The Rebirth of British Trotskyism
One Fifth of WSL Walks Out, Fuses with the iSt
The Rebirth of British Trotskyism
[reprinted from Workers Vanguard, No. 200, 7 April 1978. Originally posted online athttp://www.bolshevik.org/history/Other/Rebirth%20of%20British%20Trotskyism.html]
LONDON—When 24 supporters of the Trotskyist Faction (TF) walked out of the Workers Socialist League (WSL) at the WSL’s 18-19 February second annual conference they left declaring their opposition to the central leadership’s “Pabloite attachment to the Labour Party, their capitulationist attitude to nationalism, and in particular Irish nationalism, their all-pervading economism and minimalism and their parochialism” (“Statement of the Trotskyist Faction,” WV No. 194, 24 February). Its aim, said the TF, was to struggle for a British section of a recreated Fourth International. The first step toward this goal was the rapid merger of forces with the London Spartacist Group (LSG), at a conference over the 4-5 March weekend, to form the Spartacist League/Britain (SL/B) as a sympathising organisation of the international Spartacist tendency (iSt).
This fusion is one of the largest and most important in the 15-year history of the Spartacist tendency. The new organisation already has close on 50 members and a presence both in London and the Midlands. By its comprehensive Leninist programme and clear internationalist perspectives the SL/B is exercising a strong attraction on remaining dissident elements inside the WSL. The same will soon prove true as well toward the numerous small centrist organisations, which will find in the Spartacist League a solidly programmatically based unity—in striking contrast to the short-lived, politically promiscuous unnatural couplings which pass for fusions in the highly fragmented British Trotskyoid milieu.
The factional struggle in the WSL and the fusion with the TF also vindicate in a powerful manner the iSt’s policy of revolutionary regroupment. Recognising that many valuable militants are presently to be found in various pseudo-revolutionary organisations, we have fought to regroup the best of these potential cadres for the nucleus of an international vanguard party. It was essentially a process of splits and fusions, both in the U.S. and internationally, that enabled the Spartacist League/U.S. to break out of the national isolation imposed by our expulsion from Gerry Healy’s 1966 International Committee (IC) conference. But for the WSL leadership around Alan Thornett any polemical combat within the left is “petty-bourgeois”; consequently the WSL has been unable to develop any coherent perspective for international work at all.
The goal of our regroupment policy has always been to decisively split the cadre of centrist organisations, in the first instance the Pabloist pretenders to Trotskyism who are the principal obstacle to reforging the Fourth International. This is exactly what has happened in the WSL. Just over four years ago Workers Vanguard sent a reporter to cover the British miners strike. At that time the Spartacist tendency had just made its first isolated recruits in Europe. Only at the end of 1975 were we able to establish a Spartacist group in London, and it took nearly two years of dogged propagandistic activity to achieve the break-through represented by the fusion with the Trotskyist Faction. But today sections of the iSt outside the U.S. make up over one-third of the total membership of the tendency internationally.
Bob Pennington, a leader of the International Marxist Group (IMG—British affiliate of the so-called United Secretariat of the Fourth International [USec]), remarked last autumn that those who proclaim themselves Trotskyists will have to choose between two “mainstreams,” the USec and the iSt. By this he undoubtedly meant to suggest that the “re-united” USec would be “where the action is.” But the WSL split and subsequent formation of the SL/B, establishing the iSt as a direct organisational competitor with the USec on the British terrain, has certainly given no comfort to Pennington et a1. It indicates that there are those on the British “far left” who have had enough of chasing after whatever is popular and want to get on with the business of constructing a democratic-centralist, authentically Trotskyist International.
As for the workerist WSL, in its main reply to the TF documents the Thornett group initially referred to the oppositionists as “a small part of our movement.” From the tone of their subsequent public comments it is evident that they were surprised that nearly two dozen members took the step of walking out of the Workers Socialist League. The WSL will not easily recover from the loss of two National Committee members, three members of the Socialist Press editorial board, three out of four members of its Irish Commission, and several regional and local organisers. With the loss of one fifth of its active membership, the WSL reverts back to its original regional limitations—the celebrated car fraction at British Leyland’s Cowley plant in Oxford, the London grouping and a handful of shaky members in Yorkshire.
Moreover, Thornett’s response to the challenge presented by the Trotskyist Faction was positively pathetic, both before and after the split. Perhaps sensing that he is at his weakest debating politics, Thornett simply waved his Cowley credentials as a talisman to ward off all attacks. In his hour-and-a-half opening remarks to the WSL conference he attended only briefly to the programmatic issues which were about to rip 20 percent of the participants away from him. His allegation that the TF members were only interested in “exciting politics” was hardly an indictment in view of the WSL’s apolitical glorification of the “daily grind.” And the failure of the majority to present any political perspective certainly contributed to the fact that a relatively large number of the TF supporters were younger rank-and-filers. Rarely has a centrist leadership presided over the coming apart of its organisation so meekly.
The WSL from Womb to…
Prior to the split of the Trotskyist Faction the WSL was already an organisation in deep trouble, its haphazard “international work” come to naught and its domestic prospects cloudy at best. As the TF stated in its founding document:
“The WSL is in chaos. It has no clear idea of its tasks or direction.…
“This situation has a political origin—to put it bluntly the movement as yet lacks any programmatic basis for existence as a distinct political tendency. Every political tendency from Trotskyism to reformism is represented on the NC [National Committee] and among the membership.”
—”In Defence of the Revolutionary Programme” (INDORP), [WSL] Pre-Conference Discussion Bulletin No. 8, February 1978
Yet only three years ago Healy’s expulsion of the Thornett grouping from his Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP) made a big splash among ostensible Trotskyists throughout the world. Thornett’s orthodox-sounding defence of the Transitional Programme, his well-publicised industrial militancy and opposition to Healy’s sectarian practices promised to be an attractive combination. What brought about his demise?
In the mid-1960’s a large part of the leadership of the shop stewards committee at the Cowley assembly plant (then Morris Motors), including Alan Thornett who had been a Communist Party trade unionist, were personally recruited by Gerry Healy to the Socialist Labour League (SLL—predecessor of the WRP). “The Cowley Fraction” was Healy’s pride and joy and the major vehicle for the expression of his deformed brand of Trotskyism in the labour movement. But the first time Thornett crossed his godfather, Healy responded with vicious Mafia tactics, including physical intimidation.
The Thornett group, including the Cowley fraction was summarily expelled in December 1974 and a few months later became the core of the Workers Socialist League. The iSt assessed the split tentatively at the time:
“At present the WSL is most clearly defined negatively…. While its future programmatic course is not definitely predictable, the WSL’s failure to develop the internal struggle against Healy much beyond the democracy issue, and its rejection of Healyite ‘ultra-leftism’ while maintaining some of the most rightist-revisionist aspects of the SLL/WRP, would seem to define the WSL as a split to the right from a badly deformed and characteristically English-centered version of fake ‘Trotskyism’.”
—”After Healy, What? WSL Adrift.” WV No. 69, 23 May 1975
The Trotskyist Faction, writing three years later, confirms this diagnosis: “The WSL’s break from Healyite maximalism was, in the final analysis, a break towards economism and minimalism” (INDORP).
While still inside the WRP, Thornett’s opposition (centred in Oxford) had linked up with another dissident clot in London at whose head stood Alan Clinton. Clinton was noteworthy for his rightist grumblings at the WRP’s decision to stand candidates against Labour during the 1974 general elections, while Thornett was more interested in resurrecting the transitional demand of workers control of production. The politically heterogeneous lash-up between Clinton and Thornett was an early expression of indifference to programme which in the WSL was later to harden into purposeful confusionism.
The combination of the glamour of an influential, although localised, industrial fraction and its claim to defend orthodox Trotskyism attracted to the WSL in its early period a series of leftward moving groups. The most importaint source for these regroupments came from former members of Tony Cliff’s International Socialists (I.S.—now Socialist Workers Party [SWP]) who were breaking from the I.S.’ social-democratic workerism in the direction of Trotskyism. The majority of these elements—out of which was to crystalise the core of the later Trotskyist Faction—passed briefly through the Revolutionary Communist Group (RCG).
The RCG at its formation in mid-1974 had also declaimed loudly on the importance of programme. The initial components of this group originated in the Revolutionary Opposition, expelled from the I.S. in 1973, and had seen at first hand the consequences of a mindless worship of spontaneity which produced an organization whose net caught everything and held nothing. They were joined in the first months of 1975 by nine members of the heterogeneous Left Opposition (also formerly of the I.S.), which had split in four directions in December 1974. Iconoclastically dismissing all past struggles to construct the Fourth International, the RCG under its guru David Yaffe was principally an academic debating society organised as study groups to write a new programme.
Lacking a shared programme yet requiring a minimum of common activity, the RCG was easy prey for a trio of supporters of the American SWP who elaborated a regimen of single-issue campaigns on women, on Ireland, solidarity work with Chile and subsequently South Africa. In reaction against this reformist single-issuism and attracted by Thornett’s credentials as a workers leader, roughly a third of the RCG left to join the WSL in 1975.
Even Alan Thornett, whose political horizons do not generally extend far beyond the shop floor at Cowley, recognised the importance of the recruitment of this layer of cadres, which enabled the WSL to establish branches in Birmingham and Coventry in the West Midlands and in Liverpool. Speaking at a WSL Midlands Aggregate meeting in 1976 Thornett accurately termed this recruitment “the biggest gain the WSL has ever made.” This would seem to fly in the face of Thornett’s denigration of any orientation toward other left groups, except that the WSL leadership did almost nothing to achieve this regroupment.
…the London Spartacist Group
In late 1975 the iSt established in London a small group of experienced cadres, thus fulfilling a long-held aspiration to begin systematic work in Britain. In addition to its intrinsic strategic importance, the presence of Healy’s SLL/WRP makes Britain one of the centres of ostensibly orthodox Trotskyist groupings. In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s the SLL’s theoretical journal, Labour Review, had begun to elaborate the struggle against Pabloist liquidationism which the American SWP had grievously neglected after the 1953 split in the Fourth International and which it was abandoning altogether by capitulating to the popularity of Castroism.
The SLL’s 1960 document, “World Prospects for Socialism,” moreover, was seen by the Revolutionary Tendency (RT—forerunner of the SL/U.S.) of the SWP as an articulation of its own anti-Pabloist views. The RT and later the Spartacist group sought to make common cause with Healy, but were blocked by the little despot’s insistence on squelching the slightest dissent (as Thornett was to discover years later). Following our bureaucratic expulsion at the 1966 London conference of the IC, Britain remained sealed off to the Spartacist tendency for some time.
Beginning in 1975 the London Spartacist Group set out to systematically probe and polemicise with the myriad of groups and grouplets which populate the asteroid belt to the left of the centrist Pabloist IMG and the left-reformist “state capitalist” I.S./SWP. The LSG’s fight for political clarity and authentic Leninism frequently upset the cosy chuminess of the British Trotskyoid left. Many were shocked to hear a group which refused to succumb to the charms of the left Labourite “club,” to embrace the green nationalism of the IRA or to go along with the charade of phony “mass work” which are common denominators in the intensely parochial and workerist “far left.”
There were plenty of evidences of crisis in the left-of-the-Communist Party “family.” The I.S. had been declining visibly from the time of the general election in February 1974 and suffered a haemorrhaging of cadre in 1975. The WRP had gone off the rails altogether, spending most of its efforts in slandering Joe Hansen (of the American SWP) and more recently in praising Libya’s fanatical Muslim dictator Qaddafi. The IMG could never decide how many factions it had, oscillating up towards five, nor whether it would be super-Mandelite or a bridge to the Hansenites.
Among the smaller groups the RCG was on the road to becoming a cult, which is currently tailing after the geriatric Moscow-loyal Stalinists. Sean Matgamna’s Workers Fight (ejected from the Cliffites in 1971) had just joined with the Workers Power group (a 1975 vintage I.S. expulsion) to form the International-Communist League (I-CL), while covering up differences on the Russian question (Workers Power is state capitalist), the Labour Party and Ireland. The Workers Fight/Workers Power marriage of convenience came apart shortly before its first anniversary, having discovered unbridgeable disagreements over… Ireland and the Labour Party.
The WSL was in many respects the most serious of the split-offs from the “far-left” Big Three (SWP, IMG and WRP). The harsh contradiction between its claims to Trotskyist orthodoxy and its economist practice clearly labeled the WSL as a group heading for an explosion. And it was initially open to political discussion with other avowed anti-Pabloists. Its October 1975 document, “Fourth International—Problems and Tasks,” sought to reevaluate the history of the post-war Trotskyist movement and to serve as a basis for discussions with other tendencies, “especially those expelled from the IC” (published in the “Trotskyism Today” supplements to Socialist Press Nos. 21-23).
The iSt responded to this invitation with a letter (dated 17 June 1976) pointing to the WSL’s softness toward social democracy and focusing on our analysis of the formation of the deformed workers states (particularly the methodologically key case of Cuba), as well as reviewing our relations with Healy’s IC. The letter also attacked the workerist view that the degeneration of the IC or any tendency could simply be ascribed to its petty-bourgeois composition. Although this was the only reply to the WSL’s offer of discussions, the iSt letter was not circulated even to the NC for over a year.
However, the aggressive propaganda work of the LSG made it impossible to simply seal off the WSL against Spartacism. The first fruit of these efforts was an amendment from the Liverpool branch to the international resolution at the WSL’s first annual conference in December 1976. Although flawed by its attachment to WSL workerism and hence hostile to the iSt’s regroupment perspective, it nonetheless demanded recognition of the principled approach to the Cuban Revolution taken by the Revolutionary Tendency in the American SWP. This was clearly counter-posed to the Thornett leadership’s position that there had existed only two views on Cuba: the Pabloists’ enthusing for Castro and Healy’s myopic denial that a revolution had taken place at all.
The leadership urged the conference delegates to reject the amendment, not because it was wrong (in fact they claimed to agree with it), but to prevent the resolution from turning into a book. But when the membership voted to include this amendment, the only successful motion against the platform during the proceedings, Thornett and his lieutenants simply buried it, so that the resolution as amended never saw the light of day. Although this issue had no immediate consequence, it was indicative of the WSL leaders’ frenzied reaction to anything smacking of Spartacism.
The CDLM and the Lib-Lab Coalition
However, the real catalyst for the amorphous left-wing opposition which was to result in the Trotskyist Faction was the WSL’s intervention in the British class struggle. A challenge to the Thornett leadership took shape around objections to the WSL-created Campaign for Democracy in the Labour Movement (CDLM) and to its failure to place the government question at the centre of WSL trade-union work. This failure was particularly glaring after the formation of the Labour Party’s parliamentary coalition with the Liberals in March 1977.
In response to the reappearance of this British version of the popular front for the first time since World War II, the international Spartacist tendency called for “a policy of conditional non-support to Labour in upcoming elections unless and until they repudiate coalitionism” (“Break the Liberal/Labour Coalition in Britain,” WV No. 152, 8 April 1977). But even though Callaghan & Co. had suppressed even the organisational independence of the Labour Party by openly tying it to the bourgeois Liberals—with, moreover, the acquiescence of every single “left” MP [member of parliament] from Tony Benn and Michael Foot on down—the Workers Socialist League simply concluded that the “lefts” “should have demanded and themselves set up a new leadership based on socialist policies” (Socialist Press, 25 March 1977).
Within the Workers Socialist League there was dissatisfaction with the persistently apolitical character of the WSL’s trade-union work. A first document, “The WSL and the Governmental Crisis” ([WSL] Internal Bulletin No. 19, 25 May 1977), submitted by Green, Kellett and Piercey, attempted to programmatically generalise the objections:
“Although the toolroom strike objectively challenged the Social Contract and posed the removal of the anti-working class Labour Government, the consciousness of the leadership thrown up in the struggle, the subjective factor, did not correspond to those objective tasks.… Although the WSL alone recognised that the toolroom strike precipitated a major governmental crisis, Socialist Press failed to make the question of government a central programmatic issue during the strike.”
At this time Green-Kellett-Piercey had not decisively broken from the WSL’s accommodation to Labourism, and were searching to render the perennial Thornett slogan, “Make the Lefts Fight,” revolutionary. They called on the WSL to “place demands on the lefts to support the [toolroom] strike against the Social Contract and remove the right wing [of the parliamentary Labour Party].”
The Campaign for Democracy in the Labour Movement, founded in 1976, was an uninspired imitation of the WRP/SLL’s All Trades Union Alliance. In practice it turned out to be nothing but a forum for tedious recounting of shop-floor struggles. As it became clear that the rank and file would not flock to the CDLM simply because it put “democracy” in its name, it soon turned into an arena for mutual accommodation between the WSL and other left groups (specifically the IMG and I-CL). Most importantly, the platform of this pan-union propaganda bloc—like Alan Thornett’s campaign for president of the Transport and General Workers Union—did not seek to break the mass of British workers from their Labourite traditions and consciousness.
The CDLM programme comes down to opposition to wage controls and spending cuts and calls for more democracy in the unions. It even limits the call for nationalisation to those firms threatened with bankruptcy or large-scale redundancies. It does not contain any demand for the expropriation of all capitalist industry, thus placing the CDLM to the right of the maximum programme of the Labour Party on this question. There is no mention of opposition to the presence of the British imperialist army in Northern Ireland or to the Labour “left’s” chauvinist call for import controls, much less of the need for a revolutionary workers government.
Describing the reformist CDLM, an LSG leaflet noted that it embodied the central weakness of the British left: “… glorification of spontaneous ‘rank and file’ trade union militancy and… political capitulation to British social democracy” (“CDLM: WSL’s ‘Short Cut’ to Nowhere,” 27 March 1977). A parallel criticism was raised in the Green-Kellett-Piercey document:
“Our failure to make the question of programme and government central was not confined to the pages of Socialist Press. It was evident at the CDLM recall conference….
“Although a special resolution was passed by the conference on the Lib-Lab coalition, the vital political question facing the conference on government was relegated almost to a side issue, discussed separately from the wages struggle and the fight for leadership in the trade unions….”
The LSG leaflet also attacked the WSL’s justification for its adaptation to shop-floor militancy: “For a small grouping, like the WSL, to decide to ‘shake off propagandism’ in order to proceed directly to ‘conquering the masses’ is profoundly anti-Leninist. A revolutionary organisation only acquires the ability to lead whole sections of the proletariat as it assembles a cadre trained through hard principled struggle for communist politics” (“CDLM: WSL’s ‘Short Cut’ to Nowhere”).
The Green-Kellett-Piercey document touched on the WSL’s policy of shunning polemical combat with centrist groups, although the criticism was largely empirical and put in the mildest terms: “We also showed political weakness in not taking up the IMG adequately at the conference… their argument that the CDLM shouldn’t (politically) counterpose itself to the Stalinists’ ‘diversionary’ initiatives was part of their left cover for Stalinism. The difference between us and the Pabloites was not that they had differences of where and how to fight for programme…; but they are not prepared to fight at all for programme.” Neither, it turned out, was the Thornett leadership, which responded:
“We are told by the comrades that we did not take up the IMG adequately at the conference. That we should have made a clear statement on their role as a left cover for the Stalinists. Such a course of action would have been a disaster. It would have been certain to drive the IMG out of the CDLM.”
—”Reply to ‘The WSL and the Governmental Crisis’,” by Alan Thornett, [WSL] Internal Bulletin No. 21
Workers Government and “Make the Lefts Fight”
The French municipal elections and Irish general elections, which both took place in the spring of 1977, renewed the debate inside the WSL on the question of popular frontism, in particular on the question of votes to the workers parties of a popular front. At the WSL’s summer school in July this issue was debated both at the session on Ireland and at the National Committee meeting. It was indicative of the scant importance given to such “abstract” subjects prior to this time that even Socialist Press editor John Lister, backed by Alan Thornett, could consider it a rightist notion that any self-proclaimed revolutionary would even consider voting for the workers parties of a popular front.
At the NC meeting spokesmen for the opposing positions—Steve Murray for voting for workers parties in a popular front and Mark Hyde and Jim Short against—were directed to submit documents defending their respective positions. Without waiting for the resolution of the debate, however, Socialist Press went into print on 17 August declaring that it would continue to call for votes to Labour until such time as there were actually joint Lib-Lab slates. And as the faction fight developed, for the first time drawing hard lines on programmatic questions in the WSL, Thornett, Lister & Co. became far more cautious in toying around with positions which had been branded “Spartacist.”
In the course of the discussions over the question of voting for candidates of a popular front, some individuals switched positions and the battle lines began to be drawn. A document, “The Coalition, ‘Make the Lefts Fight’ and the Workers’ Government Slogan” ([WSL] Pre-Conference Discussion Bulletin No. 2, January 1978), was written during late autumn by Green, Holford, Kellett, Murray, Quigley and Short which called for a position of “no vote for the candidates of workers’ parties (like the Labour Party) which are in a Popular Front combination” (Thesis 2 of the conclusion). On the question of the slogan of a workers government the document took the position of Trotsky, who spelt this out in discussions with leaders of the then-revolutionary American SWP: “…the dictatorship of the proletariat, that is the only possible form of a workers’ and farmers’ government.” Thus point 7 of the conclusion states:
“The WSL advances the slogan of ‘a workers’ government’ as a pseudonym for the dictatorship of the proletariat. Its essential content—a government that rules in the interests of the working class and bases itself, not on the bourgeois state, but on the independent organisations of the working class—remains, whether or not it is advocated as a propaganda or an agitational slogan.”
Concerning the question of voting for popular front candidates the document states forcefully that this is no tactical or technical matter. This question is today the dividing line between those who give “critical” support to the popular front, seeking to place it in power, and the Bolshevik policy of proletarian opposition to coalitionism. But this is far from a passive or abstentionist position. The authors of the document wrote:
“…We call for the unions nationally to withdraw union sponsorship from all MPs who support the coalition….
“We must develop a fight in local Labour Party constituencies for the removal of sitting MPs and the selection of candidates who stand on a revolutionary programme opposed to the coalition.… In bye-elections at present we can give no support to LP candidates who defend the coalition and will have to consider critically supporting in some cases centrist or revisionist candidates if they make opposition to the coalition and wage control central to their platform.”
—”The Coalition, ‘Make the Lefts Fight’ and the Workers Government Slogan”
Whereas in the past the WSL had not taken a clear position on the question of voting for popular front candidates, its capitulation to social democracy was clearly expressed in the standing demand to “make the lefts fight,” the alpha and omega of Thornett’s policy toward the Labour Party. This policy came under sharp attack in the oppositionists’ document:
“The present unity of Heffer, Benn, Foot, Healey, and Callaghan in jointly defending the coalition reveals theessential programmatic agreement between the ‘left’ and right.…
“…we should in no way create a false distinction between them and their right-wing bed fellows when the ‘lefts’ are in no way distinguishing themselves from the right wing by their actions…. To place demands exclusively on the ‘lefts’ when they are unified with the right wing in opposing the struggles in the working class developing on the two decisive issues of wage control and the coalition, means that the WSL argues that the ‘lefts’ do fundamentally differ from the right-wing. When the ‘lefts’ have made no break from the right, not even verbally allied themselves with the wages struggles, the demand that they ‘kick out’ Healey, Callaghan et al acts in practice to strengthen illusions both in the ‘lefts’ as an alternative leadership and in reformism.
“This present orientation of the movement, summed up in the slogan ‘Make the Lefts Fight’, elevates the tactic of the united front and critical support into a strategic orientation.
“The League places these demands on the lefts because it makes its starting point a preconceived desire to secure unity with the left against the right, and from an ahistorical perspective that the task is to take the working class through a fresh stage of reformist betrayal.” [emphasis in original]
The Formation of the Trotskyist Faction
Around the time of the WSL 1977 summer school, some of the emerging oppositionists began to realise that fidelity to Trotskyism required a full scale programmatic combat against Thornett’s workerism. In a letter dated 13 July 1977, Green wrote to Holford:
“I have been re-reading some of the Spartacist’s material over the last couple of days, including some of their basic documents (declaration of principles, intervention at the 66 IC conference), their letter to the OCI and their letter to the [Spanish] LCE, and the founding document of their French section, the Ligue Trotskyste de France. What has struck me is the absolute consistency with which they have fought for their positions since the early 1960’s, and through the period subsequent to their foundation they have been able to build in a real way both in American andinternationally on the basis of democratic centralism.
“Politically they seem to me to represent the only revolutionary current in existence. They have understood the revisions of Pabloism and the complementary errors of the IC in a very complete way, have analysed and fought all the petty bourgeois radicalism that has been prevalent since the late 60’s (feminism, New Leftism, guerillaism) and in a complementary fashion have stood out against the capitulation of the so-called Trotskyists of the USFI (both wings) to Popular Frontism and to the widespread economism that has afflicted the left since the working class began to break out into struggle in a big way over the last decade. This political independence and consistency has been reflected in a very precise and conscious understanding of the tasks that face small groups of revolutionaries in the present conditions, summed up in their formulation of the fighting propaganda group. The value of their positions has been apparent again and again in facing the problems that actually confront the WSL (syndicalist approach, obscuring of the need for a new revolutionary party opposed to the Labour Party, misuse of resources, neglect of the left groups and the lack of a consistent political line which is clearly before the membership as it carries out its work, question of inner party democracy and leadership). I have come to the conclusion that their approach to the Labour Party has the virtue of at least according with the real situation in the working class, and the fact that the Labour Party is losing support very rapidly—they see work directed at the LP as having the purpose of splitting and winning advanced workers through grappling with the turns in the objective situation and the manoeuvres of the reformists, while maintaining clearly the necessity for a Trotskyist party in front of the working class. On the trade unions their idea of the trade union caucus seems to provide the possibility of a genuine growthand the serious training of a new leadership without liquidation or opportunism, which the CDLM to me represents. Again on Ireland they have seriously confronted the problems presented by the particular form which the national question takes (not a new position incidentally, and indicative of their ability to confront major theoretical questions concretely and in relation to the world political situation).
“I saw…at Grunwicks on Monday. They asked me if I had any questions on their politics or things I couldn’t understand. I was in the uncomfortable position of having to say that I could quite see the logic of their positions…. This was the only formulation that I could come up with to actually forestall a discussion over points which I agreed with any way. That made me realise that I have a responsibility to face up to their existence and my essential agreement with them. From now on I intend to fight for their politics inside the WSL.”
As the document on “The Coalition, ‘Make the Lefts Fight’ and the Workers Government Slogan” went through successive drafts over two months, the discussions within what had been an amorphous left wing of the WSL showed a growing political differentiation. By the time the jointly written document was submitted it was apparent that the signatories were on the verge of a parting of political paths. The majority (represented by Green, Holford, Quigley and Short) were coming to the conception that, while it was conceivable that much of the WSL membership and even a section of the leadership could possibly be won to the revolutionary programme, this could only be done through the process of insurrecting against the WSL’s Healyite-derived practice and tradition, which had to be destroyed.
Murray and Kellett, however, pulled back sharply and went on to play a dishonourable role as a left cover for the WSL leadership, sharing many of the programmatic positions of the Trotskyist Faction but subordinating these to their desire not to break with Thornett. This political differentiation was extremely important because it ruptured the personal ties between the ex-I.S./RCGers, establishing unambiguously that programme comes first. Within a short period after this break with the Murray clot the TF had produced its comprehensive political statement, “In Defense of the Revolutionary Programme.”
INDORP provided for the first time what the WSL had lacked from the beginning, a coherent Trotskyist programme and perspective. It took up many of the questions raised by the iSt letter of June 1976 (Cuba, history of the IC, trade-union policy, “make the lefts fight”) and other key issues facing a revolutionary vanguard in Britain, notably the Irish question (see more below). It also drew a sharply critical balance sheet of the WSL’s incompetent and opportunistic international work:
“Unable to build an anti-revisionist, democratic centralist international tendency on the basis of a clear programmatic attitude to the basic tasks of revolutionaries in this epoch and the decisive issues of the class struggle internationally (opposition to popular frontism, defence of the deformed workers’ states, political struggle against nationalism and the necessity to re-create the Fourth International), the central leadership has led the WSL into a world of rotten blocs, cover-ups, diplomacy and intrigue—masquerading as the fight to ‘reconstruct’ the Fourth International.”
In the WSL, “international work” is mainly an extra-curricular activity, and at least some of its international connections have been made without directives by the NC by one comrade who uses his holidays to make political contacts outside this tight little island. Mostly the WSL should just be embarrassed by its international “co-thinkers,” the contemptible Socialist League (Democratic-Centralist) [SL(DC)] of the U.S. (referred to in INDORP as “lower-than-reformist wretches who stand in the tradition of one Albert Weisbord against Cannon and Trotsky”) and the Pabloist Greek Communist International League (CIL), which last year was engaged in “unity” manoeuvres with the local USec section.
However, the WSL is not content with such small fry and is quietly stalking the big game of “the world Trotskyist movement.” With his reputation and history, Thornett reasons, he should be able to reach an accommodation with Mandel & Co. or someone in the big time. Currently the WSL is entertaining leading representatives of the French Organisation Communiste Internationaliste (OCI). (Thornett’s documents inside the WRP contain sections which closely parallel the OCI conception of a strategic united front.)
While the WSL is not attracted by the total liquidation into the Labour Party of the Blick-Jenkins (British pro-OCI) group—since this would eliminate the independent cheerleading squad to hail Thornett’s work at Cowley—their natural resting place in the ostensibly Trotskyist milieu would most likely be as part of an ex-IC conglomeration within the USec, centring on the American SWP. Confirmation of appetites in this direction can be seen in the Socialist Press (8 March) article on the recent French legislative elections, which replicates the OCI position of calling for votes to the Communist and Socialist Parties (part of the popular front Union of the Left) not only on the decisive second round of voting but on the first round as well.
A contribution to the pre-conference discussion by the WSL leadership purported to offer its orientation to “the world Trotskyist movement.” The document, entitled “The Poisoned Well” [WSL] Pre-Conference Discussion Bulletin No. 1, January 1978), presents a version of the degeneration of the Fourth International heavily flavoured by the WSL’s workerist perspective. But the key, as the TF pointed out, is that:
“The entire thrust of the document ‘The Poisoned Well’ despite the promised amendments is to attempt to straighten out what the leadership sees as ‘methodological’ weaknesses of the thoroughly reformist American SWP so as to better equip it for the fight against the centrist ex-International Majority Tendency wing [of the USec]. If agreement can be reached on the uncontentious theses at the end of the document then the ‘reunification’ (sic) discussions can begin. The EC [Executive Committee] of the WSL is taking the organisation down the road to liquidation into the United Secretariat.” [emphasis in original]
—”In Defence of the Revolutionary Programme”
At the February conference the WSL central leadership tried to claim that the most egregiously capitulationist references to the SWP and the USec were “slips of the pen,” and submitted amendments to sanitise their document. Alan Holford of the TF dismissed this by pointing out that four single-spaced pages of amendments hardly constituted “slips.” In the debate Socialist Press editor Lister said that while he was not opposed in principle to characterising the USec as centrist, to say so in writing would preclude an invitation to the USec congress, thereby rendering the WSL’s prospects “very small.” Some prospects!
The WSL’s attitude towards the Pabloist United Secretariat was accurately captured by Holford in a quote from Tristram Shandy which he included in his presentation as minority reporter: “Courtship consists in a number of quiet attentions, not so pointed as to alarm nor so vague as not to be understood.”
A Class Line vs. Left Republicanism on Ireland
One of the consequences of the blinkered Cowley-centred economism of the Thornett leadership was that for the first three years of its existence the WSL has not had a position on the Irish question—of crucial importance for any organisation with pretensions of providing revolutionary leadership to the workers of the British Isles. In order to plug this rather embarrassing gap in its programme, the leadership established an Irish Commission which was charged with developing a position for the WSL. In the course of the political struggle within the WSL three members of this four-man commission came to agreement on a class-struggle programme for Ireland paralleling the unique position of the iSt. This was presented as the Trotskyist Faction document “No Capitulation to Nationalism: For a Proletarian Perspective in Ireland!” ([WSL] Pre-Conference Discussion Bulletin No. 13, February 1978).
In recoiling from the anti-sectarian, proletarian position of the Spartacist tendency, the WSL wholeheartedly embraced the kind of pseudo-socialist “Republican” position on Ireland common to most of the British fake-Trotskyist groupings. The Thornett leadership’s document attempted to step around the difficult problem posed by the existence of the separate Protestant people (who comprise 60 percent of the population of the six counties of Northern Ireland and a quarter of the population of the island as a whole) by simply ignoring it and putting forward a call for “self-determination for the Irish people as a whole.”
The TF document pointed out that such a call “is meaningless precisely because there is no sense in which we can speak of the [Irish] people as a whole,” and challenged the vicarious green nationalists of the WSL leadership to “face up to the implications of such a programme. It is in effect a call for the forcible unification of the whole island by the Irish bourgeoisie irrespective of the wishes of the Protestant community,” a move which “could only precipitate a bloody communal conflict offering nothing for the proletariat.” The majority document clearly confirmed the WSL’s alignment with mainstream petty-bourgeois Irish Republicanism:
“We do not argue as such for a united capitalist Ireland. But it must be clear that were such an unlikely development brought about in the course of struggle it would represent an historically progressive development.” [emphasis in original]
—Outlines of a Programme for Ireland,” ibid.
The Trotskyist Faction document rejected the leadership’s open support to Catholic Irish nationalism, stating that:
“We are AGAINST THE FORCED UNIFICATION OF IRELAND UNDER BOURGEOIS RULE.” Instead it raised the algebraic call for an Irish workers republic as part of a socialist federation of the British Isles. The TF stated clearly that the struggle to unite the Protestant and Catholic working people across sectarian lines must be premised on inflexible opposition to the continuing oppression of the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland, and also on a fight for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of British troops from Ireland. However, the TF document added:
“… the removal of the troops, unless a class-conscious proletariat led by a revolutionary party is able to intervene, may well be the occasion for enormous sectarian slaughter (as occurred in India after independence) but as Marxists we must reject out of hand the reformist proposition that imperialist troops can ever be a fundamental guarantee against barbarism. The continuation of British imperialism’s military occupation of the north is even more inimical to the prospect for socialism than the slaughter which might follow its departure.”
—”For a Proletarian Perspective in Ireland!”
In the debate on Ireland at the conference one Thornett supporter after another rose to speak in defence of the majority’s sketchy but clearly Catholic nationalist document, yet felt it necessary to preface their remarks by admitting they knew little about Ireland. In contrast, the position of the Trotskyist Faction, drawing on the considerable collective experience of its members in the struggle in Ireland, was presented by Paul Lannigan, a former member of the Irish National Committee of Healy’s SLL from 1968 to 1970. Lannigan, who had first-hand experience in recruiting Protestant shop stewards in Derry to the SLL, opposed the leadership’s “socialist” green nationalism, which effectively denies the possibility of revolutionaries being able to win Protestant workers to an anti-sectarian socialist programme.
Mass Work Fakery, Menshevism and Bundism in Turkey
With the exception of its loose ties to the Greek CIL and the American SL(DC), the WSL’s only work outside Britain has taken place in Turkey. Beginning with a few Turkish members recruited from the WRP, the WSL recruited a handful of raw militants and established two small branches in Turkey. In every respect the Turkish work was a criminal fiasco as a minuscule grouping of politically uneducated militants attempted to translate the WSL’s “mass work” approach from chummy England into the harsh reality of Turkish society where labour and leftist militants are regularly set upon and often murdered by fascist thugs.
The Trotskyist Faction recruited two members of the WSL’s Turkish group in London who recounted the bitter experience of a strike (for union recognition) sparked by the Turkish WSLers: “We were totally ill-prepared to give even good trade union leadership to back up our advice to these workers” (“Enough of Opportunism, Adventurism, Bundism: For a Trotskyist Perspective in Turkey,” [WSL] Pre-Conferenee Discussion Bulletin No. 12, February 1978). The WSL leadership wasn’t taken aback. True, the majority document admitted, “…the strike was isolated, was broken, and all the strikers were sacked.” However, “Though the battle was lost, our comrades were developed and new contacts won” ([WSL] PreConference Discussion Bulletin No. 6, February 1978)!
Having experienced the dead end posed by the WSL’s economist activism, these two militants came to fundamental agreement with the Trotskyist Faction’s insistence on the centrality of programmatic clarity and the struggle to educate and recruit cadre as key to building the revolutionary party. Thus the TF Turkish document attacked the leadership’s Bundist approach to the national question as applied to the Kurds (a national minority presently divided among Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria and the USSR). According to the WSL majority the Kurds must achieve “national unity first,” i.e., the establishment of a bourgeois Kurdistan; consequently Kurdish workers living in Turkey must be organised into a separate Kurdish party. Recognising the Kurds’ right to self-determination, the TF document attacked this Bundist organisational norm and Menshevik two-stage strategy.
On the thorny Cyprus question the faction took a clear internationalist position:
“Up until 1974, the Turkish population of Cyprus was nationally oppressed by the Greek population—since the invasion by the Turkish army, the Greeks have been in the more oppressed position. Because the two populations have been thoroughly intermingled on this small island it is clear that the reality of ‘self-determination’ for either people can only come at the expense of the other and thus ‘self-determination’ is not applicable. We call therefore for the withdrawal of all foreign troops (whether Turk, Greek, UN, NATO, or any other) and for the unity of Greek and Turkish working peoples of Cyprus to overthrow capitalism and establish a workers state under the leadership of a Trotskyist party.”
—”Enough of Opportunism, Adventurism, Bundism….
For the longest time the Thornett leadership sought to ignore the international Spartacist tendency. After a year’s procrastination, the WSL’s sometime resident literary dilettante, Alan Westoby, finally produced a draft reply to the June 1976 iSt letter. This work was so blatantly unserious that the WSL NC rejected it in summer 1977. Since Westoby had left the organisation to pursue his “theoretical” activity, the job of drafting a new reply was commissioned out to someone else—whose work was rejected for being too soft on the iSt. Finally leadership loyalists like John Lister and Tony Richardson produced their own reply—with a little help from their friends in the Murray clique. This shoddy document laconically remarks in the introduction: “In compiling this material we have drawn on notes supplied by cdes. Steve Murray and Julia Kellett, though neither comrade has seen the completed document.”
(Having rejected the Trotskyist Faction’s comprehensive political critique of the hardened right-centrist Thornett leadership, the Murray group slid into ignominious disarray at the national conference, with faction members splitting their votes and one even voting for a TF document. With a chronology reminiscent of the career of the vile Tim [“I was a hatchet man for Healy and Hansen”] Wohlforth, Murray’s fence-straddling and unprincipled bloc with Thornett earned him only the political contempt of some of his own factional partners [and no doubt of the Thornett supporters as well].)
The Lister-Richardson-Murray “reply” is a broken record stuck on the single refrain that the iSt is “sectarian” because we recognise that “a currently embryonic party organisation must necessarily constitute itself in the form of a ‘fighting propaganda group’” and we frankly state that the character of our trade-union work must be “exemplary,” rejecting the workerist notion of intervening in every daily struggle of the masses. “What type of forces will such a stand attract?” the Thornett group asks rhetorically, answering: “Talkers, debaters, and those disillusioned with struggle for leadership within workers’ organisations…” ([WSL] Pre-Conference Discussion Bulletin No. 5, February 1978). At another point they wax indignant: “Your refusal to fight to recruit workers… means that your role is reduced to that of political vultures, preying on other tendencies on the left.”
This absurd charge—reminiscent of Wohlforth at his nadir, when sputtering for lack of anything to say he would charge that Spartacists “hate the workers”—is consummate dishonesty coming from authors who are not unfamiliar withWorkers Vanguard. But at least the Thornett supporters make clear what it is they object to: the authors complain that the London Spartacist Group interventions in WSL public meetings “seem determined to cut across any dialogue with [workers who attend these meetings] and drive them away from the WSL, turning every meeting into a debate on the most abstract level.”
And just what are these “abstract” topics of debate? The same points that were the axis of the TF faction fight: the need to break from Labourism and illusions in the Labour “lefts”; the need for a proletarian strategy in Ireland, to draw the class line against popular frontism. This is too “abstract” for the Thornett group because they seek to recruit politically raw workers at their present level of consciousness, i.e., militant trade unionism. We, however, aspire to recruit workers who despise the IMG’s line of Menshevik “unity” or the SWP’s refusal to defend the gains of the October Revolution.
The authors of the leadership “reply” to the iSt get carried away with their self-righteous rhetoric about how the Spartacists would be repelled by the “action of thousands and millions of workers mobilised in practical struggles around its [the Transitional Programme’s] demands.” We are anxiously waiting to hear how the WSL has managed to mobilise these “thousands and millions of workers” around even its reformist minimum program for the unions. In fact, at the conference Thornett admitted that the WSL had been unable to play much of a role in the firemen’s strike because the much larger Cliffite SWP stood in the way. What the WSL did not do in this situation is polemicise against the SWP. As for trade-union implantation, the WSL has no significant fraction outside Cowley. This compares to the SL/U.S. which gives political support to active groups of class-struggle unionists among dock workers and warehousemen, steel workers, car workers, phone workers and seamen.
The one issue which seems to have stung the WSL central leadership into something resembling a political defence is the question of voting for popular front candidates and the nature of a workers government. John Lister’s document, “What the Fourth Congress of the Comintern Really Decided” ([WSL] Pre-Conference Discussion Bulletin No. 3, February 1978), is really just an attempt to institutionalise the confusion sown by Zinoviev and Radek in that discussion. If the WSL really wants to say that it considers a Labour Party cabinet resting on a majority in Parliament to be a “workers government”—this is one of Zinoviev’s five variants—they are free to do so. We would only remind them of the company they are travelling in. One Pierre Frank, in a commemorative article on the Transitional Programme(International Socialist Review, May-June 1967), congratulated the Pabloist United Secretariat in having “revived and enriched” the concept of workers government to mean something other than the dictatorship of the proletariat. As for the Spartacist tendency, it stands on the “unrevised” programme of Trotsky’s Fourth International, which states:
“This formula, ‘workers’ and farmers’ government’, first appeared in the agitation of the Bolsheviks in 1917 and was definitely accepted after the October Revolution. In the final instance it represented nothing more than the popular designation for the already established dictatorship of the proletariat….
“When the Comintern of the epigones tried to revive the formula buried by history of the ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’, it gave to the formula of the ‘workers’ and peasants’ government’ a completely different, purely ‘democratic’, i.e., bourgeois content, counterposing it to the dictatorship of the proletariat. The Bolshevik-Leninists resolutely rejected the slogan of the ‘workers’ and peasants’ government’ in the bourgeois-democratic version.”
—The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International
A slightly more serious attempt to deal with the question was made by Clinton, Hyde and White (a trio whose opening shots in the political struggle in the WSL were their arguments that the police deserved a “sliding scale of wages”). Their document (“Strategy and Tactics—A Reply to Our Petty Bourgeois Critics,” [WSL] Pre-Conference Discussion Bulletin No. 10, February 1978) prints pages of citations to argue that Trotsky in the 1930’s did not take an explicit position against voting for the workers parties in a popular front.What these scholastic “theoreticians” ignore is that Trotsky faced situations in France and Spain which were pre-revolutionary, with parliamentary and electoral tactics quite secondary in the context of massive factory occupations and direct military struggle with the fascists. In France Trotsky urgently and repeatedly called for the formation of committees of action (in the context of a strike wave) as the vehicle for breaking the workers from the popular front and splitting the reformist parties.
Our snide academics don’t mention this, nor does the WSL present any programmatic axis for struggle against the reformist parties and against bourgeois coalitionism. On the contrary it makes a ritual denunciation of the Lib-Lab coalition…and then promises to vote for Labour anyway. If ever there were a case of sterile propagandism, this is it. The French Pabloists were consistent, at least, in refusing to characterise the Union of the Left as a popular front; should they do so, said the Mandelites, “This would lead logically to abstention in the  municipal elections” (quoted in International, Summer 1977).
The WSL’s own policy—refusing to vote for coalitionist candidates only if joint Liberal-Labour slates are presented—is a purely juridical conception of the bloc, which implicitly or explicitly denies the essential fact: that the popular front is abourgeois political formation. The left oppositionist document on the workers government slogan answered this subterfuge in advance with a quotation from Trotsky:
“The question of questions at present is the People’s Front. The left centrists seek to present this question as a tactical or even as a technical manoeuvre so as to be able to practice their little business in the shadow of the People’s Front. In reality the People’s Front is the main question of proletarian class strategy for this epoch. It offers the best criterion for the difference between Bolshevism and Menshevism….”
—”Letter to the RSAP,” Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1935-36
The heart of the Clinton-Hyde-White document is unadulterated class baiting: e.g., “They appeal to tired petty bourgeois members who prefer academic debate to the class struggle.…” Etc. What drives these three (who, by the way, are themselves teachers) into a frenzy is the Trotskyist Faction’s rejection of the guilty workerism which passes for politics in the WSL. Attempting to be condescending, they only articulate their own philistinism. Moreover, when they finally get around to justifying their all-purpose slogan “make the lefts fight,” their mystical glorification of the “daily grind” spells itself out in the language of frank opportunism:
“Until such time as significant sections of workers look to alternative revolutionary leaders, we must take the workers through the experience of trying and testing the alternatives that exist.”
—”Strategy and Tactics…”
Just as revolutionaries begin with the objective needs of the proletariat rather than its present consciousness in formulating their program, we do not “take” the proletariat through the experience of reformism. If they have not yet broken from the Stalinist and social-democratic misleaders we must indeed accompany them through the experience of exposing these betrayers. But the WSL does indeed mean to take British workers through a new experience of reformism—first the Callaghans and Healeys, then the Foots and Benns, and then…
Results and Prospects
In describing the loss of 20 percent of its active membership as “A Step Forward” (Socialist Press, 22 February), the Workers Socialist League declares its firm intent to continue in its ostrich-like position. As a result of the split by the Trotskyist Faction it has been reduced to a national network of supporters of Alan Thornett’s activities at the Cowley Leyland plant (reverently dubbed “The Factory” by the WSL leadership). The loss of a sizeable number of younger comrades has clearly stung them, as has the departure of a layer of experienced cadres; and the haemorrhaging of the WSL has not stopped yet.
For the international Spartacist tendency, the fusion with the comrades of the TF greatly increases the authority of our Trotskyist programme, in Britain and internationally. In Britain today there is one—and only one—organisation which intransigently fights coalitionism, opposes all brands of nationalism and is part of a democratic centralist international tendency: the Spartacist League.
One parting reply to the WSL’s embarrassingly empty class baiting: we do not wish to begrudge Alan Thornett his unstinting dedication to defending the interests of the Cowley workers as he perceives them. Under the proper leadership of a disciplined Trotskyist party such mass leaders can perform a crucial role in preparing the working class for revolutionary struggle. But such a party will be far different from the support apparatus for one or a group of trade unionists (the most degenerated example of the latter being the Ceylonese “section” of the USec, which is nothing more than an appendage of a conservative white collar union run by the corrupt Bala Tampoe). It must be a party whose Marxist programme is formulated and tested through the kind of political struggle which the WSL has systematically avoided, whether in the factories, in mass demonstrations, public meetings or the party itself.
Yes, the WSL conference was indeed a step forward—for Trotskyism and the international Spartacist tendency. It was a savage blow, however, to the pretensions of the parochial workerists from the South Midlands of little England.