This week we publish in 3 parts a history of British Trotskyism by Martin
Upham. This was a PhD thesis on the subject, and while we would not
agree with all the points raised in it, we believe it deserves a wider
audience, particularly for those interested in the history of our
movement. For a more in-depth study of the subject readers are urged to
consult Ted Grant’s book on the the History of British Trotskyism.
The History of British Trotskyism to 1949
by Martin Upham
APPLYING THE MILITARY POLICY:
1938 – 1941
British Trotskyists, like the general labour movement, were
increasingly concerned about war. During the peacetime years up to 1939
they were able to live off the traditional Bolshevik view of
imperialist war, though there was already controversy about what this
meant in practical terms. No Trotskyists supported the war when it
finally broke out: all factions continued to maintain that it was an
imperialist war. But a bitter and protracted dispute developed between
the RSL, the WIL and the Fourth International over the application of
the anti-patriotic line.
The general Trotskyist attitude to war was established as early as 1934. War and the Fourth International (1934) 
declared that a future world conflict would be imperialist and called
for opposition to patriotism in all capitalist countries. War was
likely to threaten the Soviet Union and there it was the duty of the
working class to seek defence. The support of socialist and trade union
leaders in every country for their government in the event of war was
predicted as a certainty. British Trotskyists vigilantly watched the
rising threat of war which they saw as a political issue dwarfing most
others. In 1935 it had been enough to reverse the policy of the Marxist
Group. From that year also, part of the Trotskyist charge against
communism was its willingness to support an alliance of anti-fascist
powers, if such a project should be cobbled into reality. When
Trotskyists speculated on war, they drew on knowledge of the Great War,
the only precedent they had. In 1936 Groves forecast dilution, the
skeletal emergence of strike-breaking machinery and the exclusion of
“leftists” from war industry. He predicted a gradual loss of trade
union rights and recommended resistance to conscription, which was
likely to be introduced in peacetime. Only thus would democratic
countries be able to match their national resources to those of fascist
Suspicion of war preparations led Trotskyists to oppose every step
in that direction. Their difficulty was that if their response was
confined to opposition of this kind they were doomed to impotence. The
Marxist Group recognised the problem early on:
“While we must combine planning for protection with anti-war
propaganda, and must make every effort to present the outbreak of
another world war, we cannot neglect to face the possibility of that
war, and meet the problems involved”. 
But that conclusion could be drawn only after a frank recognition
that the international situation was deteriorating faster than
Trotskyism was gathering strength. There was no widespread disposition
to face the implications of this unpalatable truth.  When E.L. Davis argued within the Militant Group for penetration of ARP organisations  he was rebuked. 
Just as Trotskyists assumed that labour and trade union leaders
would rally patriotically, they were also sensitive to signs of
backsliding within their own movement. 
This made it difficult to move beyond an abstract anti-war line. But
the capitulation of socialist leaders had taken place, among other
reasons, because of intense mass pressure. This was hardly a problem
for Trotskyists to worry about, and time was to show that chauvinistic
hysteria would not, in any case, recur. If Trotskyism was to break out
of isolation, it needed something more than a formal programme, however
well grounded in Leninist precept. The Transitional Programme of the Fourth International,
the second major document of the movement on war, tried to reach beyond
pacifism, arguing “workers must learn the military arts” ,
but it was also an optimistic document declaring that crisis would
shatter all parties and the Fourth International must be available to
rally the proletariat.
This strictly general guidance left Trotskyists in Britain and
elsewhere in a formal argument. They faced a political environment
which was utterly different to that whose precedents provided so much
of their inspiration, the prelude to World War One. The political
battles of the left about war and rearmament were fought not in 1939
but in the mid 1930s. Key events in shifting the Labour Party from a
broadly anti-war position were the trouncing of Lansbury at the 1935
conference and the critical vote of the PLP in July 1937 to abstain on
the Service Department estimates, reversing its earlier position of
opposition.  British Communist policy had been unqualified as late as 1934 
but by a series of national and international changes its main thrust
became a drive to make sure Britain was on the right side in a peace
front.  This induced increased political loneliness which tended to reinforce Trotskyists’ views.
They rejected any involvement with war preparations. No fine
distinctions between attack and defence were allowed to pass, even a
zigzag trench.  For all the occasional doubts of individuals, there were no differences here between the factions. 
The RSL conducted an internal discussion over ARP, which culminated in
the executive declaring against it after being advised by Jackson not
to stand on passing proletarian moods. “The workers”, he advised, “are
in general backward and lag behind the necessities of history.” 
ARP was another means of reconciling the civil population to war. This
attitude contrasts strongly with contemporary communist policy. 
Early 1939 saw Trotskyism resigned to being swamped by chauvinism on the outbreak of war. 
But its isolation did not spring from the anticipated patriotic wave.
Conscription, an important step towards militarization, was introduced
in April 1939 for the first time in peace.  Resentment was qualified, even among the communists. 
In the battle against conscription and the National Register only
Trotskyism, the still pacifist ILP, and Labour mavericks battled it out
minus reservations. The RSL however was later to reject the policy it
followed at this time, whereby it allowed its members to make
conscientious objection at tribunals. 
Faced with imminent war, Trotskyists consistently called for Soviet
defence. The circumstances leading to the Non-Aggression Pact of August
1939 were criticised, but not the right of the Soviets to conclude such
an agreement. But WIL did attack the way communists in Britain
presented it. 
The Militant Labour League greeted the outbreak of war with a
manifesto branding it as imperialist and calling for the overthrow of
the British ruling class. At this general level there was no patriotic
incursion into any of the Trotskyists’ ranks. Where the factions
differed was in their expectations of what the first few months would
be like. The Socialist Anti-War Front, partly through its activity in
the No-Conscription League had some success in putting itself at the
centre of a movement with support from trades councils. Reg Groves used
the extra channels open to him as a Labour candidate to maintain a
stream of criticism until official party policy changed.  The RSL  and WIL both expected heavy and immediate suppression, and WIL actually anticipated it by moving a centre into exile. 
The RSL had a particular fixation with chauvinist hysteria and
continued to believe it was rampant in the face of all evidence. 
There was opposition to the war, but it tended, like support for it, to
be low key, devoid of enthusiasm. Everyone had lived with the
likelihood of war for some time, and for political activists there was
also the comforting thought that Britain was at least in a war against
These two factors, one affecting the majority and the other the
minority isolated all revolutionaries, some of whom misread unanimity
As for the form of objection to the war, this was a problem in itself. The Call
of the SAWF publicised conscientious objection, but this presented
theoretical problems for Trotskyists. Mere refusal to take part was
simply pacifism. The RSL expelled SAWF participants for this very
reason. But while their view was that arms could be taken up either to
defend workers’ organisations or overthrow a capitalist government,
this was of little help in the concrete circumstances of September
1939. Capitalism still existed: it had not been overthrown. On a basis
of non-complicity in an era of growing militarization of life, it would
be difficult to distinguish Trotskyism from pacifism. Trotskyism had a
rich Marxist legacy to draw on. Liebknecht had argued that the enemy of
the workers was in their own country. The Bolshevik slogan for the
turning of the imperialist war into a civil war was well known. 
Revolutionary defeatism was considered the duty of the Fourth
International. Even before the war, however, Trotsky was trying to
reach beyond these simple principles. He reminded the International,
“An irreconcilable attitude against bourgeois militarism does not at
all signify that the proletariat in all cases enters into a struggle
against its own national army”. 
Trotskyism expected the CPGB to support the war. This had been the
drift of party policy before 1939. When it was reversed a month after
war began, the communists moved to a policy which was radical but not
Leninist. The most radical phase of this policy fell between October
and the Fall of France. 
During this time the war was damned as an imperialist conflict by the
party, with the main blame falling upon the British and. the French. 
It did not call for the war to be turned into a civil war, but demanded
the replacement of Chamberlain with a new government pledged to begin
peace negotiations. 
WIL regarded communist policy at this time as pro-Hitler, and this
belief was a motive behind the revulsion of many on the left from the
party.  The change in the programme of the CPGB did not make it more well disposed towards Trotskyism. .
But the bourgeoisie was no more inclined to civil war than the
proletariat. The first nine months of the conflict, the Phoney War,
were notable for relaxation at home, if anything, to the irritation of
many in the labour movement. 
This again conflicted with forecasts. WIL argued that the pliancy of
labour leaders rendered a strong state apparatus superfluous and
concluded that the National Government had a “firm hold”. 
But elections continued, and offered an opportunity for anti-war
candidates of various kinds to oppose it. In this phase of the war, the
general absence of discontent was reflected in their low votes. 
The Fall of France shifted the balance of communist policy  and tilted WIL in a new direction. 
If the much heralded patriotic wave had any substance it was during the
period from Dunkirk to the start of the Battle of Britain. 
This could only strengthen the convictions of the RSL. WIL concluded
that this was the time to build on an anti-fascist mood. It still
expected government repression but began to see an opportunity to
differentiate between those who would and who would not fight a
genuinely anti-fascist war. 
But the RSL saw in responses to the Fall of France “a determination to
make any sacrifices to help British imperialism to win”. 
It continued to assume that the first sign of a move to the left would
be war weariness. In the WIL and in the SWP, however, thoughts were
turning towards a programme on which those participating in the war
could stand. It was the beginning of a search for a “Military Policy”
which would advance positive proletarian tactics for winning an
The Emergency Conference of the Fourth International, held in New York in May 1940, issued its own manifesto. 
It did not treat Military Policy in any detail, though it affirmed it
as the only programme adequate for the needs of the epoch. Military
Policy, it suggested, was an approach, not a principle. The war was
merely a theatre in which Trotskyists advanced their views: Just as in
a factory, they shared the experiences of other workers. Since the
proletariat had failed to prevent war, it must now seek to remove the
ruling classes from leading positions within it. The RSL received this
manifesto with considerable embarrassment, and published it with a
partial disclaimer.  WIL’s reception was cordial and from 1940 Youth for Socialism carried its own military programme in every issue. 
What became known as the American Military Policy (AMP) rested on
two principal texts: a speech by J.P. Cannon to the Chicago convention
of the SWP in September 1940 and his presentation on behalf of several
defendants at a trial for sedition the next year in Minneapolis. At
Chicago Cannon called for public money wherewith the trade unions might
set up their own military training camps. 
He argued that the pre-war policy of the Fourth International had been
sound but insufficient. Trotskyists had warned against war yet failed
to prevent it:
“It is not quite correct to say that the old line was wrong. It was
a programme devised for the fight against war in time of peace. Our
fight against war under conditions of peace was correct as far as it
went. But it was not adequate. It must be extended.” 
As Cannon recalled, Trotskyism was at a disadvantage when it lacked
concrete suggestions as to how Hitler might be resisted. It had
formerly argued for the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and then repulsion
of the invaders. Now, he suggested, the two tasks must be telescoped.
At the Minneapolis Trial of October 1941, Cannon went out of his way to
reject sabotage of a war effort or. indeed any hindrance to it. He also
opposed draft dodging. 
The RSL was to accuse WIL of lifting Military Policy from its
American context, but there was stimulus enough for it in the last
writings of Trotsky and even in some of his articles from before the
war. Trotsky had been involved in a lengthy discussion with SWP members
on attitudes towards war preparation. He advised against draft
avoidance  and argued for using military training to acquire skills of arms. Military Policy
“… is revolutionary in its essence and based upon the whole
character of our epoch, when all questions will be decided not only by
arms of critics but by critiques of arms; second, it is completely free
of sectarianism. We do not oppose to events and to the feelings of the
masses an abstract affirmation of our sanctity.” 
What Trotsky advised was that the Fourth International should
counterpose a genuine struggle against fascism to the “false fight” of
the Petains. He also suggested that denunciation of war had not been
the totality of the Bolshevik programme. While the Bolsheviks had won a
majority between the February and October 1917 revolutions this was
achieved chiefly, not by refusal to defend the fatherland, but by the
slogan “All Power to the Soviets!” 
The need for a positive programme in wartime made a deep impression on
WIL and from the late summer of 1940 it tried to counter embryonic
Vichyism with its Military Policy: elected officers,
government-financed trade union-controlled training schools, public
ownership of the armaments industry and a class appeal to German
Trotskyists had to have a policy to meet every phase of experience of
workers. Setbacks to the Allied cause in the spring and summer of 1940
apparently provided ample evidence for the WIL argument that a fight
against fascism could not be won under the old ruling classes. Fifth
column activities in Europe showed that there were people in
influential circles who feared the workers within more than Nazism. 
The RSL, with the former Militant Group in complete control by the
outbreak of war, drew opposite conclusions. The Fall of France had not
led in its perception to war-weariness, only to grumbling, which had
not been converted to a struggle against capitalism. 
Coalition government resting on the patriotic mass provided for the
present an acceptable substitute for fascism, but this would not
prevent rapid deterioration of the political position at home. 
Since revolutionaries were inevitably isolated under such
circumstances, the RSL was not surprised that some should seek to break
out by means of short cuts. These were opportunists however:
“The basic task of revolutionary socialists in such a period is not
to seek opportunist ‘short cuts’ to the mass but to explain patiently
the reactionary nature of the war .” 
The RSL thought some workers might support the slogan “Labour to
Power” for the wrong reason, that it would bring a more efficient
prosecution of the war. But it also believed that in the experience of
seeking to make the slogan a reality, they would turn against the war
itself. Trotskyists themselves, argued the RSL, had a guarantee against
backsliding in the policy of revolutionary defeatism. The alternative
was to end up like the WIL and the Fourth International.  Cannon’s Chicago policy was “in the spirit of Kautsky”, a “petty bourgeois hotch potch”. 
WIL and others had failed to counterpose class features to nationalism,
thus giving a left veneer to patriotism. Only in the case of the Soviet
Union was it right for workers to assume a patriotic attitude. WIL was
quite prepared to confront this argument. It saw positive features in
popular willingness to fight fascism. People were willing to defend
working class organisations, the true root of democracy. 
It was sectarian to condemn defencism from an isolated position:
analysis of war propaganda showed that the government sought support by
projecting the conflict as a war for democracy against fascism. Far
from abolishing workers” parties, the government leaned on their
leaders to gain social support. 
After a year of war the conviction that future political developments
would favour the workers was a steady feature of WIL thought.
But neither of the two main Trotskyist factions was monolithic in
its reaction to war. The RSL had always been under pressure from within
against compromises with chauvinism. When RSL leaders dallied with the
possibility of deep air raid shelters, the League branch at Leicester,
where JL Robinson was the dominant influence, sternly reminded them,
“Marxism remains the same in London as in Leicester”. In the view of
Leicester, the heart of what was to become the Left Faction, no demands
whatsoever on the war should be put. If one favoured a deeper shelter,
why not a better gas mask, a more rapid firing machine gun, a faster
If revolutionaries began to make concessions of this kind they might be
led inexorably to improving the military efficiency of capitalism: they
had to desire their own government’s defeat. 
Hitler’s victory was preferable for the British workers; Churchill’s
victory was preferable for the German workers. When the RSL Central
Committee resisted Leicester’s critique the branch concluded that its
“concessions” to chauvinism must be a tendency and that they should be
removed from the leadership of the British Section. 
WIL also had a debate within its ranks where Haston led a minority
of the EC He was not opposed to Military Policy as such, but argued
that WIL had from early 1941 moved away from this policy as expounded
by Trotsky and Cannon. WIL had, he asserted, shifted to making its main
enemy the foreign enemy, and by reference to an alleged new popular
mood.  WIL had argued for the distribution of arms to the workers who might then repel invasion ,
though it insisted its purpose was to separate workers from the
bourgeoisie not to bring collaboration about. But Haston, like the
Leicester RSL branch, thought Military Policy was being misused in
The formation of the Home Guard had been quite misunderstood: it was
not a concession to the workers” desire for arms but the outcome of a
full-blooded capitalist campaign. 
Whereas WIL in the past had said that the best workers were against the
war, it now said, “we want to fight Hitler but the bourgeoisie won’t
let us”. 
But when Healy answered Haston on behalf of the WIL leaders, he stated
what was to be a major theme of its perspectives documents from now on
– that all its arguments were directed towards demonstrating the need
to take power. And he insisted that WIL based itself on the popular
mood which regarded such bodies as the Home Guard as a defence against
“… the radicalisation of the workers is taking place at the moment
not around the question of democratic rights as such but around the
manner in which the bosses are prosecuting the war.”
Although Trotskyists were always projected as enemies of the Soviet
Union, at least since the Moscow Trials, they had in fact consistently
called for Soviet defence. Common ground among all  British Trotskyists at this time was that Russia remained a country where capitalism had been overthrown,  but they were not optimistic about its chances of withstanding a fascist assault.  They were faced with a rapid reversal of communist policy to a call for prosecution of the war to the full. 
There was also far greater intensity in communist attacks on
Trotskyists whom they accused of being dishonest in their calls for
Soviet defence. The WIL argument was that Britain under a Churchill
government must still be waging an imperialist war. Acquisition of a
Soviet alliance could not, it insisted, alter this fact. The war could
only become a just war if the workers of Britain took military and
state power into their own hands. Otherwise all the criticisms made of
the British government before Hitler invaded Russia retained their
WIL did not propose inactivity in support of the Soviets but, like Tait
and others in the ILP, called for all aid to be sent to Russia under
trade union control. It began to see a road to workers’ power through a
struggle over the handling of the war. Aided by quotations from Lenin
it argued for a positive programme whereby the predatory war might be
transformed into a just war. It argued that Lenin’s main drive in 1917
was not against war but for a workers’ government. Its own
pre-conference thesis of 1942 was published under the ambitious title Preparing For Power.
There it was suggested that military incompetence was a sign that the
bourgeois system had outlived itself, and that it was leading workers
to question the regime. 
This provoked the RSL, which still insisted that a revolutionary mood
could not possibly arise through a desire for more efficient
prosecution of the war: WIL, it charged, was distorting the popular
“When social explosions come, as come they will, they will not arise
upon the basis of demands by the workers for a more effective
prosecution of the war. No class struggles can arise on this issue
because it is not a class issue as far as the workers are concerned.” 
Workers would be taking a class approach when they desired peace.
WIL, charged the RSL, was concealing its own chauvinism behind
revolutionary – sounding slogans which, in the wartime context, had a
counter-revolutionary content. 
When WIL replied, effectively, concluding the discussion, it was at its
most unapologetic. It was against all occupations, but not to oppose
the occupation of Britain would be to carry literal opposition to
patriotism too far. It would be “inverted chauvinism”, supporting a
foreign bourgeoisie while opposing one’s own. WIL agreed it had talked
of an anti-fascist war, but claimed it had always explained that
British imperialism could not wage such a war. 
Exposure of social patriotism was not a live issue: revolutionaries now
had to aim at workers’ power: “Our position towards war is no longer
merely a policy of opposition, but is determined by the epoch in which
we live, the epoch of the socialist revolution. That is, as contenders
for power. Only thus can we find an approach to the working class.” 
Lenin’s task, reflected WIL, had been to hold an internationalist
faction together in a patriotic time. Support would not come to
Trotskyists who merely repeated his arguments. WIL reflected on the
drift of Trotsky’s last article where he had argued that Fourth
International policy did continue that of Lenin, but that “continuation
signifies a development, a deepening and a sharpening”. 
1 The full text of this document, which was written by Trotsky, is in Writings (1933-34), 299-329.It appeared as a document of the IS.
2. R. Groves, Arms and the Unions (1936). This pamphlet was published by the Socialist League.
3. Fight, June 1937.
One of the Marxist Group recruits to the Labour Party opposed a purely
negative attitude towards defence, raising the call for adequate
protection, as far as possible under the control of workers’
organisations, (R.W., Air Raid Policy, Sept. 1936, Warwick MSS 15/4/2/15).
5. Quite early on Davis demanded “real protection” and called on the government to spend as lavishly on defence as on armaments, (Air Raid Policy, 27 May 1937, Internal Discussion Bulletin, June 1937, H.P., D.J.H. 2a/2, 7-10).
6. By Robinson, Nicholls and, (later), Bone.
Gould, an SWP delegate to the 1938 international conference, was alive
to the fact the patriotism was not a danger for the Trotskyist movement
(Minutes of the Founding Conference of the Fourth International, Documents, 294-6).
8. Military Training by the labour movement, the thesis advanced by the Transitional Programme,
had respectable socialist antecedents in the armed wings of the
Austrian and German social democrats. The RSL of 1938 had delegates
present at the discussion of the document in the first session of the
Founding Congress. In 1940, however, the RSL was to argue that a
transitional demand for workers” arms did not have timeless application
and certainly could not be advanced in a patriotic period where it
might be used by imperialists for recruiting purposes.
9. C.L. Mowat, Britain Between the Wars 1918-1940, 1955, 632. For the evolution of Labour policy see J.F. Naylor, Labour’s International Policy, (1969), 261-92.
10. R.F. Andrews’s often quoted Labour Monthly
article of 1934 which demanded that British and French workers should
“under no circumstances” support an attack by their governments on
fascist Germany, even if that country attacked the U.S.S.R, was well
known to Trotskyists (See Workers Fight, Oct. 1938).
11. Following Hitler’s march into Austria R.P. Dutt reviewed communist policy since 1933 on the danger of war (Notes of the Month, Labour Monthly, April 1938, 195-219).
“While it may be true that a trench of itself is not an aggressive
measure, when it is seen as means to continuing an Imperialist war,
then it is obviously as important a part of the Government’s war plans
as the construction of bombers” (Militant, Oct. 1938). ARP was also condemned, incidentally, as unlikely to work.
“‘Defence’ cannot be separated from offence. The gas-mask is the
counterpart of the poison-gas bomb, air-raid shelters are the
counterpart of the bombers. To tolerate the one is to tolerate the
other, and the revolutionary must implacably reject both” (Voluntary Conscription, WIN, Dec. 1938, 1-3).
A central committee statement of 27 October 1938 was followed by a
brisk discussion on ARP in which Robinson was sharp and intransigent on
patriotic concessions and Hampstead declared the committee ultra-left,
(RSL, Special Internal Discussion Bulletin, Nov.
1938, H.P., D.J.H. 13a/5, 5-8). At the February 1939 conference of the
RSL only five votes were cast against the executive position on ARP
Within the Labour Party ARP was something of an immediate issue because
it was raised by local government representatives. This meant the RSL
needed a policy (interview with J. Archer, Nov. 1973). WIL, also in the
Labour Party, took a similar point of view: “No support for the
National Register, no support for ARP , no support for capitalist
‘defence’ – these must be our slogans” (Voluntary Conscription, WIN, Dec. 1938, 1-3).
15. The communists had been agitating for deep shelters in London since 1936, and with some success, (P. Piratin, Our Flag Stays Red, 1978 edit., 64-7).
“It must be remembered that on the outbreak of imperialist war we, as
revolutionaries, will at first be politically isolated from the masses
who will turn to ‘National Defence’ and class collaboration”, (Draft Resolution on the Policy of the RSL on the Outbreak of Imperialist War, 12 Jan. 1939, H.P., D.J.H./391, 4.)
Chamberlain announced conscription for twenty and twenty one year olds
on 26 April 1939. It was extended on the outbreak of war.
“Give us our ideals to serve, give us a policy worth serving, give us
the means to fitness, and we will show what latent strength there is in
our democracy, and how unitedly we can shoulder our responsibilities to
defend it:” (J. Gollan, Youth Will Serve For Freedom, , 11). WIL predicted that communists would support conscription once Chamberlain was out of power.
It later regretted its involvement with the Socialist Anti-War Front
and, on 11 March 1940, its executive rescinded the decision on
conscientious objectors. For the SAWF, see Chapter X.
20. J.R. Strachan, The War Crisis – The Way Out For Workers (1939). “J.R. Strachan” was a pseudonym, possibly for Ralph Lee and Grant.
21. For Groves and the SAWF see Chapter X.
22. For some time before the war the RSL had devoted time and space to “special” (i.e. illegal) work.
In an obscure episode Haston and Healy with seven others moved on the
outbreak of war to Ireland, (Interview with J. Haston, July 1973).
James Maxton fought a parallel tendency in the ILP, (J. McNair, James Maxton: Beloved Rebel, 1955, 286-7). R. Barltrop, The Monument, 1975, 101-22, contains an interesting account of how the S.P.G.B. reacted.
A Mass Observation Survey of 2 September 1939 unearthed 2% of those
interviewed who would be glad if there was a war, 34% who preferred
anything to war, and 43% who would rather get it over with (Mass
Observation, War Begains at home, 1940, 35). The
predominant feeling seems to have been sullen acquiescence. “The
declaration of war brought none of the excitement, none of the
‘ebullitions’ as the Observer put it, which had
marked the August days of 1914: no rounds of cheers, no dancing in the
streets yet ‘the sense of moral release’ was inexpressible” (A.
Marwick, Britain in the Century of Total War, 1968, 257). See also the comparison of public perceptions of the two wars in H. Pelling, Britain and the Second World War, 1970, 325-6.
“But for the ordinary men who fought it, was this war much different
from the first? If there was perhaps less passionate dedication there
was probably a greater feeling of inescapable purpose: war resistance
was a negligible factor this time “ (A. Marwick, The Explosion of British Society, 1914-62, 1963, 105). Gallup found a majority behind Chamberlain from October 1938, which grew from the outbreak of war (H. Pelling, ibid., 38).
26. In 1914 Lenin had described this as “the only correct proletarian slogan” (The War and Russian Social Democracy, Collected Works,
21, Moscow 1964, 32-3). But Lenin was seeking to draw a definitive line
between revolutionaries and social patriots which by 1939 was well
Trotsky argued that the true meaning of revolutionary defeatism was
that defeat of one’s own imperialist government was a lesser evil than
political prostration of the proletariat within national unity. It may
have been significant that it was WIL which published this argument (Learn to Think, WIN, Aug. 1938, 4).
28. The war was “not a people’s war, but a war in the interests of the big capitalists against the people”, The Trade Unions and The War [1939?], (This was a resolution of the party central committee). For the period 1939-41 see H. Pelling, The British Communist Party, 108-119.
29. London district committee (of the CPGB), Workers Against The War, [1939?], 9-10.
30. W. Gallacher, The War and the Workers, [1939?], 16.
31. Gollancz wrote that the CPGB had adopted the policy consistently held by the ILP (Where Are You Going?, in V. Gollancz (ed.), The Betrayal of the Left, 1940, especially 6-7). The Russian invasion of Finland sundered the close observation of communist policy by Tribune (W. Jones, The Russia Complex, 1977, 50).
Trotskyism, with pacifism, belonged among those political tendencies
“which confuse and disrupt the growth of working class opposition to
the war” (Workers Against The War, [1939?], 7).
Rationing, for example, began only after four months of war and then
limited to sugar, butter and bacon. Nor had conscription reached beyond
the twenty five year olds by April 1940. At that date there were still
more than a million unemployed (H. Pelling, Modern Britain: 1885-1914, 1974, 164).
34. The Ballot Box Test, WIN,
March 1940, 6. But WIL also believed that “sober discussions” about
state repression had taken place in ruling circles immediately before
the war. It deployed the evidence of army manoeuvres and the text of
insurance policies (which excluded civil war from the list of covered
hazards) in support (Slump, WIN, June 1938, 8).
35. See the results for 1940 By-elections in C. Cook and J. Ramsden (4), By-Elections in British Politics, 1973, 372.
On 7 July 1940 the People’s Convention movement, an initiative of the
CPGB, first met in public to open a six-month campaign. D. Childs, The British Communist Party and the War, 1939-41, J.C.H., Vol.12, 1977, 237-53, leans too heavily on D. Hyde, I Believed, 1953, to explore communist policy with any thoroughness. R. Black, Stalinists in Britain, 1970, 131-59, is a Trotskyist account.
37. “B. Farnborough” (Brian Pearce) dates WIL’s Military Policy from the Fall of France, (Marxists in the Second World War, Labour Review, April-May 1959, 25-8). The RSL believed adoption of such a policy at such a time was proof that it was a defencist concession.
A government call for the suspension of holidays, an end to
absenteeism, and long working hours received wide backing, but only
temporarily, (A. Marwick, Britain in the Century of Total War, 1968, 295). Pelling concurs but stretches national unity into 1941 (Britain and the Second World War, 1970, 29).
39. In June 1940 WIL spoke ambiguously of an imminent threat to workers’ rights (Workers’ Fight, WIN,
June 1940, 8); in July it thought the bourgeoisie would not “pounce”
but that the main threat would come from “the Stalinist machine and the
Labour bureaucracy”, both more politically astute and the latter now in
government (The Lesson of France, WIN, July 1940, 12).
40. The Electoral Tactics of the Workers’ Vanguard, 1940, H.P.
41. Imperialist War and the Proletarian World Revolution, Documents,
311-50. Although this was a manifesto Trotsky had warned before the war
that a binding policy could not be imposed on all sections of the
Fourth International because of national differences (Learn to Think, WIN, Aug. 1938, 5).
42. See appendix to Imperialist War and the Proletarian World Revolution, in Marxist Discussion Bulletin,
Aug. 1940, 2 (H.P., D.J.H. 6/5). The RSL remarked that the section
entitled “workers must learn the military arts” might be
opportunistically misconstrued. When consciousness was low, calling for
arms for the workers had a reactionary effect. The League wrote to the
IEC asking for clarification.
43. This included demands for the election of workers’ officers, full trade union and political rights for soldiers, etc.
44. J.P. Cannon, Military Policy of the Proletariat, WIN, Jan. 1941, 4.
45. J.P. Cannon, Our Military Policy, WIN, March 1941, 10.
46. WIL published his evidence as Smash
Fascism – End War. The case for socialist revolution. An A.B.C. of
Trotskyism. The testimony of J.P. Cannon in the U.S. Labour frame-up
Trial, WIN (special volume), 1942, 1-40.
“If he is draftable, let him be drafted. I do not think he should try
to avoid the draft – he must go with his generation and participate in
its life” (Some Thoughts on American Problems, WIN, March 1941, 1).
48 Another Thought on Conscription, 17 Aug, 1940, Writings (1939-40), 119
49. Leon Trotsky’s Last Article, WIN,
Feb. 1941, 9. The RSL later attempted, somewhat unconvincingly, to
counter this argument. “This is not to say that the masses can be won
to the banner of the Fourth International on the slogans of “turn the
imperialist war into civil war”, etc., “but slogans which are
evasive and ambiguous with regard to the proletarian attitude to the
war are a betrayal of Socialist International” (Attitude of the Proletariat towards Imperialist War, H.P., D.J.H. 6/12, 3 ).
50. An uncritical account of WIL’s opposition to the war is W. Hunter, Marxists in the Second World War, Labour Review,
Dec. 1958, 139-146. “B. Farnborough” (Brian Pearce) tried to put right
the omission from this article of any treatment of Military Policy (Marxists in the Second World War, Labour Review, April-May 1959, 25-8), but did not cover the dispute between the RSL and WIL. D. Parkin, British Trotskyists and the Class Struggle in World War 2, Trotskyism Today, No.2, March 1978, 27-30, criticises both Leagues.
51. The Lesson of France, WIN, July 1940, 12.
52. The Electoral Tactics of the Workers’ Vanguard, 1940, 1-2.
53. [NOTE MISSING]
54. ibid., 7.
By 1941 the RSL had concluded that the FI was in the hands of
“defencist” tendencies, brought to the fore by the fear of the
proletariat in Britain and America of losing their privileged position.
56. Attitude of the Proletariat Towards Imperialist War, H.P., D.J.H., 6/12, 1.
57. A. Calder (The People’s War, 60) doubts that ideological motivation against Nazism was common. One atypical exception was George Orwell (W. Steinhoff, The Road to 1984, 1975, 102). Orwell thought socialist renewal the only policy likely to bring Britain victory.
58. WIL, Reply to the Political Statement of the Revolutionary Socialist League, 1941, 2.
59. Bolshevism and Defencism, May 1941, 10
“A revolutionary class in an imperial war desires the defeat of its
national army in order to utilize the situation of humbling of its
masters to overthrow them irrespective of the nature of the enemy” (Brief Notes on the History of the Left Faction, [1960?], 2; interview with J. Goffe, July 1974).
61. Bolshevism and Defencism, 11. Youth Militant
was also singled out for criticism by the Leicester branch. While
making an international onslaught the Left Faction (as it soon became)
had some ideological companions elsewhere, notably Grandizo Munis of
the Spanish section, currently in Mexican exile, who protested against
Cannon’s exposition of the Military Policy at the Minneapolis Trial.
62. “J.H.”, A Step Towards Capitulation, Internal Bulletin, 21 March 1941, 5, H.P., D.J.H. 14a/3.
63. Military Policy or Confusion, Internal Bulletin, 20 March 1941, H.P., D.J.H. 14a/2.
His argument was that Trotsky’s advice to the Americans had been
offered in the context of a dynamic and developing labour movement
confronted by the prospect of universal militarization: his ideas
should not be used as an alternative to an anti-war struggle.
65. Shortly after this exchange, Haston protested against the emasculation of an article he had written for Socialist Appeal and suggested that the formation of the Home Guard proved that the bourgeoisie was not in fact fearful of arming the workers (The Military Policy as applied to the Home Guard, Internal Bulletin, 21 April 1941, 1-7, H.P., D.J.H., 140/4).
66. ibid., 20.
67. G.H., The Home Guard – An Approach, Internal Bulletin, 19 May 1941, H.P., D.J.H., 14A/5.
The views of Burnham and Shachtman found no echo in Britain at the time
of the Russo-Finnish war and the RSL disowned C.L.R. James when he
defected to Shachtman’s side early in 1940. Nor did Trotskyists reject
Soviet manoeuvres between the Great Powers, only the argument that
socialist principles should be jettisoned in allied countries.
69. The Trotskyist view was that the USSR had been weakened by diplomatic bungling and purges of the Red Army. See A. Scott, Stalin’s Diplomacy Leads to Defeats, WIN, Dec. 1941, 1-6 and Trotsky’s earlier article The Decapitation of the Red Army, 5 July 1937, Writings (1937-38), 55-60.
“The urgent need now is the fullest mobilisation and active energy of
all sections of the people for the fulfillment of the tasks of the
common struggle with the Soviet people for the defeat of Hitler. We
strive for the united national front of all sections of the people (not
only of the left anti-imperialist or pro-Soviet elements, but of all
opposed to Hitler and supporting the Pact) to drive forward the maximum
effort in the joint war with the Soviet Union for the defeat of Hitler”
(R.P. Dutt, Notes of the Month, Labour Monthly, Aug. 1941, 356).
“But the same class is in control. They are still fighting for the same
interests – their profits, markets, colonies, etc. And they can fight
for no other interests. They are still fighting to keep India under
their own subjection and to keep Africa enslaved.” (A. Scott, Britain’s War Remains Imperialist. It is not altered by the alliance with the Soviet Union, WIN, Nov. 1941, 7. This article was also published separately as a pamphlet.
72. Preparing For Power, WIN, Sept. 1942, 5.
73. RSL, A Criticism of the WIL Pamphlet Preparing For Power in WIL, Policy and Perspectives of the British Trotskyists, 1943, 2.
74. The example given was workers’ control of production to increase production for the war, (RSL, loc. cit., 5).
75. Reply of WIL to the RSL Criticisms of Preparing For Power, in WIL, Policy and Perspectives of the British Trotskyists, 1943, 16.
76. WIL, loc. cit., 17.
77. Bonapartism, Fascism and War, [Aug. 1940], Writings (1939-40), 121. WIL Published this as Leon Trotsky’s Last Article in WIN for February 1941.
THE RSL IN UNITY AND DISUNITY
(SEPTEMBER 1938 – MARCH 1944)
The Revolutionary Socialist League was a failure. It did not hold
together and it proved unable to capitalise on wartime opportunities.