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"Entrism": Lessons from the 1930s

John Archer

AT THE END of 1933 there was a split in the Communist League, the first Trotskyist organisation in Britain. A "minority" of fifteen comrades followed Trotsky’s advice and "entered" the Independent Labour Party (ILP). The ILP had played a leading part after 1893 in preparing the ground for the Labour Party, and, after 1900, as an affiliated organisation, in building it up.

In the changed conditions of the 1920s, there was a long struggle between the "realism" of the Labour Party leaders and the expectations of members of the ILP, who were at the same time individual members of the Labour Party. At the end of July 1932, a majority of the delegates at a special conference of the ILP resolved to end their affiliation to the Labour Party, and the ILP left the Second International shortly afterwards. They hoped, by this organisational change, to free their activists politically and to save their Members of Parliament from being gagged by the discipline of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

This development was like that in several other countries, where the impact of the world crisis was moving bodies of workers into conflict with the reformist leaders. Some of these tendencies had already had bad experiences at the hands of the Stalinists. Others tried in vain to co-operate with the Stalinists. None of them had in their earlier experiences been in a position to acquire a serious understanding of Bolshevism, of the work of the first five years of the Communist International, or of the struggle of the Russian Opposition to defend the legacy of Lenin, without which they could not hope to build a leadership capable of overcoming the obstacles in the way of working people in the 1930s. On the other hand, they always brought with them some reactionary baggage from their past.

In Britain, our problem was to test how far the ILP could be won to declare for the Fourth International and to turn away from sectarianism by seeking means to work with the militants who were joining the branches of the Labour Party and winning seats in by-elections. The group of fifteen comrades, the "minority" of the Communist League, were allowed into the ILP by a leadership which imagined that it could make use of them in its struggle to avoid being taken over by Stalinism. Our comrades did not know much about either Marxism or the political features of the workers who they would meet in the ILP. At any rate, they had Trotsky’s articles to guide them, on which they relied heavily. By October 1934 (when I joined them), they had built up "the Marxist Group in the ILP" to a hundred members.

We worked largely in a propagandist way, the only way we could. The Marxist Group in the ILP produced eight internal bulletins directed at ILP members. It sold the publications of Pioneer Publishers,1 and produced in the winter of 1934 its own edition of Trotsky’s article on the assassination in Moscow of Kirov, one of the top bureaucrats.

The group reached the peak of its influence at Easter 1935, but never was able to persuade the ILP to agree either to declare for the Fourth International or to give up its practice of standing "Independent Labour" candidates, who split the Labour vote and cut across the general movement of the working class. The ILP was in serious decline, because its leaders were not politically able to take advantage of the opportunities which leaving the Labour Party gave them. No one would join it. We could not recruit to it, and in summer 1935 we began a discussion about what to do next.

A number of us decided to leave the ILP and undertake to work in the Labour Party. The great question was, if we joined the Labour Party, what were we going to do there? But the decision was not an empirical one. I have described elsewhere, on the basis of the documents in Trotsky’s archives and in libraries in Britain, how Trotsky advised us.2

Meanwhile, Starkey Jackson, Edward Leigh-Davis, Margaret Johns and John Robinson (Denzil Harber joined them soon after) were working with a group of comrades in the Labour Party League of Youth. The Labour League of Youth was attracting numbers of young workers, whose fathers told them about the horrors of World War One, and who had problems of their own with employers in the new mass production industry and in the mines. The Stalinists, led by Ted (later Lord) Willis, were already on the scene, with a line which exploited the fears and hopes of young workers and would lead them to place their trust in the leaders of reformism and an Anglo-Soviet Treaty – in other words, to prepare to support a future imperialist war – backed by slanders about Trotsky.

Our young comrades produced a paper, Youth Militant, which made considerable progress with its early issues. But the leading cadre was very small, and was to make a tactical mistake. We all believed that the rise in the tempo of the class struggle in Spain and in France would soon be followed in Britain. We therefore raised the perspective that in Britain, as in France the previous year (1935), it would be correct to break from the "official" youth organisation of the reformists and set up an independent movement of revolutionary youth.

This proved to be premature, and enabled the Stalinists to isolate us, in the spirit of the Moscow Trials, by presenting us as "disrupters". We were not strong enough to build much of a basis in the immediate demands and interests of the youth, and the Labour League of Youth went into decline.

We wound up our work in the ILP after Easter 1936. The remarkable oratory of C.L.R. James at the Annual Conference of the ILP won a majority of delegates to support the Trotskyist line of organising the international opposition of workers’ organisations to prevent Italian imperialism from over-running the independent African monarchy of Abyssinia. This was a defeat for reformists and Stalinists alike, because it implied relying on the independent action of the working class and not on the imperialist rivals of Italy in the League of Nations to "apply sanctions" to the Italian dictator Mussolini, while the Soviet Union supplied to Italy the oil which the Italian forces needed.

At this point, the four ILP Members of Parliament, led by James Maxton, refused to accept the majority decision of the conference. They could be in no doubt that it implied a struggle against the reformists in the trade union movement as well as in Parliament, and for this they had no stomach, because it cut across all their politics. Fenner Brockway, who in later years was written up as a model man of principle, could not bring himself to defend Trotsky against the Stalinists, of whose crimes he was well informed, or the people of East Africa against imperialist aggression. The archives reveal that he was secretly negotiating a return to the Labour Party. He managed to put together an otherwise heterogeneous political bloc against the Marxist Group in the ILP, consisting of left reformists, pacifists and a sectarian element, which refused to join the Labour Party with us, though some of them found no objection to doing so later to further their political careers.

The "bloc" supported the MPs, and went on to deprive the Marxist Group in the ILP of its right to organise an internal fraction, which had been conceded to it when the Trotskyists joined the ILP in 1934.

Harber, James and Rudolf Klement (a German comrade in exile in France, who was a member of the International Secretariat3 and was later murdered by the GPU) drafted a motion on Britain for the "Geneva" pre-conference in July 1936.4 This accepted the need to draw the work in the ILP to a close and to seek involvement in the deepening opposition in the Labour Party to the leadership. In October 1936 there was a conference of "all the Bolshevik-Leninists in Britain". Here the lines were drawn sharply between those who intended to join the Labour Party forthwith, or, like Harber, had already done so, and those who wanted either to stay in the ILP or to start up a new group outside the Labour Party. The most distinguished speaker for staying outside the Labour Party was C.L.R. James, whose mind had been changed when he came back from the pre-conference.

It was one thing to decide to join the Labour Party, and quite another to learn how to work as a revolutionary group when one got there. What follows is a summary of the ideas that the Militant Group, which was formed towards the end of 1936, developed in its work, and handed on to its successor, the Revolutionary Socialist League, in 1938.

We could understand Trotsky’s insistence that the masses turn first, in times of trouble, to the mass organisations which they have built and which they know. We formed our ideas in the heat of battle among the ranks of the Labour Party. (Jackson used to say: "Harber makes the bullets and I fire them.") We soon came to understand how deeply the Labour Party was rooted, not merely in the working class, but in the running of bourgeois society, and how it influenced reformists elsewhere in the world. We regarded it as an historic arena of struggle, between militants who, however unconsciously, expressed the independent class demands and interests of working people, and the people who sought to subordinate the working people to the bourgeois political system. Experience soon taught us that the right wing of the Labour Party needed the apparatus to protect it against the impact of the working people who, at the same time, regarded the party generally as "theirs".

The Militant Group did not for a moment tolerate any idea that the Labour Party could be "transformed" into the instrument of emancipation of the British workers, nor that a revolutionary leadership could "take it over", though we regarded ourselves as taking part in a historic process, by means of which working people would be able to learn by experience what a Labour Government would do and how to organise their struggle against capitalism more effectively.

We knew that forces opposing the reformist leadership in the past had tried more than once to organise against it and its apparatus. We wanted to draw around us the material for another such movement, recognising that its construction must be consciously undertaken, as a process in assembling and selecting the members for the revolutionary party of the future. We therefore firmly rejected any notion that we were a "raiding party". It was not our purpose to pull out a handful of militants into some small, hardly-known group, but to work with them to prepare the next step, inside the Labour Party, for the future mass break-away.

We tried to join in the struggles of the rank and file for their immediate demands. Those fights included curbing the bureaucrats who infringed their democratic rights. We learned, on the one hand, to discourage futile ultra-left gestures and, on the other hand, to cure the illusions of militants by enabling them to test their illusions.

This was the way in which we tried to apply the method of the "united front" to our situation. That same method would still be valid even after the expected break-away. Our influence would be needed to discourage tendencies to announce that the Labour Party was "dead" because we had left it. (It had been politically "dead" for many years, but still existed as a problem to be got around.) We would discourage, moreover, any talk about the Labour Party being "one reactionary mass". As long as it could hold on to any serious body of workers, we had to seek an association with them, and would have the task of convincing the new organisation that it must campaign to force the reformists to break with the bourgeoisie and join in a united front with the new workers’ party.

We therefore had to drive for the Labour Party to win in elections and defeat the candidates of bourgeois or "splinter" parties, including the Communist Party. We worked with the other members of our local branches in election campaigns, while at the same time we proposed policies which would attract workers to vote Labour against the surrenders of the leadership to the needs of the bourgeoisie. Our monthly paper Militant appeared regularly from January 1937 to 1940.

The developments of 1998 are precisely what we expected and on what we based our work. We accepted that we were living in the historical period of the death agony of capitalism. We accepted absolutely no responsibility for the Labour leadership, but at the same time worked to be taken seriously by the militants and not regarded just as "manoeuvrers".

In those far-off pre-war days, we could advance these ideas only as individual members of the Labour Party. Everyone who accepted them would have joined the Labour Party and accepted the restrictions which is apparatus imposed. It seems possible today that there are plenty of forces on the left, who can accept this perspective, but who can operate most effectively outside the restrictions which "New Labour" is imposing. It is the perspective that counts.

This article is extracted from John Archer’s pamphlet Trained in a Hard School.

Editorial Notes

1. Pioneer Publishers was the publishing house of the US Trotskyists.

2. See John Archer, "Trotskyism in Britain 1931-1937", PhD thesis, Polytechnic of Central London, 1979.

3. The International Secretariat was the leading body of the world Trotskyist movement.

4. For security reasons it was announced that the 1936 pre-conference of the Fourth International would be held in Geneva, but it in fact took place in Paris. The resolution calling on the Bolshevik-Leninists in Britain to unify on the basis of entry into the Labour Party is quoted in John Archer’s pamphlet, "Entrism" and the Labour Party, 1931-1937.