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The revolutionary left in Britain (1972)
By Tariq Ali


By Bob Gould

Tariq Ali, Vanessa Redgrave and possibly Terry Eagleton are the best-known and most publicly accessible Marxists in the English-speaking world who are still politically active in support of righteous causes.

Others, now not so well known, who have explored serious political questions from a Marxist point of view are the playwrights Trevor Griffith, John Arden, Marguerita Darcy, and the film-maker Ken Loach.

Tariq Ali first came upon the political scene when he was active in the Oxford Union in the early 1960s, and he has been politically active ever since. For a large part of that time he was in the Trotskyist movement.

As timing and circumstance would have it, I've never been in the same faction as Tariq Ali at the time of his various visits to Australia, so my only personal contact with him has been reasonably jovial tactical arguments from the floor at a number of meetings he has addressed in Australia.

I have considerable respect for his steadily accumulated literary work. He's a pretty good journalist and a useful social historian. His theoretical interests in the Marxist framework are very wide. His books about his country of birth, Pakistan, and the Indian subcontinent in general, are workmanlike and informative.

His passionate critical engagement with the history of Islam is extremely valuable in the current climate of mad, Crusader-like Orientalist animosity to Islam, which infects much of the Western intelligentsia, even its liberal wing. In particular, his recent book, The Clash of Fundamentalism, is extremely pertinent.

The other feature of Tariq Ali's political persona, which used to irritate me a bit, I've come round to rather admiring as a powerful aid to public agitation. That is, his poised, Oxford Union, rather grand, patrician, almost British ruling class demeanour. I now rather enjoy seeing that aristocratic style put to work by a bloke quite obviously from foreign parts to crush the pretentions of the world's ruling classes. More power to his elbow. It's a delight to watch Tariq Ali on some banal ABC or BBC panel crushing some crazed US, British or Australian neocon.

Tariq Ali's public interventions are, taken as a whole, extraordinarily impressive and effective, and that's very important in the current bleak, right-wing public culture in English-speaking countries.

I have all kinds of disagreements with Tariq Ali on various issues, but quite a few of his books are unique. His uproarious, but powerful and effective, caricature of the Trotskyist movement, Redemption, should be read by anyone who aspires to activity in revolutionary organisations, just to get some idea of the broad intellectual environment in which they're operating, and to help them assess their world from time to time with an amused eye.

His books about 1968 are a unique insider's picture of the fire last time, so to speak, and there will be a next time.

In my bookshop are remainders of two important books written or edited by Tariq, The coming British revolution (January 1972) and The Stalinist legacy: its impact on 20th-century world politics (March 1985).

The chapter from The coming British revolution made available here is a unique and rather immediate description of the history of the British revolutionary socialist movement up to 1972, and is considerable interest. It has long been out of print.

Attached also is a bibliography of works written, edited or contributed to by Tariq Ali.

The coming British revolution

    Politically you have always been right, and now more right than ever. Some day the party will realise it. Don’t lose your courage if someone leaves you now, or if not as many come to you, and not as soon as we all would like. You are right, but the guarantee of the victory lies in nothing but the extreme unwillingness to yield, the strictest straightforwardness, the rejection of all compromises; in this very thing lay the secret of Lenin’s victories.
    ADOLF JOFFE, Letter to Trotsky before committing suicide, 1928


The growing crisis of British capitalism creates, of necessity, a generalised feeling of unease and insecurity which permeates, in varying degrees, all the different layers of the bourgeoisie. Thus the latter’s press gradually begins to drop its liberal pretence and actively begins to participate in a crude and blatant campaign to deflect the intensity of the class struggle by creating divisions inside the working-class movement. One of the methods[1] which the unfree press uses is as old as the capitalist system itself. This is the technique of the red scare, which in its different forms has been utilised by every single capitalist government in the world at some stage. The purpose is to isolate the militants leading the struggle from the mass of the workers, many of whom are very susceptible to bourgeois propaganda. The British press has had a lot of training in this field and therefore the revolutionary movement was not really surprised to read, in the first few months of 1971, several articles on the “revolutionaries” in the Daily Express, Daily Mirror, Daily Telegraph and even The Times.[2] What was striking was not that all the articles were inaccurate and badly researched, even from the point of view of the unfree press itself,[3] but that in one sense they all reflected the changing relationship of forces on the left in Britain. There were none of the usual sneers about “fellow-travelling” Labour left-wing MPs, but more important was the fact that the British Communist Party was no longer regarded by the press as the “enemy in our midst”. It was either totally ignored or referred to with respect as a “healthy” contrast to the wildness of the extreme left.

The fact that the CP has been politically eclipsed by the groups on its far left does not mean that its influence or effect on the advanced workers has been replaced as well. Even today the CP has more industrial militants than the entire membership of all the extreme left groups put together. Most of these militants are excellent fighters and are getting increasingly depressed with the industrial policy of their party, which is usually confined to following the line laid down by the “left” trade-union leaders such as Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon. Thus the possibilities for winning over CP militants to revolutionary political positions are at the present time fairly high. What is decisive is that the revolutionary left groups are capable of demonstrating in action their superior politics to thousands of shop-steward militants, because it is only through action that it will be possible to make a qualitative leap and develop an implantation inside the vanguard layers of the workers’ movement. This process could well pave the way for the construction in Britain of a revolutionary party, which is an essential for the successful conclusion of any meaningful struggle. The problem of the revolutionary left in Britain has been that it has never developed out of any native mass struggle but has grown as a reflection of international events (the Russian Revolution led to the CP) or international struggles (International Left Opposition led to British Trotskyism). On its own this would not be important, but the failure to develop any real mass base has accentuated this weakness and imparted a certain element of artificiality to the revolutionary movement, which began to disappear only in between 1967 and 1969 with the new rise of the world revolution. But even today the Marxist left in Britain appears to many people, and even to its sympathisers, as a welter of competing factions, divided on minor and somewhat obscure doctrinal points and engaged in a continual battle against each other. It is therefore necessary to explain the origins of the various tendencies on the left, and the nature of the differences which divide them.[4]

It is essential to emphasise that the differences which exist on the left are not, in most cases, insignificant or irrelevant. They may appear so to many who are not members of the groups and who can therefore afford to mock or dismiss their polemics. This reflects not only the general contempt for theory which exists in Britain, but also the refusal of many people to commit themselves seriously to the revolutionary movement. After all, the accusation of sectarianism is not new to the revolutionary movement: Lenin was assailed in the most vigorous terms for splitting the Russian social-democracy.[5] In reply he used to tell a story of Tolstoy’s, in which a man was observed from a distance making weird and apparently almost insane gestures. It was only when the observers drew closer that they discovered what the strange man was doing: he was busy sharpening a knife! Lenin compared the disputes on the revolutionary left to the sharpening of revolutionary knives — an essential exercise if revolutionary theory is to be translated successfully into practice.

It could be argued with a certain amount of justification that sections of the revolutionary left in Britain seem to be blunting knives rather than sharpening them, but that reflects the historical weakness of Marxism in Britain. It should also be remembered that the process of splits has historically led to a qualitatively improved organisation; which means not that one fetishises a split, but that in most cases the reasons behind it are political. For instance social-democracy separated itself from the liberal populist and anarchist components of the First International through the building of mass working-class organisations during the intense development of capitalist industry in Europe. The Communist (Third) International was created when the majority of the Second International had capitulated to imperialism at the start of the First World War. It was the degeneration of the Third International, after the death of Lenin and the victory of the Stalinist faction inside the Soviet Union, that led Trotsky to start preparations for the construction of a new International. It was the last process which fathered most of the revolutionary left in Britain.


The Fourth International was founded in 1938, half a decade after the rise to power of German Fascism had conclusively proved the historic bankruptcy of the Third International and its different sections in this crucial test case. Before that the Trotskyists had acted as part of the International left opposition, which had considered itself as part of the Third International confronted with the task of changing the leadership of the latter, but three events had been decisive in the total break with the Third International: the rise of Fascism, the defeat of the proletariat in France and Spain in 1936-8 and the complete incompatibility of a revolutionary Marxist program with that of the Stalinist leadership of the Third International. The cynical role of the Stalinists in Spain and Germany had left only one course open to Trotsky and the international left opposition, and that was the creation of a new International.

However, the very events we have enumerated also coloured the existence of the fledgling Fourth International. Everywhere reaction seemed to be on the ascendant. In the Soviet Union itself the Moscow Trials were at their height and the third big trial had resulted in the execution of Bukharin and eighteen of his comrades, all of them leaders of the Third International, all of them old Bolshevik comrades of the dead Lenin. Stalin was destroying all the possible alternatives to him so that the CPSU would not even have the opportunity to think of the possibility of replacing him. The Second World War seemed to be approaching, and Stalin was staking his existence on an alliance with the “democracies”. Class-collaboration was therefore to replace the policy of labelling all opponents social-fascists. Thus the Fourth International, unlike its predecessors, was born out of the big defeats suffered by the European working-class movement. Nowhere was it a mass organisation. Persecuted by GPU and the SS alike, the movement lost many of its leaders: Leon Sedov (Trotsky’s son) died in extremely mysterious circumstances near Paris; Rudolf Klement, the international secretary, was kidnapped by the GPU and executed; in Germany and Greece the Trotskyists were in the concentration camps; in Spain they together with the POUMists were being liquidated by the GPU and Franco; in Mexico the plans of the Stalinists with Lombardo Toledano at their head to assassinate Leon Trotsky were well in hand. It was in this atmosphere of repression and persecution that the Fourth International was born on September 3rd, 1938. The founding conference lasted only a day; thirty delegates were present from the USA, the USSR, Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, Belgium, Holland and Greece, and several observers. The precarious security conditions prevented the attendance of many other delegates. The Polish delegates (influenced by Isaac Deutscher) were the only ones who were seriously opposed to the creation of the new International on the grounds that the new International was isolated from the masses as the latter had not yet become conscious of the betrayals of Stalinism. There was of course general agreement on the isolation from the masses, and it was accepted that this would continue for a whole period for historical reasons. However, the Fourth International would be built on the wave of the revolutionary upheavals which followed on the heels of the imperialist war. It is not necessary to discuss in detail the early history of the Fourth International;[6] suffice it to say that the heritage of Marxism and Leninism was in those dark days defended only by the handful of Fourth Internationalists who had survived both the Stalinist and the Fascist terror. The theoretical acquisitions of Bolshevism were defended, improved and preserved by the Fourth International and it is this thin and frayed red line which has provided thousands of revolutionary militants today with a link to their own history.

The splits in the Fourth International centred around the pre-Second-World-War and the postwar periods. While these are discussed in detail elsewhere [7] it is important to pause over them briefly in order to understand the present state of affairs. The first serious division occurred during Trotsky’s lifetime inside the Socialist Workers Party of the United States, and concerned the class nature of the Soviet Union. The Fourth International had maintained, despite its split from the Third, that the Soviet Union was a workers’ state, a deformed and bureaucratically degenerated one, but a workers’ state nevertheless. The gains of the October Revolution, namely the abolition of capitalism and its substitution by a planned economy, created a new set of property relations which have been preserved despite the expropriation of political power by the Stalinist bureaucracy. Therefore defence of the Soviet Union against imperialism was an important tenet of revolutionary Marxism. Despite all the twists of the Soviet bureaucracy, despite the liquidation of Trotskyists, including members of Trotsky’s own family, and in spite of all Stalin’s crimes, Trotsky did not allow himself to be tarred even slightly with the idealist brush. Some of his co-thinkers were not as well-versed in the dialectic and they began to wilt at the growing excesses of Stalinism. The Stalin-Hitler pact and the moral outrage of the hypocritical “liberal democracies” also affected some of the petty-bourgeois leaders of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). They gradually began to abandon the concept of defending the Soviet Union and formulated theories of a “new class” which had suddenly developed in the USSR, which was as oppressive as that of the imperialists, and therefore there was no qualitative difference between the capitalist states and the “state-capitalist” or “bureaucratic collectivist” states. The latter covered Germany, Italy, Soviet Union and New Deal USA! Trotsky’s last great theoretical fight was thus waged against James Burnham and Max Shachtman of the SWP, a fight in which he was supported by the majority of the SWP led by the well-known working-class leader, James P. Cannon. (Burnham later reneged completely and went over to the extreme right wing and Shachtman simply deserted to the bourgeois camp and later justified American imperialism’s war against revolutionary Cuba!) Shachtman’s theories were to find some response in Europe at a later stage and Trotsky’s polemic against him is therefore of lasting value. In an important article entitled From a Scratch to the Danger of Gangrene,[8] Trotsky defined the Marxist method:

    “In Marxist sociology the initial point of analysis is the class definition of a given phenomenon, eg state, party, philosophic trend, literary school, etc. In most cases, however, the mere class definition is inadequate, for a class consists of different strata, passes through different stages of development, comes under different conditions, is subjected to the influence of other classes. It becomes necessary to bring up these second and third rate factors in order to round out the analysis, and they are taken either partially or completely, depending upon the specific aim. But for a Marxist, analysis is impossible without a class characterisation of the phenomena under consideration. “The skeletal and muscular systems do not exhaust the anatomy of an animal; nevertheless an anatomical treatise which attempted to ‘abstract’ itself from bones and muscles would dangle in midair. War is not an organ but a function of society, ie, of its ruling class. It is impossible to define and study a function without understanding the organ, ie, the state; it is impossible to gain scientific understanding of the organ without understanding the general structure of the organism, ie, society. The bones and muscles of society consist of the productive forces and the class (property) relations. Shachtman holds it possible that a function, namely, war, can be studied ‘concretely’ independently of the organ to which it pertains, ie, the state. Isn’t this monstrous? “This fundamental error is supplemented by another equally glaring. After splitting function away from organ, Shachtman in studying the function itself, contrary to all his promises, proceeds not from the abstract to the concrete but on the contrary dissolves the concrete in the abstract. Imperialist war is one of the functions of finance-capital, ie, the bourgeoisie at a certain stage of development resting upon capitalism of a specific structure, namely, monopoly capital ... But by extending the term imperialist war to cover the Soviet state too, Shachtman cuts the ground away from under his own feet. In order to reach even a superficial justification for applying one and the same designation to the expansion of finance capital and the expansion of the workers’ state, Shachtman is compelled to detach himself from the social structure of both states altogether by proclaiming it to be — an abstraction. Thus playing hide and seek with Marxism, Shachtman labels the concrete as abstract and palms off the abstract as concrete!

The assassination of Leon Trotsky by a Stalinist agent and the beginning of the Second World War marked the end of the first phase of the Fourth International (FI). The war years saw attacks on the SWP by the U.S. government and an increase in the general problems which confronted the sections in Europe. Normal communication between groups was virtually impossible, but the publication of FI journals was carried on clandestinely. In those parts of Europe occupied by the Nazis the militants of the FI participated actively in the workers’ resistance, and some of the leaders of the French Section were executed by Fascist firing-squads. At the same time propaganda was distributed amongst German workers and soldiers when the opportunity allowed.

The postwar years saw Europe ravaged by the imperialist war and a pre-revolutionary situation in France, Italy and Greece. Trotsky’s prophecy of revolutionary upheavals had certainly come true, but he had underestimated the mystifying capacities of Stalinism as part of the whole mystification of the “democratic anti-fascist struggle” which enabled the CPs to lead the resistance (ie the workers in arms) and so retain their dominance over the workers’ movement. Thus in France and Italy the CPs turned their respective proletariats to the task of salvaging capitalism, handing in their weapons and preserving the status quo. Both CPs then joined the National Governments together with the bourgeoisie. In Greece, pressure from Stalin resulted in an abandonment of the armed struggle against British and American imperialism. Yet again the objective conditions had been ripe for a social revolution and the revolutionary forces had been too weak to take advantage. Also American capital was forced to revive European capitalism to confront the Soviet Union and the Eastern European states, most of which had been decapitalised by the Soviet Army. Thus the strengthening of European capitalism and what appeared as the strengthening of Stalinism confounded two of the premises on which the Fourth International had been based. The opportunists immediately took this as the starting point for a new revision of Marx and began once again to challenge the class nature of the Soviet Union and proclaim the stability of capitalist society. There followed various discussions on Stalinism and the class nature of the buffer states (Eastern Europe) which were finally sorted out during the early fifties. However, the defeat of the working class produced another period of cynicism, which was sharpened by the fact that some of Trotsky’s predictions had not been proved correct. The intensification of the Cold War produced further pressures and the FI projected a thesis that argued the possibility of a Third World War between the Soviet camp and imperialism and reaffirmed the need to defend the Soviet Union.

At the same time the FI put forward the concept of “entrism”, which implied that Trotskyists should enter the working-class parties (in certain cases this included the CPs) and by patient work develop a strong faction which would be able to dominate the leftward currents which were bound to develop in these parties and split the party, thus creating a new revolutionary party or at any rate a party which could be won over to revolutionary positions. Various interpretations of this as well as other theses led to a split in the FI until 1953, when the British and American Trotskyists withdrew and set up a rival organisation, which had a small following in parts of Latin America and France.[9] In 1963 a Reunification Congress took place where a large majority of the groups met and agreed on a common program and analysis. The exceptions were the Socialist Labour League of Britain and their followers in France. Since 1963 the FI has grown at a very rapid pace and has established sections in new parts of the world as well as increasing the size of the other sections. The French section, the Communist League, today plays an important part in French politics and dominates the revolutionary left. The SWP in the United States, which is barred by reactionary legislation from affiliating to the FI, and its youth organisation, the Young Socialist Alliance, form the largest organisation on the revolutionary left. In West Bengal in India the Fourth Internationalists are engaged in leading a peasant struggle against the forces of the Indian state. In Argentina the FI leads the People’s Revolutionary Army. In Ceylon it dominates the largest trade union, and in other countries too it is making a growing impact.


The long period of political quiescence among the working class meant that there was no necessity to forge a unified strategy, and instead an atmosphere was created in which doctrinal disputes were the only relief from the mundane task of keeping small groups together, maintaining small newspapers and trying to influence a labour movement which was not merely reformist but anti-communist. It was in this atmosphere that postwar British Trotskyism developed.

Of all the tendencies on the left the SLL is probably the best-known “Trotskyist” tendency, if only because a large number of people have seen its paper, Workers’ Press, being sold on the streets every day. Thus for many people interested in revolutionary ideas the SLL is Trotskyism, and this leads them to regard Trotskyism with a certain degree of repugnance. This is doubly unfortunate because it obscures the political relevance of Trotskyism and also the positive aspects of the SLL itself. The fact that many young people can be persuaded to devote a large portion of their time to selling newspapers and engaging in political propaganda is in itself not a bad thing. What is futile is that many of these young people have very little idea of what they are engaged in doing, very little time to be politically educated, and are dominated by an organisational apparatus which must make the CP look on with some envy and reminisce about the good old days of Third Period Stalinism.

The SLL stems from a group which was known as the Workers International League and was set up in the mid 1930s. During the war it carried out the workers’ struggles based on anti-capitalist demands and immediately after the war it joined with the larger Revolutionary Socialist League to form the Revolutionary Communist Party, which was probably the most effective revolutionary organisation of the left in Britain. The RCP succeeded in penetrating some trade unions, but its internal life was marked by an intense factional struggle on the question of “entering” the Labour Party.

The result of the 1945 general election had been to establish the Labour Party, with a sizeable left wing, as the undisputed political expression of the British working class. One tendency within the RCP advocated “entry” in order to penetrate the structures of the Labour movement and lay the base for the construction of a revolutionary party. The majority of the RCP was opposed to “entry”, and a section led by Gerry Healy left the RCP in 1947 and entered the Labour Party, calling itself “The Group”. The RCP leaders who were opposed to this waited in the wings, hoping for a quick split in the Labour Party which would lead to the creation of a centrist-left organisation. This did not happen, and the RCP declined in numbers and influence and gradually capitulated to reformism. In 1949 a truncated RCP entered the Labour Party and a fusion took place, Healy’s Group demanding and obtaining a majority on the executive bodies of the new group. Many of the old RCP leaders grew more disillusioned and left revolutionary politics for good. At the same time the internal regime of the organisation became more and more authoritarian.

The initial period of “entry” was modestly successful and a number of militants were recruited from the Labour Party. In the entire history of the Trotskyist movement in Britain, this was the golden age of “entrism”. The entry paper of the Trotskyists, Socialist Outlook, acquired a wide circulation, basing itself on an alliance between Healy and sections of the social-democratic left, particularly the Bevanites. A libel suit destroyed Socialist Outlook, but this was not a major setback. For a time the group oriented to Tribune, which was sold by all its members and was promoted as the “paper of the left”. In fact some of the verbal concessions made to Bevanism went well beyond the limit and provide a somewhat amusing comparison with the present-day antics of the SLL.

The big break for Healy came not so much in the Labour Party as in the CP. The combination of the Khrushchev revelations and Hungary created a twin crisis for many loyal CP members and there was a mass exodus from the party in Britain. While a majority bade farewell to left politics, a tiny portion moved leftwards and Healy made an intensive drive to win some of them to his organisation. He succeeded, and through the doors opened by the CP militants the Healy group was soon to gain influence amongst a good number of industrial workers. This enabled the group to establish its industrial reputation through the Shell-Mex strike and in the role it played in the London bus strike. The entry of many CP militants and a few “red” professors created an enormous pressure on Healy to withdraw from the Labour Party. Many ex-CP members did not understand the importance or the necessity of mole-like work in the latter and following a series of expulsions from the Labour Party by Transport House, Healy’s group took a conscious decision to the process of withdrawal. The Socialist Labour League, an open and public Trotskyist organisation, was launched in 1959 without any discussion with the membership, an extraordinary fact when considering the total change of orientation. Obviously it was felt that any discussion might provide an unnecessary encumbrance. The reason advanced for leaving the Labour Party was that the Trotskyists were faced with a witch hunt of massive proportions and had no public means of answering back. The fact that only a small proportion of the founding members were not members of the Labour Party, and that the majority of members operated exclusively within the LP until 1964 tends to refute the idea that the repression was so fierce as to make the precipitate launching of the SLL unavoidable.

Whatever the internal constitutional implications (and the membershipdid not protest too loudly), the SLL was a partial success. Its paper, The Newsletter,[10] soon increased in size and the circulation leapt forward; its theoretical magazine, Labour Review, established itself with a reputation for fair polemic. Its tone was remarkably free from the hysteria which surrounds all the SLL publications today. In those early days the principled flexibility of the SLL in relation to British politics made many think that it was capable of changing the whole face of left politics in Britain. However, the RCP had coloured the entire outlook of all the tendencies which emerged from it. At its height the RCP had seen the Trotskyist movement as the only revolutionary tendency in the world since the degeneration of the Third International. This had led to the assumption that it was the only force capable of overthrowing capitalism anywhere in the world. This had certainly not been Trotsky’s view, but it became a dogma for a tiny, isolated group of people, who could not for a long time readjust to the death of a leader who had outshone them all. This led to certain difficulties which a more flexible and realistic outlook could have avoided. The overthrow of capitalism in Eastern Europe, the Yugoslav revolution, the Chinese Revolution, the struggle in Indo-China, thus created problems for sections of the Trotskyist movement. The events in China, in particular, were inexplicable to many militants and thus their understanding of the motive forces of the Third and successful Chinese Revolution was impaired. In some groups this attitude was encouraged and sustained not by critical examination of new developments, but by a glib dismissal of all other movements and tendencies. The majority of the Trotskyist movement was able to transcend this, but the children of the RCP could not. This led to an extreme organisational sectarianism, which marred the development of any meaningful Leninist practice. This flaw was most marked in the Healy tendency, though not confined to it, and despite its political flexibility the SLL has been chiefly characterised and marked by it.

The first indication of the lack of internal democracy in the SLL was the spate of expulsions and resignations in 1959-60. One after the other, the ablest leaders of the SLL broke with Healy: Peter Fryer, Brian Behan, Constance Kirkby, Peter Cadogan, Chris Pallis and Bob Pennington, whose weight inside the organisation had been immense. These breaks were accompanied by a great number of accusations, counter-accusations, reports in the bourgeois press, rumour-mongering, etc, but when the dust was beginning to settle one fact emerged clearly: Healy was left in undisputed leadership of the SLL. He consolidated his forces, ensured their personal loyalty and started taking advantage of the opportunities which were opening up within the Labour Party.

The break in the CP had sent many of its militants scurrying across to left social-democracy; coupled with CND, this had strengthened the formation of a left in the Labour Party and resulted in the defeat of the leadership at Scarborough in October 1960. The failure of the left to organise its support and its refusal to fight had paved the way for a right-wing victory the following year. This was the greatest opportunity the SLL had faced and its decision to withdraw from the Labour Party on the eve of the unilateralist struggle obviously affected its credibility. Not that it could have crystallised a “left current” and split the Labour Party, but at least it could have waged a battle and dented the party apparatus, apart from withdrawing with many more supporters. However, even from the outside it could have done more. The incapacity of the Tribunites to stand up to Gaitskell left the rank and file leaderless against the right wing. A revolutionary tendency, well organised and disciplined, could have taken the lead, built up a united front which transcended the limits of left social-democracy and embarked on a struggle against the Labour bureaucracy. There was, after all, still considerable support for unilateralism.[11] The SLL was content with making simple propaganda. It could not differentiate between agitation and propaganda and this led it to a sectarianism which only repelled people who were sympathetic to socialist ideas. Thus while The Newsletter condemned the sell-out week after week the only alternative they could offer the mass of the Labour left was the Socialist Labour League. Political propaganda combined with organisational sectarianism made this upheaval within Labour’s ranks the SLL’s greatest lost opportunity. More important, it projected a certain picture of “Trotskyism” — a mirror-image of Stalinism — which haunts us even today.

The SLL’s characteristics were also transferred to a field where a new generation of revolutionaries were emerging; the Labour Party’s new youth movement, the Young Socialists (YS). This was initiated after the electoral defeat of 1959 for the purpose of infusing some fresh blood into the ageing veins of the Labour Party, but the blood transfusion was from the very start hampered by the fact that the YS members were more sympathetic to the revolutionary left. Even Tribune was regarded with suspicion in the YS. The task confronting the SLL was to win them over politically and turn the YS into an effective socialist battering-ram within the Labour movement. This was not a utopian dream. Most YS members were not only active in their local LPs, but a good many were also trade unionists. A decisive factor in the initial success of the YS had been the 1960 engineering apprentices’ strike. This spontaneous action, which had started in Clydeside and spread to the rest of Britain, although at first dominated by the YCL, won over a considerable number of young militants to the YS because of the very effective solidarity action which the YS mounted and in which the SLL played a key role.

But the SLL fumbled this opportunity. It tried to win the leadership of the YS through a series of hysterical campaigns against the LP bureaucracy, which culminated in an attempt to “rush the platform” at the first YS National Conference in the Beaver Hall in London at Easter 1961. This tended to isolate the SLL from the main core of the young people who had come into the YS who, while revolutionary in sentiment, were still confused as regards the Labour Party which they regarded as “their” party, and the hysteria of the SLL was not a sufficient substitute for political education. A meaningful campaign for democracy in the Labour Party and for the removal of all bans and proscriptions would have educated many YS members by taking them through a positive experience, but this was not done and instead the Transport House bureaucracy succeeded in isolating the SLL by getting two successive conferences to pass resolutions against the SLL paper Keep Left.

However, the fact that the SLL was well-organised gave it an immense advantage and by a radical change in its attitude to building YS branches it gained a numerical majority inside the organisation. As the YS had a certain effect on the development of the SLL it is worth discussing this question in some detail. The concept that the Labour Party had of the YS was of a group of middle-class (ideologically, if not socially) youth, organising dances and socials and occasionally gathering round the feet of some Labour Councillor or MP to hear the good news pertaining to the future social-democratic utopia. Needless to say, not many young socialists shared this absurd vision and there was constant friction over the question of whether branches should be based on a social or political basis. The SLL was, to its credit, firmly opposed to the concept of dance-hall recruitment, but an accident occurred which was to have profound effects on the SLL. In Wigan, of all places, a YS branch under SLL control organised a regular dance and enrolled all those who attended as members of the Labour Party. This enabled the YS branch to make the local Labour Party financially dependent on it and this feeling of power resulted in a complete turnabout of policy in the SLL. It proclaimed the need for the YS to turn to “working-class” youth, by which it meant an attempt to win non-political youth to the YS through social activity. It was this turn that enabled the SLL to fight its way through its initial setbacks to win a majority in the YS. In almost all areas the SLL members in the YS began to centre their political work around regular social activity. Gradually a pattern developed: the SLL would organise a dance or record hop, it would leaflet the local youth employment office and would try and get the young people attracted to the dance to join the YS. In most cases this was superficially successful and they could build branches of between thirty and forty young workers. However, the turnover rate was extremely high, and the branch would usually be reduced to the initial SLL members in a few months, if not weeks. Despite this, the very fact that they were able to mobilise such numbers, albeit for short periods, gave them an advantage over other sections of the left in the YS, who restricted their influence to those whom they could convince politically. This combined with three other factors to gain the SLL a majority within the YS. First was the organisational superiority of the SLL compared to the other tendencies, plus the fact that the SLL was seen to be engaged in activity while the others were largely confined to propaganda. The second factor was that the factional atmosphere and the rigid sectarianism of the SLL resulted in large numbers of youth simply withdrawing from both the YS and politics.

Also the way in which the majority had been gained had been totally unrelated to any struggle within the Labour Party and by 1964 most of the YS branches were operating independently and had no connections with their local Labour Parties. Since the YS had not been used to fight against the Labour bureaucracy there was no sympathy for it within the broader labour movement or from the Labour Party rank and file. Having decided that there was nothing more for them to do inside the Labour Party, the SLL decided to leave and accordingly the YS split, two-thirds leaving with the SLL and immediately launching their own youth movement in Morecambe (February 1965). This was also called the YS, and despite the semi-religious fervour with which recruitment plans were drawn up it declined rapidly. The reason was simple: the method of recruitment (socials, picnics, etc) combined with the organisational sectarianism was sufficient to kill the organisation as a stable political youth movement. The turnover was very rapid and virtually the entire leadership at the time of the break with the Labour Party left the organisation, politically disillusioned and broken by their experience. This reduced the leadership to a group of colourless, unimaginative, uninspiring but staunch Healyites! Since that time Healy, like the Bourbon monarchs, has learnt nothing and forgotten nothing. The outward show of large conferences and demonstrations at the end of which the Leader appears and greets the assembled masses, has not been able to conceal the high turnover.[12]

Today the SLL continues on the same road. Confusing the development of its organisation with the building of real support within the workers’ movement for revolutionary politics, continuing to recruit non-political youth on a non-political basis to sell newspapers, the SLL today stands out as the best and classic example of a sect as defined by Marx:

    “You yourself have experienced in your own person the opposition between the movement of a sect and the movement of a class. The sect sees the justification for its existence and its 'point of honour' — not in what it has in common with the class movement but in the particular shibboleth which distinguishes it from it.”[13]

While the rhetoric of the SLL and its formal program proclaim its adherence to Trotskyism, its methods and practice are much closer to Stalinism. Its methods of dealing with political opponents, of slandering other tendencies on the revolutionary left, have nothing in common with the Fourth International or its program. Totally incapable of developing theory, the SLL tends to make a fetish of existing texts and use them in a completely mechanistic fashion. It treats the writings of Trotsky in much the same way as the Stalinists treat the writings of Lenin. Its political attitudes lead it to strange analyses of the world revolution, which are developed not so much on the basis of fact, but in order to prove that the SLL has been correct all along. The tragedy is that the SLL contains many honest, sincere revolutionaries who actually believe the myths propagated by their leadership only to be totally demoralised later when they discover that they have been duped. The number of cadres who have left revolutionary politics because of their experiences with the SLL muist be fairly high. An offshoot of this is that the SLL is scared of united-front activity with other revolutionary tendencies lest its members are forced to enter into a real political discussion and become disillusioned even sooner than they would otherwise be. For this reason, organisational exclusiveness is a cornerstone of SLL practice, and the concepts of “party loyalty” and “party pride” are forced down the throats of its members. Its very lack of political confidence in its own ideas and its failure to educate its members politically causes the demonology, and the paranoia. Hence also the tarred image in Britain of “Trotskyism”, which does not appear in practice, particularly to many dissident members of the CP, to be much different from the CP in the hard-line days when no differences were permitted. Can this jerry-built “Trotskyism” survive for long? The answer depends on the ability of the revolutionary left to grow and the development of the mass movement in an anti-capitalist direction. For the masses are themselves the best antidote to sects and sectarianism.[14]


Lenin’s most important contribution to revolutionary ideology was his constant stress on the nature of our epoch. He and Trotsky characterised it as the epoch of decaying capitalism, as the age of permanent revolution. Lenin firmly believed that the processes of revolutionary upheaval would multiply and spell the death sentence of capitalist society. In brief, as Lukacs expressed it very succinctly, for Lenin the main characteristic of our epoch was the “actuality of the revolution”, the belief that not only were revolutions on the agenda, but that the task of revolutionaries was to prepare for them.[15] And if we look back we see that despite the many defeats that have taken place since the victory of the Russian Revolution, just over sixty years ago (not a long time in a historical sense), there have also been victories, and today a large part of the world’s population is not dependent on the vagaries of the capitalist world market.

As we saw earlier, Trotsky overestimated the ability of revolutionary Marxism to replace the traditional Stalinist parties following the Second World War and this created dissension in the Fourth International. As in the 1930s there had emerged an idealist current in the SWP in the US, now similar currents developed in Western Europe inside the FI. In the period 1947-9, Tony Cliff developed some of Shachtman’s themes and removed their most obvious absurdities. He propounded a similar theory which maintained that the Soviet Union was no longer a “degenerated or deformed workers’ state”, but a class society where a new form of capitalism prevailed — “state capitalism”. There was nothing new or original about this theory, and not much attention was paid to it as the RCP, the British section of the FI, was busy with its fight over the Labour Party orientation. It is possible that if the regime inside the RCP had been democratic and allowed a free interplay of discussion, Cliff would not have emerged from his obscurity and would probably even have altered his views, but the authoritarianism of our old friend Healy only added spice to Cliff’s view that to continue designating the Soviet Union, China, etc, as workers’ states meant ending up as semi-Stalinists: as we have stressed, the organisational methods of the RCP left a lot to be desired. The Cliff Group crystallised during the outbreak of the Korean War. As it did not regard North Korea as a workers’ state it was only logical that Cliff refused to defend it against imperialism. Since Soviet “imperialism” had mysteriously come into existence the war was quite clearly an inter-imperialist conflict and therefore “revolutionists” could not support either side. The Korean War took place at the height of the Cold War period in Europe and the pressures on the revolutionary movement were very great. Cliff and his group capitulated to these pressures and abandoned a revolutionary Marxist position. At the same time they rejected the Leninist theory of imperialism and the concept of the Leninist Party. Though they have never stated so clearly, the logic of these positions was to challenge the nature of the epoch and certainly some of their practical conclusions did indicate that they recognised this. Because, if Russia is state-capitalist, China, Cuba, Korea and Vietnam are “petty-bourgeois” states, and poor old Lenin and Trotsky were completely wrong in their characterisation of this epoch as one of proletarian revolutions, then we are entering a new phase of capitalism and a new epoch — the epoch of the petty-bourgeoisie! Because if the latter is capable of making bourgeois-democratic or rather bourgeois-nondemocratic revolutions, then the theory of permanent revolution is simply hogwash and the Russian Revolution was a noble adventure carried out before its time and doomed to failure. In this case the only perspective is that of patient propaganda work for reforms within the working-class movement.

In the early years many members of Cliff’s group, which later called itself International Socialism (IS), were virtually indistinguishable from left social-democrats, in the best sense of the word. Their refusal to distinguish between Soviet society, despite its flaws, and capitalist society made it difficult to distinguish some of them from the cold warriors whose entire energy was spent on producing books attacking the Soviet Union and China. The IS was at its weakest point between 1957 and 1959, when the limited success of the SLL confined the latter to ephemeral and propagandistic political interventions. The sectarianism of Healy allowed IS to develop and gain strength.

The shift in the world situation and the new rise of the world revolutionary movement, symbolised by the staggering heroism of the Vietnamese NLF, created a new atmosphere among the youth which was far removed from the ideologies of the Cold War. Accordingly the positions of the IS began to shift as well and in 1967 it came out in support of the NLF.[16] How the NLF or the North Vietnamese regime differed from North Korea has not so far been explained in detail. One can only conclude that either the IS were wrong in 1950 or they were unprincipled and opportunist in 1967. Because of the extreme heterogeneity of the organisation both variations would apply to different members and tendencies inside IS. However, the refusal of IS as an organisation to take solidarity action with the Indo-Chinese revolution seriously after there was a general downswing on activity in this field, does testify to the opportunism of the majority of its leadership.

The May 1968 explosion in France also seemed to change their attitude to the concept of the Leninist Party. In the first edition of Cliff’s book on Rosa Luxemburg, the chapter dealing with the question of revolutionary organisation concluded:

    “For Marxists in advanced industrial countries, Lenin’s original position can much less serve as a guide than Rosa Luxemburg’s, notwithstanding her overstatements on the question of spontaneity.”

This passage was completely deleted and a new one inserted after May 1968:

    “However, whatever the historical circumstances moulding Rosa’s thoughts regarding organisation, these thoughts showed a great weakness in the German revolution of 1918-19.”

The first position saw IS arguing that politics would emerge spontaneously from the shop stewards’ movement. This was brought out by the Cliff/Barker pamphlet on incomes policy and declared that the “nexus of reformism” had shifted to the shop floor and that a political movement would emerge from there. Hence it followed that the main task confronting socialists was to keep lonely vigils outside the factories with a few leaflets and patiently wait for this new movement to emerge. The second position saw a superficial change with a declaration that IS was to be a “democratic centralist” organisation, but this was interpreted as simply reorganising the internal system of the group. There was a total inability to understand that democratic centralism was a political concept requiring a high level of political understanding. This inability was demonstrated when, frightened by the favourable response of a small section of dockers to Enoch Powell, the IS announced the danger of fascism and issued a four-point unity proposal to the left. These points were so liberal that they could be accepted by left MPs, for example Stan Newens.[17] Also they led to a large increase of IS members who did not have a clue as to what the basic theoretical positions of the organisation were; this would not have mattered if IS had a well-organised system of internal education, but far from this they announced that theory was not important. In fact Cliff, in a frenzy to gain new members, went as far as saying that the theory of “state-capitalism” had been formulated at the height of Stalinism to prevent a capitulation to the same, but that this problem no longer existed! After the membership had risen a year or so later this old problem became dominant again.[18]

The growth of IS (it is probably the largest of the left groupings today) also reflected a further deterioration of political standards. Thus the IS refrained from demanding the withdrawal of British troops from Northern Ireland for a considerable length of time. Their position on the fight against the Tory government and their total abandonment of any systematic work in the universities[19] led to an organisation which is thoroughly centrist in character.[20] Thus Socialist Worker, the IS weekly paper, published an article which proposed a right-wing policy, supporting the return of a Labour government and calling on the trade unions to support the same on the basis of the following demands:

  • 1. Unqualified repeal of the Industrial Relations Bill and all anti-union laws.
  • 2.No incomes policy under capitalism.
  • 3. Restoration of all welfare cuts. No welfare charges.
  • 4. Work or full pay at trade union rates for the unemployed.
  • 5. Renationalisation without compensation of all sectors of nationalised industry returned to private hands.[21]

This amazing list of demands which poses as a “minimum” program is to the right of even the CP(!) and could be supported by “left” MPs and “left” trade-union bureaucrats without too much trouble. Thus does IS abandon completely the tenets of the Transitional Program and prepare to build a centrist party. The only likely result is demoralisation of its cadres at the first signs of fluctuation in the class struggle. This, coupled with an increasing adaptation to left social-democracy, will mark the decline of IS as an organisation containing many dedicated revolutionaries.[22]


The refusal of Healy and his group to enter the reunified Fourth International in 1963 and the lack of interest of IS in an organisation which was “capitulating” to Stalinism, meant that for a long period there was no British section of the Fourth International. The crisis of Stalinism also produced many militants who left the CP but refused to work within any of the other organisations for the reasons detailed above. Thus the roots of the International Marxist Group (IMG), the British section of the FI, are not tangled with those of the RCP. A group of militants who left the CP in 1956 in Nottingham formed the basis of what is the IMG today. After a few futile attempts at working in a common organisation with a small grouping known as the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL), the pre-IMG militants started the production of a cylostyled weekly bulletin known as The Week. As they were engaged in doing “entry” work inside the Labour Party, this journal gathered as its sponsors a mixed bag of centrists, left social-democrats and Bertrand Russell(!), in addition to certain Marxists. The IMG was formally constituted in 1965; its early life was dominated by the Labour Party and its strategy premised on the emergence of a left current inside the Labour Party which would raise the banners of revolt against the Wilson clique. This never took place despite the vicious and reactionary policies of the Wilson administration. Thus the policy of “waiting for lefty” had to be adjusted.[23] The left of the Labour Party destroyed itself and the changing world situation saw the growth of a new radicalised milieu. Thus while the IMG played a decisive role in setting up the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign it was still committed to entrism on paper. This reflected a certain weakness theoretically as (of course it is easy to say this with hindsight) a decisive and sharp turn away from social-democracy and the establishment of an embryonic youth organisation could have altered the balance of forces very radically on the revolutionary left. The IMG, together with every other revolutionary tendency, underestimated the breadth of the radicalised youth milieu and its capacity for responding in a revolutionary manner to the Vietnamese struggle. Once VSC had got off the ground the IMG cadres devoted themselves to the task of building it with a single-minded devotion, and while the decision to put the needs of the Vietnamese Revolution above the interests of IMG was thoroughly commendable, the organisation suffered and in fact it was IS which filled the gap and recruited most of its members.[24] In fact IMG overestimated the capacity of militants to recognise its “superior political program” without any real ideological effort by the IMG itself which is so essential for creating a socialist and totalising consciousness.[25] For this it was vital for IMG to pose as a clear pole of attraction with a distinct ideology and program apart from, but at the same time in addition to its excellent work in the VSC.

A similar error was made in the building of the workers’ control movement. It was IMG which took the initiative in launching a movement for workers’ control, but at that time it was engaged in “entry” work in the Labour Party and this led to an absurd fetishisation of the question of security in relation to the Transport House bureaucracy. A section of the IMG leadership were even opposed to recruiting militants to the organisation except in the most stringent circumstances. (This turned out to be a trifle ironical as the most security-conscious IMG leader, Ken Coates, was expelled from the Labour Party, while the most “open” members were not discovered!) This overcaution led to a situation where virtually no attempt was made to draw the worker militants involved in the workers’ control movement into the IMG. This was doubly tragic as it was the IMG which organised the early conferences of the workers’ control movement and serviced its needs. The leading comrade involved in this work broke with the organisation when it insisted on criticising Jack Jones of the T&GWU for betraying the dockers’ strike in October 1967. Unfortunately he had found alternative means for servicing the movement and the IMG was virtually excluded. The Institute for Workers’ Control, helped by the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, established for itself a place on the political stage, but its politics moved further and further to the right. Thus when The Times, in its fatuous series of articles The Revolutionaries, implied that the Institute was inspired by Marxist ideas, one of the leading lights of the Institute hurriedly wrote a letter of protest to The Times:

    ”The statement that the Institute is ‘attempting to translate Marxist aspiration into fact’ is misleading. The truth is that the majority of our members and councillors are not Marxists at all; they find their commitment to workers’ control coming from a variety of Humanist and Socialist traditions. Aspirations towards industrial democracy are by no means the exclusive prerogative of Marxism.”[26]

Even if the IMG had recruited a handful of worker militants in those early days it would have secured for itself a base from which limited actions could have been mounted, particularly in this period of heightened class activity when the weakness of the entire revolutionary left is so painfully visible. However, one can say that the lessons have been learnt and that IMG has established itself as an organisation of the revolutionary left; it has participated in the creation of a youth organisation, the Spartacus League, and it has acquired a distinctive press. The latter is extremely important, as the period in which revolutionary left groups do not have any real implantation inside the working-class movement makes it all the more necessary that their propaganda is not merely agitational, but, like all good agitation, is also educative. For a certain period the IMG had only a duplicated weekly paper, then it developed a printed montly, International, whose existence was a bit schizophrenic as its real role was never understood. At the same time The Black Dwarf emerged; its politics were similar to those of the IMG, and its editorial board was fully committed to VSC, so that many IMG militants were prepared to sell the paper and use it as a means of organising. This created problems, particularly as the downswing of the VSC and the student movement meant that the newspaper had lost its mobile base and its milieu. Some of us on the editorial board therefore argued that the paper should develop a political program and issue a call for the setting up of a revolutionary youth organisation. This was regarded with utter horror and when it became clear that united work was impossible, rather than have a protracted struggle with nasty backbiting and rumour-mongering we decided to leave The Black Dwarf and organise a new paper.[27] This was done and The Red Mole came into existence with the avowed purpose of helping in the creation of a revolutionary youth organisation; and if a balance sheet were drawn, we could say that we have had a modest success. More important, The Red Mole, while clearly the paper of the Fourth International in Britain, has broken with the image so often associated with newspapers of the revolutionary left: either a mindless sectarianism or a drab, paternalistic economism or even the feeling that a revolutionary newspaper has to be dull in order to appeal to workers and “serious socialists”. The Red Mole has established itself as an all-embracing revolutionary newspaper: its political coverage of all struggles, its interest in youth culture, its interviews with shopfloor militants and its insistence on providing regular articles on the history of the labour movement and on Marxist theory has won for it a readership that extends far beyond the actual strength of both the IMG and the Spartacus League. Red Circles organised to discuss all aspects of revolutionary politics are springing up everywhere and are attracting young workers and other layers not involved in the educational system. Whether or not the IMG will be able to establish its authority over the revolutionary left in Britain depends on the capacity and capability of its militants to intervene in the different sectors of struggle and project a program which will draw to it the politically advanced worker militants.


It would be wrong to maintain that the Trotskyist movement in all its variations exists on its own on the revolutionary left in Britain. There are other tendencies, but none of them have been able to make any serious impact on revolutionary politics to date. The most important of these are the two Maoist organisations, the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist) and the Communist Federation. The former is composed of dissidents from the CP who moved away during the Sino-Soviet split and is led by Reg Birch, the militant trade-union leader of the AUEW. Despite the fact that Birch has been recognised as the “official” group by Peking, his influence is restricted largely to a few pockets of industry and is largely industrial. Because of their refusal to break with Stalinism the political impact of both groups has been minimal. The Federation also contains a fair proportion of industrial militants, but is in certain ways more political. Neither of the groups grew out of a solidarity with the Chinese Revolution and the colonial revolution in general, nor are they the result of the global impact of the Chinese Revolution. They tend to be rather dependent on Peking for their political line and therefore any reconciliation between the Chinese and Soviet bureaucracies will leave their friends in Britain stranded in mid-air.[28] Also the Cultural Revolution did not have the same impact in Britain as it did in Western Europe and so we have fortunately been spared, at least till now, the development of an anti-Stalinist, but ultr-left Mao-spontaneist current which would correspond to the Weathermen in the United States or La Gauche Prolétarienne in France. There do exist, however, small groups (literally consisting of less than ten members) who call themselves Maoist, but hate each other more than anyone else. In 1969 an unofficial survey unearthed twenty-eight such groups, but their membership seems to have declined since then. Another interesting sidelight is that Britain is probably unique in possessing a small group which denounces Mao, attacks the Soviet Union, and is inspired by Liu Shao-chi, the main victim of the Cultural Revolution. Any serious discussion of this group would require a knowledge of matters not related to politics and therefore it is best to leave it at that. The anarchist movement continues to produce its paper, Freedom, but is itself not very strong and has declined considerably since the days of the Committee of A Hundred and CND, when it was the scourge of Canon Collins and his associates. There has, however, been a proliferation of “libertarian socialist” groups, particularly in certain universities, who are opposed to the very idea of organisation and violently opposed to Leninist-Trotskyist currents. While many of them withdraw from politics on leaving universities, there is a fairly solid base around the journal Solidarity, whose main inspiration is an ex-SLL member Chris Pallis. Without doubt the formative influence as far as he is concerned has been the SLL and its brand of “Trotskyism”. Despite differences which one has with Solidarity, there is absolutely no doubt that it has produced extremely useful information from time to time. Even when one disagrees with it, one is forced to take its articles seriously, but Solidarity does its best work by producing excellent little pamphlets analysing particular strikes, which can be and are used by many shop stewards. However, its belief in a spontaneously generated political consciousness, and hence no real need for any organisation, could demoralise its own militants in the not-too-distant future, as could its analysis of the colonial revolution.


The whole question of how to build a revolutionary party in neocapitalist societies is therefore posed. It is important to discuss the attitude to the Labour Party which still obsesses the entire left. There has been no real discussion of the Labour Party except in the period immediately preceding the 1970 general election when there was an exchange in The Red Mole between Robin Blackburn and Pat Jordan (National Secretary of the IMG). The main disagreement was as to whether the Labour Party could be considered a totally bourgeois party or not.[29] As far as tactics in the General Election were concerned, once again IMG differentiated itself from the other tendencies by concentrating on revolutionary propaganda, rather than canvassing for the return of a Labour government. Some “Trotskyist” organisations fall into confusion and serve up rehashed formulas which only reveal their own static concepts. Thus the SLL raises the hoary slogan of “Labour to power with a Socialist program”. Apart from the fact that the most militant workers have, for the time being at any rate, no illusions regarding the Labour Party and its parliamentary leadership insofar that they have been through an experience, that of a Labour government fron 1964-70, and they have learnt from this experience, the slogan raises other questions. Who, for instance, is going to ensure that the Labour Party has a socialist program? The entire Labour Party, at the time of writing, is characterised by complete decline in its internal life. More than 25 per cent of the constituency parties could not be bothered to send delegates to the Labour Party Annual Conference in 1970; Barbara Castle, the union basher, once again headed the poll for election of members of constituency parties to the National Executive Committee. Hardly a reflection of the struggles taking place in British society! There is no force today inside the Labour Party which could fight for a socialist program. And that brings us to the second weakness of this grotesque slogan. It suggests that revolutionary socialists can actually gain control of the Labour Party. This is a totally revisionist concept which today borders on absurdity.[30] The Labour Party is totally bureaucratised and the only orientation which revolutionaries can have to it is to devise a strategy of destroying it, which means in effect breaking its links with the trade union movement. The five-point charter of the IS is worse than the slogan we have just discussed in that it creates the worst illusions inside the working-class movement and encourages rightward moves by shop-floor militants.

Both these approaches lead to one logical conclusion: the need for “revolutionaries” to enter the Labour Party in order to change it — or in other words the “peaceful road to a Socialist Labour … Party”. However, none of the organisations or even individuals who raise this slogan accept that logic because of the practical consequences involved. It would involve their becoming political necrophiliacs. That is the only description for those who want to “enter” a corpse. Of course, it cannot be ruled out that out that the Labour Party will be revived by a mass influx of workers at the constituency level, but this is rather unlikely at present.

This incorrect perspective flows largely from an essentially propagandist approach to politics. It equates disillusionment with social-democracy as a development of political militancy, whereas it could lead also to political demoralisation. It is essential for political militancy that the vanguard layers of the working class see in practice and in action that there exists an alternative way of carrying on the struggle. Revolutionaries, although they are few number, must at all times attempt to lead and analyse concrete struggles. The days when revolutionaries could conceive of their main task as “defending” the program are over. But to lead struggles it is essential constantly to develop theory. Any belief that at some point in the past the ideal program was drawn up must be rejected.[31]

But what does “lead” mean? Some “Trotskyists” use the word and others interpret it simply as an administrative concept. That is certainly how Stalinists view it even today. Nothing could be further from Lenin’s definition of democratic centralism, which was anything but administrative. The role of revolutionaries is to advance perspectives that will be to advance perspectives that will be seen to lead to a solution of the problems which confront the masses. That is why the IMG’s perspectives are politically more advanced on the question of the Labour Party and governmental slogans, namely the call for “a workers’ government based on democratic control of the trade unions”. This lays down an orientation of activity and leads to policies which will help break the mass of the organised working class from the Labour Party by recognising that the differentiation inside Labour Party will arise between the constituency parties and the trade unions and not inside the former alone. That is why it does not lead to the bizarre conclusion that we should be inside the Labour Party today. Also it does not project IMG as an alternative to the Labour Party, a pit into which both the SLL and IS tend to fall. A serious period of crisis could well lead to the formation of a National Government, and in this eventuality all the anti-Labour Party propaganda which is being conducted now would only aid in detaching the traditional unions from the Labour Party and the creation of a new party, not revolutionary, but in which revolutionaries will be able to operate with ease. The present period therefore means working outside the Labour Party and this demands greater resources than are at the disposal of the revolutionary movement today. We will discuss later how these resources can be increased.


1. See The Postal Workers’ Struggle, The Red Mole, vol 2, no. 3, for a description of the role of the mass media in the postal workers’ strike.

2. The Times, as the most “civilised” voice of the British ruling class, does not compare at all well with some of its counterparts abroad. The New York Times is a far superior paper in every way, and Le Monde towers above them all and demonstrates what a good bourgeois newspaper can be like!

3. Thus the Daily Express conjured up images of large numbers of “red moles burrowing away” in industry to wreck capitalism. Flattering but, alas, untrue.

4. I do not even pretend to be “objective”: (1) Because I do not believe that there is any such thing as objectivity; it is largely a bourgeois mystification. And (2) because I belong to one of the groups in question and therefore will obviously support its political positions.

5. One of the accusers was the young Trotsky, who could not really grasp the importance of Lenin’s theory of the party and thus subjected the latter to an extremely vehement critique. This was not only Trotsky’s personal tragedy, it also affected his standing in the Bolshevik party much later on. The important fact is that Trotsky learnt from his mistake. The inhabitants of the political marsh and their latter-day descendants never did.

6. Cf. early issues of Fourth International, and Pierre Frank, History of the Fourth International (Maspero, Paris, 1968).

7. Leon Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism (Pathfinder, New York, 1970).

8. Ibid., p. 103.

9. ‘A Recall to Order: An Open Letter from the International Secretariat of the Fourth International to the Members and Leadership of the Socialist Labour League’ (Fourth International, [Autumn 1959]) will give readers the flavour of the split and an idea of the issues involved.

10. The founding editor of the paper was Peter Fryer, who was the correspondent of the Daily Worker in Hungary during the rising. His dispatches were not published, one of the factors which led to his resignation. Fryer edited the paper very ably, but, like many others, could not stomach the internal regime of the S.L.L., having left an odious one in the C.P., and resigned. While not active in politics, he still remains a socialist and has not, as some allege, sold out.

11. The 1962 Aldermaston March was the biggest ever, with over 100,000 people participating.

12. It is in that light that the achievement of a daily newspaper must be regarded. The efficacy of the SLL’s intensive campaigning methods cannot be denied. When they fix on an objective, it is usually gained. However, the achievement of a daily newspaper is not in itself a major breakthrough in political influence. For an organisation the size of the SLL it means that their members spend a great deal of time as newspaper-sellers. Also, the violent and ultimatistic language of the paper with regard to all other left tendencies makes it impossible for the rank and file of the labour movement to take it seriously. Many of them do not understand the need to have serialised articles in never-ending parts denouncing people of whom they have never heard, e.g. Michel Pablo. Besides these attacks on other tendencies, the SLL often prints interviews with right-wing trade-union leaders; its questions are critical, but at least these men are allowed to reply — a privilege not accorded the left. A daily paper with the correct method and politics would have had no real difficulty in completely eclipsing the Morning Star in working-class circles. Instead militant workers are presented with a self-parody.

It is not essential to discuss in detail here the amazingly sectarian position which the SLL has on the colonial revolution. Thus it regards the Cuban regime as qualitatively no different from that of Batista, and refuses to engage in consistent united actions in defence of the Vietnamese Revolution. If Fourth International militants are involved with struggles in the Third World, they are denounced as agents provocateurs. This is how the SLL and its degenerated Workers’ Press performs its internationalist duty. Everything is seen from the interests of the Clapham High Street leadership (or should we say “caste”).

13. Marx to Johann Baptist von Schweitzer, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1868/letters/68_10_13.htm, October 13, 1868, Selected Correspondence of Marx and Engels (International Publishers, New York, 1964).

14. For further reading on the antics of the SLL and how they have used the technique of slander, see Ernest Germain, Marxism versus Ultraleftism (Fourth International, London, 1967), and Tony Whelan, The Credibility Gap: The Politics of the SLL (IMG, London, 1970).

15. Cf. Tariq Ali, The Coming British Revolution, Jonathon Cape, London, 1972, Chapter 8, pp. 208 - 239.

16. Cliff has always been more ‘flexible’ than his American co-thinkers, who embraced monopoly capitalism/imperialism as being more progressive than Stalinism and thus advocated a ‘State Department socialism’. It was only in the last months of 1969 that the heirs of this tendency were able openly to support the NLF against US imperialism. However, even the IS did not prevent one of its leading theoreticians from working in collaboration with a Ford Foundation project in Pakistan, and thus providing Stalinists in that country with a ready-made excuse for denouncing ‘Trotskyists’ as ‘imperialist agents’.

17. IS Executive Committee minutes, discussion of the situation in Harlow New Town before the general election in 1970.

18. Thus at the debate between the IS and the FI in London in late 1970, Tony Cliff acquitted himself in the best tradition of the sectarian RCP and even the SLL. Apart from hysterical ranting accusations that the FI had capitulated to Stalinism and that The Red Mole did not “smell of the factory”, his speech was not designed to promote left unity. Fortunately, many IS branches wrote to the IS centre to express their concern, and Socialist Worker did not even feel it necessary to report the debate which was attended by one thousand militants. For a good critique of recent IS positions, see Brian Grogan, New Developments in State Capitalism, International (London), vol. I no. 6.

19. Cf. the excellent editorial entitled Student Power in International Socialism, no. 33 (Summer 1968), to see how far the IS has moved since those days. To those IS members who claim that students as a group are “petty-bourgeois” we would quote a section of the editorial: “The students retain roots in the mass of the population, so that they are essentially ambivalent in class terms, pulled in both directions simultaneously at a time in their lives when they have not established what they believe.” And if there was still doubt, the editorial ended: “On the other hand, committed revolutionaries who treat the student revolt as an idle game misunderstand the potentialities for change and the role of students as one of the most sensitive indices of social disorder. We need a new movement on the left, and in present conditions, students must play a vital role in it.” And today any serious effort to organise in the universities is immediately labelled by the IS as “abandoning the working class”.

20. There is a scientific meaning of the term “centrism” and it should not be taken to mean “in the centre”. Basically centrists are those who constantly vacillate between revolutionary and reformist positions on various political issues of the day and are guided by the political pressure of the milieu they are working in. This pressure could lead in either direction. Thus Trotsky in his classic text on Germany, What Next in Germany 1931-1932 (New Park Publications, London, 2970), p 146, defined the term thus: “While Centrism in general fulfils ordinarily the function of serving as a left cover for reformism, the question of to which of the basic camps, reformist or Marxist, a given Centrism may belong, cannot be solved once for all with a ready-made formula. Here, more than anywhere else, it is necessary to analyse each time the concrete content of the process and the inner tendencies of its development.”

21. Cf. Socialist Worker, March 20th, 1975.

22. For detailed discussion of the economic perspectives and the policies of IS, see Ernest Mandel, The Inconsistencies of State-Capitalism (IMG, London, 1969), and by the same author, The Mystifications of State-Capitalism, International, vol. 1, no. 2 (September 1970). Also John Walters, The Theory of State Capitalism; The Clock Without a Spring, Marxist Studies, vol. 2, no. 1 (Winter 1969-70).

23. It is only too easy for “ultralefts” like myself to mock at the period of “entrism”. Apart from anything else it reveals a certain political backwardness common among those militants who have never given serious thought to the building of a revolutionary party. However, “entrism”, unless carried out very clearly, also leads to the danger of adaptation. Thus while the bulk of the IMG made the revolutionary choice when faced with extra-parliamentary action, one of its leaders preferred to continue the “entrist” mentality and the evolution of the Institute of Workers Control is a sad testimony of how this process works. I still believe that a waiting-for-lefty type entrism was a bit utopian and that a well-planned entry purely for the purpose of raiding members would have proved much more worthwhile. This could also have been coupled with short-term battles against the Labour Party bureaucracy.

24. This was both ironic and tragic. Ironic because of IS's extremely Eurocentric positions on the social revolution in semi-colonial countries, and tragic because once it had gained members IS withdrew totally from VSC and constantly groaned about the futility of “solidarity demonstrations”. Thus when imperialism escalated the war it was difficult to mobilise large numbers of people.

25. Even in the Labour Party a similar mistake had been made. The Week comrades had expected a spontaneous generation of socialist consciousness which would automatically move towards them because of their superior program.

26. The letter, signed by a Ken Fleet, was dated March 4th and published a couple of days later. So keen to clear up the confusion was Mr Fleet that he could not wait for the conclusion of the postal workers’ strike. Also worth study is the Ken Coates/Red Mole polemic in early 1971.

27. Various papers were circulated inside the Dwarf editorial board, where there were three tendencies: IMG, a wing of New Left Review and non-affiliated militants who were paranoid about organisations and thus tended to oppose IMG on principle. One of them, the poet Adrian Mitchell, actually resigned from the editorial board in protest against the IMG presence and wrote a sweet non-sectarian little poem in Peace News (January 16th, 1970:

    “If your comrade has less guts than you, call him a reformist. If he has more guts, call him an adventurist. Right, now that you’ve graduated and I’ve resigned, with some bitterness, from the Black Dwarf, I’d like you to join the chorus of The Red Rag. Altogether now: I’m an entrist, centrist, Pabloite workerist - Sweet Fourth International and never been kissed.
    I’ve got a mass red base, that’s why I’d rather sit on the floor.
    If you want to be a Vanguard, better join Securicor.
    My daddy was opportunistic.
    My mama was mystified.
    I want to be a movement
    But there’s no-one on my side

The IMG argued that the Dwarf itself would cease to exist unless its base was organised and in a prophetic few paragraphs we outlined the process of the Dwarf’s demise: ‘The Dwarf could attempt to carve some other role out for itself, but if this were in the direction of loose, perspectiveless politics, meandering from one issue to another and one group to another without much forethought, the paper would soon disappear. And its disappearance would then be well-merited for it would have failed to be a Marxist paper, to look creatively at its environment, to see what are the possibilities and the opportunities for changing the situation.” Soon after the split our non-sectarian friend, Adrian Mitchell, rejoined the board. A few months later the paper had ceased to exist.

28. We should by no means discard the possibility of a Sino-Soviet rapprochement after Mao’s death as the interests of both the bureaucracies could easily begin to coincide. Of course, the recent sharp right turn by the Chinese state and party will also have its effects.

29. Cf. The Red Mole, vol. 1, no. 3, 4 and 5.

30. Trotsky certainly speculated about this possibility in the early 1930s, but was wrong. We are not cultists in any way and have to accept the fact that most revolutionary leaders have, despite their genius, made certain mistakes.

31. The founding document of the Fourth International, The Transitioanl Program, contained a 100 per cent correct evaluation of the situation as it existed then, and above all used a correct method to reach that evaluation. The method is more important than some of the demands, which have today be overtaken by history. Trotsky himself viewed the program in this light, as discussions on its nature with several SWP comrades revealed.

First published in The Coming British Revolution, Jonathon Cape, London, 1972, Chapter 5, pp 110-147 and prepared for the web by Ozleft, January 2004)


Books written, edited or contributed to by Tariq Ali

New revolutionaries: left opposition (1969)

Pakistan: military rule or people's power (1970)

The coming British revolution (January 1972)

Chile: lessons of the coup. Which way to workers' power (1974)

1968 and after: inside the revolution (1978)

Can Pakistan survive: the death of a state (May 1983)

The Stalinist legacy: its impact on 20th-century world politics (March 1985)

The Nehrus and the Gandhis: an Indian dynasty (April 1985)

President Nyerere in conversation with Darcus Howe and Tariq Ali (January 1986)

Street fighting years: an autobiography of the 1960s (November 1987)

Revolution from above: the Soviet Union now (December 1988)

Iranian nights (December 1989)

Consequences: the dramatic consequences of an intriguing theatrical game (April 1991) Redemption (December 1991)

Shadows of the pomegranate tree (December 1996)

Fear of mirrors (January 1998)

1968: marching in the streets (June 1998)

Ugly rumours (October 1999)

The book of Saladin, (October 1999)

Masters of the universe: NATO's Balkan crusade (April 2000)

Introducing Trotsky and Marxism (July 2000)

Landscapes of war: from Sarajevo to Chechnya (October 2000)

Snogging Ken (April 2001)

The stone woman (November 2001)

The place of tolerance in Islam (November 2002)

The clash of fundamentalisms: crusades, jihads and modernity (April 2003)

The American effect: perspectives on the United States, 1990-2003 (August 2003)

Collateral damage (August 2003)

Bush in Babylon: the recolonisaton of Iraq (November 2003)

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Since January 19, 2005