John Archer

CLR James in Britain, 1932-38

Interest in the life and work of CLR James (1901-1989) continues unabated. Paul Buhle produced the best general survey in his book CLR James: The Artist as Revolutionary (London, 1988). Humanities Press reissued James’ World Revolution with an updated preface by Al Richardson in 1993, followed by a collection of essays edited by Scott McLemee and Paul LeBlanc, CLR James and Revolutionary Marxism, in 1994. These articles cover the period of James’ residence in the United States, and much work has also been done by Anna Grimshaw and others on his literary legacy, but disappointingly little has appeared about the formative period of his career as a revolutionary activist in Britain (cf CLR James and British Trotskyism: An Interview, Socialist Platform, 1987; Paul Buhle, ‘CLR James and British Trotskyism’, Revolutionary History, Volume 5, no 2, Spring 1994, pp176-8). The fullest treatment so far in print has been John Archer’s preliminary sketch, CLR James and Trotskyism in Britain, 1934-1938, the text of a lecture he delivered to the Focus on CLR James exhibition held in London on 21 February 1986.

What appears below is an article submitted for publication in our magazine some time ago, but due to pressure upon our resources it has not been possible to print it until now. Lack of space has also prevented us from reproducing the rich documentation included in the appendices to this article, but those who wish to pursue the subject further are invited to consult them in full in the Socialist Platform archive. This is a regrettable omission, but we continue to be of the opinion that half a loaf is better than no bread at all.

John Archer requires no introduction for British readers, but comrades abroad may not be aware of his long service to the Trotskyist movement here and internationally, and his contribution to our understanding of its history. He was first recruited to the Marxist Group in the Independent Labour Party in 1934, and joined the Bolshevik-Leninist Group of Denzil Harber and Starkey Jackson in the Labour Party two years later. He continued to be a member of the original Militant group until its fusion with the Workers International League to form the Revolutionary Communist Party in 1944. After losing touch with the movement for a brief period at the collapse of the RCP, he joined ‘the Club’ of Gerry Healy carrying on activity within the Labour Party, was subsequently adopted as a parliamentary candidate, and played an important rôle in the group’s intervention into the dispute between the ‘Blue’ and ‘White’ unions on the docks in 1954. He was a founder member of the Socialist Labour League, which later developed into the present Workers Revolutionary Party. He left this movement in disagreement with its split with its international co-thinkers in France and elsewhere, and with what he regarded as its sectarian attitude towards the Labour Party. He continues his activity as an internationalist and a revolutionary to this day.

His commitment to Socialist education goes back many years to his involvement with the National Council of Labour Colleges, and he should also be regarded as a pioneer in the study of the history of the revolutionary movement internationally, and in particular of the Trotskyist movement in Britain. In addition to his extensive translations of many of the major analyses of our history from such journals as La Vérité and the Cahiers Léon Trotsky, he has carried out and encouraged research into the history of Trotskyism in this country. He organised the first Conference for the Study of Leon Trotsky and the History of the Revolutionary Movement at the Central London Polytechnic in September 1980 (see Workers Liberty, no 23, July 1995, p23). In addition to his thesis Trotskyism in Britain, 1931-1937 submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at the same institution in September 1979, we should also mention his ‘Grande-Bretagne: l’entrisme et le Labour Party’, Cahiers Léon Trotsky, no 16, December 1983, pp54-78, whose original English version can be obtained from the Socialist Platform archives, his Address to the Joint Meeting of Socialist Platform and the WRP on the Marxist Study of History, February 1986; The ‘Electoral Truce’ and the Politics of the Trotskyists, 1939-41, April 1988; Trotskyism in Britain in the 1930s, March 1990; and The Struggle for an Independent Trade Union by the Dockers in Merseyside and Hull During 1954-55, 1995, of which a critical appraisal appears below in our reviews section.

We have not yet despaired of being able to publish some of these articles in our journal in the future, but it remains a standing reproach to those who concern themselves with the study of Trotskyist history, ourselves included, that so few of these informative pieces have found their way into print. In the meantime interested students can consult them in manuscript in the above-mentioned archive.

A COMPLETE and satisfactory political biography of this remarkable man is not likely to be quickly or easily written. His whole life mirrored, in its own special way, the efforts, the confusions and the setbacks of the exploited of the earth in the twentieth century.

Cyril Lionel Robert James’ father was a schoolmaster in Trinidad. His mother read books voraciously. Their life was precariously on the edge of respectability, and they educated their gifted only child to enter the elite school in the island. His white Oxbridge teachers cultivated his talents, breaking down, though not without difficulty, the resistance of this socially displaced boy to instruction in the classics of European literature. They cultivated his appreciation of the game of cricket, which had fascinated him in his solitary childhood, and was to become a peculiar window through which he contemplated society, as well as a means by which he could earn his bread, reporting and philosophising about cricket. The school also instilled into him that firm (though usually unconscious) conviction of intellectual superiority which marks the educated upper middle class.

During his early years, the British Colonial Office and the City of London allowed the economies of the Caribbean islands to stagnate. The material class relations of production in Trinidad offered hardly any way forward for the black majority, who had no share in power. James became interested in the relations between rulers and ruled.

At the same time, a disproportionately large place in his thinking came to be occupied by cricket, which the climate makes the dominant pastime in the Caribbean. It is not to despise the rôle of pastimes in the lives of working people to recognise them for what they are. There is nothing mystical or above the class struggle about their place in social life. The great majority of people have to get their living in such boring and frustrating ways that we all need relaxation and some sort of pleasure when we are not at work. Playing competitive games, or watching skilled players with whom we can identify in fantasy, enriches our life.

But no pastime can change the course of history as the class struggle changes it. Politics is a pastime only for dilettantes; working class politics are the culture of the class. Employers spend millions to divert attention from politics. There is nothing to suggest that the whole of James’ writing about cricket won a single reader to take part actively on the side of the oppressed in their struggles against their oppressors.

James’ facility in playing with ideas and words was soon noticed. He stayed in Trinidad, earning his living by teaching at his old school, and by casual writing, until 1932. He acquired, like his associates, a taste for a bohemian lifestyle, whilst they tried to find a way, as non-whites, into the world of literature.

Leary Constantine made possible his journey to the larger stage of Britain. It may be that he had already discerned, in the ‘barefoot masses’ on the plantations and the oilfield, a creative, driving force of history, and that he was taking with him the seeds of what would develop later into Pan-Africanism, and attributing some mystical rôle or value to the culture of black people. He was soon to catch the eye of certain Fabian intellectuals who had a tradition of dabbling in colonial affairs. The Hogarth Press of Leonard and Virginia Woolf published parts of the book which he had written in Trinidad about Captain Cipriani, the French Creole, who was the Mayor of Port of Spain in the 1920s, and who criticised the incompetence with which London ruled its ‘Crown Colonies’. James showed, in this book, that the Caribbean people need not wait for civil servants in London to decree that they had become ‘fit’ to rule themselves. This was an anti-imperialist book, though not yet a Marxist one.

Soon James was taken up by Neville Cardus, the distinguished writer on cricket and music for the old Manchester Guardian. But he also witnessed the desperate struggle of the Lancashire textile workers against the consequences of the decline of their industry. He was introduced, by chance, to Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, which was to dazzle him, as it dazzled many others.

His years in London between 1934 and 1938 were a time of high achievement. He kept one foot in the camp of journalism, literature and the theatre, and the other in that of revolutionary politics, where his efforts were shared between the Trotskyist groups and the movements of struggle by black Africans against imperialism. In the spring of 1935 we find him a member of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), writing frequently in its weekly journal, The New Leader, and a member of the Marxist Group in the ILP led by the Trotskyists.

The minutes of the Executive Committee of the Marxist Group are in the Trotsky Archives at Harvard. They contain a stirring account of how James came to get the chance to speak to meetings of ILP members in Glasgow. The report was written by John L Robinson, who at the time was the Marxist Group’s organiser in Scotland, when James was at the top of his form. He out-manoeuvred the opposition of the pacifist-parliamentarian members of parliament whom the ILP supported in Glasgow.

The same source contains reports on James’ speaking tour of the South Wales valleys. Late in 1935 he visited Dublin, where his appeal for support for Abyssinia against Italian imperialism was well received. There he met Nora Connolly, the daughter of the murdered leader of the rising of Easter Week 1916. The Marxist Group put her in contact with Trotsky, and an exchange of letters between them followed.

He is known also to have addressed public meetings in Norwich, Coventry, Nottingham and elsewhere. However, according to the minutes of the Executive Committee for 16 February 1936, we find him being requested to supply to the Committee a list of his speaking engagements in the provinces, to take literature to sell at his meetings, and to submit the names and addresses of all his contacts. The minutes also show that he was not always present at the Committee meetings.

He had been quickly elevated to prominence, without much chance to get a broad political education or that organisational experience which could counteract his individualism. He had no occasion to study seriously the British workers’ movement and its peculiarities, or the experience of the Communist movement in this country, and he seems to have tended to rely on what he picked up and on his own fertility of mind, and to lay down the law on political matters. He never played the rôle of a ‘Jimmy Higgins’, who loyally tests what his leaders ask him to do before he criticises them, but, at the same time, shrewdly assesses them from below. He never seems to have been broken into the day-to-day tasks and hard decisions which fall to the lot of committed cadres in a revolutionary group.

Several times in his life James was to attract around his personality less pretentious comrades content to shoulder these chores. One may doubt how far, despite his enthusiasm and self-devotion at this time, he ever thoroughly grasped what Trotsky and the Trotskyists were trying to tell him. The whole body of his thought suggests originality in plenty, to be sure, but less than elsewhere in the field of revolutionary politics.

However, there could not be anything ‘inevitable’ or ‘fore-ordained’ about his evolution. It was not excluded that he could continue to develop politically, though no doubt through personal crises. This is what his comrades were expecting, counting as they did on external conditions becoming more favourable to their success.

James appeared at the Annual Conference of the ILP at Easter 1936 as a delegate. No one who heard him speak there is likely to forget it. The issue was a crucial one for the politically heterogeneous ILP. Mussolini, the Fascist leader of Italian imperialism, had sent an army in August 1935 to invade the independent black state of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in East Africa. For some three weeks in the autumn of 1935, Fenner Brockway, as editor of The New Leader, had won strong sympathy for the ILP by advancing the line that the British workers’ movement should take action to prevent war materials from reaching Italy. This line was to become known as ‘workers’ sanctions’ against Italy. It was intended to weaken Italian imperialism and defend its victim, without compromising the workers’ movement in intrigues to defend British and French imperialist interests in Africa against Italian interference, and without reliance being placed on the goodwill of the League of Nations. This line, consequently, involved agitation in the trade unions and Labour Party against the official policies of the leaders of both the Labour and Communist Parties, as well as criticism of Stalin’s regime in the USSR, which refused to end its sales of oil to Italy.

The ILP members of parliament, who controlled the so-called ‘Inner Executive’ of the party, saw at once that this would mean breaking from reformism and pacifism; they would be cut off from their friends in the Parliamentary Labour Party, in Fleet Street, and in the Catholic and Methodist churches. They could foresee that, along with Brockway, they would all be in the hands of the Trotskyists. So they silenced Brockway, who meekly submitted.

By Easter 1936 Abyssinia had been overrun by the Italian forces, the war was nearly over, and nearly all practical chance of helping Abyssinia had gone. But the question of principle remained central because it involved what the ILP would do in the coming world war. At the conference Brockway argued that his line was not the same as the League of Nations’ sanctions against Italy preached by the Communist and Labour Parties, and that anyway it was what the preceding conference of the ILP had agreed, and what its international associate, the so-called International Bureau for Revolutionary Socialist Unity (fostered by Brockway, despite its heterogeneity, as a barrier against the Fourth International) had also agreed. None of this made the slightest impression on Maxton and the other MPs.

James’ line was different. He spoke as a statesman, on the world stage, for the millions of black Africans who could hardly yet speak for themselves. He explained why they were turning to the ‘Watchtower’ cult, not for a better life in the next world so much as the hope of winning improvements in this one. He foreshadowed the ‘wind of change’ of 20 years later, but with a difference. The African peoples did not have to wait for their rulers to liberate them. The disarray amongst their rulers gave them the chance to liberate themselves. Nor need they fight alone. Their struggle was an integral part of the struggle of everyone, in colonial and metropolitan countries alike, who had a real interest in undermining imperialist rule.

There is a long letter in the Trotsky archives in which Margaret Johns, who was a leader of the Marxist Group at this time and a delegate to the conference, reported to Trotsky what happened, and how CLR James ‘made an excellent attack on the NAC’s “neutrality” position’.

James’ motion to censure the ‘Inner Executive’ won the support of a clear majority of the delegates, all of whom but he were white. But that same evening he was to be robbed of the fruits of his victory and betrayed by Brockway, who was only the first of those who were to disappoint his hopes and trust in them. The members of parliament, led by Maxton, refused to accept the decision of the conference. Brockway then fixed up a deal to preserve ‘unity’ with those who had silenced him. The question would go to a plebiscite of all the members of the ILP. The leadership would draft the form of the voting paper, and did so in such a way as to confuse the issue. Inactive as well as active members were allowed to vote. As was to be expected, the members of parliament were assured a majority, even though this accelerated the party’s decline. James’ hope of a bloc with Brockway was extinguished.1

The following day the demoralised conference formally withdrew the factional rights of the Marxist Group. James’ platform was gone. Now he was up against all the problems which perplexed his white comrades. Nothing in his talents or his education gave him any greater ability than they to work out how to construct a Marxist organisation, or to sink its roots in the class struggle.

Later in the summer of 1936, James was to make a big personal impression at the international conference of the Trotskyists, the so-called ‘Geneva’ Conference of 31 July-1 August, as a letter from Klement to Trotsky records.2 He was much engaged in the autumn of 1936 in the work of the Trotsky Defence Committee. The first Moscow Trial had let loose on an astonished world the allegations, based on ‘confessions’ by Old Bolsheviks and others, that Trotsky, his son Leon Sedov and their associates were guilty of plotting in collusion with Hitler to undermine the USSR. James was very much at home in denouncing point by point the contradictions and falsifications in the speeches of the prosecutor in Stalin’s service, the ex-Menshevik Vyshinsky.

The Marxist Group in the ILP, in whose leadership James was prominent, had been obliged by the decisions of the Easter Conference of the ILP to reconsider its perspective. There were two incidents of significance in James’ political work in the autumn of that year, which, though well documented, are little known. The first arose from his attempt to dispose of one of the deepest political problems to engage Communists in Britain, that of their relation to and intervention in conflicts within the Labour Party. The problem and his attempt to resolve it can be understood only if the reader has an outline of the state of Trotskyism in Britain at the time, as well as that of the international leadership.3 In the summer of 1936 there were three groups in Britain claiming to be Trotskyist. Their disagreements were substantially due to real, serious political differences; as is not unusual, there was also mutual suspicion amongst their members.

The Marxist Group was itself in grave disarray. Some of its members had the perspective of staying in the ILP indefinitely, despite all, in the hope that something would turn up. Others declared their readiness to leave the ILP, but ‘not just yet’. Others again proposed to leave it to found a new, ‘independent’ group. All of these feared that if they went into the Labour Party, they would lose the chance to disseminate revolutionary ideas outside of it, whilst being unable to do so inside. Some regarded ‘entry’ as a formal betrayal of the duty to construct a ‘vanguard’ organisation, whilst others could not stomach the idea of calling for ‘Labour to Power’. Be it said, few, if any, who held these ideas had any personal experience of membership of the Labour Party, or a clear idea of the political content of the disputes between the other two groups, both of which, according their lights, were trying to work out how best to apply an ‘entry’ tactic.

The two groups which effectively had their whole membership in the Labour Party were the Marxist League (led by Reg Groves and Hugo Dewar) and the Bolshevik-Leninist Group in the Labour Party (led by Denzil Dean Harber, Starkey Jackson and Charlie Van Gelderen). Their separate existence was due partly to the difference in their origins, and partly to their differing methods of work. The Marxist League came into existence in the spring of 1936 following a revival of the old ‘majority’ of the Communist League. In 1934 they had run into difficulties, and their cadre tended to fall apart. However, Groves had won prominence in the Socialist League, to the leadership of which he was elected to represent the London members, and the Marxist League had a foot-hold in the Labour Party League of Youth in South-West London, as well as control of its youth organ, Socialist Youth.

The Bolshevik-Leninist Group in the Labour Party developed from a small group led by Harber which left the ILP and the Marxist Group early in 1935, having decided that the time had come to terminate the ‘entry’ experience. They joined the Labour Party, and established good relations with the left in the Labour League of Youth. With the help of Margaret Johns and John Robinson, they ensured the appearance of the journal, Youth Militant. Groves deeply suspected Harber’s capacity for manoeuvre because Harber had been a leader of the ‘minority’ which had left the Communist League at the end of 1933 to join the ILP. Harber regarded Groves’ methods of work in the Socialist League as rather opportunistic.

James was a delegate to the ‘Geneva’ Conference from the Marxist Group, and Harber from the Bolshevik-Leninist Group. The conference unanimously accepted a document drafted by a sub-commission consisting of James, Harber and Klement entitled ‘The Tasks of the British Bolshevik-Leninists’. The very existence of this interesting text is hardly known today. It developed the line of the better-known ‘Collins Interview with Trotsky’, advocating a predominant concentration of forces in the Labour Party and the Labour League of Youth. However, it concludes: ‘The concrete methods of effecting the departure from the ILP and entry into the Labour Party... as well as the unification of the forces of the Fourth International within the Labour Party, must be left to the English comrades to work out.’

Like every other Trotskyist at this time, Trotsky expected the wave of class war in Europe to spread to Britain, and that the ILP would disappear as a result. Meanwhile, he had written a warning that the rising influence of Stalinism had to be reckoned with: ‘... support critically the affiliation of the Communist Party [to the Labour Party]... If we refuse... we shall be riding against the mass desire for unity. The mistakes of the Communist Party... and their inevitable alliance with the bureaucracy will give us the opportunity of winning their best elements. But only if we are in the Labour Party ourselves.’

No one seems to have suggested that so distinctive a figure as James should seek individual membership of the Labour Party. Trotsky thought that a group totally absorbed in the centrist milieu of the ILP might let slip the chance to say what it ought to say, and that a group in the Labour Party might endanger its perspective if, for example, on the outbreak of war it should speak out as Liebknecht did against the policies of the reformists. He therefore left a door open for certain specific activities to be carried on outside the ILP and the Labour Party, such as organising the break with the ILP as well as theoretical discussion and presentation. This was the intention behind the proposal for a ‘Lenin Club’.

We may also take note, with the privilege of hindsight, that neither Trotsky himself nor the comrades at the ‘Geneva’ Conference took it upon themselves to try to estimate with any precision what real practical problems the application of ‘entry’ into the Labour Party would present. It has taken decades of experience and confusion even to formulate them. Does ‘entry’ mean a raiding party, to snatch bodies out of the Labour Party into an ‘open’ party one by one? Does ‘entry’ on the contrary, mean taking over and reforming the Labour Party to convert it into a revolutionary instrument for the seizure of power? What in fact should be the significance of the ‘subjective factor’ which ‘entry’ would introduce into the situation inside the Labour Party and the conflicts there? We may doubt whether James was ever aware of such considerations, which were hidden from his understanding by his essentially propagandist conception of political work.

The three groups cooperated in arranging a great national debate in which all the British Bolshevik-Leninists were invited to take part in considering the ‘Geneva’ statement. The discussion opened on Saturday, 10 October with a conference of those whom James regarded as his supporters, the purpose of which was to try to work out a line, if they could. For, if James made an impact at ‘Geneva’, ‘Geneva’ made its impact on him. He can hardly have foreseen how serious would be the objections from members of his own group to the text which he had helped to draft and support.

He has been said, rightly, to ‘have had no taste for the Labour Party’, and seems to have tried to find an ingenious way to square the circle. At the Saturday meeting, he presented a motion to the effect that the three groups should fuse into one; the new organisation would still not be strong enough to emerge into ‘independence’, and should carry out faction work in both the Labour Party and the ILP, the sole aim of which would be to gather members for the ‘independent’ party of the future. Whilst the Labour Party could be the main field of work, no one would be asked to leave the ILP if he or she did not want to do so.

One influential element in the ensuing debate was the first issue of James’ new journal, Fight for the Fourth International, which had appeared the preceding day. James hoped that all the groups would agree to accept and work for it. It did not propose that the main emphasis of work should be in the Labour Party, and, at the same time, it carried an article attacking the leadership of the ILP which can only be described as provocative. Nor did it explain how the Trotskyists in the Labour Party or in the ILP were going to be able to sell a journal openly which was not slanted to present ideas in a way with which they could be expected to sympathise.

Collins followed James to present a counter-proposal that the wording of the ‘Geneva’ text should be accepted, namely an early break from the ILP and an immediate, general ‘turn’ to the Labour Party. However, in the discussion, Cooper, who wanted to stay in the ILP, forced from James the admission that he believed that the ILP would not collapse that soon, and that its platform offered the best basis for revolutionary propaganda. Harber, who was in attendance as a fraternal delegate from his group, then extracted from James the statement that he did not now interpret the ‘Geneva’ resolution in the same way as the conference did!

The outcome was that James’ hopes that an all-embracing, tidy-looking proposal would win all hearts and minds were disappointed. His motion was indeed carried in the end — by 11 votes to 10 in a meeting of 34. It evidently was not going to help to resolve the differences, or to provide for daily work to be effectively carried on. The Marxist Group then proceeded as if it could hope to continue as before, to bring into being a new leadership. This leadership at once tried to impose its discipline on all those whom it had brought to the conference, to support James’ motion whether they agreed with it or not — another hopeless endeavour.

All those members of the three groups who had been able to get to London met on the following day, Sunday, 11 October. Their meeting opened with statements from the three groups about their membership and activity, and a declaration from Harber: ‘We are agreed on the principle of fusion... on the basis of the resolution of the Geneva Conference... For several months we have been approaching the Marxist League for a joint members’ meeting to discuss the future of both groups... These efforts have been... unsuccessful... With regard to the Marxist Group, we have endeavoured to arrange with them 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, provided at least a basis for a discussion of the possibility of fusion of all groups.’

The only practical outcome of the conference, however, was the formation of a coordinating committee of the groups. Its subsequent meetings were abortive, revealing that no agreement on a common tactic had yet been reached. The Harber group issued a statement calling on the Marxist Group to make up their minds which they wanted — the ILP or the Labour Party — as the main field of work.

It was at this point that the second ‘incident’ involving James opened. Early in November 1936 he was excluded from the ILP. The pretext was the attack on the Parliamentary Group of the ILP in the first issue of Fight. This was entitled ‘Will Brockway Swallow This Too?’, and attempted to drive a wedge between Brockway and Maxton, by drawing attention to Maxton’s inclination towards a Popular Front of Labour with the Liberals, in contrast to Brockway’s repeated condemnations of the idea. It concluded: ‘If Brockway goes in [to a Popular Front], he disgraces himself for ever, and shows... that he is no more than a revolutionary tout for the parliamentarians.’

It seems hardly probable that James had foreseen what the consequences of this article would be. But there were now several reasons why the ‘Inner Executive’, as well as Brockway himself, would want to get rid of James as an embarrassment to them. This was, indeed, only the culmination of a series of attacks on the Marxist Group ever since the Easter Conference of the ILP. Brockway and Maxton were involved in a long process of talks with the leaders of the Labour Party with a view to being re-accepted into the Parliamentary Labour Party, and were left in no doubt that the Labour Party did not want James and his friends. Moreover, Brockway was involved in discussions with the leaders of the Communist Party and the Socialist League in preparation to launch the so-called ‘Unity Campaign’ for the affiliation of the Communist Party and the ILP to the Labour Party — on a basis of no criticism of the policies of Stalin.4 Brockway may also have hoped to placate the Communist Party in the forlorn hope of protecting the POUM in Spain from the slanders, the bullets and the jails of the GPU by ‘demonstrating’ that the ILP and the POUM were ‘not Trotskyist’’ — as if that made any difference!

On 7 November, the Bureau of the Fourth International wrote to the Marxist Group begging them to: ‘... trace a perspective of an open exodus from the ILP with a political declaration which can be used in all our international press, and to apply your minds to bringing about the unification of our groups in the Labour Party and the League of Youth.’5

The London members of the Marxist Group met on 15 November to discuss what to do next. James proposed that they declare themselves to be an ‘open, independent’ organisation, and all leave the ILP. His motion got 16 votes, with six against. Some of those who had not been excluded proposed to remain in it. The meeting optimistically expressed the hope that they would have the support of all sections of the international movement.

The Bureau of the Fourth International by no means agreed, as the minutes of its meeting and its declaration of 13 December show. This long and carefully argued statement (accepted unanimously by the Bureau, with one reservation by Pierre Naville, who doubted the possibility of an early breakaway from the Labour Party League of Youth) concluded: ‘Let all the English BLs [Bolshevik-Leninists] who recognise the decisions of the “Geneva” Conference convene by the democratic method a constituent conference, where according to the principles of democratic centralism they may discuss and decide which road is best.’ The declaration ended on a lightly menacing note: ‘Any solution which does not correspond to the wishes of the majority of the English BLs can only fail, and constitute a danger for the work of the BLs. The International Secretariat would, in that case, feel itself obliged to reconsider its relations with such a minority.’ This sentence seems to have alarmed James, who did not want to be excluded from the Fourth International as well. He had already written to Vereeken in Belgium to announce the formation of the ‘open, independent’ group, and was to write again on 31 December: ‘We want to remain attached to the Bureau and we demand your assistance...’ Vereeken replied to the effect that he had spoken to Lesoil, who agreed to speak up for James if the occasion arose; they both thought James’ fears were unfounded.

However, Harber also had not overlooked that closing paragraph.6 His group sent a long statement of its position and of the grounds for its opposition to the Marxist Group for the January 1937 meeting of the Bureau to consider. This letter concluded by proposing that, in view of the failure of the discussions, neither the Marxist Group nor the Marxist League should be allowed to go on claiming international recognition. This proposal was by no means well received. The international centre was not persuaded to revise its view that the three groups must meet, and the members themselves must thrash out the solution to the problem of perspective in the light of experience.

The Marxist Group continued to produce Fight, with James’ collaboration, until the last issue appeared in November 1937. Fight went its own propagandist way, commenting on current events (often shrewdly), and airing its differences with Trotsky over the rôle of the POUM in the Spanish Civil War.

Whilst James was involved with these political affairs, he had by no means neglected his literary projects. His novel about popular life in Trinidad, Minty Alley, was published in 1936 by Secker and Warburg, who also published the report of the hearings and findings of the Dewey Commission of Inquiry into the charges made against Trotsky and Sedov in the Moscow Trials.7

Then, in 1937, James produced a major work, World Revolution 1919-1936: The Rise and Fall of the Communist International. This was the first large-scale critique of the course of the Communist International under Lenin and Stalin to be written from a standpoint sympathetic to the ideas of its founders and to Communism. The New International carried a serious, if somewhat critical, review of the book in its issue of February 1938, several months before the possibility that James might visit the USA had been mooted. Joe Carter acknowledged with approval that James positively refuted the view that ‘national Socialism’ in Russia originated in the policies of Lenin, and that James demolished the legend that Stalin had been the inventor of the plans for industrialisation and collectivisation.

At the same time, Carter criticised James’ historical methodology: ‘James assumes that Stalin (and national Socialism) completely triumphed in 1923... He underestimates the decisive effect of the economic, social and political events.’ He identified ‘the real weakness of the book’ in ‘its treatment of the rôle of the party and its leadership’: ‘James constantly reiterates the paramount importance of this problem, but offers the most hazy view of Lenin’s conceptions.’

Many who read World Revolution learned much from it. But it is not a flawless work. It is written largely on the level of ideology, of the propaganda of ideas, as if the workers’ struggle to free their organisations from the syphilis of Stalinism is a matter of intellectual argument, to convince the Stalinists or those influenced by them of the error of their ways. Some passages read as if the Children of Light (James) are in theological battle with the Sons of Anti-Christ. Indeed, some young comrades were misled into going round trying to involve members of the Communist Party in what could not fail to seem to the latter to be abstract debates, irrelevant to or at any rate remote from the concerns of workers at the time; wages, peace, the defence of the USSR, and the overthrow of Hitler.

Fortunately, we have the record, made either by James himself or by a stenographer, of his discussion with Trotsky himself about World Revolution in April 1939. Trotsky’s letters show him — contrary to legend — to have been one of the most tactful of men, but he would insist, nonetheless, that tact must have a foundation in truth, however unhurtfully conveyed. The report opens with Trotsky’s comment on a text by James on the history of the Left Opposition: ‘In certain parts the manuscript is very perspicacious, but I have found the same fault as in World Revolution — an excellent book — a lack of dialectical approach, and the Anglo-Saxon empiricism and formalism, which is no more than the reverse side of empiricism.’8

Trotsky tried to explain to James how his method led him to wrong conclusions. To what date should the degeneration in the Soviet Union be traced back? According to James, it would have started in October 1917. ‘In my view’, said Trotsky, ‘it started in the first years of the NEP... You want to start with the degeneration complete.’

Trotsky went on to show how James’ method vitiated his conclusions about Germany in 1923. Did Stalin not want the German Revolution to succeed? Of course he did! ‘In 1923 the whole party was in a fever over the coming revolution.’ Did not Stalin and the bureaucracy want the Chinese Revolution to be victorious in 1925-27? Of course they did! Even in 1927, said Trotsky, ‘the whole party was eagerly awaiting the outcome.’ ‘But’, asked James, ‘did that not mean that Stalin and the rest did not understand the course of the Russian Revolution?’ ‘Stalin and Co genuinely believed that the Chinese Revolution was a bourgeois-democratic revolution’, replied Trotsky. ‘Their position was the same as they had in Russia in March 1917 until Lenin came.’

James then asks: ‘What about Bukharin’s statement in 1935, that if war came, revolutionaries should support the bourgeois-Soviet bloc?’ Trotsky tells him: ‘Not only Bukharin, but I and all of us at various times wrote absurd things. I will grant you that.’ Trotsky went on: ‘I find it strange that you could be so realistic on the Negro question, but so undialectical on this question [of 1923]. (I suspect you of being just a little opportunistic on the Negro question, but I am not so sure.)’ As for Germany in 1923: ‘To think that he [Stalin] had a plan to allow Fascism to come to power is absurd. It is a deification of Stalin.’

Trotsky closed this discussion with an appeal to James’ own experience. Why had his efforts to construct the Marxist Group as an ‘open, independent’ organisation not succeeded? ‘What is more dangerous’, said Trotsky, ‘is the sectarian approach to the Labour Party.’ James replied: ‘We have had difficulty in advocating a Labour government with the necessary reservations.’ Trotsky responded:

‘Your failure in England is due to lack of ability; also lack of flexibility, due to the long domination of bourgeois thought in England. I would say to the English workers: “You refuse to accept my point of view... But now, you believe in your party. Why allow Chamberlain to hold the power? Put your party in power. I will help you all I can. I know that they will not do what you think, but as you do not agree with me, and we are small, I will help you to put them in.”’

The years 1934-38 also produced The Black Jacobins, the masterpiece by which James will be remembered when the mass of his other writing, be it about cricket or labour politics, has long been forgotten. The book is about the only successful slave revolt in history, that in the Caribbean island of Santo Domingo, between 1789 and 1804.9 To write the book, James had not only to undertake monumental researches in Britain and France into the French Revolution and its particular expression in the Caribbean, but also to assimilate something of the Marxist method. It may be that he incorrectly conflated the slaves in Saint Domingo with the modern proletariat; this would leave out of account the long generations of experience which have produced the labour movements of the metropolitan countries. But it does not detract from his artistic achievement.

The Black Jacobins, like the efforts of James and Padmore to defend black Africans in revolt against imperialism, owed something to the stimulus of the Abyssinian resistance to Italian imperialism. In 1938 James produced his short History of Negro Revolt, many copies of which were sold in Labour College classes and workers’ meetings. Only James could have written the book, and only he, with his contacts, could have got it published. However, as Walter Rodney was to note, not without approval, James was already expressing the view that ‘within a racist situation, the category of class must be seriously re-examined’. James wrote that opinion in his account of Kadalie’s Industrial and Commercial Union in South Africa in 1923-26.

James also published in 1938 his translation from the French original of Souvarine’s large biography of Stalin.10 James’ collaboration with Souvarine, like his relations with the ultra-left opponents of Trotsky, Oehler and Field, cannot be unconnected with the outlook which he expressed in his discussions with Trotsky and with his later evolution. As Lloyd D’Aguila writes: ‘There were others in Trotskyist circles who held variants of the same position.’11

James took ship for America in the autumn of 1938, at the suggestion of James P Cannon. It may be that he was feeling a certain disenchantment with the Trotskyists in Europe. Neither his intelligence nor his eloquence had sufficed to resolve their problems, nor to compose their differences. He may well have seen himself grasping a fresh chance to re-start a political career as a revolutionary in a milieu for which he was well qualified, and for which he was ready to sacrifice the fruits of his successes in the literary world of London.


1. What Trotsky thought about Brockway’s spineless collusion with Maxton’s reformist cowardice to defeat the political position which he himself had advocated can be read in his letter to the Marxist Group dated 22 April 1936, ‘On Dictators and the Heights of Oslo’, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1935-36, New York, 1977, pp317ff. Brockway was left to present his own account of those proceedings in his memoirs Inside the Left in 1942, where he tried to justify his surrender of his principles, and said somewhat ungenerously: ‘The resolution dissociating the party from the Inner Executive was moved by CLR James, the Negro Socialist, in a typically torrential speech. He appealed as a black worker for help for the black population of Abyssinia; this had an emotional effect, but was used to support the argument that the case was nationalist rather than Socialist. My main argument was directed against the view that international working class action involved support of the capitalist governments in their imperialist aims. When the tellers announced that the resolution had been carried by 70 votes to 57, Maxton calmly remarked that the Parliamentary Group would have to consider its position, but I realised from his demeanour that a serious party crisis would follow.’

2. The first International Conference for the Fourth International, the so-called ‘Geneva’ Pre-Conference, took place on 29-31 July 1936. In fact it met in Paris, the venue being concealed for security reasons. It was attended by CLR James and Bert Matlow from the Marxist Group, the former as delegate, and by Denzil Dean Harber and Charlie Van Gelderen from the Bolshevik-Leninist Group in the Labour Party, the former as delegate. The discussions were primarily about how to resist the Stalinist plans for the rising popular movements, especially in France and Spain, to be thwarted by Popular Front agreements between leaders of workers’ organisations and bourgeois liberals. The conference brought together representatives of the organisations of the Fourth International in the USSR, Belgium, Britain, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, France and the USA. The subsequent press communiqué denounced Popular Fronts, which ‘paralyse action and encourage Fascist coups d’état and the preparation of imperialist war’. A selection of the documents of the conference is reproduced in Documents of the Fourth Internationals: 1933-40, New York, 1973.

3. The international leadership after the ‘Geneva’ Conference was organised as follows: The highest body was to be the International Conference. The International Conference was to select the General Council to which the international direction would be entrusted between conferences. The daily work of maintaining and extending relations amongst the organisations of the Fourth International was to be assumed by the International Secretariat for the Fourth International. Its work would be subject to review at intervals of two months by the International Bureau for the Fourth International, consisting of the five members of the International Secretariat plus six others elected by the International Conference. The only set of minutes of the succession of leading bodies since the establishment of the International Left Opposition in April 1930 appears to be that in the Trotsky Archives at Harvard. Considering the difficulties under which the Secretariat and the Bureau worked — lack of resources, irregular availability of cadres, illegality — these minutes reveal a remarkably high level of consistency and political work. The leading team appears to have consisted of Leon Sedov, Erwin Wolf (Kiff, Nicolle, Braun) and Klement (Frederick, Ludwig, W St, Camille, Adolphe). In this connection Pierre Broué’s article ‘Quelques Collaborateurs de Trotsky’, Cahiers Léon Trotsky, no 1, pp61-85, is indispensable.

4. The ‘Unity Campaign’ emerged from talks begun in September 1936 between leading figures in the Communist Party, the Socialist League and the ILP. These talks led to the Unity Agreement (which the ILP accepted with formal reservations) for a campaign of public meetings to exert pressure on the National Executive of the Labour Party to accept the Communist Party and the ILP into affiliation, as well as to popularise a programme of immediate demands hardly different from that of the Labour Party. The essential condition for the agreement was that the other two organisations undertook not to voice criticisms of Stalin’s policies in the course of their ‘united’ activities; this condition was agreed but kept secret. The objects of the Communist Party were to support:

i. The formation of a ‘peace bloc’ of bourgeois states allied to the USSR.

ii. Organisational unity of Communist and Social Democratic parties.

iii. The formation of Popular Fronts on the basis of such ‘United Fronts’.

iv. Exploiting the strong sentiment for unity in the working class due to Hitler’s victory over the divided working class movement in Germany, and thereby isolating the Trotskyists.

An important vehicle for popularising both these aims and slanders against the Trotskyists was to be the Left Book Club. In the event, the Socialist League, which was by far the most important element, both politically and numerically, was led to dissolve itself in 1937 in the interests of ‘unity’ with the Labour Party’s right wing, whilst the ILP rapidly fell to pieces. The ‘Unity Campaign’ manoeuvre helped the Communist Party to grow for a short time until the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939. It was the Labour Party’s official leadership that gained most in the end.

5. This letter reproaches the Marxist Group for their silence about the ‘Brussels Conference’. Confusion could arise here, because there were two ‘Peace’ Conferences in Brussels in the autumn of 1936. One was the World Peace Congress, 3-6 September, organised by the International Peace Campaign. There is an article about it in Labour Monthly, August 1936, by Sir Norman Angell, who was something of a fellow traveller of the Communist Party at that time (cf D Caute, The Fellow Travellers, London, 1973, p84). What happened there is reported by Pat Sloan in Labour Monthly, October 1936. Shvernik, the successor to Tomsky as General Secretary of the Soviet Trade Unions, was there (cf L Schapiro, The Communist Party of the Soviet Union, London, 1973, pp380, 571). However, the congress to which the IS referred was the World Congress against War, Fascism and Imperialism, organised by the International Bureau for Revolutionary Socialist Unity on 31 October-2 November 1936. The results of this conference may be summed up as concealing under revolutionary phrases the differences between different groups, some tending towards pacifism (ILP) and others towards Stalinism (SAP). The writer suspects also that it was intended to raise in the minds of the leaders of the POUM expectations about the help which they might expect from the ILP which the latter was unable to fulfil. The conference took place whilst Brockway was in the course of negotiating the Unity Agreement with the leaders of the Communist Party and the Socialist League. The Bureau could hardly fail to know that James did not agree with Trotsky’s criticisms of the POUM, and that he may still have had illusory expectations in Brockway.

6. The letter of the Bolshevik-Leninist Group in the Labour Party was, of course, written from the point of view of those who had gained members and consolidated their work.

7. These books were Not Guilty and The Case of Leon Trotsky. They are remarkable presentations, not merely as demolitions of the Moscow Trials, but as explanations at length of the ideas of Trotsky. The publishers were subjected to bitter attacks by the publications of the Communist Party, which refused their advertisements, leading thereby to some scandal in the literary world at the time.

8. The report of the Trotsky-James discussion in April 1939 is ‘On the History of the Left Opposition’, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1938-39, New York, 1974, pp260-6.

9. The Black Jacobins received a competent, favourable review by George Novack in New International, May 1939.

10. Boris Souvarine (1893-1984) was a journalist of Russian origin, and naturalised French. Before 1920 he was a leader of the current in the French Socialist Party which called for affiliation to the Third International. He was one of the early oppositionists in the PCF to support Trotsky, and was expelled in 1924 for having organised the publication in France of The New Course. He broke with Trotsky in 1929 after a long and sharp exchange of letters, denying the necessity for the repression of the Kronstadt rising in 1921. Trotsky wrote to Philip Rahv in March 1936 to offer some suggestions for Partisan Review (see Oeuvres, Volume 16, p350). He criticised a proposal to invite Souvarine to contribute to a symposium on Marxism: ‘He has never been a Marxist. His biography of Stalin is the work of a journalist, the essential value of which is derived from his quotations (the majority of which were lifted from the Bulletin of the Opposition, so that the credit for them is due largely to Leon Sedov). It is a very long time since he had anything to do with the workers’ movement. He is completely devoid of theoretical capacity.’

11. Lloyd D’Aguila’s article about CLR James appeared in the October 1989 issue of the Bulletin In Defense of Marxism.