In, out, shake it all about

How did the far-left policy of Labour Party entry develop? Mike Macnair looks at the changing attitudes of British Trotskyism

This article is the first of a three-part series about the Trotskyists and the Labour Party. Specifically, the Trotskyists and the Labour Party, not Trotskyism and the Labour Party.

Trotskyism as a historical political tendency has shared with ‘official communism’ the belief that the Labour Party is part of the workers’ movement in Britain - and, in fact, represents the large majority of those workers who see that the working class needs political organisation and action independent of the capitalists, in spite of its pro-capitalist and imperialist character.

Also in the political DNA of every tendency which descends from the early Communist International is the idea of the ‘united front’ among workers’ organisations. For ‘official communists’, Maoists and the majority of British Trotskyists since the late 1940s, this idea is modified by Georgi Dimitrov’s arguments (for the 1935 7th Congress of the Comintern) that the united front involves a suspension of public criticism, or diplomatic approaches to disagreement, in order to achieve unity.

For ‘official communists’ and Maoists, the idea of the workers’ united front is also superseded by the idea (from the same Comintern congress) of the people’s front, including ‘left bourgeois’ forces. Trotskyists reject this idea (at least formally). But the people’s front idea does not in itself exclude unity tactics towards the majority workers’ party.

These two ideas in combination require that Trotskyists, like ‘official communists’, should have some tactic towards the Labour Party. In this sense they differentiate ‘official communists’ and Trotskyists, on the one hand, from ‘left’ and ‘council’ communists, from the ‘impossibilists’ of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, and from a variety of other far-left tendencies, on the other.

However, the fact that Labour is a ‘bourgeois workers’ party’ and the policy of the united front do not, in themselves, dictate what tactics are appropriate, either generally or at any particular period. Trotskyism as such therefore does not dictate any particular approach to the Labour Party.

In their multiform 80-year history in Britain, the Trotskyists have attempted a variety of tactics towards Labour: entry or ‘fraction work’; ‘deep entry’ or ‘shallow entry’; ‘strategic entry’ or ‘raiding entry’; entry attempting to build an independent Trotskyist current or group in the Labour Party or entry to try to build and win over a broader Labour left current or group; and ‘open party’ work with or without (unsuccessful) electoral challenges to Labour, either in the name of the group itself, or as part of a ‘broader’ left anti-Labour coalition.

This history therefore provides a certain amount of, as it were, ‘experimental evidence’ about the tactics adopted by small groups attempting to construct a revolutionary Marxist party in Britain by linking their minority ideas and small cadre to the broader mass movement. There should be something to be learned from it.

The history of Trotskyism in Britain is also to a very considerable extent a history of (almost senseless) splits about the choice of tactics towards the Labour Party. Prima facie this is a historical lesson of a different sort: to be avoided.

There are, of course, defensible arguments that all this evidence is worthless. Maybe any Trotskyist tactics towards the Labour Party were doomed from the outset to fail. Perhaps the objective relation of forces was too bad. Or perhaps profound political errors unconnected to the Labour Party tactics doomed the Trotskyists to remain marginal.

Either of these suggestions may be true. For neither, however, is the evidence so strong as to force the conclusion that the record of the tactics, debates and splits themselves has nothing at all to teach the present-day left.

What follows is a certain amount of necessary background on the international evolution of the Trotskyist movement; a brief, superficial and probably imperfectly accurate run-through of the history;[1] and an attempt to see what if anything can be drawn out as lessons. Some ‘alphabet soup’ is regrettably unavoidable. This first article will carry the history down to 1969, the second will bring it up to the present date and the third will attempt to draw out the repeating features and possible lessons.

Trotskyist origins

The international Trotskyist movement emerged after Trotsky’s deportation from the USSR in 1929, out of a combination of two distinct and episodically conflicting elements. On the one hand, local and national oppositional groups inside and outside the communist parties began to identify with Trotsky as a revolutionary opponent of the official line of the CPs. On the other, Trotsky and his immediate associates endeavoured to organise an international movement on the political basis of the decisions of the first four congresses of the Comintern (1919-22).

The two elements were distinct and episodically conflicting, because the cadres of the communist parties had a relatively low level of knowledge of the discussions and decisions of the early Comintern, and an even lower level of knowledge of the views of the Russian Left Opposition, which were both suppressed and falsified by the Moscow bureaucracy.

Moreover, the course of events produced a series of violent turns both in the policy of the Comintern and conversely in the policy and orientation of Trotsky and his immediate associates. Down to 1928 Trotsky was a left critic of the Comintern, mainly round the China question. Between 1929 and 1935 he was a right critic of the Comintern, counterposing the policy of the united front to ‘third period’ sectarianism. From 1936 to 1940 he was again a left critic of the ‘people’s front’ policy.

Superimposed on this was the ‘party question’. Down to 1933 Trotsky was an advocate of a factional struggle within the communist parties and Comintern and a vigorous opponent of the idea that a new, Fourth, International was needed. Then in response to the Nazi coup in Germany and the failure of the German Communist Party (KPD) to mount any resistance, he denounced first the KPD and then the Comintern as politically dead. The Trotskyists issued a joint call for the fight for a new international with some left socialist and right communist groups.

This orientation was short-lived: the left socialist/right communist groups wanted diplomatic unity, where differences were papered over, not unity involving rigorous polemics. When the Comintern began its unity turn, this took them into the camp of the people’s front. They won over several of the stronger early Trotskyist groups to this perspective.

The Comintern’s ‘united front’ turn began in 1934 in France, and Trotsky urged the French Trotskyists to join the SFIO, the French Socialist Party, in order to link up with the SFIO left and thereby avoid being marginalised. The relative success of this tactic in France led Trotsky to argue for its application elsewhere. But by 1936 (when US Trotskyists were beginning their ‘French turn’) Trotsky was arguing for the French Trotskyists to come out of the SFIO and work as an open party.

The outbreak of war in 1939 brought new sharp political turns from Trotsky. The Hitler-Stalin pact and Russo-Finnish war led him to emphasise defence of the Soviet Union against the wave of Anglo-American liberal outrage and urge a tactical orientation towards the ranks of the communist parties. The fall of France in 1940, on the other hand, led him to shift ground sharply from the dual defeatism espoused in the 1938 Transitional programme to the ‘proletarian military policy’ of urging working class control of defence against the threat of fascist conquest. The first of these turns produced a major international split in the Trotskyist movement, the second - transmitted after his death by the US Socialist Workers Party - produced national splits or exacerbated existing splits in (at least) France, China, Vietnam and Britain.

Trotsky’s shifting orientations and willingness to accept damaging splits can only be really understood on the basis of two points. The first is that from 1929 it was clear that capitalism had not resolved the contradictions which had produced World War I, and by the early 30s everyone knew that a new world war was on the way. The idea that these developments represented the “death agony of capitalism”, though strikingly stated in the Transitional programme, was actually the common coin of the international communist movement.

The second is that Trotsky made a negative judgment on his own views and activities between 1903 and 1917 on the party question and his conciliationism. He concluded that the ‘hard’, ‘sectarian,’ or ‘factionalist’ Lenin had been proved right on these questions by the course of the Russian Revolution and he himself had been proved wrong on them. He was perfectly explicit about this, and in places where it cannot possibly be explained by ‘protective coloration’ against the Stalinists’ cult of Lenin.[2]

The combination meant in the first place that he was very quick to identify Hitler’s 1933 coup as the ‘August 1914’ of the KPD and Comintern - following Lenin’s decisive response to August 1914 rather than his own ambiguities in 1914-15. Second, he was absolutely determined to build an organisation, however small, on a clear political programme - meaning the first four congresses of the Comintern, read as the last time that the communists had really had a party. He was not minded to conciliate ultra-leftists, right communists or social democrats or construct a centrist ‘August bloc’.[3]

Third, he was a man in a tearing hurry: the object was to have the core of an international, even if skeletal, in place before the world war broke out. In theory, the 1933 resolution, ‘The International Left Opposition, its tasks and methods’, said: “The frequent practical objections, based on the ‘loss of time’ in abiding by democratic methods, amount to short-sighted opportunism. The education and consolidation of the organisation is a most important task. Neither time nor effort should be spared for its fulfilment. Moreover, party democracy, as the only conceivable guarantee against unprincipled conflicts and unmotivated splits, in the last analysis does not increase the overhead costs of development, but reduces them.”[4]

In practice, however, the rapidity and violence of the turns urged by Trotsky on the international movement in the 1930s had the opposite effect. Debates were truncated; tactics were so short-term in character that debates had to be truncated; the result was “unprincipled conflicts and unmotivated splits”.


The initial ‘Trotskyists’ in Britain - the Ridley-Aggarwalla Marxian League; and the ‘Balham Group’ in the CP, led by Purkis and Groves - were left critics of the CPGB’s ultra-left ‘third period’: thus the Balham group, in its one opportunity to intervene in the CP in an organised way before expulsion, used it to argue against work in the trade unions. After expulsion, its Communist League combined class-war victim defence activities with propaganda aimed at the CP.

The 1933 international turn led to the Trotskyist international leadership urging the group to enter the Independent Labour Party, which had split from Labour in 1932. The result was a brief faction struggle, which ended in a split in December 1933. The minority entered the ILP as the Marxist Group, where they fought against CP fellow-travellers and for the perspective of the Fourth International. After the CP fellow-travellers walked out, the MG was banned by the ILP in 1936.

In the process, some of the MG’s members drifted out into the Labour League of Youth and in 1935 set up the Youth Militant paper. This group became the Bolshevik-Leninist Group (BLG). By spring 1936 Trotsky was arguing for a turn from the ILP to the Labour Party, and an international conference in July called on the British Trotskyists to unite within the framework of entry. MG members drifted over to the BLG in the Labour Party; there was a sharp debate over perspectives in autumn 1936; and in December the remaining MGers divided between an open party perspective (led by CLR James) and a few who remained in the ILP without organisation.

The CL, meanwhile, had drifted de facto into the Labour Party. It had been perfectly normal in the 1920s for local communists to “pass under the radar” in local Labour Parties, and the Balham Group at the end of the day consisted of local communist activists rather than theorists. To evade the proscription of communist organisations the CL changed its name to Marxist League (ML). It also became involved in Stafford Cripps’s Labour-left Socialist League, fighting against the influence of the CP fellow-travellers in this organisation until the Socialist League was banned and dissolved in 1937. An attempt to set up a new left front, the Socialist Left Federation, was rendered stillborn by the ML’s determination to exclude the BLG, leading to obscure procedural fighting, and the ML had collapsed by the end of 1937.

The remainder of the ML’s members and the MG fused in February 1938 to form the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL mark one) on the basis of a perspective of combining an open party with fraction work in the Labour Party - in reality, given the background, an agreement that the two components would carry on with their existing tactics.

The BLG in November 1937 set up a ‘broad front’ organisation under the name of the Militant Labour League (MLL) on the basis of a partial (centrist) programme. This proved to be a mere front, and the Labour League of Youth, where the BLG had been most successful, became increasingly dominated by CP fellow-travellers. The group split in November 1937 over the circulation of (alleged) slanders against Ralph Lee, who had recently joined from the South African Trotskyist movement, and the split group round Lee formed the Workers International League (WIL). The WIL’s policy, while still formally entryist, shifted towards ‘shallow entry’ with a stronger focus on the trade unions and some willingness to work outside the Labour Party.

In August 1938 Cannon and Shachtman visited Britain on behalf of the international leadership and attempted to force a unification of the groups on the basis of the (draft) Transitional programme. The BLG and RSL fused, together with the Revolutionary Socialist Party, a Scots semi-Trotskyist splinter off the De Leonist Socialist Labour Party, to form a new Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL mark two). There was again an agreement to disagree on the Labour Party question, since the RSP was opposed to entry in the Labour Party on principle.

In May 1940 Labour joined the wartime coalition government. The effect of the coalition and the suspension of elections was that the internal life of the Labour Party was effectively shut down; the RSL’s MLL front was banned in April 1940; and the group’s work was heavily disrupted by conscription. Those remaining became sharply divided into three factions: the Harber group, which controlled the CC; the ‘Left Faction’; and the ‘Trotskyist Opposition’. The differences concerned the ‘proletarian military policy,’ and the relation of Labour Party work to open work. The problem was exacerbated by the Harber leadership’s rather free hand with expulsions.

The WIL, meanwhile, had unequivocally adopted the ‘proletarian military policy’ and had shifted more and more heavily towards open and trade union work. When the 1941 invasion of the USSR led the CPGB to oppose strikes, the WIL began to grow strongly by providing strike support and winning trade union militants opposed to the ‘class peace’. By 1944, with several hundred members, it was bigger, more deeply implanted in industry and more influential than any Trotskyist organisation had ever been before.

In 1943-44 the US SWP in the form of the International Secretariat of the Fourth International (the FI, which it controlled) embarked on a campaign for fusion of the RSL factions with the WIL, with the support of a minority round Gerry Healy in the WIL and of the RSL ‘Trotskyist Opposition’, particularly John Lawrence. Fusion was achieved in March 1944 with the creation of the Revolutionary Communist Party. The WIL had the overwhelming majority at the fusion conference, and adopted a Labour Party policy of fraction work, which would allow the RSLers to continue working in the Labour Party, while emphasising the tactical opportunities outside Labour.

The RCP was almost immediately given publicity by several of its leaders being arrested and prosecuted under retrospective legislation, which provoked a division within parliament and a wide defence campaign, ending in the reversal of the convictions on a technical error. They now embarked on electoral work, with little success.

The Healy-Lawrence minority argued from autumn 1945 for full entry in the Labour Party, and obtained from 1946 the support of the international leadership. After the debate had been carried on for about a year, the FI leadership in September 1947 authorised the minority to go ahead with entry as an independent group. They moved into the Labour Party as the secret ‘Club’ without disclosing their political affiliation, engaged in local activism to get their bearings and in December 1948 launched a ‘broad’ paper, Socialist Outlook, featuring articles from various official lefts in the party and unions. In 1949 this led to a broad-front organisation, the Socialist Fellowship; but the outbreak of the Korean war in 1950 led the official lefts to break with this project, leaving the Club in control of a front.

In December 1948 the RCP majority leadership decided that the open party perspective was no longer working and to argue for entry - albeit without any clear perspective as to what would be done in the Labour Party. The international leadership insisted that if they were to do this, they must join the Club under its existing leadership; so the RCP was wound up in June 1949. The capitulation of the RCP majority to the FI-backed minority marks the end of a definite period in this history: entry was now ‘normalised’.


Since a conference of the fused group would not have given Healy a majority, he proceeded over 1949-50 to a campaign of expulsions and provocations to get rid of supporters of the ex-RCP majority. Among the expellees, two groups formed organisations: the Socialist Review group of about 30-40 round Tony Cliff (later the International Socialists, today’s Socialist Workers Party) and the group round Ted Grant of about 20-30, initially unnamed, then for a period identified with an irregular journal called International Socialism, then (with others) organised in 1957 as the RSL mark three: the forerunner of the later Militant Tendency and hence of today’s Socialist Party in England and Wales and the Socialist Appeal group.

Meanwhile in France a faction struggle had developed between advocates of open party work and those of ‘entry sui generis’ in the Communist Party (PCF) (which at the time had weight in the French workers’ movement comparable to the Labour Party, the SFIO having been marginalised by the war). Entry sui generis was, in substance, a form of ‘deep fraction work’: there was to be a minority public face, while the majority entry fraction was to keep a low profile until the emergence of left-right debates in the PCF. The FI leadership decided in 1951 to impose a leadership in France to implement entry sui generis; the result was a split. The orientation to entry in the CPs was generalised across continental Europe by the FI 3rd World Congress in 1951, though the documents were clear that it did not apply everywhere: in Britain Labour Party entry, in the US open party work was preferred.

In the US, however, a faction developed round Bert Cochran and George Clarke, which argued not for entry into the CPUSA, but for an orientation to the milieux led by the CPUSA and its fellow-travellers. This development led to the US SWP leadership to move into opposition to the international leadership round Michael Raptis (Pablo); and when Healy, as Cannon’s man, followed this turn, John Lawrence went with Pablo. The result was splits in the US and Britain and an international split in the FI between the ‘Pabloite’ ‘International Secretariat of the Fourth International’ (ISFI) and the ‘anti-Pabloite’ ‘International Committee of the Fourth International’ (ICFI).

A further split followed in 1954, when the ISFI 4th World Congress agreed to attempt reconciliation with the SWP, and Mestre in France, Cochran-Clarke in the US, and Lawrence walked out. The Lawrence group (unlike its international co-thinkers) failed to organise in a systematic way and developed into a loose circle of CP fellow-travellers in the Labour Party.[5] The official lefts withdrew their protection from the Healy-controlled Socialist Outlook, which was proscribed by the Labour Party in 1954.

The Hungarian revolution of 1956 led not to an organised split in the CPGB, but to extensive defections from it and the formation of the ‘new left’ both inside and outside the Labour Party. The major winner was the Healy Club, which now won an important layer of cadre - reaching around 400 members - and in 1959 launched a semi-open organisation, the Socialist Labour League (SLL), which was promptly proscribed by the Labour Party.

The result was not, however, an immediate, complete break. Labour in 1960 launched a youth organisation, the Young Socialists. The SLL ‘turned’ to work in this organisation through a newspaper Keep Left, and achieved considerable success, growing to around 1,000 members by 1964. The adult group had been orienting towards open work since around 1961-62, and in 1965 the Keep Left group pulled out of the YS, provoking expulsions where possible, leaving voluntarily where the bureaucracy would not oblige.

The Cliffite Socialist Review was replaced by International Socialism in 1960 and the group, still around 30-40, became the IS. It worked in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, attempted to build itself in industry using a specialist paper Labour Worker, and worked in the YS in a left-front paper called Young Guard. This was produced jointly with the RSL (mark three), but was dominated by the more dynamic IS. The IS reached 200 members by the time of the 1964 general election. In July 1965, its conference adopted a policy of downgrading day-to-day Labour Party work in favour of industrial work; in 1966-67 it moved into Vietnam Solidarity and activity on the campuses, and by 1968 had reached 400 members. In that year it issued a call for revolutionary unity, in effect terminating the entry orientation.

The Grant group, after a low ebb in the early 1950s, in 1956 was contacted by the ISFI as a possible means of intervening in the crisis in the CPGB, and in 1957 launched the RSL mark three in collaboration with some other forces, notably some ex-CPers, including Ken Coates and Pat Jordan from Nottingham. The RSL was initially (like the SLL) a semi-open organisation, which meant that the launch led to a split with a ‘deep entryist’ faction, Socialist Current. This was followed in 1961-62 by first the formation of a semi-external faction of the RSL, then of the Internationalist Group (IG) of Jordan, Coates and others - less than 10 members - which later became the IMG.

The RSL mark three and IG briefly re-fused after the 1963 ‘reunification’ of the FI between the US SWP on the one hand and the ISFI on the other to form the USFI, but proved unable to work together. The USFI world congress in 1965 recognised both RSL and IG as sympathising groups, which the RSL regarded as an expulsion. The congress also decided on a turn to Vietnam solidarity work, which the Grantites rejected as third-worldist. The implementation of this turn allowed the IG to grow substantially in the student and youth milieu, and it renamed itself the International Marxist Group.

Meanwhile, the IG had been carrying entry work through a ‘broad-front’ publication, The Week, and a sort of quasi-trade union work - a broad-front agitation for workers’ control - through the Institute for Workers Control led by Ken Coates. The dominance of the youth and Vietnam Solidarity work in its practice led to splits successively with Coates and the IWC in 1967, and with those most committed to Labour Party work in 1969, the latter forming the Revolutionary Communist League. The IMG now for most purposes, though not completely, abandoned Labour Party work.

The effect was that the organised Trotskyists, having in 1950 been almost entirely in entry, had by 1969 almost entirely abandoned it in favour of ‘open party’ perspectives. Those who hung on were the RSL, which had been left in undisputed possession of the Labour Party Young Socialists, and the considerably smaller RCL.


  1. This is an outline account and particular points will therefore not generally be referenced. For the period down to 1949, I have used primarily S Bornstein, A Richardson Against the stream and War and the International (both London 1986); I am aware of the authors’ strong bias in favour of the WIL, since I read a long time ago John Archer’s 1978 PhD thesis on the same period, which displays a symmetrical bias in favour of the entry groups, but I do not have present access to Archer. Martin Upham’s 1979 PhD thesis, available on the Revolutionary History website (www.revolutionaryhistory.co.uk), adds little to Bornstein and Richardson. For the period 1950-69 I have used: Bob Pitt’s Rise and fall of Gerry Healy; Ian Birchall’s Building the smallest mass party in the world; and Ken Tarbuck’s unfinished autobiography, all on the Revolutionary History website; Rob Sewell’s postscript to Ted Grant’s History of British Trotskyism (www.marxist.com/history-british-trotskyism-ted-grant.htm - the Socialist Party’s critiques of this are pretty much exclusively addressed to issues internal to the factional struggle in Militant); and Pat Jordan’s duplicated history of the IMG (1972) as well as other resources available on the web. For 1970-date I have used these sources so far as applicable; on the IMG I am also writing partly from my own unpublished work on its history, finished in 1986; other web sources; and from 1972 I am to some extent writing from memory.
  2. Notably at various points in the Writings of Leon Trotsky 1929-1940 (New York: 1972-) addressed to internal debates among the Trotskyists.
  3. August bloc: Trotsky’s 1912 attempt to unify all the factions in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, opposed to the Prague conference of Bolsheviks and ‘Party Mensheviks’, which excluded the Mensheviks.
  4. Documents of the Fourth International (New York 1973) p29.
  5. J McIlroy in What Next? Nos 26 and 27 (2003) provides the clearest account of the split and Lawrence’s evolution.