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  • Published in Book Reviews

A valuable study of the Trotskyist tradition in Britain misses the importance of strategy in revolutionary organisation, argues Alex Snowdon

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John Kelly, Contemporary Trotskyism: Parties, Sects and Social Movements in Britain (Routledge, 2018), xiv, 295pp.

John Kelly’s book addresses a significant gap in the literature; there hasn’t been a book surveying contemporary British Trotskyism for decades. It stems partly from the author’s awareness that the literature on social movements has tended to give little, if any, attention to activists and organisations from the Trotskyist tradition, despite their resilience and reach. It is very ambitious in three ways: its time span, by providing an historical account of British Trotskyism from 1950 to the present day; its concern to document even the tiniest of groups; and the comprehensive nature of its coverage, from organisations’ finances and membership to work in the trade unions.

Kelly is an academic, a professor of industrial relations at Birkbeck in London, and writes from the perspective of a social scientist. The wider publishing context of his book is the academic literature on social movements, especially the labour movement and the left, and while he is clearly left-wing in his own politics, he is not, nor ever has been, associated with Trotskyism. He was a Communist Party member in the 1980s and published a book, Trade Unions and Socialist Politics, in the late 1980s. The author’s location outside the tradition, and therefore outside any intra-Trotskyist disputes, allows him a great degree of objectivity in his treatment of his subject matter. Although he disagrees significantly with much of the politics of Trotskyism, he takes it seriously and treats its adherents with respect.

Trotskyism is an unfashionable choice of focus. In academic circles, Marxism, the political and intellectual basis of the tradition, is generally regarded as old-fashioned and irrelevant (or worse), while the activism of revolutionary socialists is unlikely to be the focus of social-movement research. The book is part of Routledge’s Studies in Radical History and Politics series, which aims to foreground the history of the radical left (from the Levellers in the 1640s – the focus of another contribution to the series – to the present day).

Those who have never been involved in Trotskyist organisation may not find the minutiae of membership figures, paper sales and election results – and there is truly a wealth of such detail in Kelly’s book – very compelling. Former Trotskyists looking for a polemical repudiation of Trotskyism will be disappointed by the lack of virulent denunciation, while current members of Trotskyist organisations may complain that their own organisation receives insufficient attention (or that other currents receive too much attention) or is mis-represented in some way.

It is likely that the main audience for the book will be lecturers, researchers and students, consulting it for theses and dissertations on various aspects of British radical-left politics since 1950. Indeed, its hefty cover price makes the university library its natural home. This is not to diminish it though; I found the book fascinating and it rests upon remarkably thorough, in many ways exhaustive, scholarship. It contains a remarkable range of tables and figures, with faultlessly extensive footnotes. It is enriched by the author taking time to interview many representatives of socialist groups, a type of research used to corroborate and deepen knowledge derived from the archives and written sources. I also think it has value for those, like me, who are activists, seeking insights into the practice of building socialist organisation.

Trotskyist ideas and organisations

Kelly begins with two chapters outlining first his own theoretical approach to the topic and then the main ideas associated with Trotsky and the Trotskyist movement. His own approach has much merit, but there are problems with his model of Trotskyist organisation as a hybrid comprising the three elements referred to in the book’s subtitle, ‘parties, sects and social movements in Britain’. It is useful because it provides a basis for exploring tensions in such organisations and how they operate; the way in which they must balance and respond to competing pressures.

What it fails to grasp, though, is the highly distinctive nature of revolutionary socialist organisation, which can’t be contained within existing academic categories (even with talk of ‘hybrid’ forms). A revolutionary socialist organisation has a political basis in Marxism – opposition to the capitalist system as a totality, commitment to the self-emancipation of the working class – that, in turn, leads to particular strategic and organisational conclusions. The political distinctiveness of this has to be grasped.

Kelly’s discussion of Trotsky’s ideas, and of the theoretical foundations of early Trotskyism in the 1930s and 1940s, is well-informed and largely accurate. He provides a list of nine core elements of Trotskyist doctrine. However, he tends to downplay the extent to which ‘Trotskyism’ was essentially a continuation of the classical Marxist tradition of Marx and Engels and, later, the generation embodied by Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky. This is perhaps influenced by his background in the Communist Party, which had a long and rich history of characterising Trotskyism as anything but an authentic continuation of the classical Marxist tradition.

There is also some difficulty with suggesting that the nine core elements were all characteristic of Trotskyist orthodoxy. This approach de-historicizes the Trotskyism of Trotsky’s own later years, and later that of his followers in the 1940s. It would have been useful to have a more historically grounded account of the development of Trotskyist positions during that period and of the tensions and conflicts which arose after the end of World War Two.

Strategic orientations

That history provides the necessary background for understanding the decisive three-way split in British Trotskyism in 1950, into currents led by Tony Cliff, Gerry Healy and Ted Grant. He doesn’t really convey the fundamental point that so much of post-1950 British Trotskyism was shaped by the gulf between Trotsky’s prognoses (in the late 1930s) and the post-war reality, which in every region of the globe was substantially different. Different currents within Trotskyism really have their origins in their wildly differing interpretations of the big post-1945 developments: the ‘long boom’ in the West, the stabilising and expansion of state capitalism in the East, and the processes of decolonisation and national liberation in the Global South (and the interaction of all these elements).  

This approach is also problematic because it presents as unifying and foundational a series of positions that have in fact been more divisive among Trotskyists than Kelly allows. The single thing that actually unified Trotskyists was, in addition to adherence to Marxism, their opposition to Stalinism. Everything else, from the united front to provisional demands, is secondary. There is too much preoccupation with what Kelly calls ‘doctrine’ and not enough focus on how various groups actually responded to major issues arising in the contemporary world. There are also a few examples of Kelly expressing odd judgements about Trotsky’s own ideas and achievements. I am not convinced, to put it mildly, that Trotsky would have had a better analysis of the Stalinist bureaucracy if he had read more Weber.

Kelly also wrongly characterises Trotsky as a keen advocate of organisational splits, suggesting this is one reason why Trotskyism, in Britain and internationally, has been so prone to splits. In fact, Trotsky was repeatedly striving for organisational unity across a range of contexts, from 1903 (when he was appalled by what he considered a totally unnecessary split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks) until his death in 1940. He devoted a phenomenal amount of time and energy in the 1930s to building bridges between tiny, isolated groups, within and across countries, to develop an international network of revolutionary socialists. His abandonment of the Comintern, or the Third International, was a very belated last resort, coming long after it had degenerated.

Fragments and doctrinal families

Kelly does, though, provide insights into the numerous splits that have taken place in the fragmentary world of British Trotskyism. He recognises the distinctive elements in particular splits while also identifying patterns. He correctly points out, for example, that the small size of most such organisations has meant that it has been relatively easy and cost-free to split and set up a new group. In the field of electoral parties, by contrast, there are huge pressures working against a split, most obviously the risk of any new party failing to get sufficient votes to achieve electoral representation (hence the extraordinarily broad and heterogeneous nature of the Labour Party, for instance). Where I think the author errs is in placing too much emphasis on doctrinal differences. These have rarely been crucial at the time of a split, though sometimes they have increased over time (after a split has happened) as a group increasingly moves in a different direction to its ‘parent’ organisation.

The notion of doctrinal differences is indeed central to Kelly’s entire framework for analysing the complex history of British Trotskyism since 1950. It was at that time that the country’s only Trotskyist organisation – The Club, previously the Revolutionary Communist Party, consisting of a few hundred adherents – experienced two important splits, one led by Tony Cliff and the other by Ted Grant. Cliff’s group became the International Socialists in the 1960s and the Socialist Workers Party in the 1970s, while Grant led what became Militant for over four decades (until a highly damaging split in 1992, which gave us the Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal). Gerry Healy led the organisation from which they had split. It eventually became the Workers’ Revolutionary Party.

Kelly’s argument is that the myriad groups, large and small, that have evolved since then can be classified according to several ‘families’ based on their doctrine. These include, for example, ‘Orthodox’ for those groups obsessed with the sacred nature of Trotsky’s pronouncements in the 1930s, especially the Transitional Programme, and ‘Institutional’ for the current, represented above all by Militant (and latterly Socialist Appeal), that believes in long-term entryism in the Labour Party. He outlines these distinct families in a chapter called ‘Doctrine, orthodoxy and sectarianism’. A key argument is that such families have diverged in how orthodox or heterodox they have been, i.e. in their relationship to what might be considered the founding tenets of the tradition in the 1930s.   

There is much to be said for this as a way of making sense of the otherwise bewildering array of groups and as a means of charting connections between groups and their origins. It becomes especially illuminating in a later chapter looking at how British organisations are linked to ‘internationals’, networks of like-minded groups across national borders. Where it becomes problematic is in some of the details and also in the danger of over-emphasising doctrine as fundamental to how groups operate and what they stand for. I disagree, for example, with categorising Cliff’s current as ‘Third Camp Trotskyism’, a designation that neither Cliff nor anyone associated with him ever used, and one that has traditionally referred to quite different groups and mutations in the tradition. It means lumping the IS/SWP in with the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and its forerunners, which can only confuse more than it clarifies.

Historical phases

Kelly’s historical account of post-1950 British Trotskyism is across two chapters: 1950-85 and 1985-2017. This may seem an arbitrary division of time, but it is based on the membership data indicating that 1985 was the peak year for the tradition. One of Kelly’s most difficult challenges is handling the membership data of organisations not known for reliability in such matters. The most extreme example is the Workers’ Revolutionary Party. It claimed nine thousand members at the time of its deeply acrimonious split in 1985, amid allegations of sexual abuse against Healy, its leader. There are good reasons to regard that as a wildly inaccurate figure; the spiralling inflation in its membership estimates over previous years means that it’s debateable whether 1985 was really the high watermark of British Trotskyism. It would be more accurate and useful to examine how the rapid growth in Trotskyist organisations from the mid-1960s onwards largely ceased with the end of the upturn in workers’ militancy, domestically and internationally, in around 1975.

Generally, the wider contexts of changing patterns of working class struggle do not get as much attention as they perhaps need in order to make sense of the growth and subsequent decline of the Trotskyist left.  Kelly is dismissive of the idea that long-term low levels of strike action since the early 1990s go a long way to explaining the numerical decline of the Trotskyist left during that period. This is, he argues, because it’s never been the case that such organisations have largely recruited from a milieu of militant union reps anyway.

That is not quite correct – such a milieu was a major factor in the International Socialists’ growth in the early 1970s – but, more importantly, it misses the point. Those of us who point to the very low levels of workplace struggle as a factor do so primarily because it is when workers are confident and combative that radical socialist ideas, rooted in the self-emancipation of the working class, are most likely to find an audience. In the very long-term absence of such struggles, it is harder to demonstrate the relevance of such ideas and the kind of revolutionary organisation that embodies them.

Trotskyists and social movements

A number of later chapters address particular dimensions of Trotskyist organisations’ political work, especially during the last three decades. These cover electoral participation, social movement building, and work in the trade unions. All three provide clear, illuminating and wide-ranging accounts, but the chapter on social movements is, for me, the outstanding chapter of the book. It captures activism by the Trotskyist left at its most outward-looking and effective, via outlines of the role of socialist organisations in five movements: the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, the Anti-Nazi League, the Anti-Poll-Tax Federation, the Stop the War Coalition, and the People’s Assembly. This illustrates, more than anything else, the positive achievement and wider impact of the better elements of the Trotskyist tradition.

Kelly also gives examples of largely unsuccessful attempts at interventions in social movements, which are typically little more than front operations for specific organisations. He draws out the lessons from assessing both successful and unsuccessful instances of movement participation, such as the need for building a genuine coalition around specific demands rooted in shared political agreement.

Kelly rightly points out that such coalition building requires moving beyond distinctively revolutionary socialist politics and seeking alliances with those who are outside the Trotskyist tradition. However, he seems to suggest that this involves downplaying – or deviating from – Trotskyism, when in fact the united front is, as noted earlier in the book, a core component of Trotsky’s practice and the foundations of Trotskyism. These powerful movements have in fact been very much in the spirit and tradition of Trotsky and the revolutionary movement, in Russia and internationally, of which he was a tribune.

Contemporary Trotskyism, despite the interpretive differences I have discussed, is a valuable contribution to the sparse literature on the modern British radical left. It is undoubtedly the definitive work on its subject matter, comprehensive in scope and resting on deep research. The fairness and objectivity of its author – the critical sympathy he adopts towards his subject – allows readers to make of the evidence what they will. It conveys the successes and achievements of activists in the Trotskyist tradition as well as the sectarianism, fragmentation and at times sheer craziness of so much of the tradition. For activists today, the insights into experiences of building social movements, and of working with other political forces more generally, are instructive.

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​

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