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Book Review

Contemporary Trotskyism: parties, sects and social movements in Britain by John Kelly (Routledge, £29.99)

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In 1971 I became quite friendly with some people from the International Marxist Group n Glasgow, then a significant Trotskyist group. I did find it a bit strange – people had pretend “cadre” names, though everyone knew who each other was and it is hard to imagine for a second that the state didn’t have the odd implant within the group anyway.
I didn’t get that involved, but I did go to a conference where I found the various factions of the group hated each other more than they hated capitalism. Not for me.
That was my flirtation with Trotskyism. In the intervening years I have worked closely with some Trotskyists on anti-fascist work, seen the arse-end of their sectarianism, seen organisations built by them and organisations destroyed by them, stood appalled at some of their behaviour and made good friends with some individual Trotskyists who I know would have my back if the going got tough. But never thought of joining them.
John Kelly’s Contemporary Trotskyism: parties, sects and social movements in Britain is about as good a guide to that scene as you can get (with the exception of John Sullivan’s essential but dated skit A Soon as this Pub Closes, freely available online).
Kelly reveals there are (or were in 2017) 22 UK-wide Trotskyist parties or groups in Britain, whose membership ranges from a claimed 5,936 members of the Socialist Workers Party to the mighty two of the Revolutionary Communist International Tendency in Britain. At least they do have two as that would be a very large banner for one to carry. Nine of the organisations have fewer than fifteen members, even the Spartacist League whose ten is a fairly small achievement for a group operating here since 1975. Having read the odd paper of the Sparts, the amazing thing is that ten have joined them. My sources in some of the groups indicate that Kelly’s membership figures are fairly accurate, but quite unbelievable about the SWP. During the period around 2012 when about a thousand active members left in the wake of a sexual abuse scandal (involving the SWP’s general secretary, Martin Smith, strangely missing from this book’s index) it became obvious that most of their “members” had never paid dues, never attended branches and many were students, say, who’d signed up at a meeting but were never seen again. One person I came across “joined” several times at a national demonstration, for a laugh. Attendance at any political demonstration nationally or in my home town of  Nottingham will tell you that the SWP is at a very low ebb.
The SWP is famously sectarian, forever setting up front organisations under their control. They were, for example, the only left group that would not join Notts Anti-Fascist Alliance. It was a little too democratic for them. In 1994 Mushroom Bookshop, where I worked, was attacked and wrecked by fifty or so Nazis, many of whom were arrested and about dozen of whom were eventually jailed. Immediately after the attack the local Anti-Nazi League ie the SWP called a press conference about the attack and a demonstration a week later. We were invited to attend their press conference and to speak at their rally about the attack on us! We declined – not least as we were busy putting the shop back together – and working with a much wider grouping to organise the biggest anti-fascist demonstration Nottingham had seen since the 1930s.
More on numbers – the fourth largest Trotskyist group listed is Socialist Appeal with 300 members. This is the group that stayed in the Labour Party when Militant (now the Socialist Party) left, the minority following the former Millie leader Ted Grant in staying. That’s fewer than one person in two parliamentary constituencies. Here in Nottingham the exotically-named Alliance for Workers Liberty has a significant presence, yet nationally only 140 members. These two are the biggest groups in the Labour Party but despite that Tom Watson, yes, that Tom Watson, in his long campaign against his party leader, claimed in 2016 that the Labour Party was at risk of a Trotskyist take over. Indeed, the impact of Corbyn has almost certainly to diminish the number of potential recruits to the main Trotskyist groups, as they are outside the Labour Party. The Socialist Party is a fraction of its size when, as Militant, it had two or three MPs in its ranks, control of Liverpool council and more full time workers than the Labour Party itself. Millie’s much vaunted record of control in Liverpool, by the way, is contested – it is worth finding an old copy of The Racial Policies of Militant in Liverpool published by the Runnymede Trust and the Liverpool Black Caucus during Militant’s high water mark in 1986.
Contemporary Trotskyism starts by explaining what Trotskyism is, bringing back happy memories of debating permanent revolution, the united front, united fronts of a special kind, transitional demands, the revolutionary vanguard party, democratic centralism, rank and fileism and, ultimately, the dictatorship of the proletariat. But primarily this book is about their organisational presence as parties, as internationals (you are nobody unless you have a sister group or two overseas), and within social movements.
And it is in the latter that most people will come across them, often not so much in the vanguard as trying desperately to catch up. This happened in my lifetime with the miners’ strike, the anti-poll tax campaign, CND and the anti-fascist movement. But they were ahead of the game with the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War and others. In the latter the SWP provided the organisational framework for the Stoppers, until two of its leaders, John Rees and Lindsey German, were turfed out, forming Counterfire. The power couple had been blamed for the SWP’s lash up with George Galloway in his Respect Coalition.
John Kelly’s book has many charts such as growth, income and membership of Trotskyist groups but he could have done to have added a chart of longevity of individual leaders. Most of the Trotsskyist groups have the same leaders for life. Tony Cliff (born Yigael Gluckstein in Palestine) founded the SWP (as the Socialist Review Group) in around 1950 and he was still leader fifty years later when he died. Ted Grant (born Isaac Blank in South Africa) formed the group that became Militant in 1937 and was still at the helm in 1992 when he was defenestrated, setting up the Socialist Appeal group which he run until his death in 2006. Gerry Healy was an early colleague of Grant’s before setting up the fiefdom that became the Workers’ Revolutionary Party in 1950 which he led for 35 years before his sexual abuse and bullying led to the implosion of the group, after which he still led a fragment of true believers. Sean Matgamma, like Healy, an Irishman, has led the group that became AWL since 1966 and still leads it, when he is not writing his famously bad poetry. Peter Taaffe was in Militant’s leadership when Ted Grant was expelled and has already racked up twenty years as the leader of the Socialist Party. Alan Thornett…. well, you get the message.
Much of this can be laid at the door of they way these parties seem to operate – outgoing central committees suggest their slate for the incoming committees, and are based round a group of full-timers. Membership commitment (the SWP aside) is high and dues are sometimes 10% of your wage.
Kelly’s book is well-written, given it is a book for trainspotters of a special kind, though strangely its cover features a banner from a tiny Maoist group which must have annoyed some people, not least those members of the Maoist group. Anyone seriously into Trotskyist trainspotting, however, should sign up to receive the bulletins of Splits and Fusions which also has an online archive of current, long-dead and half-forgotten Trotskyist papers and organisations, including the semi-mythical Internal Bulletins. It’s encouraging that the website is self-mocking in its title as, well, that’s what Trotskyist do – split and fuse.
Turning back the International Marxist Group and Nottingham… Our own Ken Coates’ International Group, which became the IMG in 1967 is barely mentioned, nor is (Pat Jordan’s) International Bookshop in Nottingham. Indeed the Trotskyist bookshops are mentioned on one page only and only as a source of funds for the party. Anyone wanting to explore this further should go to http://www.leftontheshelfbooks.co.uk/images/doc/Radical-Bookshops-Listing.pdf which has the best listing of past radical bookshops, communist, Trotskyist and libertarian. But what is worth mentioning is that whereas I rarely come across anyone who used to be in the awful WRP, which at one time had perhaps 6,000 members, in Nottingham at least all the former members of the IMG I know here are still involved in politics, have been and are major and beneficial contributors to trade unions, local and labour history, the women’s movement, refugee support groups and environmental campaigns. Perhaps I should have paid more attention at that conference in 1971.
One final point, given that this website is about left culture, though the Trotskyist movement has produced some excellent writers of non-fiction – Paul Foot and David Widgery stand out – they have produced little left culture of their own. Aside from Rock Against Racism, which was Trotskyist influenced, I’m struggling to think of any long term or even short term arts project coming from that milieu save for a very short-lived coffee-bar and venue run in London by Counterfire modelled, perhaps, on the Partisan coffee house of the late fifties and early sixties. But there is hope, I am told (by a very cultured member) within the Socialist Party. At a recent conference this subject attracted a very large attendance and the SP has spawned an art magazine, Bad Art. I can’t help but think old Ted Grant would think that a bourgeois deviation from the real class struggle.
Ross Bradshaw

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