Was it all futile?

John Kelly, Contemporary Trotskyism: Parties, Sects and Social Movements in Britain

Routledge, 295pp, £23.99, ISBN 9781138943810

reviewed by Ian Birchall

Among the many moral panics aroused by Jeremy Corbyn's accession to the Labour leadership has been the return of the spectre of Trotskyism. Lord Hattersley has warned that ‘the old gang is back’, referring explicitly to the Militant grouping of the 1980s; Labour's deputy leader Tom Watson has produced ‘evidence’ that Trotskyists were exerting influence within Momentum, the pro-Corbyn organisation. It makes good headlines; whether it bears any relation to reality is another question.

Anyone seriously concerned to know what Trotskyism actually is, and is not, could do worse than look at this new book by John Kelly describing modern British Trotskyism (and, more briefly, the international movement of which it is part). I suspect the book will not make the author many friends: the various organisations discussed will doubtless publish reviews complaining that they have been misrepresented and that their unique virtues have been neglected. For my part, as a former long-term member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), but now unaffiliated, I think it makes a useful contribution to understanding.

Kelly has read an extraordinary quantity of newspapers and internal documents, many of them turgid to the point of unreadability, and has coaxed interviews from a range of activists who would probably refuse to sit in the same room together. He is scrupulous in documenting facts, and makes very few mistakes. (His claim that the Alliance for Workers Liberty described Stalin's Russia as ‘state capitalist’ – rather than bureaucratic collectivist – will bring howls of indignation from the aficionados and leave the rest of humanity blithely indifferent.) His account is generally fair and balanced; he sometimes calls arguments ‘unconvincing’ when he means he disagrees with them, but that is a mere peccadillo. His estimates of membership figures are probably reasonable, though there are enormous difficulties with any such calculations. Dubious sources of finance and sexual scandals are dealt with briefly and soberly.

So is ‘Trotskyism’ a threat to the Labour Party and to civilisation as we know it? On Kelly's account the answer seems be No. As he points out, in the hundred years since 1917, no Trotskyist organisation has led a revolution. He discusses the experience of ‘entryism’ – working inside the Labour Party – and shows that its results have been meagre. Only twice – with the Socialist Labour League in the early 1960s and with Militant in the 1980s – have Trotskyists caused the Labour Party any problems; on both occasions the party machine, which was allergic to Marxist ideas, pretty rapidly got rid of them. The small groups now repeating the experience are likely to be drowned amid the floods of Corbyn supporters.

So was it all futile? Kelly looks carefully at some campaigns, initiated by Trotskyists but involving a broader range of activists, which had a real impact on mainstream politics. The Vietnam Solidarity campaign supported the American anti-war movement which helped to demoralise the army, leading to eventual defeat. The Anti-Nazi League halted the rise of the National Front and prevented the far right taking off as it did elsewhere in Europe. The Anti-Poll Tax Federation got rid of the poll tax . . . and of Margaret Thatcher. The Stop the War Coalition did not stop the war in Iraq, but it discouraged the government from further such adventures. But none of these successes threatened capitalism; despite its revolutionary rhetoric, British Trotskyism's greatest achievements were within the system, not against it.

Moreover, as Kelly shows, Trotskyism has also had fatal weaknesses. Leon Trotsky was a great political leader and a penetrating thinker, but he suffered from what Kelly calls ‘conceit’ (though a more modest man would scarcely have survived his terrible ordeals). He believed there was only one road and only one organisation could take it. His followers have imitated him in this if not in his greater virtues. Thus each group, although often numbering only hundreds or fewer, dismisses its rivals with labels like ‘pseudo-lefts’ and ‘the sects’. Kelly gives some lurid examples of such sectarian rhetoric. (The SWP has a rather more genteel approach: it does not denounce its rivals, it simply pretends they do not exist. It would not dream of calling its ex‑members ‘renegades’; it just ignores their ideas and fails to review their books.)

There is much more here that is informative and illuminating. Yet I think Kelly misses what Trotskyism meant for my generation. Trotsky provided an alternative narrative of the Russian Revolution. If that revolution had spread to the rest of Europe, if Stalin had not crushed his rivals, then things might have turned out differently; it was not inevitable that 1917 should lead to a squalid dictatorship. So real socialism, not the milk-and-water reformism of the Labour Party, was possible. Then came 1968, which Kelly sees merely as ‘student protests’, but when ten million French workers were on strike. Revolution looked possible and since we had no other model, we envisaged that possibility in terms of 1917.

Though overall membership of Trotskyist organisations has been declining since the mid-1980s, Trotskyism remains, in Kelly's words, ‘remarkably resilient’. This can be explained by the high levels of activity of the members, and their willingness to be bled financially. And this in turn can be understood only in terms of the very deep intellectual and personal commitment of members to revolutionary ideas.

Now it looks very unlikely that any of the small groups (what the French used to call groupuscules) described here will lead a revolution. But for all that, I don't think it was just a waste of breath. For our generations Trotskyism, at its best, was the form taken by what the American Marxist Hal Draper, in his magnificent pamphlet The Two Souls of Socialism, called ‘socialism from below’ – the belief that socialism, if it comes, will be the product of the self-emancipation of ordinary working people through mass action; it will not be the result of relying on elected representatives or on liberation by ‘progressive’ armies. What form it will take in the future cannot be predicted, but history always works by continuities as well as ruptures, and somewhere amid the acres of print that Kelly has scrutinised, the spark of human liberation still lives.
Ian Birchall is a historian and translator. His most recent book is Tony Cliff: A Marxist for his Time.