This is in Part Two of Ted Grant's History of British Trotskyism which outlines how the British Trotskyists applied and developed Trotsky's military policy.
Trotskyism of a New Type
British Trotskyism in the Second World War
Stalin's foreign policy - which was supposed to avoid war and defend the USSR - actually placed the Soviet Union in great danger. His betrayal of the Spanish Revolution made war inevitable. The attempt to woo Britain and France failed utterly. The "democracies" that Pollitt lauded so enthusiastically in 1937 were in fact allowing Hitler to build up his army and expand his borders in the belief that he was going to attack Russia.
The feebleness of Chamberlain in the face of Hitler at the time of the Czechoslovakia debacle was dictated by the weakness of British capitalism at the time. It is a fact that Britain was unprepared for war with Germany. In reality, the ruling class was more afraid of the British Labour movement than German fascism, which they saw as a bulwark against Bolshevism. Churchill, that great "democrat", had been an ardent admirer of Mussolini. A big section of the British ruling class had been sympathetic to the Nazis right up until the war. During the first days of 1939, Chamberlain and his minister Halifax were in Rome, feasting with Mussolini and raising their glasses in tribute to the new emperor of Abyssinia. Halifax told the Italian foreign minister Ciano that he hoped Franco would soon "settle the Spanish question". So much for the "British democrats"!
Finally, after the British imperialists had handed Czechoslovakia and its huge arms industries to Hitler on a plate, Stalin dropped the idea of a pact with the "democracies" and instead did a deal with Hitler. In August 1939 Germany and Russia signed a non-aggression pact. This made a European war inevitable, but ensured that Hitler would first strike westwards not eastwards. The USSR established friendly trading relations with Germany. In effect, as Trotsky said, Stalin assumed the role of Hitler's quartermaster. While it was permissible for the Soviet Union to manoeuvre between different capitalist powers to safeguard itself, Stalin's policy was a complete betrayal of the elementary principles of a Leninist foreign policy. After the signing ceremony was over, Stalin proposed a toast - to Adolf Hitler: "I know how much the German people love their Fuehrer", he said. "I should therefore to drink a toast to his health."
Shortly after this, the Germans and Russians occupied Poland and the Red Army moved into the Baltic States and Finland, where the Russians got a hotter reception than they had bargained for. They suffered terrible casualties in the Karelia campaign in the beginning of 1940 - perhaps a million were killed or wounded. The problems experienced by the Red Army in Finland showed the terrible damage that had been inflicted by Stalin's Purges. It was this more than anything else that made Hitler decide to attack the Soviet Union, believing - wrongly - that it would be easy to conquer.
These events caused considerable shock internationally. Ordinary members of the labour movement were shocked and disquieted by Stalin's Purges and scandalised by the Hitler-Stalin Pact. We made life as difficult as we could for the Stalinists, of course. And although these events were of a deadly serious character, we never lost our sense of humour. After all, humour also has a place in working class propaganda and agitation, and is especially effective in the British labour movement. I remember we lampooned them mercilessly in a song set to the music of "Oh my darling Clementine", which went like this:
Leon Trotsky is a Nazi.
Yes, I know it for a fact!
First I read it, then I said it,
Before the Stalin-Hitler Pact.
Oh my darling, Oh my darling,
Oh my darling Party Line.
Never break thee or forsake thee
Oh my darling Party Line.
In the Kremlin, in the Kremlin,
In the Fall of thirty nine,
Sat a Russian and a Prussian,
Working out the Party Line.
In Siberia, in Siberia,
Where the Arctic son doth shine
Sat an old Bolshevik
Who they called a dirty swine.
Party comrade, Party comrade,
What a sorry fate is thine!
Comrade Stalin does not love you
'Cause you left the Party Line.
To this, we added a couple of lines to the tune of Auld lang syne:
And should old Bolshies be forgot
And never brought to mind,
You'll find them in Siberia
With a ball and chain behind.
A ball and chain behind, my dear,
A ball and chain behind,
For Stalin shot the bloody lot
For the sake of old lang syne.
Britain in war
In the second half of the 1930s there were signs of an upturn in the class struggle in Britain. After almost a decade of passivity on the industrial front following the defeat of the General Strike, trade union militancy was on the increase again. There was a spate of unofficial strikes, which the union leaders were powerless to control. The London bus strike of 1937 showed a high degree of militancy. The Times was warning the union leaders that if they could not keep their house in order, other methods would have to be found. This was a veiled threat of dictatorship. The army manoeuvres in the period before the war were, based not on the assumption of war with Germany but rather civil disturbances in Britain itself. For the first time the insurance companies were refusing to insure against the risk of civil war.
In September 1939 Britain declared war on Germany. Within a short space of time, Scotland Yard raided the WIL premises. This set the tone for the whole of the war period. Interestingly enough, the RSL were left untouched by the Special Branch. Due to their lack of activity and their sectarian approach, they were not considered as a potential danger nor given the slightest importance by the state. The raids only affected organisations that were active and posed some kind of threat to the war effort. Scotland Yard detectives came to our headquarters, which was in Haston's house, and searched the place from top to bottom. They were there almost all day, going through our material, every document, and every scrap of paper. They also questioned us repeatedly. We told them of our political position towards the war and other questions, and then they left. After that it became a regular thing that once a month we would have a visit from Scotland Yard. Sometimes, they became so familiar that we joked with them. "Come on", we said, "why raid us like this? If you'd only let us know, give us your address and we'll send you notices of the meetings". Despite this good humour, they disrupted our activity and turned everything upside down. Of course, in opposing the war we were considered a damn nuisance, but there was nothing they could do about it. In those days, the security forces were mainly interested in the CP and the fascist organisations that openly supported Germany.
As an anecdote, just after the war began, we were surprised by the sudden appearance in Britain of Pierre Frank. He was considered a political opponent, as he had broken with the Trotskyist movement in France, and Trotsky had sharply criticised his actions. He had came to Britain as a representative of the Molinier group - the PCI - that had split from the International. Whereas Trotsky had not attacked or criticised us for our split, he had denounced the Molinier/Frank tendency in the sharpest possible terms. With his customary wit Trotsky said that Molinier was like a cow that gives lots of milk and then kicks over the bucket! He characterised both Molinier and Frank as rotten opportunists and adventurers. A resolution written by Trotsky himself stressed, while his supporters would be welcomed back, any question of Molinier returning to the Trotskyist movement was entirely ruled out.
Frank had escaped to Britain to avoid capture by the French authorities. He attempted to promote the Molinier group in Britain and create an axis between this group and the WIL. We explained to Frank in no uncertain terms that although the WIL had been dealt with unfairly at the Founding World Congress, we nevertheless considered ourselves a loyal part of the Trotskyist movement and were not prepared under any circumstances to attack the International. We were confident that over time we would be recognised as the legitimate British section of the International. Therefore, we refused to have anything to do with Pierre Frank, who went away with his tail between his legs. He failed to convince a single comrade of the need to turn our back on the International or of trying to create some new sort of rival group. The British authorities later interned him. Of course, the WIL protested vigorously about his internment, but when he was released he caused us some bother for a while, when he provided a prop for Gerry Healy's factionalism.
Having failed to convince us on unity with Molinier, Frank tried every means possible to organise some sort of faction inside our group. He managed to convince one of our comrades, Betty Hamilton (who ended up with Healy), that we had an unhealthy internal regime within the WIL. This was supposedly due to the fact that we didn't have any real differences within our ranks. For Pierre Frank that was unhealthy! Frank, who was staying at her place, convinced her that an organisation without factions was un-Bolshevik. Even if there were no political differences, he argued, you must have factions within the organisation! In the end, we were not prepared to countenance this nonsense and we expelled Betty Hamilton for intriguing with a hostile grouping.
As a further aside, Healy, just a month or two before the war, announced he was starting a new career in Lever Brothers. He worked for them in some sort of scheme where leaflets were distributed round the houses, and he was about to net an important supervisor's job in the company. So he began to drift out of activity and was preparing to leave the movement altogether. Perhaps I shouldn't really confess this, but I managed to persuade him to stay! "Now look here, you can get a job as a supervisor. You might even go higher up. But what would be the use of it?" I told him. "The war is coming in a few months and what happens to your job then? Your job won't last. So the plan is a stupid idea." After the discussion, he chose to remain in the movement. At that time, Healy did positive work as an industrial organiser for the tendency. But that was not to last long.
Trotsky's military policy
From Mexico, Trotsky advanced the slogan of unconditional defence of the Soviet Union in the war. This brought to a head the crisis that had been simmering inside the American SWP. A minority led by Max Shachtman and James Burnham were opposed to Trotsky's position. They considered that the regime in the USSR had degenerated to the point where it was no longer a deformed workers' state - as Trotsky maintained - but was "state capitalism". This provoked a debate in which Trotsky intervened with some of his most brilliant and profound articles and documents, which were published as a book, In Defence of Marxism.
Needless to say, we were in complete agreement with Trotsky's position, which formed the basis for our later development and deepening of the idea of proletarian Bonapartism.
WIL opposed the imperialist war from the start. In the September 1939 issue of Youth for Socialism, I wrote an article under the banner heading of Down With the War. However, unlike the drawing room "Marxists" of the RSL, who were effectively paralysed by the war, we took our agitation to the factories and workplaces in an attempt to connect with the working class. Just before the fall of France in June 1940, in some of his last writings, Trotsky wrote some of the finest political material of his entire life. He was examining the attitude of the revolutionary movement towards imperialist war in general, and the Second World War in particular. As I pointed out at the time, "the Old Man gave the finest theoretical exposition of the Marxist-Internationalist attitude to imperialist war in general, and the present imperialist war in particular. These fragments will remain for all time the classical exposition of the Marxist approach to the problem and of the dialectical method as a means for determining the policy of the revolutionary party."
Trotsky pointed out that Lenin in the course of the First World War had laid down the Marxist attitude towards war. However, if the truth is to be told, because the revolutionary movement had been caught by surprise by the betrayal of August 1914, Lenin and the other leading internationalists had tended to pose things in a slightly ultra-left manner. The internationalists defended the ideas of internationalism, class solidarity and raised the question of revolutionary defeatism. They put forward the idea that in war, the defeat of your own ruling class is the lesser evil. Posed in a crude and unqualified way - which is exactly what the sectarians have been doing for the last 80 years - this policy can be interpreted as support for the foreign bourgeoisie. The ignorant sectarians have no idea of the concrete circumstances that determined Lenin's stance in 1914.
The reason why Lenin expressed himself in such a way was to draw a clear line between the revolutionary vanguard and the social patriotic traitors of the Second International. The betrayal of the leaders of the Second International was entirely unexpected - even by Lenin and Trotsky. It caused tremendous disorientation and confusion. For this reason, Lenin tended to bend the stick in one direction. However, his emphatic policy of revolutionary defeatism was aimed at the cadres of the International, and not the broad masses. Revolutionary defeatism was not the means whereby the working class would be won to the revolutionary party. Far from it. In 1917 the masses in Russia were won over with the slogans of peace, bread and land, and "All Power to the Soviets". Revolutionary defeatism could never have won the masses to the programme and banner of the revolution. That is why Lenin changed his views on slogans regarding the war when he returned to Russia in the Spring of 1917. He adapted his slogans to concrete circumstances. That is what ensured the success of the Bolshevik Party.
While the Second World War was an imperialist war, not qualitatively different to the war of 1914-18, nevertheless the concrete circumstances were different and this had to be taken into account as far as tactics and slogans were concerned. As Trotsky explained in an unfinished article, dictated just prior to his assassination in 1940:
"The present war, as we have stated on more than one occasion, is a continuation of the last war. But a continuation does not signify a repetition. As a general rule, a continuation signifies a development, a deepening, [and] a sharpening. Our policy, the policy of the revolutionary proletariat towards the second imperialist war is a continuation of the policy elaborated during the last imperialist war, primarily under Lenin's leadership. But a continuation does not signify a repetition. In this case too, continuation signifies a development, a deepening and a sharpening. We were caught unawares in 1914.
"During the last war not only the proletariat as a whole but also its vanguard, and, in a certain sense, the vanguard of this vanguard was caught unawares. The elaboration of the principles of revolutionary policy toward the war began at a time when the war was already in full blaze and the military machine exercised unlimited rule. One year after the outbreak of the war the small revolutionary minority was still compelled to accommodate itself to a centrist majority at the Zimmerwald Conference. Prior to the February Revolution and even afterwards, the revolutionary elements felt themselves to be not contenders for power but the extreme left opposition. Even Lenin relegated the socialist revolution to a more or less distant future...
"In 1915 Lenin referred in his writings to revolutionary wars which the victorious proletariat would have to wage. But it was a question of an indefinite historical perspective and not of tomorrow's task. The attention of the revolutionary wing was centred on the question of the defence of the capitalist fatherland. The revolutionaries naturally replied to this question in the negative. This was entirely correct. But this purely negative answer served as the basis for propaganda and for training cadres but it could not win the masses who did not want a foreign conqueror.
"In Russia prior to the war the Bolsheviks constituted four fifths of the proletarian vanguard, that is, of the workers participating in political life (newspapers, elections, etc). Following the February revolution the unlimited rule passed into the hands of the defencists, the Mensheviks and the SRs. True enough, the Bolsheviks in the space of eight months conquered the overwhelming majority of the workers. But the decisive role in this conquest was played not by the refusal to defend the bourgeois fatherland but the slogan: 'All power to the Soviets!' And only by this revolutionary slogan! The criticism of imperialism, its militarism, the renunciation of the defence of bourgeois democracy and so on could never have conquered the overwhelming majority of the people to the side of the Bolsheviks..."
While it was necessary to maintain a principled and inflexible attitude of irreconcilable opposition towards the imperialist war, it was necessary to put our attitude towards the war in a way that would be understood by the broad masses. It was out of this approach, that the proletarian military policy of the Fourth International, put forward originally by Trotsky, was developed by the Trotskyist movement. Of course, the war was an imperialist war, and a continuation of 1914-18. As such, we were opposed to imperialism, capitalism and its war. In the words of Clauswitz, which Lenin was fond of quoting, "War is the continuation of politics by other means."
The Allied powers were simply using anti-fascist propaganda to cover up their war aims. Nevertheless, we had to take into consideration that the mass of workers genuinely wanted to defeat Hitler fascism. That is why they supported the war against Hitler. We also wanted to defeat Hitler, but with our own means and programme. This could only be achieved by the carrying through of a revolutionary war against fascism, which meant the working class taking power. The proletarian military policy was based on the conception that the capitalist class could not fight a real war against fascism. The British bourgeois had supported fascism before the war in its struggle against the socialist revolution. Only the working class could fight fascism, and so they would have to expropriate the ruling class, take over the country and conduct a genuine revolutionary war.
The Stalinists and the war
The Communist Party carried out a number of somersaults in the first period of the war. When the war broke out in 1939, the CPGB was still on the "popular front" Line. So in the first six weeks of the war, they supported the "just war" against fascism. Then soon afterwards, when Stalin signed his infamous Pact with Hitler, the Line was hastily changed. The CP leaders were taken completely off guard by the signing of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. Therefore, for a time, Harry Pollitt continued to push his "patriotic" Line with the usual vehemence, calling on all true patriots to support the war against Hitler and so on.
Within a few days, following orders from Moscow, the CP changed its Line to one of opposition to the war. Poor old Pollitt, who did not jump fast enough for his masters in the Kremlin, fell into disgrace and was replaced as general secretary of the British Party by Palme Dutt, an even more slavish stooge. Given the existence of the Stalin-Hitler Pact, and the carve-up of Poland between Russia and Germany, Moscow now regarded the "democracies" of Britain and France with hostility. Soon the CP was calling on the British workers to recognise "Churchill and Daladier, Attlee and Blum" as their main enemies. The British Communist Party now took a position against the imperialist war. But this was an anti-war position of a peculiar character. It was not a genuine anti-war opposition, based on a Leninist internationalist position.
Pollitt and Campbell were forced to make a humiliating recantation and confess to their "social patriotic" mistakes. They were lucky. In France, where the CP initially sought an agreement with the Germans, and even sent a delegation to request permission to publish L'Humanite in occupied Paris, CP leaders, who opposed the policy of the Party, were actually betrayed to the Gestapo. As reliable mouthpieces for Moscow's foreign policy, the Communist Parties dutifully attacked the "democratic" imperialist powers. In practice their position was "peace - on Hitler's terms". In other words, instead of being an agency for British imperialism they became, due to the Hitler-Stalin pact, the apologists of German imperialism. So abrupt a turn naturally provoked a certain amount of unease within their ranks. Actually they made the transition without too much difficulty, since the more proletarian elements saw the abandonment of popular frontism as a left turn. However, it meant that the best elements of the CP that we came across were more amenable to our ideas.
The way in which they changed gave rise to some amusing incidents. Dudley Edwards, a marvellous old comrade who at one time had been the secretary of the ILP's Revolutionary Policy Committee and who joined us in the 1960s, was at the time a young CP shop steward in the car factory in Oxford. He was supposed to give a speech on the war at a public meeting, and was prepared to deliver a speech on the lines of the old policy, supporting the war. Minutes before he was due to speak, someone tugged at his sleeve and whispered: "Comrade, you can't give that speech. The Line's been changed!" And in two minutes, Dudley had to improvise a different speech, putting exactly the opposite position!
The abruptness of the change of Line caused a crisis in the Party for a short time. It was not easy to explain to the workers why the enemies of yesterday had suddenly become allies, or why British "democracy" had suddenly become transformed into British imperialism. The Party lost a lot of support at this time. When Harry Pollitt presented their programme to a working class electorate at the Silvertown bye-election in February 1940, he was rejected by a vote of 12 to 1. Nevertheless, the Party held onto most of its workers, who were relieved by the abandonment of the old policy of open class collaboration. The new policy was an ultra-left caricature of a real communist policy. Most of those who left the CP were middle class types.
The CPGB had organised a "People's Convention", that was supposed to be an alternative to Parliament. We participated and sent delegates because layers of trade unionists were involved in this convention. We managed to send delegates through the trade unions to put our position. We counterposed our position against their pacifist, or semi-pacifist, peace position put forward by the Daily Worker. Although our position got relatively few votes, given the character of the Convention, we had a relative success and we made a certain number of CP contacts as a result.
But events were to plunge the CP into crisis yet again. On June 30 1941 Hitler's armies attacked Russia. The Germans had massed 100 army divisions on the Russian border, which struck with devastating force. Hitler's attacks on the USSR compel the Stalinists hastily to change the Line. Labour Monthly had called an industrial conference with the aim of fomenting strikes. The conference went ahead, but its content was changed. Instead of discussing how to organise strikes, they placed on the agenda the issue of how to raise productivity in industry! For the remainder of the war the Stalinists pursued an openly strike-breaking policy.
At the 1942 CP conference, the general secretary of the CPGB, Harry Pollitt delivered a real hymn in praise of all strike-breakers: "I salute our comrade, a docker from Hull, who was on a job unloading a ship with a cargo urgently wanted… When the rest of the dockers struck work, he fought against it because he believed that the course of action he recommended would get what was wanted without a strike. What courage, what a sacred spirit of real class consciousness, to walk on the ship's gangway and resume his job…. This is not strikebreaking. That is striking a blow against fascism as vital as any blow a lad in the Red Army is striking at the present time. It sounds peculiar. It can be misunderstood. The Trotskyists and the ILP charge the party and me in particular with being strike breakers. We can face that from people whose political line is consciously helping the development of fascism." (1942 Conference CPGB)
The WIL and the war
When we received the material by Trotsky on the proletarian military policy, we were enormously enthused. Applying the policy to British conditions, our programme called for Labour to break with the wartime National Government, and for Labour to power on a socialist programme. In a socialist Britain, while we would fight fascism militarily, we would also conduct class propaganda and extend the hand of friendship to the ordinary German workers, calling on them to overthrow Hitler. The military policy also included the election of officers by the soldiers, the training of officers by the trade unions, the need for a workers' militia, the establishment of committees in the armed forces, for the workers to be trained in arms, and so on. In other words, it aimed to raise the class questions in relation to the army and the war. It attempted to show that, despite all their talk of defeating fascism, the imperialists were not in the least interested in fighting fascism, after all, and it was they who helped Hitler to power in the first place. The only class that could fight fascism was the working class, but in order to do this effectively, it was necessary to conduct an irreconcilable struggle against the ruling class in the so-called democratic countries as well as the ruling class in the fascist countries. As opposed to pacifism and conscientious objection, we were in favour of comrades going into the armed forces to conduct revolutionary work.
After the German invasion of France, the Labour Party entered a coalition government with the Conservatives and Liberals, headed by Churchill. The Labour leaders declared an electoral truce for the duration of the war. This action was endorsed by the Party conference by a massive 2,413,000 votes to 170,000. This reflected the mood of the times. The Nazi armies were already in Holland and Belgium. The Dutch had been crushed in just twenty days. The Belgian king had surrendered. The British army in France was trapped on the beaches at Dunkirk, hard pressed by the advancing Germans. Nine days later, Italy entered the war on the side of Germany. Nine days later the French bourgeoisie capitulated to Hitler without a fight. The position was desperate.
GDH Cole expressed the mood of the British workers at that time: "Momentarily, there was no time for dissention or recrimination. The workers in all essential industries worked, after Dunkirk, all hours that physical powers would permit - often many more than were wise. Gradually, some order was introduced into the organisation of the industrial war effort. The ARP services were enthusiastically performed, often by men and women who went back to work after nights spent in rescue. When the War Secretary asked for 150,000 volunteers to act as 'parashots' to watch for parachute troops, 750,000 men joined what afterwards became the Home Guard."
During 1940, through the pages of Youth for Socialism, we tried to orientate ourselves along the lines advocated by Trotsky, explaining the role the ruling class was playing in the war in a way that would be understood by ordinary workers. We had to take into consideration the attitude of the workers towards fascism. In the factories, at that time, the working class was working 18 or even 20 hours a day for the purpose of turning out war armaments. As we were immersed in the mass movement, we instinctively understood that this approach by Trotsky, which was a development of Lenin's position, was absolutely correct. As we had the correct orientation and approach to the workers, we enthusiastically took up the position of the proletarian military policy. To give them credit, the position was also immediately taken up by the American SWP. Cannon made a number of speeches on the question, which we printed in our paper as well as in the Workers International News. However, in other sections of the International there was opposition from the sectarians to this policy. They simply wanted to repeat the position of Lenin in 1914 and the policy of revolutionary defeatism. This reflected a sectarian approach divorced from the real working class movement. They were not able to relate to the real situation on the ground in a flexible, but principled fashion.
The WIL took up Trotsky's position energetically. I wrote a Socialist Appeal editorial outlining the policy:
"The British workers want to see a real end made to Hitlerism of all varieties and to the domination of one nation by another", stated the article. "They want to win the peoples of Europe to their side in a common struggle against these evils. They want to see the Soviet Union give the full measure of real assistance that will save it from destruction and enable it to reclaim and rebuild all that has been lost. They want to see China victorious over Japanese militarism. They want a genuine international 'united strategy' that will enable these tasks to be performed and bring about a truly democratic and lasting peace. But while imperialism sits in the saddle there can be no such thing.
"These aims can only become a reality, that is transferred from the realm of words to that of deeds, when the workers take effective measures against imperialism. Such measures would necessarily include the granting of immediate freedom to India and the colonies, the nationalisation under workers control of the banks and all heavy industry and the armaments industry; the election of officers by the soldiers and the merging of the armed forces into the armed people. Only when such measures have been taken would Britain's war be transformed into one genuinely being fought for national liberation and in defence of the Soviet Union. Only a government of the workers can take such measures. Only a workers' government can lay the basis for a genuine 'united strategy' of a global nature. For the only force that cuts across national frontiers and continental barriers is the common interest of the working masses against capitalism." (Socialist Appeal, November 1942)
It was necessary to take into account the real situation of the working class in Britain. At the time of Dunkirk, when Hitler's armies swept through Norway, Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium and France, the British Army was shattered and on the retreat. This raised alarm in Britain of the danger of an immediate invasion. Under these circumstances, we raised the slogan in Youth for Socialism of the need to arm the British working class. If the ruling class was serious about defending Britain - which they weren't - then they must arm the population.
The French ruling class allowed Paris to fall to the Germans without a struggle. The Nazis occupied France and established a puppet government under Petain at Vichy. There was an interview by a French general in the Daily Telegraph at the time, in which he admitted that they could have defended Paris. However, that defence could only have been undertaken if they had armed and organised the population. That policy was considered too dangerous, with the memory of the 1871 Commune still fresh in their minds. The prospect of a new Paris Commune was a nightmare facing the French ruling class, and so, rather than risk the possibility of the working class taking power, they capitulated, revealing their complete rottenness and incapacity. Rather than take that chance of arming the working class, they preferred to surrender Paris to the Nazis.
When the defeated British forces in France were being evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940, an enormous wave of fear and panic - it is hard to imagine it now - swept through the working class. We argued in Youth for Socialism that the same thing would happen in Britain as in France if there was an invasion by Hitler. We explained that Britain could be defended, and could be an impregnable fortress against fascism, if there was the arming of workers under the control of the trade unions. Instead of the Home Guard, the workers should be armed factory by factory. On that basis, it would be entirely possible to defend Britain and render it impossible for Hitler to invade. However, as we explained, rather than risk arming the working class, the British ruling class would prefer to sell out to the Nazis if it came to the crunch. Our agitation on this question was a means of exposing the sham position of the British ruling class. We managed to get an echo for our position, which allowed us to extend our influence in the advanced sections of the working class.
Meanwhile, in early 1940, Pierre Frank, having failed to get a response from our organisation, got in touch with a tiny little grouping of Oehlerites. This was a minuscule splinter group led by a man called Hugo Oehler, which had split from the American Workers Party when they entered the Socialist Party. As in Britain, these sectarians always have an inflexible ultra-left attitude on the question of the independence of the party. Of course, the American Trotskyists were not a large party, far from it. They had a few thousand members at most. If the American SWP had been a large party, then things may have been different, and the principle of the independent party may have been correct. But as always, seeing things in terms of "principles", the sectarians lacked any sense of proportion.
There was a little fragment of this grouping in Britain, led by two chaps, called Ernie Rogers and Denis Levin. They eventually left the movement altogether, and Levin later did quite well in the business world. But at the time, they were in Coventry working in the aircraft industry, and Pierre Frank was in touch with them. He was looking round for some points of support and he gave them some brilliant advice: he told them that they should issue a leaflet demanding that the workers seize the factories! Now just imagine it. The workers, faced with the imminent prospect of an invasion by a Nazi army, were working up to twenty hours a day in arms firms, and Frank says this is the time to seize the factories. That is what you might call impeccable timing! But the ultra-lefts Levin and Rogers thought this was a brilliant idea. It appealed to them enormously. So they secretly distributed their Open Letter to British Workers leaflet. The leaflet, which was completely anonymous, without any publisher's name or address, was passed around.
A couple of days later, there was a knock on the door of the digs where Rogers and Levin were staying. In a very conspiratorial fashion, they peeped out from the top floor to see who was there. To their alarm, down below they saw a policeman clutching a copy of their leaflet. Predictably, the two heroes panicked, dashed out of the back door and went "underground". They beat it out of Coventry and came to us, asking for assistance, money, and so on. They said they were on the run from the police and everybody was after them. Well, in the meantime, the landlady got in touch with Sam Walters who was a member of the tendency also working in Coventry, and told him: "you know a policeman called around to see your friends. He said your friends had forgotten to print their name, address and authorisation on the leaflet." And that was all. The whole episode was over a small technical detail. Predictably, the sectarians got the wrong end of the stick.
Of course, we did not have the hysterical position of the ultra-lefts, but nevertheless we did pay serious attention to the question of security. When the war broke out, it wasn't at all clear within the first few weeks what was going to happen. The police had raided us before, so we weren't sure which way events were going to develop. Nobody knew whether the organisation would be declared illegal or not. As a result, in case of illegality, we decided to send certain comrades to Dublin to establish a base in Ireland for the organisation. Ireland was a neutral country, so if we had become illegal we could produce and send revolutionary material from there through sympathetic seafarers. If necessary, we would be able to set up some kind of a radio station that could broadcast to workers in Britain.
It was decided to keep Ralph, Millie and myself in Britain, and to send Jock Haston and a few other comrades to Ireland. They made contact with the left wing of the Irish Labour Party, especially with Nora Connolly O'Brien, the daughter of James Connolly. They also came into contact with the youth of the IRA. Gerry Healy without any discussion or consultation with the leadership of the tendency, unilaterally declared he was leaving Liverpool, where he was working at the time, and going back to Ireland. He was originally from Donegal. Soon afterwards, he resigned after a quarrel, the second resignation that year, but was persuaded to come back. But at any rate we managed to establish an organised group that was oriented towards the Irish Labour Party. So a base was prepared in Ireland to assist, if necessary, the movement towards socialist revolution in Britain.
"We decided that Ralph Lee and Ted Grant would be sent to produce the paper and to train the group that we sent over and we decided to send four or six of the younger people to Ireland with them for that purpose", recalled Haston. "In the event Ralph Lee decided he wouldn't go and we took the view that Ted couldn't do the job on his own. I was sent in place of Lee and Grant to head the group that went to Ireland…
"We faithfully followed the entrist line. We had contact with the left wing of the Irish Labour Party in Dublin. Our principal contact was Norah Connolly O'Brien, who was the daughter of Jim Connolly, and she was one of our best contacts then, and she fed us when we were bloody hungry from time to time…
"At the same time we made contact with the youngsters in the IRA who were fairly active. In the Dublin IRA, the leadership tended to be right wing, as the youngsters tended to be socialist or labour party orientated and we made contact with them and won some of them over to the Trotskyist movement. We kept them in the IRA as a faction until they were finally thrown out, but that was part of our activity."
Asked about what the IRA leadership thought about this, Haston replied, "They didn't like it very much at all. In fact, there was a classic occasion when I was running a class in Liberty Hall, which was the headquarters of the Transport Workers' Union, when a score of armed IRA guys came in and started drilling in the hall. The result was that the trade union asked us not to meet there anymore, because they were afraid there might be repercussions on them. Eventually they [the IRA] told us to 'get out, or else', and I was given forty-eight hours to get back to England or they would blow me up!"
At this time we published a small daily duplicated bulletin, called Workers Diary, which was mainly down to the efforts of Ralph Lee, and some help from myself. This was then circulated among our members throughout the country and used effectively to supplement Youth for Socialism and Workers International News. In case we became illegal and were forced underground, we at least would have been able to turn out duplicated material. Every branch of the organisation had a silk screen printing outfit, made by the indefatigable Ralph Lee, so that they would be able to turn out stuff if the leadership at the centre was arrested, and all connections were broken off.
At this time, our work, in the Labour Party, including the youth work in the Labour League of Youth (LLY), was dramatically tailing off. Nothing much was taking place in the Labour Party at that stage. The political truce had choked off life within the Party, and more and more we were forced into independent open work. The Labour League of Youth almost completely disappeared in 1939 as a result of the sabotage of the Stalinists. The young Ted Willis, who later became Lord Willis, had done a very good piece of fraction work for the Communist Party. The Stalinists had sent hundreds of youngsters into the League of Youth and had practically taken it over. As we had only small forces, we weren't in a position to defeat them. They succeed in taking the majority of the Labour League of Youth into the YCL, but of course, subsequently lost most of these people. In the process, the LLY was practically destroyed.
By 1940, those who were still left in the League of Youth were either conscripted into the armed forces or working long hours in the armament factories. The League of Youth had for all intents and purposes practically disappeared. All political activity ceased in the youth organisation. As for the adult party, the ward branches and constituency parties were hardly functioning at all. The trade union branches still remained and had some life during the course of the war, but this was mainly older workers and a layer from the armaments industries who were in reserved occupations.
Increasingly during 1940, we were being forced to do more and more open work. The ILP, on the basis of its anti-war activity and its pacifist stance, began to grow somewhat so we paid a certain attention to it. We were always very flexible on the question of tactics. Although we recognised the importance of the mass organisations, we never had a fetish about them. Tactics are a question of flexible attitudes, rather than principles on which one must always remain intransigent. During that period, we used our Youth for Socialism and Workers International News to turn not only towards the ILP but also towards the ranks of the Communist Party.