecution of Trotsky. His letters to the British Committee for the Defence of Leon Trotsky that commended the work of John Archer still survive in the Haston papers at the University of Hull. Tutoring NCLC classes provided John with a platform and the chance to gain invaluable experience in dialogue with a working-class audience.
In this milieu, the Archers were a striking and unusual couple. At six feet four, John dwarfed most workers as well as his five feet one partner. Mary, who found work in the clothing industry, was more feisty and gregarious, and John remembered that she moved more easily in working-class circles, despite her at times colourful language. In contrast, John was often insecure in company, and felt that his petit-bourgeois background and university education could count against him. He was impulsive, and sometimes too quick to anger. Together the Archers devoted themselves in an energetic, courageous and anti-Stalinist fashion to the causes of the time — Spain, anti-fascism, opposition to the looming war, and smuggling Jewish refugees from Berlin to Yorkshire. They felt recharged and invigorated by contact with their class of affiliation. The only shadow which fell over them in their exciting first year in Leeds was that of Gerry Healy. They first encountered the squat nemesis who would haunt their lives in the summer of 1937. Healy visited Yorkshire in connection with his employment, helping with open-air meetings and sales of the Militant. The minutes of the group’s national conference in August 1937 record Healy’s acceptance as a probationary member, proposed by Denzil Harber and seconded by John Archer.
The going, however, got harder. Despite widespread reservations, including John’s, the Leeds members of the new united Trotskyist group, the Revolutionary Socialist League, launched their open Labour Party organisation, the Militant Labour League, somewhat belatedly in September 1938. The precocious proclamation still survives. Issued under the signature of Lance Lake as Secretary and six members of the Labour League of Youth, it was immediately attacked by Williams, who brought it to the attention of the party’s General Secretary, JW Middleton. To Williams’ consternation, Middleton blandly but realistically reassured him that the MLL was not an organisation to worry about. Nonetheless, Williams now acted vindictively to marginalise the Archers, leaving John with a lifelong sense of betrayal.
The Archers played a leading rôle in the Socialist Anti-War Federation in Yorkshire. Half a century later, comrades remembered John striding through the busy Leeds traffic at the head of tiny demonstrations, a giraffe attired in a gas-mask in case he lost his job, as well as his intense preoccupation with air-raid shelters. In April 1940, John was expelled from the Labour Party. The casus belli was his intervention in a by-election in North-East Leeds. In accordance with the electoral truce, Labour abstained from standing its candidate Alice Bacon, leaving the field to the Conservatives and Sam Allen, a local pig farmer who won 722 votes for the British Union of Fascists. At the same time, Labour’s national leadership belatedly outlawed the MLL. John’s persecutor, Len Williams, attempted to have him banned from the NCLC classes which were now his main base, only to find that Fred Shaw could prove a powerful protector of his protégés.
In the first years of the Second World War, John became increasingly involved in the national affairs of the RSL, which had criticised his rashness in getting himself expelled from the Labour Party. The group was shrinking and increasingly polarised over the Proletarian Military Policy and much besides, between the Centre led by Harber, the Left Fraction and the Trotskyist Opposition led by John Lawrence. For a time, Mary acted as Secretary of the organisation, and John was Harber’s closest lieutenant. The surviving records suggest the crippling weakness of the Harber leadership. They show that John behaved at least as badly as everybody else as membership dwindled and the RSL lost out to its rival, the Workers International League.
Better days, if briefly, lay ahead. John was elected to the Central Committee of the Revolutionary Communist Party, created in 1944 through the fusion of the WIL and the RSL. For the next three years, John took an extremely conciliatory and constructive attitude towards the open party approach and the WIL-dominated RCP leadership. Envisaging that a turn to entering the Labour Party with leftward-moving workers would be necessary at some point in the future, he explicitly rejected substantial entry as an immediate perspective. Together with Harber, he forcefully criticised the strategy and tactics of the Healy minority. As late as 1947, he opposed in writing their case for entrism.
However, John was relatively isolated during these years. His work had taken him and Mary to Edinburgh in 1942. It was only after a further move to Blackpool in 1947 that he began to return to activity, based on Blackpool South Labour Party. Here he brought a number of young people to Trotskyism, notably Bob Pennington and Norman Winthrop. The ensuing disintegration of the RCP disoriented him, although he quickly perceived the potential for renewed engagement with entrism that was offered by the establishment of the Socialist Fellowship by the Manchester MP Ellis Smith in 1949, coming as it did hot on the heels of the launch of Healy’s Labour Party paper Socialist Outlook at the end of 1948. However, John had his doubts about Healy, and it was only after hesitations and discussions with the Grant-Deane group and Tony Cliff that in Easter 1951 he pledged allegiance to the leadership of Healy’s Club, the organisation that was chartered more than 18 months earlier as the successor to the RCP. Key factors in this were his shock at the conversion to reformism of Jock Haston, whom he had come to admire greatly, the failure of other RCP fragments adequately to condemn Haston, and centrally the promise that Healy and Lawrence held out of a serious approach to entrism and the support they enjoyed from the Fourth International. The Club’s accommodation to Stalinism did not seem to have bothered him, while he positively favoured what he saw as a necessary pedagogic accommodation to left reformism. For the next 10 years, he was a loyal supporter of the Healy leadership.
Politically and personally, John was looking for a change. His prayers were answered when in 1951 he was appointed to Fred Shaw’s old job as the North Yorkshire Organiser of the NCLC. The former PJ Barclay returned as John Archer after nine years absence with a minimum of Martin Guerre dramatics. The sins of his youth exculpated, the prodigal was quickly restored to membership of the Labour Party. The unrelenting surveillance of the CPGB recorded the limits of his repentance: ‘… he is gradually building up around him his old Trotskyist pals and using them in NCLC work.’ The report concluded with the paranoid touch of the times: ‘No visible evidence of pushing a definite Titoist line as yet.’ (Report on Titoism, CPGB archives)
The thrust of the report was correct. Within months, the Club was reorganised, revitalised and extended. Jack Gale, who was at Leeds University, was quickly recruited; he brought in Celia Holland and Ray Bradbury, who was at a teacher training college. Johnny Walls, an AEU convenor at a local engineering factory, the building workers Peter O’Grady and Terry Whelan, TGWU activist Michael Rooney, the tailoring worker Lewis Minkin, in later years an academic authority on the Labour Party, and, a year or two on, Norman Harding, joined the Club. Bob Pennington came across from Blackpool to work on the buses.
Progress was swift. It centred on a city Labour Party which still had 6000 members, in contrast to its anorexic counterpart in years to come. In 1954, to the alarm and consternation of the establishment and the bevy of Leeds right-wing MPs, Hugh Gaitskell, Denis Healey, Alice Bacon and Charles Pannell, Lance Lake defeated a prominent right-wing trade union official to become President and Chairman of the City party. This was no flash in the pan. With the right-wing mobilised, Mary Archer was only narrowly defeated in the contest in 1955 to succeed Lake. Mary, Lake, Dulcie Yelland and Ray Bradbury were all vocal delegates to the Labour Party’s Annual Conferences in the 1950s, culminating in Dulcie’s seconding of Vivienne Mendelson’s ‘ban the bomb’ motion in 1957.
The split in the Fourth International in 1953 seems to have produced minimal pondering in the activist group in Leeds, although there was some feeling that the rupture with John Lawrence and his supporters in Britain had been premature. Only George Gifford, a council worker who had known Lawrence since the 1940s, went with the Pabloite faction. The proscription of Socialist Outlook by the Labour Party Executive in 1954 was also taken in its stride; it failed, at least in Leeds, to disrupt the Club’s progress. Some 20 ‘supporters’ of the paper signed loyalty pledges; they then quietly continued as before, seeking to turn Tribune to their purposes. By the mid-1950s, the reports of Labour Party organisers referred, routinely and with resignation, to the fact that around a third of the delegates to the City party’s leading body were members of the Trotskyist faction.
In those years of developing boom and muted class struggle, of Eden and Macmillan, Ronnie Hilton, in the days before rock’n’roll, Wilfred Pickles, JB Priestley, in the days before angry young men, John Braine and Room at the Top, Len Hutton and John Charles, the Club clung doggedly to their enduring perspective of impending capitalist instability. They brought to Leeds frontline fighters in the colonial struggle, such as Cheddi Jagan, as well as leaders of the labour movement in Algeria and Sri Lanka and the American Trotskyist Farrell Dobbs. They felt themselves vindicated when the 1958 conference of the Cannon-Healy-Lambert International Conference for the Fourth International, attended by delegates from Argentina, Chile, Canada, Germany, Switzerland and the USA, was held in the bustling Yorkshire city — some of the meetings taking place at the Archer’s home.
John Archer, who was concentrating on his work in the NCLC, emerged completely unscathed from the proscription of the paper. Party organisers noted: ‘Since his reappearance in Leeds he has been an out-of-sight mainspring of Trotskyist activities.’ (City Party files) Despite the crudities and fundamentalism of the Club’s politics, the Leeds experience repays further study. For it was in many ways an exemplary essay in entrism which, in an important if limited sense, enabled the Trotskyists to take on the rôle the Bevanites played elsewhere. The Lakes and the Yellands were well known, well liked, organic elements; Jennie Siddle was a vital, indefatigable Labour Party worker; Pennington was the tearaway, tough guy youth leader; Gale and Bradbury were emerging Trotskyist cadres; Mary Archer was an object of admiration across the party for her organising abilities and her stamina as a canvasser; and the lawyer Ron Sedler was an urbane homme d’affairs.
John provided what has all too often been absent from such situations — the patient, understanding educator who took the time and pains to develop the group’s contacts and transform its new recruits in a political manner. Moreover, the NCLC provided a still significant entrance into the Yorkshire labour movement, a network of contacts and the opportunity to train speakers and to win further members. As a result of this work, he was approved by the National Executive in May 1954 — as the attack on Socialist Outlook developed — as Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Scarborough and Whitby. It was a safe Conservative seat, but John distinguished himself against Alexander Spearman, the sitting Tory MP, taking 10 500 votes and 22 per cent of the poll.
Visibility and success inevitably produces a counter-offensive, and John Archer was no exception to the rule. Through 1955, the Labour Party orchestrated a series of complaints about his activities to the NCLC leadership. The final flashpoint was the struggle over the breakaway of dockers in the northern ports from the TGWU in order to join the Stevedores and Dockers Union. In early 1956, John brought up Harry Constable, a Club member and leader of the breakaway, to speak at an NCLC group at Hemsworth in the Yorkshire coalfield. The left-wing TGWU leader Frank Cousins made a formal complaint to JP Millar. For the NCLC General Secretary, who had defended John against Labour Party pressure, this was a bridge too far. He was dismissed because ‘he had involved the NCLC in the dispute and had rendered it impossible for him to be considered an objective and impartial teacher and so had rendered it impossible for him to function as an NCLC organiser’ (NCLC EC Minutes, 17 March 1956). Changed times: the early NCLC used to have the motto: ‘I promise to be candid — but not impartial.’
A fight for reinstatement was unsuccessful. For the next three years, John worked as a school teacher in Yorkshire. The Club remained strong. Lance Lake and Sedler were elected as city councillors, and John played a significant pedagogical rôle in bringing in new recruits from the CPGB in Leeds, most notably Cliff Slaughter and Alasdair McIntyre. But at the very time that patience was primary, the Club’s leadership cracked. Under the pressure of growth, a small upturn in industrial militancy and the ‘open partyism’ of new recruits, the weaknesses inherent in their politics came to the surface. They succumbed to what James Cannon pertinently diagnosed as the first symptoms of an ‘Oehlerite binge’, and a turn to sectarianism and ultra-leftism which would increasingly accelerate over the coming years.
The declaration of the Socialist Labour League (SLL) in February 1959 signalled the beginning of a new turn to open work. Advertised as a response to attacks on the Trotskyists in the Labour Party, it simply exacerbated their predicament. In Leeds, the Labour right assiduously noted down the names of all who attended the foundation meeting. The speedy proscription of the SLL by the party’s NEC opened out to attack all those selling its paper, the Newsletter. In April, expulsion proceedings were initiated against nine leading members, including John and Mary Archer. It is indicative of Healy’s thinking at the time that he had already decided to move John from Leeds to London to play a leading rôle in the SLL’s national education work. When John was expelled from the Labour Party for a second time in June 1959, at a special meeting at the Leeds Trades Hall attended by the National Agent Sara Barker, he was not present to fight his corner. He had been in London since April. Many Trotskyists remained in the Labour Party in Leeds, but their activities were compromised by the expulsions. Their entry work was undermined at the very time when big fights over the H-bomb and Clause 4 were developing, when a left opposition to Gaitskell was crystallising, when conflicts were intensified locally by the presence in Leeds of Gaitskell and luminaries of the Campaign for Democratic Socialism, and when the best place to fight matters out was within the still powerful and active Labour Party.
John settled in London, finding work as a teacher, appropriately in a school in Balham. He missed Leeds, but he was soon joined by Mary and their two sons, Peter and Bob. At first, things went well with the work at Clapham High Street. Inevitably, relations with Healy deteriorated. The problems were compounded by differences over campaigns in the National Union of Teachers, and over the centre’s insistence on showing the public face of the SLL through demonstrations, meetings and leaflets despite their lack of any base. Healy’s slander machine went into overdrive. In the face of ultra-left catastrophism and personal hostility, John entered a period of depression; he felt that the best political times of his life were over. He drifted away from the SLL, formalising the breach in 1963. Mary left a year later, as the SLL finalised its break with the Labour Party.
The Archers concentrated on their professional lives. Mary became a social worker, and they both became active in Wood Green Labour Party. Both Peter and Bob remained active in the SLL. Peter’s death in a road accident in 1967 was the cause of great sorrow. In an attempt to understand his past, John began to study revolutionary history, facilitated by the chance that the college at which he taught was incorporated in 1967 into the Polytechnic of Central London. He was encouraged in this by Pierre Broué. After his retirement in 1975, he continued to trawl British libraries, and consulted the Trotsky Archive at Harvard and the Socialist Workers Party collection then in New York. In 1979, he was awarded a doctorate for his thesis Trotskyism in Britain 1931-1937. In the early 1980s, he organised several conferences under the rubric of The Study of Leon Trotsky and the History of the Revolutionary Movement, and translated for an British audience key articles from Broué’s Cahiers Léon Trotsky. When Revolutionary History appeared in 1988, he became a member of its Editorial Board despite his differences with its animators over how to interpret the history of the anti-Stalinist left.
After Mary’s death in 1983, John returned to his beloved Yorkshire. He enjoyed a second happy marriage to Winifred Wheable. But he remained politically active to the end. In 1973, he began discussions with Robin Blick and Mark Jenkins, who had broken from Healyism. As a result, he joined the Bulletin Group and subsequently the Socialist Labour Group, organisations aligned with Pierre Lambert’s Organising Committee for the Reconstruction of the Fourth International. The SLG briefly fused with the Mandelite International Socialist Group. Perhaps appropriately, for he had attended a conference of the French Trotskyists as long ago as 1937, spoke the language fluently and had a fondness for things French, the connection endured. In the meetings he addressed in his last years, whether to commemorate Bob Pennington or the sixtieth anniversary of the Fourth International, he propagandised for the Lambertists, and to the last strove to build a British section.
John Archer had great reservoirs of political courage. He was a man of strong principle, political stamina and, particularly for those he was easy with, humour, kindly and acerbic according to occasion. To the end of his life, he pondered the rôle of the Labour Party in revolutionary strategy, the historical experience of entrism, the relationship between entry work and open work, and the form and content of work within the Labour Party. He wrestled continually with these problems, if he never solved them. Into his last years, he enjoyed a morning of political discussion and reminiscence in his home in the isolated hamlet of Upper Denby, followed by lunch in the local pub, and then further discussion, rounded off with a bottle of French wine.
When he was asked what epitaph he would like, after discoursing on the mistakes he had made and characterising himself emphatically as a foot soldier — ‘only a lance corporal’ — he invariably quoted the Old Man: ‘I shall die a proletarian revolutionary, a Marxist… My faith in the Communist future of mankind is not less ardent, indeed it is firmer today than it was in the days of my youth.’ There is surely no more fitting envoi for a fighter who followed Leon Trotsky all his days. It is with a deep sense of loss that the Editorial Board of Revolutionary History sends its condolences to Win and Bob and the rest of John’s family and friends.
H H H
Harry Ratner adds
John McIlroy’s very full and informative appreciation of John Archer’s life will be much appreciated by those who knew and worked with him, and will give those who did not know him a vivid glimpse of the experiences and problems faced by revolutionary Marxists of John’s generation. I would like to add my own recollections of both John and Mary.
I joined the Militant Group, to which John and Mary belonged, in 1936, and although they lived in Leeds and I in London, we did meet, and I noted that they were already held in high esteem. The split-off of the Workers International League in 1938, which found the Archers and I on different sides, and my subsequent move to France and service abroad in the forces meant that our paths did not converge again until the Revolutionary Socialist League and the WIL fused to form the Revolutionary Communist Party in 1944.
When the RCP Minority split off to enter the Labour Party, our paths diverged again. As McIlroy has pointed out, John was at the time opposed to the Minority, and with the disintegration of the RCP John and Mary were relatively isolated during 1947-50. In 1950 or 1951, John and Mary joined the Club, as the old RCP Minority led by Healy, which had joined the Labour Party, was now called. McIlroy says he did this after hesitations and discussions with the Grant-Deane group and Tony Cliff, but he does not mention that after these discussions I visited them in Blackpool. I like to think that I also had some influence upon their decision to join the Club. Their attitude was expressed in a letter to me some years later, in which John wrote:
Mary and I always regarded ourselves as responsible to the RCP — however dubiously we may have been regarded. It seemed normal to us to join the Club in 1950 when comrades like yourself were informing us about what was going on. You and Bert Karpin helped to convince us that the Club represented the continuation of what we wanted. On the one hand, we wanted to pursue and extend experience of ‘entry’ work. Mary was secretary of the Blackpool South CLP, in which I was also active, and when Healy came up we had three local men, engineering workers, for him to talk to. On the other hand, we rejected ‘state capitalism’. From our experience in the 1930s, state caps were anti-Trotskyists. From our preceding Labour Party work we had the quite clear conception that only by ‘entrism’ would it, in the given conditions, be possible to put together that nucleus of working-class militants who could form the basis, in due course, after breaking out of the Labour Party, become strong enough to force the Labour Party into a united front. Who but Healy could offer us the chance to do so?
For the next 10 years, from 1950 to 1960, John and Mary’s work in the Labour Party in Leeds and mine and Olive’s in Salford Labour Party ran in parallel. Leeds and Salford Labour Parties were those in which the influence and impact of Trotskyism were the strongest in the country, apart from Birmingham, where Harry Finch was active, and a couple of local parties in London. Then, from 1959 onwards, with the launching of the Socialist Labour League and the provoking of quite unnecessary expulsions from the Labour Party, this work was cut across.
After 1960, when I left the SLL, the political paths of the Archers and I diverged. Despite this, John was quite supportive of my decision to publish my memoirs, and we remained in contact in the 1990s, both us being on the Editorial Board of Revolutionary History. However, during the last two years of his life, his attitude towards me cooled considerably as I distanced myself more and more from Trotskyist orthodoxy, while John remained committed to the ‘Lambertist’ version of Trotskyism. John could be very sharp at times towards those he regarded as renegades. Despite this, I continued to respect him, and my overall memory and assessment of John Archer is of a man who remained true to his beliefs to the end. Whether or not his attempts turn out to be endorsed by history, one thing is certain — John Archer was one of those who dedicated his life to the struggle for a happier society.
H H H
To remind our readers of John Archer’s extensive contribution to the history of Trotskyism, we print here one of his articles which first appeared in French in the Cahiers Léon Trotsky (no 16, December 1983, pp54-78).
Britain: Entrism and the Labour Party, 1931-1937
HE British Section of the International Left Opposition was formed around the end of 1931, after Pierre Naville, Albert Glotzer and Max Shachtman had visited several militants who discussed the problems presented by Stalinism from differing viewpoints. The first Trotskyist group, the Balham Group, was wholly proletarian, drawing in Communists seeking to overcome the obstacles by which the Third Period prevented Communist influence from growing. They owed much to the Communist League of America, the Militant and Pioneer Publishers.
The Stalinist apparatus drove them out of the Communist Party in the autumn of 1932. During 1933, some 40 militants began discussing the difficulties of establishing themselves in the workers’ movement. The first issue of the Red Flag appeared in May. They concurred with the international turn to forming new parties and a new International, and declared themselves to be the Communist League.
The Communist Party had always been small, theoretically immature, politically heterogeneous and under great pressure from the belated development of the Labour Party. In 1924-25, it fell an easy victim to Stalinism. By 1931, few of the experienced militants of its early years were still active, and they had mostly been absorbed into its apparatus.
The first British Trotskyists were young, and were therefore cut off from actual experience of the Communist International in Lenin’s lifetime. Nor had they the means to analyse the experiences and debates of the organisations which preceded the Communist Party in Britain.
Their disputes, which were their only means to determine how to penetrate the mass movement, were inevitably marked by leftism and syndicalism, despite their serious efforts to master such of Lenin’s writings as they could get, as well as Trotsky’s writings, mainly those on the united front in Germany. Earlier works by Trotsky, which the Communist Party published or circulated up to 1926, had become rare.
Nonetheless, the efforts of the Trotskyists in the 1930s have won them a distinctive place in the history of the labour movement, which cannot be obliterated and to which ample documentation bears witness. They mounted a principled opposition to Social Democracy and Stalinism, when no one else did. Where today are the heroes of Brandler’s Communist Opposition, the London Bureau and the Militant Socialist International who stood in their way? Even today, leading figures claiming to express something of Trotskyism in Britain cannot solve the problems which the Trotskyists set themselves in the 1930s, and hunt for self‑justification in texts recovered from decades of oblivion.
- II. The Problems Presented by the Independent Labour Party
The Communist League helped during 1933 to break up a Brandlerite faction in the Independent Labour Party. This was the Revolutionary Policy Committee, some of whose members came to the Fourth International. It also contributed to the formation of the cadre which later founded the Lanka Sama Samaja Party in Ceylon.
However, the League broke apart at the end of 1933, after having been dishonestly misinformed by Witte, a representative of the International Secretariat who deserted the movement a few weeks later. Trotsky was greatly disappointed. The Majority, which could not resolve the problem of applying Trotsky’s proposal that the greater part of the forces of the League should enter the ILP, followed a divergent course from that of the Minority, some 15 of the younger and less experienced Trotskyists, who entered the ILP early in 1934. The IS then recognised both groups as ‘sympathisers’, in order to protect the ILP entrists from being attacked as ‘agents of an outside body’. The Majority misinterpreted the ‘demotion’ as a ‘punishment’ for rejecting Trotsky’s advice, a misunderstanding which persisted, and led to difficulties in 1936-37.
The Minority hoped to test in struggle whether they could ally themselves with the militants in the ILP who had already showed that they were developing in a revolutionary direction. They hoped to break up the uneasy accommodations between Stalinism and the centrist leadership of Jimmy Maxton and Fenner Brockway, and, at best, to win the ILP to seek a new relation with the rank and file of the Labour Party and the trade unions in a struggle against reformism, and to break the influence of Stalinism, which was paralysing the ILP militants by isolating them from the mass movement.
In November 1934, the Minority drew its periphery, of about 100 people, into the Marxist Group in the ILP. This group produced eight issues of its Marxist Bulletin addressed to ILP members, in the following 14 months. Some who joined were not convinced in advance of the need to call on the ILP to declare for the Fourth International, but the work of the group was based on the documents of the International Communist League.
This group attracted some who had earlier taken part in the struggle in 1931-32 for the disaffiliation of the ILP from the Labour Party, which Trotsky approved. Anyone who opposed disaffiliation was automatically aligned with reformism and with acceptance of the Standing Orders imposed on the Parliamentary Labour Party by the reformist leadership. Some had already known Red Flag, and welcomed the entry of the Minority. They were an advance‑guard of a much more widespread movement in the working class, on whom the sudden realisation had burst in 1933 that the consequences of Hitler’s victory were far more serious than the hacks of Social Democracy and Stalinism had recognised. ‘Democratic illusions’ were by no means destroyed by the victory of Nazism. On the contrary, the sentiment to defend the past gains of the workers’ movement and democratic institutions was greatly strengthened. In 1933 and 1934, the Labour Party won back in elections much of the ground lost to the National Coalition in 1931.
At the end of 1934, the international Stalinist apparatus launched attacks of unprecedented ferocity against the Trotskyist groups outside Russia. These were based on the Soviet reports following the assassination of the Leningrad party boss, Sergei Kirov: Trotskyists were alleged to have been accomplices of Hitler in plots to overthrow the Soviet state, and the ground was prepared for the still more serious attacks which followed the Moscow Trials of 1936-38.
The Marxist Group quickly riposted by publishing its own translation of Trotsky’s pamphlet The Kirov Assassination, and reached the peak of its influence in the spring of 1935. The ILP, however, had already reached an advanced stage of decomposition, to which the reports from Russia contributed. They encouraged the illusion that the only way to defend the revolution and the results of Soviet construction was to rally uncritically to Stalinism. They also fed anti-Marxist scepticism, which argued that if acts of terrorism took place in Russia, they resulted inevitably from Leninism, and so the Trotskyists must share responsibility for them, and the victims were as much to blame as their persecutors. Either conclusion helped to demoralise militants.
Speculation arose as to whether the Soviet Union should be labelled as ‘state capitalist’, and to suggest that the production‑relations did not differ, in an historical sense, from those in imperialist countries. This view was met with only in centrist circles that were hostile to Trotskyism.
In the summer of 1935, the Marxist Group began to discuss leaving the ILP and entering the Labour Party. However, with the approach of the general election in November 1935, the group decided to try to effect an alliance with the centrist leaders of the ILP. Hitherto, it had called upon the ILP to support all Labour candidates, except in certain places in the Glasgow area where the ILP had an historical claim and where the workers regarded Labour candidates as disruptive. In the hope of avoiding support for social‑patriotism, the Marxist Group now decided to call for support for all ILP candidates and for only a very few, pacifist Labour candidates.
Conditional support for Labour candidates (such as is embodied in the formula ‘Labour to Power on a Socialist Programme’), implying support for some but not for others, or for none, was a mistake, which was to have serious consequences, even though the group was not large and could not influence the election results.
The Labour Party leadership showed up miserably, recovering only some 120 seats, but the Marxist Group isolated itself from the general movement to get rid of the reactionary government, leaving a space in the Labour Party which the Stalinists eagerly filled.
The results strengthened the reformist right wing. They also fed the opportunistic idea that effective opposition to the government needed a Popular Front of the Labour Party, the Communist Party and certain Liberals. The Labour leaders vehemently opposed these proposals, not because they objected on principle to collaboration with bourgeois parties, but because they saw no reason to share their control of the labour movement and the personal benefits of being the sole negotiators for the masses with the bourgeoisie. Before the elections, they had agreed with the Conservatives to strengthen the powers of the police and to start preparing for rearmament. Their noisy denunciations of the Stalinists obscured all questions of principle, and enabled the latter to masquerade as ‘progressives’.
Soon after the elections, the Marxist Group decided that its policy had been wrong, but the problem was not thoroughly discussed, and its perspective remained unclear. Leftist tendencies began to question, not merely whether on principle revolutionaries should ever support Labour candidates, but whether they should ever enter mass reformist parties. Nor did the capitulation of the Marxist Group to the centrists win them any respect from the latter.
III. The Majority in 1934
The Red Flag that was published in the spring of 1934 made an important criticism of the ultra-leftism of the Communist Party and the ILP leadership. In this, Reg Groves hailed the success of the Labour Party, which for the first time had won control of the London County Council, presenting it as a proletarian reply to the reactionary violence which drove Social Democracy from controlling Berlin and, only a few days before, Vienna. Another of his articles began to estimate the significance of Rajani Palme Dutt, the theoretician of the Communist Party, and his mechanical, Bukharinist conception of Marxism.
The Majority then tried to extend its influence by adopting a course towards liquidationism. Its members were to be free to choose their own perspective, and to occupy themselves in whatever sector of the labour movement they preferred. They should meet, not to work out a common line, but as ‘friends’ to exchange opinions.
Groves joined the Labour Party. Red Flag was discontinued, and the Communist League dissolved. Groves entered the Socialist League, a heterogeneous gathering of left reformists and centrists, led by the rich lawyer, Stafford Cripps. This was formed, and was recognised by the Labour Party, in the autumn of 1932, largely from the opponents of disaffiliation in the ILP. However, it had evolved towards the left by 1934, and produced several statements rejecting the Labour Party’s official policy of reliance on the League of Nations as an agency for peace. It refused in advance to support British imperialism in a future imperialist war which, it warned, would be presented as ‘defending democracy’ or even ‘defending Soviet Russia’. Its leadership was petit-bourgeois, but it was a nationally recognised organisation of some 4000 members, and not without roots in the working class. In 1934-36 it could have been decisive as a centre for working‑class opposition to imperialist war.
- The Labour Party League of Youth
While such supporters of the former Majority as remained carried on almost without contact with the IS or the Marxist Group, a third Trotskyist tendency emerged in the Labour Party League of Youth towards the end of 1935. The Labour Youth League had experienced remarkable growth, to which not merely hatred of the Conservatives but fear of war and of fascism contributed. In the summer of 1934, the Young Communist League attracted a strong following by its exposure that the foreign policy of the reformists meant that young workers would have to fight their fellow‑workers in the forces of the enemies of British imperialism in a war sanctioned as ‘just’ by the League of Nations.
Then, in September 1934, the Soviet Union joined the League of Nations! The anti‑war faction in the Labour League of Youth broke up, and the Trotskyists, led by Roma Dewar, attracted important forces. Charles van Gelderen from South Africa and Ken Alexander from Canada joined them towards the end of 1935, and they worked with a small group led by Denzil Dean Harber, which had earlier left the Marxist Group to join the Labour Party. With the help of members of the Marxist Group, they began to produce the Trotskyist youth paper, Youth Militant, directed towards the Labour Youth.
They believed that entry into the Labour League of Youth would necessarily have a short-term perspective. The reformists and the Stalinists could not tolerate their activity, and they had to be alert to seize the best moment to forestall the inevitable expulsions and lead a breakaway.
- Spring 1936: The Crisis of the Marxist Group
In November 1935, Alexander and another Canadian comrade, Robertson (Earle Birney), visited Trotsky in Norway, where they discussed a proposal that the Marxist Group should launch a campaign to establish precisely what influence it had in the ILP, so that it could decide within two or three months whether or not to prepare at once to enter the Labour Party. Signatures were to be collected for a manifesto; it would be in several paragraphs, and ILP members would be asked to subscribe only to those with which they agreed. Robertson reported that Trotsky believed that the Marxist Group had been correct to act with prudence, but that the situation had been changed by the cooling of relations between the ILP and the Stalinists, and the sharp differences which the approach of war was causing between pacifists and revolutionaries. Sections of the manifesto could call on the ILP to create factions in the Labour Party, trade unions and Cooperative organisations; to send its small youth section into the Labour League of Youth; to repudiate pacifism by means of a special conference (this section would not mention the Fourth International); and to acknowledge the bankruptcy of the London Bureau and to declare for the Fourth International.
If the Centrist leadership tried to suppress the Marxist Group, it would reply by leading a fight for inner‑party democracy. Robertson reported Trotsky’s opinions:
Stalinism entrenched in the youth of the Labour Party will be the most ruthless enemy we could face… Even if the main work with the masses, as you believe, can now be carried on through trade union and cooperative work, without actual membership of the Labour Party, this condition may not last; nor should the Marxist Group count too much upon the Labour Party left wing splitting and coming into the ILP.
Trotsky also suggested that the four ILP Members of Parliament ought to use parliament, not as individual improvisers, but as the bearers of the slogans and platform of the party. Internationalist declarations made by them would have world‑wide impact. The Marxist Group should also take up a suggestion (by Fenner Brockway during the short period in which Maxton allowed him to advocate mobilising British workers to prevent the bourgeoisie from supporting the Italian aggression on Abyssinia with war materials) that Committees of Action be formed as bridges between official and unofficial strikes, and between revolutionary groups and the mass organisations.
Some members of the Marxist Group, however, hoped to stay indefinitely in the ILP. Arguing that it offered a basis for anti‑war propaganda, they questioned whether ‘on principle’ they ought ever to join the Labour Party under its openly social‑patriotic leadership. Others hoped to win more support in the ILP, or even to win it as a whole. Some believed that the centrists would soon drive them out of the ILP, and wanted to form a new, ‘open’ group. Others again vacillated between these viewpoints.
The political roots of these differences lay, firstly, in the conflict between the ‘pull’ of the struggles in the Labour Party and the leftist methods encouraged in the Third Period, and, secondly, in the atmosphere of the ILP itself, bankrupt and disintegrated, and in the disappointment of their hopes.
On 18 December 1935, the Executive Committee of the Marxist Group agreed ‘after considerable discussion’ to recommend launching a decisive campaign up to the Annual Conference of the ILP at Easter 1936, that organisers in the Labour League of Youth, and that Robertson should negotiate with Harber and Groves to set up a broad committee. The members agreed, but they also agreed a motion from CLR James that ‘we do not recommend that all contacts go into the Labour League of Youth’.
In February 1936, Peter Schmidt came to London. He was a former leader of the left in the Dutch Social Democratic Party and a member of the International Secretariat. As Trotsky feared, he discouraged preparations for shifting the Trotskyist forces into the Labour Party. Shortly before returning to the New World at the end of February, Robertson again proposed that the members of the Marxist Group should join the Labour Party individually, join the Trotskyists there, create the editorial board for an ‘independent’ paper, and, with these ends in view, pursue the campaign around the manifesto. Discussion of his motion was refused, and little appears to have been done to organise the ‘campaign’.
- The Conferences at Easter 1936
While the Marxist Group hesitated, the entrists in the Labour League of Youth and the Labour Party formed the clandestine Bolshevik‑Leninist Group in the Labour Party in mid‑March 1936. They defined its object as being:
To disseminate in the so‑called ‘organised’ labour movement the principles of the Trotskyists, to form a wider group around certain points and build up a ‘militant’ wing to advocate openly the Fourth International and its whole programme.
Youth Militant had four delegates at the conference of the Labour League of Youth at Easter, and another four were followers of Groves. Their prospects seemed favourable; in the leadership elections, a reformist headed the poll with 160 votes out of 180, Ted Willis (then the leading Stalinist agent, who was in due course elevated to the House of Lords) won 120 votes, and Roma Dewar won 90 votes, which, as Alexander told Trotsky, ‘about illustrates the relation of forces’.
The reformist bureaucrats, alarmed at the oppositional tendencies influenced both by Trotskyism and Stalinism in the Labour Youth League, confronted the conference with a demand that the maximum age for membership be reduced to 21, and that members must not make political declarations. These proposals were laid before the annual conference of the Labour Party six months later, which accepted them, but they overshadowed the youth conference, where the Stalinists were able to present their political capitulation to reformism as a move for ‘unity’, in the light of which the proposals of the right wing were not an act of policy but were merely ‘unreasonable’. The conference accepted a proposal to ‘struggle for peace’ by way of ‘councils’ combining representatives of the Labour Youth with those of the Young Communist League and of such bourgeois organisations as the Boy Scouts.
The Marxist Group, on the contrary, suffered a heavy defeat at the conference of the ILP which took place at the same time. The central political debate was on a motion supporting independent working‑class activity to prevent Italian imperialism from receiving war materials for use against Abyssinia. The opener was CLR James, whose remarkable oratory brought out the international significance of the struggles of oppressed peoples for self‑determination and the duties of workers in imperialist countries. The motion was carried against the leadership by 70 votes to 57, a political defeat for the pacifists, whose slogan of ‘a plague on both their houses’ rejected responsibility for defending Abyssinia, and allowed them to regret the war without opposing, except in words, those who made or profited from it.
The result was important, not as providing practical help, for which it came too late, but as showing that a ‘bloc’ of Trotskyists with anti‑Trotskyist centrists wanted to win the ILP to ‘resist war’, not by individual, pacifist abstention, but by challenging the grip of the reformist leaders on the workers’ organisations.
Maxton well knew what was at stake. At once he declared that the four ILP Members of Parliament would leave the party if they had to support this decision. Brockway then saved the day: in order to ‘preserve the unity of the party’, he let the question be referred to a ‘plebiscite’ of the whole party membership. There was a tradition for this device for avoiding hard decisions far back in the past of the ILP. It was obviously intended to mobilise the backward, inactive and superannuated members against the Trotskyists, but the left centrists refused to break with the pacifists, and the proposal was carried by a large majority.
The Trotskyists then suffered further defeats, culminating in overwhelming support for the London Bureau against the Fourth International. A ‘democratic’ cover having been provided for submerging the ILP’s principles, the MPs could now protect themselves from having to apologise for their tolerance of Trotskyists in the party. A motion was passed prohibiting organised factions or the distribution of factional literature in the ILP, aimed directly at preventing the Trotskyists from presenting their viewpoint in the ‘plebiscite’. The Stalinists had been unable to sustain the fiction that they were a ‘loyal opposition’, and had left the ILP; the Centrists were then able to dispense with the Trotskyists, whom they no longer needed as a counterweight to the Stalinists.
At once, the Marxist Group proposed to the left centrists (who enthusiastically supported the ‘ban’ on groups) a joint campaign to win the plebiscite, in the hope that their organising work up and down the country would make them a rallying-point. In fact there was little to rally. Brockway phrased the questions in the ‘plebiscite’ so as to obscure the issues, and the leadership won by a majority of some three to two in a poll of about 1750, or, according to another account, by 740 to 555.
VII. The ‘Geneva’ Conference and the Discussions in the Autumn of 1936
The First International Conference for the Fourth International, the so‑called ‘Geneva’ Conference, was held on 29-31 July 1936. The Marxist Group was represented by James (whom it had elected in preference to Bert Matlow, because the latter favoured organised withdrawal from the ILP). Harber represented the Bolshevik‑Leninist Group in the Labour Party, and the delegation from Britain included at least two others.
Trotsky had done his best, without success, to secure the presence of a representative of Groves’ group; after the conference Braun, a member of the International Secretariat, wrote to him wryly:
From what has happened, I must declare that the Groves group, in order to create an impression of sincerity, is really using your articles just for purposes of decoration, à la Nin. Groves’ group did not really fail on financial grounds to send a representative, because one of their people [Dewar — JA] went at the same time to the Olympiad at Barcelona.
The Bolshevik‑Leninist Group contributed a statement entitled ‘British Perspectives’ to the conference; this contained the most developed formulation of the ‘entrist’ perspective up to that time, probably drafted by Harber:
The present economic situation in Britain is characterised by a definite ‘boom‑let’, partly due to the inevitable upward tendency which has followed the 1929-33 crisis, and partly to the great expansion of armaments… No immediate return to crisis conditions is to be looked for… It seems probable we are on the threshold of a strike wave… due to the increasing militancy which usually accompanies an upward economic turn… [which] will bring about a definite leftward swing in the political movement, thus reversing the order of events in France. Under pressure from below, the labour leaders will be forced to show the semblance of a fight and ‘lead’ the workers in order to betray them. The first results of such a ‘left’ turn… will be the flocking of masses of workers into the trade unions and the Labour Party… in the measure that the masses lose confidence in the Labour Party leadership through experience of its betrayals, large sections will turn to what seems to them the revolutionary alternative, the Communist Party… It does not seem probable that the Socialist League will play an important part in the swing to the left… its influence is growing in the industrial areas… this process is not sufficiently rapid… Work in the ILP has now become entirely unproductive… our fight cannot be won by remaining shut up in a minute centrist ‘party’ and waiting for the masses to get disillusioned with reformism and Stalinism of their own accord… We must go to the masses, interpreting their own experiences to them, until the time is ripe to break away to form… the British Section of the Fourth International.
CLR James made a great personal impression on the ‘Geneva’ Conference, but the resolution which emerged from the British Commission, and which it approved, spoke of:
… a most urgent necessity to effect in the shortest possible period of time the unification of the three English groups… The experience inside the ILP should be brought to a close, and the group now functioning within that organisation should transfer its field of operations to the mass organisations, specifically to the Labour Party and the Labour League of Youth. The Bolshevik‑Leninists in the ILP could carry on trade union work, but they could do this far more effectively if they were not associated in the minds of the workers with the bankrupt ILP. Membership of the ILP sets up an impenetrable wall between the Bolshevik‑Leninists and the mass youth movement… The concrete means of effecting their departure from the ILP and their entry into the Labour Party and the Youth organisation, as well as effecting the unification of the forces of the Fourth International in England within the Labour Party, must be left to the English comrades to elaborate…
Two conferences in London, on 10-11 October 1936, discussed the ‘Geneva’ resolution, and there the real political differences, latent in the discussion and going far beyond any personal differences between the three tendencies, began to be probed. To the meeting on 10 October, a conference of the Marxist Group, James brought all those whom he believed to oppose total entry into the Labour Party, numbering 34. He advanced an all‑embracing proposal, that the three groups should fuse, and that the resulting group, which would not be strong enough to work completely in the open, would do fraction work both in the Labour Party and in the ILP. The perspective of work of these fractions had, it appears, not been considered, beyond ‘gathering forces’ for the new, ‘independent’ group. The Labour Party would be the main field of work, but no members would be asked to leave the ILP if they did not wish to do so. The new group would adopt and sell the new journal which James had managed to produce on his own initiative, and which called openly for the Fourth International.
Against James, Sam Collins, the taxi‑driver who visited Trotsky earlier in the summer and produced the well‑known ‘Interview on British Problems’ (Writings of Leon Trotsky 1935-36, p377) supported the letter of the ‘Geneva’ proposals. Arthur Cooper, who wanted the main concentration to be on a longer stay in the ILP, forced an admission from James that he did not think that the ILP would soon collapse, and that he thought it to be the best platform for revolutionary propaganda.
Harber, who was there as a fraternal delegate from his group, then extracted from James the admission that, though he had taken part in drafting the ‘Geneva’ resolution, he did not interpret it as those who drafted it had intended. Here was a great step towards clarity. The voting for his proposal was 11 against 10. The meeting then elected a new leadership for the Marxist Group, which made a futile effort to bind all those present to support James’ proposals at the joint meeting of all the groups the following day, whether they agreed with them or not.
On 11 October, the ‘Conference of All the British Bolshevik‑Leninists’ opened with a report from the Harber-Alexander Group. This claimed some 60 members in London, 40 of them in the Labour League of Youth. Sales of Youth Militant had reached 800 with the October issue. The increase in membership had come from the rank and file of the Labour Party, besides a few from the Marxist Group and 13 ex‑members of the Communist Party. The statement declared:
We are agreed on the principle of fusion… on the basis of the Geneva Conference… We have been approaching the Marxist League (Groves Group) for a joint members’ meeting… these efforts have been unsuccessful… with respect to the Marxist Group, we have endeavoured to arrange joint activity on specific subjects, recognising the impossibility of fusion with the existing political differences… The James resolution… with its insistence that the main field of work is in the Labour Party provides a basis for at least a discussion of the possibility of fusion of all the groups…
Groves’ group, the Marxist League, gave no information about its size or activity. It expressed the opinion that ‘the period for exclusive work in the Labour Party is drawing to a close’, and suggested:
The comrades in the ILP draw up a programme of action for the ILP work and set to work to win the ILP members to it… It would be fantastic for the comrades of the ILP to break with that body because it refuses to support the Fourth International and then to join the Labour Party… We must secure an effective swinging‑over of as much of the ILP as possible to united work and close contact with Labour Party and trade union members…
The Marxist Group claimed some 40 members in London, with provincial groups making about 80 in all. It was responsible for about 1800 copies of Fight. Members were on trades councils, etc.
The conference formed a Coordinating Committee which, it was hoped, would serve as a cohesive force for all the groups, with a view to organisational fusion, make arrangements so that the journals should supplement and not overlap or compete with each other, institute a plan of joint work and produce a joint political thesis and internal bulletin. In reality, the committee carried out none of these, and after its first meeting the Harber group pointed to the underlying difficulty in a statement which asked if the Marxist Group still clung to the ILP as the main field of work while paying lip‑service to the need for more work in the Labour Party. Fusion could not be reached without agreement on a common tactic.
The first issue of Fight appeared just before 10 October. Its front page denounced the ILP leaders. At once the latter expelled James, and threatened to expel anyone else who supported Fight. Maxton and the other MPs were speculating with a pact in parliament with the Liberal Opposition. Brockway was also involved in negotiating with the leaders of the Communist Party and the Socialist League to establish a Unity Campaign — a scheme to mobilise the left to get the reformists to admit the Stalinists into the Labour Party, based on an agreement not to criticise social‑patriotism. Characteristically, Brockway seems also to have toyed with the illusion that he could somehow turn aside the hostility of the Stalinists towards the POUM, if he could demonstrate that it and the ILP were ‘not really Trotskyist’!
The IS wrote to the Marxist Group on 7 November urging them to counter‑attack politically and prepare for a break. It particularly wrote: ‘We greatly regret that you did not publicly take a position in relation to the Brussels Peace Congress… such a resolution… from the very base of the ILP could have been of enormous value to combat the centrists of the London Bureau’. This was the International Congress called by Brockway’s International Bureau for Revolutionary Socialist Unity, at the end of October 1936. The functions of this congress were to dissociate its centrist participants, especially the POUM, from any hint of association with the Fourth International, to present the POUM as the vanguard of the European Revolution, to bask in its reflected glory and to raise in the minds of its leaders expectations of help which the other participants could not possibly fulfil.
On 15 November, members of the Marxist Group met in London and agreed, by 16 votes to six, to James’ new proposal, that the Marxist Group leave the ILP and declare itself a new ‘open’ independent group. Cooper and some of those whom the ILP had not expelled still wanted to stay in. Then, on 13 December, the International Bureau met. Alexander was present. It sent a explanatory letter to the Marxist Group, drawing on the experience of entry in France and Belgium, and warned: ‘… if we stay outside, we shall be considered as powerless and incurable sectarians, who fear contact with the masses, but who want to impose themselves on the masses as sage counsellors from outside.’
Then the Harber group, reading too much into this letter, which stated that the IS might ‘consider itself obliged to reconsider its relations’ with a ‘minority that opposed the will of the majority’, then wrote to the IS on 29 November. Truthfully enough, it reported that the Marxist League was organising the distribution of the Bulletin of the POUM in Britain and opposing Youth Militant in the youth section of the Socialist League. It also said that James was moving away from Trotskyism in an ultra‑left direction. It recommended that the best way to get a united British Section would be for the Bureau to withdraw recognition from the other groups, so that they would disintegrate and their best elements would join the Harber group. The bureau did not agree. James was also disturbed about the possibility of being repudiated by the Bureau, and he wrote to Georges Vereeken, asking him and Lesoil to intercede on his behalf. Vereeken replied to the effect that the members of the Bureau were unlikely to deal with the problem that way.
VIII. The Civil War its Spain and the Differences about the Rôle of the POUM
Groves’ main concern appears to have been to continue to avoid a commitment to working either with the International Secretariat or with the Harber-Alexander Group. Already on 28 May 1936, his group, the Marxist League, had written in reply to an appeal from Trotsky:
You say ‘we want to enter into regular association with the IS at once’. If by association you mean the exchange of documents, we can no doubt agree. But we feel that we cannot bind ourselves to accept the decisions taken by a body about which we have no information regarding election, etc, and we would rather therefore like to enter into discussion with them before binding ourselves.
Red Flag had reappeared in May 1936. It replied to specific slanders against Trotsky, but did not address itself to organising resistance to the Stalinist penetration to which the Socialist League had become very susceptible. At the same time the young supporters of the Marxist League, who controlled Socialist Youth, the monthly journal of the youth section of the Socialist League, opposed the warnings of Youth Militant that a coup was being prepared against the left.
At the outbreak of the Civil War in Spain in July 1936, the leaders of the Socialist League supported the revolutionary struggle of the workers’ militias and committees and the land seizures by the peasants. In the autumn, however, they retreated under Stalinist and bourgeois pressure, and Groves faced a capitulation by them all along the line, for which he was unprepared, and which isolated him politically. The Stalinist apparatus mounted a savage campaign of character assassination against him, while his colleagues in the petit-bourgeois leadership of the League refused to defend him, and its rank and file did not understand what was happening.
After the Moscow Trials started in August 1936, however, Harry Wicks, a close associate of Groves, and CLR James, made an important contribution to the Trotsky Defence Committee and the defence of Trotsky’s political honour. The Marxist League and the Marxist Group, however, were both developing a political adaptation in their press to the centrism of the ILP and its Spanish associate, the POUM, defending the failure of the latter to mount a consistent opposition to the bourgeois Popular Front government, and protecting it against the criticisms of Trotsky. The effect in Spain was to undermine the work of the Spanish Section, and to strengthen the arguments of centrists such as Fenner Brockway that the Fourth International was unnecessary.
At the end of 1934, the majority of those in Spain who had regarded themselves as partisans of Trotsky had decided, after a long discussion, to reject his advice to enter the Socialist Party, to which the masses were turning. Instead, they fused with the so‑called Workers and Peasants Bloc, led by Joaquín Maurín, to form the POUM. The Maurín group had a conception of Stalinism quite different from that of Trotsky. They believed that Stalin and Bukharin had been correct to subordinate the Communist Party of China to the Guomindang in 1925-27, and criticised only the ultra‑left aspects of Stalinism which were to the fore from 1928 to 1935. What might superficially appear to be a debate about history had very serious practical consequences. Early in 1936, the POUM signed the programme of the Popular Front, which opposed the nationalisation of the landed estates and the banks. One of its leaders, Andreu Nin, entered the bourgeois government in Catalonia as Minister of Justice. The POUM was now hopelessly trapped in inconsistencies. It failed to recognise that the policies of Stalin and of his agents in Spain were to put down the revolutionary movements of the workers and peasants in the hope of inducing the governments of Britain and France to guarantee Soviet Russia’s frontiers against Hitler. Its efforts to placate the Popular Front government and at the same time to defend the militias, land seizures and workers’ control in industry were overwhelmed by the slander that it was ‘Trotskyist’ and in league with Hitler in trying to bring down the Popular Front and let Franco win.
The policies advocated by the POUM, which Groves and James defended, were some time later to be called those of ‘the Popular Front of Struggle’. They consisted of references in radical language to ‘Socialism’ and to ‘the revolution’, combined with calls to ‘push the Popular Front forward’, to ‘force it to the left’, and to ‘go beyond’ the coalition of workers’ parties with bourgeois parties, in which the POUM had helped to subordinate the interests of the proletariat to the defence of the bourgeois state.
Early in May 1937, the Popular Front, with the help of the GPU agents in Spain, drove the Anarchist workers out of their hold on the main telephone exchange in Barcelona, which was enabling them to follow the intrigues going on in the leadership of the government. The Anarchist workers and the supporters of the POUM leadership told them to stop fighting the government in the interests of ‘unity’. This surrender, like the efforts of the POUM leadership to distance themselves from ‘Trotskyism’, did nothing to save them from merciless persecution by the GPU.
When in May and June 1937, the POUM was unable to save itself from destruction at the hands of the armed forces of the Popular Front and the GPU, the demoralisation of those in Britain who had placed their faith in it was all the worse. The last issue of Red Flag was in May 1937; James’ Fight lasted until November.
Great hopes were placed by the workers in Britain in the Popular Front in Spain. The destruction of the POUM and the defeat of the revolutionary measures taken by the workers and peasants at the beginning of the war helped to strengthen the reformist leaders of the Labour Party in their efforts to protect the bourgeois state against working‑class initiatives seeking to oppose the preparations for war and the tolerated activity of the fascists. While the right wing manoeuvred to maintain its grip on the Constituency Labour Parties, the Stalinists were seeking to ‘apply pressure’ to the Conservative Government, by presenting ‘left unity’, on a programme acceptable to the Liberals in Parliament, as their ‘progressive’ alternative to the policies of the Labour leadership.
Within this framework, the Trotskyists suffered two blows in the spring of 1937. At the Easter Conference of the Labour Party League of Youth, Ted Willis, the leader of the Stalinist faction, heavily defeated Youth Militant and Socialist Youth, in an atmosphere in which the bureaucratic repression had had a demoralising effect. From August 1936 onwards, the Stalinists had concentrated their fire on the left in the Labour Youth League, utilising two arguments. Firstly, war was imminent: the possibility of revolutionary opposition to it was utopian, but it could be delayed by an alliance between Britain and the Soviet Union to protect the western frontiers of Russia. Secondly, anyone who warned that this line would lead the youth into a ‘sacred union’ with the British bourgeoisie made himself an ally of Hitler against the ‘defence of democracy’.
In mid‑May 1937, the Stalinist agents in the Socialist League reached an agreement with the leadership to bring the League to an end. They deprived the left of a foot‑hold in the hope of inducing the reformist leaders to advise the government to guarantee the Russian frontiers in exchange for political support in the coming war, removing from the path of the Communist Party what could have become a serious political obstacle and a rallying‑point for militants approaching the Fourth International.
The documents of the International Secretariat and of the Harber-Alexander group (the Bolshevik‑Leninist Group in the Labour Party) leave no doubt that this group had developed a much more sophisticated conception of Labour Party entry than either of the other groups. Its statement to the ‘Geneva’ Conference had already sketched out the idea of rallying to the Fourth International those forces of the proletariat who were able to struggle only through the reformist apparatus at that time, and whose struggles, therefore, tended to produce dislocating crises.
Only by combining experience of reformist betrayals with Trotskyist politics could these militants be led to recognise that they could not fulfil their aspirations except by joining in the construction of the Fourth International. Entrism would not be a short‑term raiding party to pull a handful of militants into some minuscule ‘independent’ group, but an element in saving militants for Bolshevism in the historic crisis of the reformist apparatus.
The grounds on which the ‘Geneva’ resolution recommended entry had been sound, as far as they went, but they were relatively restricted. Neither it nor any of the letters of the IS in the autumn of 1936 analysed the historical peculiarities of the Labour Party and the background to the discussion on entrism in Britain in the early years of the Communist International. Nor did they recall that the ‘turn’ to the ILP two years earlier was intended to lead the vanguard back into a proper relationship with the masses of workers who placed their confidence in the Labour Party. However, there was close collaboration between the leaders of the group and the IS in the winter of 1936-37.
In January 1937, the group emerged from clandestinity and announced itself openly as the Militant Group. It began to publish its monthly journal, the Militant, which continued to appear regularly as the organ of the entrists until the end of 1939. The Militant tried to present the programme of Trotskyism in concrete terms for workers oriented towards the Labour Party. It attacked Social Democracy and Stalinism in the context of resistance to the war plans of British imperialism, and published news of the movement for the Fourth International. It accepted that it could not call directly for the Fourth International, for the reason that the reformist bureaucrats would seize on this as a pretext to drive the group out prematurely, on an issue which the workers whom it needed time to influence would not immediately understand.
While the Socialist League remained in existence, they made such efforts as they could to oppose its dissolution. After May 1937, they tried to collaborate with Groves’ supporters in replacing it and mobilising what remained of its left wing in a new peripheral group, the Socialist Left Federation. Groves tried to isolate his contacts from them, and the SLF foundered. They then tried to construct another peripheral organisation, the Militant Labour League, based on class opposition to war preparations. This attracted a few militants who later joined the Trotskyist movement, but it did not make much progress. The Labour Party proscribed it at the outbreak of the war.
These attempts to organise their periphery did not provide much practical experience and, for that reason, did not prevent the problem from becoming an obstacle to the Trotskyists in the hands of a centrist tendency, though Harber recognised this possibility in one of his documents.
Entrism on these lines would have been inconceivable without identifying with the desire of Labour Party members to defeat candidates of bourgeois parties in elections. Their work for Labour victories enabled them to raise the question of forcing the reformists to break with the bourgeoisie and to deprive them of their excuse for their inactivity when they were out of office.
There could, of course, be not the slightest suggestion that entry could transform the Labour Party into an agency by which Socialism could be achieved, or that Trotskyists need present their ideas in such a way that suggested that the Labour Party could be ‘transformed’, rather than destroyed.
Nor was it ever suggested, after the debacle of the Marxist Group in the 1935 General Election, that support for Labour candidates could be conditional, or that support should be given to the Labour Party only if its programme could be construed as a Socialist one. The electoral slogan of the group was ‘Labour to Power’; the slogan ‘Labour to Power on a Socialist Programme’ was as yet unheard of.
There are, however, signs in the press that differences arose in the leadership of the group in respect of how to relate to the left reformists. Harber, influenced no doubt by the Third Period, tended to outright denunciation, while Alexander felt that this smacked of ultimatism.
The inexperience of the group can also be seen in its characterisation of its perspective as that of a split. It was without doubt influenced by the precedent of the split in German Social Democracy in 1917, which produced the Independent Socialists by a ‘clean’ split, rather than a general dislocation of the apparatus of the ‘parent’ body, which led them to overlook other possible developments.
Similarly, another feature of their difficulties was their heavy emphasis that their perspective had to be carried out by a group all of whose members were in the Labour Party. This would be hard to sustain as a general proposition, since evidently, given agreement on how to relate to the Labour Party, an open group and an entrist group under the same leadership could each help the work of the other. In 1936-37, however, they had a reason valid for their immediate circumstances. They would have had difficulty in finding anyone to carry on open work who agreed with their perspective. Those who opposed the entry did so, not because they wanted to support it from outside, but because they had a different attitude to the Labour Party, characterised by ultra‑leftism in various forms.
Remote though these events and discussions may seem today, the entry work which was developing with all its limitations in 1937 has not been systematically continued, and the problems involved are to this day imperfectly understood, which may help to explain why the vast sacrifices which have been made in the cause of Trotskyism in Britain in later years have so far failed to make any serious influence in the labour movement, where the grip of the reformist bureaucracy is still dominant.
Very few of the Militant Group had any extensive experience of the Labour Party. They expected their entry to be a matter of years, rather than decades, on the justifiably optimistic assumption that it would be effectively carried out, that the reformist apparatus would be thrown into disarray, that they would neutralise the Stalinists, and that there would be the possibility of a large exodus of workers organised under Trotskyist influence.
There is an interesting inconsistency between the Militant and Youth Militant in the way that they handled politically the capitulation to Stalinism by the leaders of the Socialist League. These differences were not destructive, but they were significant, and they were not accidental. The editorial of the Militant for March 1937 suggests that any hope of influencing these leaders must be written off:
The struggle of the workers for their immediate demands must be coordinated and supported by the whole labour movement, and in the course of the struggle can be forged the workers’ united front against capitalism and for the conquest of power… the realisation of a programme based on these demands means a struggle against the reactionary leadership of the Labour Party and the sham ‘lefts’ from Cripps to Pollitt…
This is the characteristic, ultimatistic, propagandist language which Third Period Stalinism had popularised between 1928 and 1934. But in the June 1937 issue of Youth Militant, Alexander struck a note better calculated to encourage those remnants of the Socialist League whose first hope would be to appeal to Cripps to lead a struggle against the demand by the right wing that the Socialist League must dissolve, instead of meekly giving in to it:
In spite of the specious promises made by Cripps and others that the Socialist League would be in no danger of expulsion, Whitsun saw the end of that body. Every Constituency Labour Party should have a resolution to the National Conference demanding the reinstatement of the Socialist League.
But his next sentence betrays the pressure on him against ‘curing their illusions on the basis of their illusions’; he proclaimed:
We must get to work to replace the Socialist League by an organised left wing which sees as its first task the achieving of a revolutionary working-class mass party… The Socialist League has paid the price of its own folly. Nevertheless that is no reason why we should not use the Socialist League as a club against our own reactionary leaders…
The National Conference of the Militant Group was held on 1-2 August 1937, at which it was reported that the group had 15 branches. Eight of these were in the London area, and there was one each in Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Hull, Sheffield, Leicester and Norwich. There were about 100 members, and their reports give an impression of lively activity.
The political discussion centred on the question of how to work in the Labour Party in the conditions created by the approach of war and the dissolution of the Socialist League. On behalf of the Executive Committee, Harber moved:
… work for the creation of the new revolutionary party can best be carried out by the formation inside the Labour Party of an open organisation, based on a partial programme. Such a partial programme must summarise our full revolutionary programme, with the exception of one vital point. It will not openly advocate the creation of a new revolutionary party of the Fourth International.
The creation of the ‘open organisation, based on a partial programme’ had, it seems, already been discussed with the IS earlier in the year. In May, Cripps had thrown onto their own resources the numerous people in the Labour Party who wanted an organisation of the left within it, and a number of its members met to form a new group to replace it. This was called the Socialist Left Federation.
The Secretary of the Militant Group, Starkey Jackson, for several years a cadre of the Communist Party, who had applied to join the Marxist Group in March 1936, reported to the August 1937 conference:
The Socialist Left Federation is a small organisation of about 100 members, but is in contact with hundreds of ex‑Socialist Leaguers, and we could gain contact with these comrades through the SLF. The platform of the SLF certainly does not come up to the programme which we would advance, but it is in no sense a final programme… The SLF actually exists, and, despite Groves and Co, there is no reason why we should not win the leadership — not mechanically but by political means… We must either enter the SLF or smash it. To ignore it is to cut ourselves off from the left wing of the old Socialist League.
Outside London, the branches of the Militant Group could not do much to rally support for the SLF, largely because the members of the Socialist League had either been taken in tow by Stalinism, or had become discouraged and inactive. Then the Militant Group ran into a political opposition which prevented it from establishing the relationship of common work with the SLF at which it had aimed.
The October 1937 issue of Militant reported that the SLF had welcomed the Militant Group into membership, conceding that it had ‘no desire to interfere in any way with the activities or publications of your organisation’. The same issue reports, however, that on 23 September the SLF demanded that publication of the Militant cease, in order: ‘To mobilise all forces behind the SLF and its proposed organ.’ Then the November 1937 issue of Militant reported that the SLF had been split by its leadership, and the supporters of the Militant expelled!
The only evidence of subsequent activity by the Socialist Left Federation was the production of one issue of its paper, The Call, in March 1938. This reads as if the fight against the right wing of the Labour Party could be carried on without any relation to the Communist Party’s presentation of a Popular Front as a ‘progressive’ alternative to the collaboration of the reformist leaders with the Tories. Indeed, it ignored the controversies which filled the left‑wing press, such as the allegations that the Trotskyists, the ILP and the POUM were all ‘allies of Hitler’. At the same time, it carried a favourable review by Groves of Eugene Lyons’ Assignment in Utopia which, unlike its contemporary by Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, argued that the foundations of the workers’ state in Russia had already been undermined, with essentially pessimistic conclusions.
The Militant Group decided to make a fresh effort to organise the left in the Labour Party, by forming the Militant Labour League, on the basis outlined at the August conference. The conditions for testing the correctness of this tactic were not favourable, but it must be put on record that none of those who have subsequently pontificated on the question of entrism had tried to evaluate it.
The break‑up of the Socialist Left Federation was not due primarily to any personal ill‑feeling between Groves and Harber. The political divergences were real ones, whatever may be thought of the device of those who controlled the SLF when they confronted the Militant Group with a demand which they knew it would not accept, without a discussion between the memberships.
When the SLF started, it produced a Declaration which appealed to local Labour Parties to protest against the refusal of the Parliamentary Labour Party to vote against the arms estimates of the Tory Government, and against its decision to abstain on the vote. The Declaration did not, however, go into the political differences among those who criticised the abstention.
When the Militant welcomed the Declaration, it commented:
The minority of the Parliamentary Labour Party, as well as the Communist Party, are pursuing the identical policy with the majority in the sphere of foreign affairs… the only reason why the minority and the Communists do not openly support the arms plan is because they do not ‘trust’ the Government… If the interests of British capitalism demand a temporary alliance with France or the Soviet Union, this opposition would collapse… this decision follows logically from the whole false conception of relying on imperialist alliances, and not on working‑class action to stop war…