Review: ‘War and the International – A history of the Trotskyist movement in Britain 1937 -1949’

Review: ‘War and the International – A history of the Trotskyist movement in Britain 1937 -1949’

Why would seriously want to you waste your time reading about various infights of pretty minuscule Trotskyist sects 80 years ago?!

The book describes the factional struggles of organisations attached to the 4th International like the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL) and the Workers International League (WIL) during the time when they merged into the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). This in itself promises to be pretty tedious.

What is not boring is the historical background during which these organisations tried to organise amongst the working class – the war years. Even if you don’t agree with this political tendency, there are interesting aspects of their experience, relevant for anyone who wants to organise along lines of internationalist working class politics.

How do you react in a situation where the government calls workers to arms, while one of the declared ‘enemies’ is a fascist country, whose army has just started to bomb the shit out of you? To make it more complicated, many of your work-mates tell you that they themselves don’t trust the government and capitalists to organise war production effectively, and to fight Hitler as a consequence. Do you encourage them to desert or to take up arms both against Hitler and the ruling class ‘at home’? At the same time thousands of workers go on strike for higher wages and are stabbed in the back and repressed by the two main ‘workers’ organisations’, the Labour Party in (coalition) government and the Communist Party. In many cases, the government uses the army to quell workers unrest. They claim that any strike will harm the fight against the invading aggressor and undermine the anti-fascist alliance. While preaching democracy towards the local workers, the British Army command starves millions to death in India, and the leaders of the Soviet Union eradicate revolutionary anti-fascism in Spain and other places.

How do you organise practical working class politics in these times, without losing sight of the wider context and revolutionary goal? It would be easy to ‘abstain’ from practical activities in this moment and retreat into programmatic defeatism: “Workers have nothing to win in this war, let’s all go home and wait till it’s over”. It is courageous, but perhaps too short-sighted to maintain an ‘honest’ syndicalism: “The best way to fight the war is to just keep on fighting the bosses”. This would ignore the political dimension and the wider question of armed state power and how to relate to it. Even more so if at the time the discontent amongst working class soldiers with their upper-class command was also growing and taking on organised forms, such as ‘soldier parliaments’. And while soldiers question the control of the army headquarters at the front, workers in the war industries question the control of management at home – how do you relate to this?

The organisations portrayed in the book try to remain active both in terms of supporting strikes and developing an internationalist vision. One of the problems with Trotskyism is that their compass is skewed. They first denounce the ‘Joint Production Committees’ as an attempt by the union leadership, bosses and state to integrate workers into the ‘cross-class patriotic war effort’ – but then join the committees in order to ‘have an influence’. They called workers to ‘defend the Soviet Union’, while the Soviet state and the local CP revealed themselves as enemies of the working class a thousand times. They called for a Labour government and work inside the Labour Party, while Labour in government incarcerated striking workers and their very own comrades. Their view that all the working class needs is ‘the right leadership’ led them down the path of political opportunism. If you want to look deeper into the origins of this opportunism, check out this text:

http://www.leftcom.org/en/articles/2000-10-01/trotsky-and-trotskyism

In this sense the book raises a lot of questions that are still pressing today, if, for example, we look at situations like in Syria or other war scenarios, or the growing threat from the far-right in many countries. While wars are conducted differently nowadays and the immediate dependency on an industrial army for the supply of weapons has been decreased, the political issues remain similar. The book also confirms the obvious fact that the Labour government during these (post) war years was not a ‘workers’ government’ – even if Corbynistas and rose-tinted film makers want to make us believe the opposite. Labour leader Bevin was an old trade unionist, but once in state power he enacted anti-strike laws and agreed to troops being used against workers.

Another aspect is interesting: unlike most Trotskyist groupings today (and let’s be honest, not just Trotskyist groupings) the WIL / RCP was largely a workers’ organisation. The book describes many situations where workers and soldiers used their day-to-day connections to form international organisational links or to organise underground resistance. These are valuable experiences for any revolutionary organisation, in particular for comrades who like us, believe in the working class’ capacity for self-emancipation.

———

Military Policy

One of the central debates at the time was about how to conduct internationalist politics in a war situation. Here, the majority of English Trotskyist organisations followed the ‘official’ line sent down from the international headquarters.

“Already in the Transitional Programme Trotsky had shown that it was necessary to prepare for the working class a reply to militarism on the one hand and at to pacifism on the other. When workers accepted the necessity for conscription and arms training, it was necessary to prepare for the workers’ own army in a transitional form by arguing for “military training and arming of workers and farmers under direct control of workers’ and farmers’ committees”, […] and the “substitution for the standing army of a people’s militia”. To counter the argument of the bourgeoisie that is was defending democracy against Fascism, and at the same time to build up the workers’ militia as an organ of dual power, it was necessary to demand that the state “give workers the opportunity to master military technique” by getting “military training at their factories, plants and mines”. “We cannot escape from the militarisation” he wrote, “but inside the machine we can observe the class line”. The policy became to be known as the ‘American (Proletarian) Military Policy….” (P.13)

Like with many things Trotsky said, this paragraph leaves the door wide open for interpretation. Workers are not ready to form their own militias to replace the bourgeois standing army? No problem, you demand that the state should train them instead. As if a bourgeois military machine could be instrumentalised ‘technically’. Trotsky had no issue with re-installing a standing army and re-instating upper-class officers, as long as it was under the right ‘political leadership’, as the experience of Russia demonstrates.

This ‘official’ line was then interpreted under the specific conditions in the UK, which at the time meant under an atmosphere of patriotic zeal amongst many workers. In the magazine ’Youth for Socialism’ we can read:

“No worker in this country wants to come under the bloody tyranny of Hitler. On the contrary, he will fight against this with all his strength. But he cannot do this while Britain is capitalist; while India is in bondage; while the capitalist class controls the army and the workers are unarmed. The defeat of Hitler, the defence of Britain, the ending of the War – these are not simply a matter of superior arms or more numerous arms. More important is who wields the arms and for what. If it is militant workers fighting for Socialism they will, besides the weapons they take out of the hands of the capitalists have one supreme weapon which Hitler cannot fight – the fact that the German workers can now join them in the fight against Hitler free from the fear of British capitalism waiting to pounce on them”. (P.13)

This seems kind of correct, although the Trotskyist organisations never managed to figure out how to break the brutal and ideological command of the German state over the workers in Germany, nor how to reach out to them. There is also no hint when the ‘working class within the British army’ would have to turn their weapon against the enemy in their own country – and how to deal with the consequences. The fact that the Trotskyist organisations neglected these two major questions in the paragraph above can be read as pandering to the patriotic working class sentiment: we are more willing to fight Hitler than the bourgeoisie. This would express itself practically once the RCP had more influence in the war industry and would pride itself that they did not only go on strike for higher wages, but also produced the demanded weapons for the Second Front on time. In their factional strife the internal opposition to the adoption of the ‘Military Policy’ bent the stick far to the other side:

“The slogan ‘Arm the Workers’, put forward in a belligerent country when the masses are at a white heat of patriotism and in immediate fear of invasion, is purely defencist and patriotic in character. The masses, at such a time, desire arms in order to repel the invader, i.e. in order to defend their ‘own’ capitalist state. Such a slogan is used by the imperialists for recruiting purposes…” (P.41)

‘Military policy’ might seem a pretty general and abstract an issue, but the Trotskyist organisations at the time also faced it as concrete problems, e.g. when dealing with the questions of the ‘Home Guards’, the soldiers and the war production – see below.

To conclude, the fact that the Trotskyist organisations didn’t have a clear position on the character of the Soviet Union further contributed to the confusion within the Military Policy. Should they defend the Soviet Union like the CP? If they would call to defend the Soviet Union would that not mean that they should support the war effort? They wiggled out of the issue in the usual Trotskyist way, demanding “immediate despatch of arms and material to the Soviet Union under the control of factory and trade union committees”, while equally calling for an “overthrow of the bureaucratic clique in the Kremlin”. The same problem would continue after the war, when the RCP called for a retreat of Soviet Union troops from eastern European countries on one side and supported Tito’s dictatorship on the other.

*** Home Guards

The state was actually arming workers as a non-standing army, in the form of the so-called home guards. These often acted against the ‘internal enemy’, for example discontented workers or rebellious UK soldiers. There were two main lines within the organisation:

“Haston was especially anxious not to get the slogan ‘Arm the Workers’ mixed up with the Home Guard, which had already turned out a Branch chairman and Shop Steward from Ruislip Running Sheds, armed with loaded revolvers and bayonetted rifles.” (P.14)

The other view was more along the traditional Trotskyist line that you have to join the vessel that contains workers, disregarding the actual nature of that vessel:

“Healy’s reply for the Majority repudiated the charge of defencism, and pointed out that dismissing the Home Guard as “armed strike breakers”, pure and simple, did not help to dissolve it on class lines by discussion with the misguided workers who had joined it. A great deal of working class discontent about time wasting and misuse of craftsmen and materials arose from the suspicion that the bourgeoisie was not prosecuting the War “against Nazism” to the utmost." (P.14)

The book doesn’t tell us if the majority faction actually joined the Home Guard or how they related to them in concrete. To be fair, the accusation of ‘defencism’ was used in the most absurd ways, e.g. against the pretty common sense efforts to turn the Tube Stations into air-raid shelters:

“So they [W.I.L.] campaigned around the underground shelters which already existed – the London Tube – and advised people to break open the gates of the stations (which closed at 11p.m) and to occupy them as deep air shelters. The people were only too happy to follow this advice and the Stalinists embarrassedly followed suit.” (P.15)

Whether workers actually needed the Trotskyists to tell them to re-appropriate the tube stations is a different question, it seems a pretty straight forward action.

*** Soldiers

It is interesting to read how the organisation made use of the fact that working class militants entered the army. In some cases they used their connections to get party members off the hook:

“Up in Sheffield Arthur Carford, an old militant, a founder member of the C.P. and a known Trotskyist sympathiser had, incredibly, secured a job as an orderly in the Medical Examination Centre where potential conscripts were examined for fitness prior to call-up. The Sheffield group agreed that Carford should remove small quantities of Medical Grade Cards from his workplace and arrange their transfer to London, with a view of having them forged so that the individual bearer would appear to be classed as unfit for military service.” (P.11)

But this privilege of escaping the draft was obviously reserved for the cadres and not a general political line. The book describes how comrades who arrive in Italy as part of the UK army make contacts with the Italian communist left and other Trotskyists, often through connections with friendly comrades serving in the US army. The party in the US used comrades who worked as sailors to send new literature over to Europe. The war is not just a machine, it depends on practical relations, which means that there is scope for subversive action. There is a story of a Trotskyist comrade from Austria, who had to flee and obtained a tool making apprenticeship in London. Because he was from ‘enemy territory’, despite him being Jewish, he was interned upon arrival:

“I was interned. We were all living in Hampstead and the police came round. We collected our clothes and went. All the men there were interned in the Isle of Man. After a few weeks they realised we were more anti-Fascist than they were. We had complete camp democracy. (…) We had a better University than anywhere in Europe. You could learn anything. Ubrich, the famous opera singer, gave a three hour lecture on the technical aspects of it. (…)” (P.29)

He goes on describing how they turned the camp into a working class university, run by delegates and assemblies. Another example is from a worker who was stationed in Calcutta:

“W.I.L. members in the forces were able to put their positions at the service of the movement there. In India Douglas Garbutt was able to carry on lengthy and quite illegal discussions with workers who supported the Bolshevik/Leninist Party of India. When the Ceylonese Trotskyists had escaped from prison and came to India to live in the underground, Fred Bunby not only established contact with them, but even served as their courier.”

He made the connections in a Stalinist bookshop through a sympathetic bookseller.

These are interesting examples about how even in war you have some space to organise yourself, but they are not examples of actual intervention and agitation, as laid out in the ‘Military Policy’. The book provides two examples in this regard.

“Members of W.I.L. did not ignore the ranks of the forces themselves. Having a military policy provided the framework for a programme – civilian rights for the soldiers, civilian rates of pay, the right to trade union organisation, and an end to arbitrary ruling class disciplinary measures. Central to the agitation was the demand for soldiers’ committees.” (P.88)

This sounds good on paper, but how do you actually agitate for such ‘basic demands’ under army surveillance? The answer given by the Trotskyist organisation is perhaps less inspiring:

“An instrument was already to hand in the Army Bureau of Current Affairs, a government-sponsored educational course for the soldiers in which most of the left got involved from the beginning. (…) Most active for the W.I.L. was John Williams, who as an ex-soldier knew just how far to go without breaking the law. (…) A year later the authorities caught up with him and he was sent down for six months for agitating for soldiers’ rights. He ended up in the notorious Darland Detention Camp near Gillingham in Kent, where a year before a soldier had been clubbed to death by two Military Policemen. The ferment in the armed forces, which took on extraordinary forms, such as the Cairo Forces’ Parliament, was not at all to the liking of the Communist Party.” (P.88)

The national government with Labour Party participation shut down these rank-and-file soldiers institutions fairly quickly.

Another example is perhaps more direct and less dependent on the whims of the government. It also goes beyond the question of ‘trade union rights as soldiers’ and relates more to the question what and who the war is fought for. A worker soldier in Egypt:

“Towards the end of my stay in Egypt, after I had been in Lebanon and Syria, the Greek situation was developing, where although there had been an agreement between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin where Greece was to be an area of influence for Britain, the Communist Party of Greece was fighting against the Monarchists and the Right Wing and were winning. So these soldiers in the base depots, who were waiting to go home (…) were mobilised and trained in big battalions in preparation. We were told to go over to Greece to maintain ‘law and order’. (…) We, in contact with Egyptian comrades, drafted a leaflet (…) calling upon the ‘squaddies’ in the army not to fight against their working class brothers in Greece, but to refuse – and we nearly got caught…” (P.247)

Trade union policy

Unsurprisingly the focus of the WIL and RCP was on the strike movements and the question of workers’ control in the war industry. The book goes through various examples of strikes, which culminated in 1943/44. The first major disputes the organisation was involved in were the Betteshanger pit strike in January 1941, which involved 1,600 miners, and the bus and tram strike in Leeds in November 1942:

“For some time the city transport department had been playing on the divisions between bus and tram workers and between regular men and split shift men, when they took the unwise step of lengthening the hours of the spare men at the same time as imposing heavier duties upon the regular drivers. Their patience exhausted, along with the existing complaints machinery, a mass meeting of 1,500 on November 29th decided on a strike for the following weekend. Straightaway troops arrived in the depots to guard property, inhibit picketing and drive the buses.” (P.28)

This strike ended in a victory, despite the various attempts from the CP to undermine the strike. The CP could use the strong-hold over the union apparatus and shop steward bodies to demobilise workers and to spread the message that the Trotskyists and their strike support are aiding Hitler. There were further bigger strikes in 1942, e.g. a miners strike in May 1942 in Barnsley against wage cuts, which was denounced by the President of Yorkshire Miners; the ‘Total Time’ strike in Tyneside shipyards against the imposition of a new wage payment system, which the CP tried to break; a strike at Rolls Royce near Glasgow, organised mainly by women workers on low pay. The government had to react.

“Such a dangerous strike in the shipbuilding industry in wartime was, of course, a direct challenge to the Government. ‘We cannot tolerate it’, said Ernest Bevin to the House of Commons on September 24th…” (P.76)

The Labour Minister then declared the strikes illegal, using the Defence Regulation. In reaction to the repression the ‘Militant Workers Federation’ formed, a general coordination of militant shop stewards, in which the Trotskyists had some influence. Another major strike was triggered by the ‘Bevin Ballot Scheme’, which was meant to force apprentices to transfer from the engineering industries and to work down in the mines. In December 1943 hundreds of apprentices went on a two week wildcat strike spreading from Tyne, Clydeside to Huddersfield. There were divisions between the apprentices and the local miners, as the miners saw their demand as arrogant, as ‘too good to work in the mines’. The WIL tried to relate the apprentice strike to the miners’ conditions by demanding a ‘nationalisation of the mining industry’. The CP snitched and the police were able to arrest many Trotskyist cadres. Here we could read about another example of productive day-to-day links within the class. One of the female cadres who got arrested told:

“But then what happened was rather a miracle. It seems that one of the houses we had been going to in this mining village always took two papers, and we gathered that one of them was being taken for the daughter of the house. She turned out to be one of the wardresses in the prison, and from then on it was slow moving. She acted now as the go-between, giving me all the information that came up from time to time.” (P.120)

Strike movements picked up pace during 1943, which coincided with the disintegration of one of the Trotskyist organisations, the RSL. This is interesting in so far as the organisation’s focus on work within the Labour Party contributed to its demise:

“The fact that the final break up came in 1943 is very significant, for that was the year in which industrial militancy began a rapid rise after the almost strike-free period at the beginning of the War. It was a textbook illustration of the Marxist definition of the fortunes of a sect – opposite to that of the real movement, expanding during the defeat of the proletariat and disintegrating in the face of a real upsurge. As Marx said long ago, “by their nature the sects established by these initiators are abstentionist, strangers to all genuine action”. Their minute and Jesuitical discussions on deep air-raid shelters and the like formed the fetish on which they fastened to justify their special and separate existence – exactly what Marx was describing when he wrote that “the sect sees the justification for its existence and its ‘point of honour’ – not in what it has in common with the class movement but in particular shibboleth which distinguishes it from it”. (…) As propaganda literature outside shrunk to zero, a lush growth of inner bulletins flourished in the atmosphere of an all-too vigorous internal life. As the War dragged on they became more and more clandestine, sticking all the closer to the entryist orientation as the inner and public life of the Labour Party itself dwindled into nothing.” (P.43)

The remaining organisations, primarily the WIL, focussed on the strike movements which peaked in 1944, at a crucial moment of the war effort. The WIL managed to attract a lot of former CP workers, who were pissed off with the party’s scabbing role:

“The Spring of 1944 before the preparation and opening up of the Second Front in the West was an especially difficult time for the Government on the ‘Home Front’. In South Wales 100,000 miners were out on strike over the ‘Porter Award’, and in Yorkshire 80,000 more. By April, 50,000 munitions, aircraft and shipyards men were out as well. The government feared a major delay in its plans for the Normandy landings.” (P.114)

The government reacted with further legal repression. Bevin issued a new order on April 17th, which would mean five years in prison for striking or supporting strikes in ‘essential services’.

“Contrary to the elementary propositions of English Law, it was even admitted that the Regulation was to have retrospective force, that it would make acts criminal undertaken in the past, that were not even illegal at that time.” (P.122)

The WIL and later on the RCP were small organisations with a few hundred members. Their focus to ‘get influence’ within the working class was to use the rank-and-file organisations of the official labour movement – in particular the shop stewards organisations. To be fair, unlike today these were mass organisations, but they didn’t represent the working class as a whole and developed their separate interests as mediating bodies. The fact that the Trotskyists focussed on the rank-and-file leadership and on their limited demand of ‘nationalisation’ sharpened the contradictions in their ‘Military Policy’, which became clear when it came to organising within the war industry:

“The grasp of the essentials of Stalinism that this general polemic gave to the W.I.L. was vital within the industry and trade unions. Here they were not only up against an apparatus elaborated by the Communist Party, over a generation, but there were also other new mechanisms of class collaboration, the ‘Joint Production Committees’. The W.I.L. understood that abstention from these only meant leaving the workers caught up in them completely under the sway of Stalinism, and they intervened whenever they could. When the Production Conference of the Shop Stewards’ National Council met at the Stoll Theatre on October 19th, 1941 W.I.L. supporters went along as branch delegates (…) to put the case against production committees. Their resolution made it clear that : “Recent investigations into the mismanagement and productive capacity of the war industries have completely demonstrated to many workers the inability of capitalist methods to overcome the prevailing anarchy and chaos. We therefore demand of our Labour and trade union leaders that they immediately implement their talk on ‘public ownership’ by some determined action. (…) for workers’ control of the industry under state ownership and for the planning of profitless production in the interests of the community”.” (P.55)

They see that the trade union leadership is part of the strike-breaking machinery, but they demand that the unions should ask the state to nationalise the industry. For them ‘workers’ control’ means replacing corporate management by a management led by the shop steward leaders – not a change of the actual production process. In order to pander to the ‘productive pride’ of these local trade union leaders the RCP neglected the wider dimension of the industry, meaning, the manufacturing of arms for a bourgeois army, and spoke vaguely about ‘production in the interest of the community’.

The RCP had its main power-base in the Royal Ordnance Factory in Nottingham, where they captured the shop steward leadership. They took part in actual struggles:

“When the Minister of Labour tried to transfer some of the men to private enterprise at a lower rate of pay, they called a two-day sit-in strike for Saturday, April 18th, 1942.” (P.60)

The CP attacked the strike and colluded with the state and the official media to declare the strike a ‘fascist plot’. The workers resisted, but they resisted by digging themselves deeper into their contradictory position of self-management:

“Yet the trade union organisation, with its Trotskyist leadership, stood up to the pressure in a remarkable way. There was resistance to dilution from the beginning, and as late as 1942 women dilutees were still not allowed to use precision measuring instruments.” (P.60)

“They were against any form of dilution or flexibility. And Perberton [union leader] put forward the line which we had, that we would undertake the production of the arms on time, providing a number of things were done, namely, that the workers should have complete control of the process, that we should determine the pace etc. And in the end that is what happened, and the guns were produced on time.” (…) “They were very concerned about getting production for the Second Front. Our comrades got control of the whole of production”. (P.62)

From the examples above we can see that the Trotskyists sold out a wider class perspective, which would include reaching out to the unorganised parts of the working class and criticising the role of the war industry as part of the bourgeois state, in favour of ‘having influence’ amongst the official local union leadership. Having a degree of influence amongst some soldier representatives (‘soldiers’ parliament’) and amongst workers in the war industry seduced some of the Trotskyist leadership to display themselves as leaders of future armies, just like their big dead leader:

“With this agitation going on at the hight of the War, it is not surprising that some could become too enthusiastic with the possibilities opening up – particularly Ted Grant, who made the following speech, taken out of context ever after: ‘We have a victorious army in North Africa and Italy, and I say, yes. Long Live the Eighth Army, because it is our army.’" (P.89)

It later turned out that an organisation that is focussed on leaders is a weak organisation:

“In 1946 the whole organisation of the Trotskyists in the Notts R.O.F. collapsed, when Pemberton came to London”. (P.63)

You might say that this is a singular example and that it therefore cannot sustain the claim that Trotskyists sell out a class perspective for influence within the leadership of the official labour movement. Yet during the post-war years, when the party discussed about how to react to redundancies, this contradiction emerged even sharper. The majority of the party defended the line that non-union members should be sacked first and that workers who were hired last should be sacked next. This was of course the position of the shop steward leaders, particularly in the railway and mining industry.

“In the railway industry, we have long fought for the principle of seniority in our promotion and redundancy agreement. Most of the minor battles – isolated strikes and ‘slow marches’ in various depots – have been on this very question in recent years. Since it is argued that the demand for ‘seniority’ will result in weeding out young militants, it is significant to note that in the forefront of these battles have been the young workers; because they feel as a whole the boss must be prevented from exercising discrimination in selecting workers for upgrading, down-grading and dismissal.” (P.164)

Facing these experiences of slowly built institutional power the minority position seemed overly ‘political’:

“Seniority is a spontaneous trade union demand that only develops during periods of capitalist upgrowths or during fairly normal conditions. (…) In fact, during conditions of mass unemployment, the fight for seniority is strangled and workers let customs slide… “Nons-first’ policies will divide the workers who are in unions from the vast mass of non-unionists. Now any miner knows that on fundamental issues the ‘nons’ come out on strike with the unionists.” (P.165)

“There are vast numbers of unorganised workers who are potential militants, women, youth and unskilled men, i.e. the most oppressed layers of the class. Our duty to turn towards them is emphasised in the Transitional Programme. They can and will be brought into the organised movement, but not by throwing them out on the streets…” (P.166)

Unsurprisingly the party adopted the ‘closed-shop and seniority’ position.

Labour Party policy

Apart from the official trade union organisations the other contradictory sphere of influence was the official political representation of the working class, the Labour Party. We have already read above how the focus on the Labour Party before an upswing of class struggle has led to the dissolution of the RSL.

“Paradoxically [or not!], the R.S.L.’s failure to relate to the day-to-day experiences of the working class stemmed from its retreat into the Labour Party. Although the entry tactic had been designed with the very opposite in mind, the War, at a stroke, transformed the whole situation. Labour Party inner life was at a minimum due to the electoral truce. Wards hardly met. Most of the active elements were doing overtime in wartime industry, or were in the forces themselves. As the Labour Party is essentially an electoral machine, the fact that elections were not being fought had a paralysing effect. Theorising totally divorced from action led to abstentionism, reflecting itself in inactivity, and a regime of permanent factional conflict, resulting firstly in splits, and then in complete disintegration.” (P.33)

The RCP would suffer a similar fate. Despite the fact that Bevin enacted anti-strike laws in 1944 they kept on mobilising for a ‘working class government’ in form of the Labour Party during the 1945 elections.

“We must become the most loyal members of the Labour Party but at the same time we must be the foremost in the struggle against its political expression, against reformism” (P.147)

They even saw that the support of Labour meant that ‘reformism’ was back on the agenda:

“The landing in Europe having been successful, the British working class and the British soldiers turned back towards the Labour Party in order to throw out the Tory Government. It was not necessary to have complicated means of investigation in order to feel this new current as early as the end of Summer of 1944. There were no more unofficial strikes. We saw a beginning of the reanimation of the traditional organisations.” (P.143)

“As strikes dwindled almost to nothing, and the Militant Workers Federation proved stillborn, the Party was left without a perspective for the future. The economic recovery began to return, and the Government began to press on with its reforms, the illusions of the working class in the Labour Party continued to rise. It was inevitable that a way out of the R.C.P.’s impasse would be sought in a return to the entrist tactic.” (P.187)

This tendency was primarily adopted by the tendency around Gerry Healy (‘The Club’, later on WRP) and was enforced with the usual methods: internal repression of dissent and external opportunist tactics.

“Healey was arguing in favour of comrades concealing their political views, and the main job of comrades was to get into positions in the Labour Party, Trade Unions etc. …” (P.210)

“After a two-day debate, this full representative Conference decided, by a substantial majority, to dissolve the organisation and call upon members of the Party to enter the Labour Party – (…) – as individual members. Within the Labour Party they would carry on the fight for the overthrow of the capitalist system and for a Socialist Britain…” (P.229)

Once inside the Labour Party these comrades would have to witness how the ‘workers government’ reacted to the first open strikes in 1945. On 8th of September 1945, 90,000 building workers assembled in Hyde Park, demanding the resignation of the union leadership who had done nothing against the new and hated ‘payment by result’ regulation introduced by the Labour minister. Earlier on dockers had gone on strike:

“The government behaved with the utmost hight-handedness. Amid press slanders that the unofficial strikers were ‘starving the children’, and were even to blame for the continuation of rationing, the Government, within six weeks of coming to power, had sent troops to break the strike in the Surrey docks, and six weeks later used 21,000 conscripts to smash the national movement, which finally caved in on 5th November 1945. The Communists scabbed vigorously on the strike, and both the Liverpool and the London Dockers elected strongly anti-Stalinist strike committees. But the R.C.P. had hardly any implantation on the docks.” (P.150)

In January 1947 London Haulage workers walked out against pay cuts, again the Labour government threatened with using troops to break the strike.

Conclusions

It was impressing to read about some of the actual experiences of a small organisation like the RCP, the contacts they managed to establish with workers in the main industries and in the army. Some positive things came out of this, e.g. the support of the wildcat strikes of engineering apprentices and the effort to overcome the divisions between their strike and the local mining workers; or the mobilisation amongst working class soldiers. At the same time their focus on ‘getting influence’ amongst the official labour movement leaders and the Labour party compromised their class perspective, both towards the ‘unorganised’ sections of the class and in terms of an internationalism that would not bow to ‘workers’ control’ in the war industries.

There are other historical examples of working class internationalism, e.g. the case of the Italian communist left. Here we encounter the problem that the ‘internationalism’ of these currents more often than not remained on a propagandistic level and had little to offer in terms of practical working class politics.

https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/revhist/backiss/vol5/no4/peregalli.html

The events detailed in the book also further undermined the myth of the ‘workers’ government’ around Bevin and Attlee, which is still paraded by left-Labour pandits today.

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AngryWorkersWorld
Nov 27 2020 10:00

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  • The organisations portrayed in the book try to remain active both in terms of supporting strikes and developing an internationalist vision. One of the problems with Trotskyism is that their compass is skewed.

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Dyjbas
Nov 27 2020 13:47

Thanks for the review. Despite the bravery and best intentions of some individual Trotskyists, they unfortunately remained trapped within a political framework that reconciled them with the left of capital and made them apologists for one or the other imperialism. You mention the Italian Communist Left at the end as an alternative, an example of working class internationalism in that period (which in addition had absolutely no illusions in Stalinism or Social Democracy unlike the Trotskyists). But you say it "remained on a propagandistic level and had little to offer in terms of practical working class politics." I'll be interested why you think that was the case, what should have these "practical working class politics" involved in your view? The Internationalist Communist Party was born on the wave of massive strikes in Northern Italy and within the space of three or four years had 17 federations and around 70 sections all around Italy, a membership of some 4-5,000 workers, with its own network of internationalist factory groups actively involved in struggles (which is why it became a target of Nazi and Stalinist assassins). Of course numbers are not everything and as capitalism recovered and the class movement declined the organisation couldn't but decline with it, but to me it seems a great lesson and example of carrying the communist programme while at the same time being firmly rooted in the working class (to a degree that's hard to imagine for the small groups in existence today).