Ellis Hillman and the Fourth International

Whilst searching through archival material, John McIlroy came across a letter dated 12 January 1949 from Natalia Trotsky in Coyoacan to Jock Haston in respect of Ellis Hillman. Ellis provided an introduction giving details of the background to her letter, which we received just before his death. The Editorial Board conveys its thanks to John McIlroy for passing the letter on to us.

I HAVE been asked to write a foreword to the letter which Natalia Sedova-Trotskaya wrote to Jock Haston in January 1949 which makes reference to a letter I sent to her. From ‘internal evidence’ it would seem that the letter was in response to a letter I sent in late 1948. It is very difficult indeed to reconstruct across the lapse of nearly half a century the circumstances which impelled me to pen the letter, particularly without having a copy of my original letter, or of the direct response to me. It is possible that the Harvard Library housing the Trotsky correspondence still holds copies, or perhaps the Munis collection in Paris, as Munis’ daughter held some of the Trotsky correspondence, and may release these interesting documents.

My letter of 1948 was written against the background of the decline of the Revolutionary Communist Party. I had been recruited to the RCP in 1946 by Annie Roy, the wife of the RCP leader Ajit Roy, and joined the Kilburn branch, which met in a flat in Kilburn Priory that has been recently demolished. I was called up into the RAF in February 1947, and I received copies of Socialist Appeal during my national service at the various stations to which I was sent — Padgates, West Kirby, Yatesbury and finally the Empire Radio School at Debden. My only contact with comrades was during the occasional weekend leave that we were granted. I met Sam Levy, Sam Bornstein and other comrades who sold Socialist Appeal on Sunday at Hyde Park, and, apart from internal bulletins, it was from them that I was able to gain some idea as to what was happening.

By the end of 1948 the RCP, or to be more precise, the RCP Majority, had begun to lose momentum. The split between the minority led by Healy, Lawrence and Cooper, supported by Pablo, Mandel and Cannon, and the majority led by Haston, Lee, Grant and Tearse, badly damaged the organisation, and played an important part in demoralising the leadership. The issues which preoccupied me and other comrades with whom I was in contact — notably Ronald Grange, a fellow Kilburn branch member and a left oppositionist in the furniture trades union — were the questions of entrism, the ‘Russian question’ (inevitably!), the history of the movement, and in particular the Left Opposition in the Soviet Union. It was these issues that I raised in my letter to Natalia, whom I felt was the only comrade who was sufficiently close to the Old Man to know how he might have reacted to the complex concerns facing a world where capitalism had survived the revolutionary wave predicted by him before the Second World War, and Stalinism had effectively consolidated itself, not only in the USSR, but also in Eastern Europe, and was doing so in China.

On the subject of entrism, I was considerably influenced by the group of comrades who were later to be the signatories of the Open Party Faction in February 1949, including Sam Levy, Alf Snobel, Norman Pentland, Geoff Carlson, but not Sam Bornstein, all of whom I had known from the immediate postwar years (see Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson’s War and the International, pp226-8). Seeing the Healyites’ apparent liquidation into assorted centrist and reformist formations in the Labour Party being actively supported, encouraged and bolstered by the US Socialist Workers Party and the International Secretariat (Pablo and Mandel), it is not surprising that I listened to the apparently compelling arguments which I had been reading since 1945 in the literature provided by the Oehlerites, principally Dennis Levin and Joe Thomas and their small groups that hovered on the fringes of the RCP. Towards the latter days of the RCP they argued against the whole entry tactic, which they had opposed in the USA since 1934. The logic of the Open Party Faction appeared to point to a questioning of the whole of the Trotskyist entry tactic, along the lines of the Oehlerites.

The second issue which concerned me was the ‘Russian question’, the confused position of the Fourth International, which appeared to be left-Titoist with a general slurring over of fundamental differences with Stalinism, a tendency that was later to be demonised as ‘Pabloism’. Tony Cliff had created a stir by publishing within the RCP the document Russia: A Marxist Analysis, which was by no means original, as Haston and Grant had already explored a state capitalist hypothesis, and had rejected it. Nonetheless, the ‘state cap’ position was able to make a much greater impact than the handful of Shachtmanites who had tried to influence events on the periphery with their rather clumsy theoretical definition of ‘bureaucratic collectivism’.

My third concern was the result of correspondence with the Marlenite group, a left split from the US Oehlerite current, and one or two of its followers, Antonia Pulet and (later) Cliff Stanton. George Marlen, the author of Browder: Communist or Tool of Wall Street?, had formed a group called the League for a Revolutionary Workers Party, which advanced the ‘sham war’ theory about the Second World War, in which, according to Marlen, Anglo-American imperialism was in collusion with the Axis powers in the latter’s assault on the Soviet Union. Marlen’s researches into the history of the Russian Left Opposition, published in the Bulletin and Correspondence, were more disturbing, as he unearthed documentary evidence that the Old Man had colluded with the Soviet Politbureau in the suppression of Lenin’s Testament, and had agreed to a statement issued by the Joint Opposition (the Zinoviev-Trotsky bloc) opposing Stalin in 1926, which repudiated the theory of Permanent Revolution in the interests of holding the Joint Opposition together. It was these considerations that encouraged me to write directly to Natalia for her opinion on these issues.

In the following year, I wrote again to Natalia on the subject of the Soviet Union, and received a reply. Unfortunately this, too, has been mislaid, but it could well be in the archives.

Ellis Hillman

Coyoacan, 12 January 1949

Dear Comrade Haston

I received a letter from a certain ES Hillman, 91 Priory Road, West Hampstead, London NW6. I do not know who he is. Could you be so kind and give me all the information available about him? At the end of his letter he writes: ‘... an official Trotskyist party and since then I have associated myself with it’.

Do you know him? His letter gave me a good impression. He is very young, he is only 20, but he is very interested in serious political problems and inclined to analysis. He promised to send me his article. I think it would be worthwhile to approach him. I will be grateful to you if you’ll let me know all you learn about him.

Have you heard anything from Prof Gajendragadkar?

With my best regards


Natalia S


Communist Anticipations

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