Socialist Equality Party (UK)
The Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (Britain)

The Left Opposition and the struggle against centrism

26. The call for the building of the Fourth International was made under conditions of a deepening crisis of world capitalism, which caused significant sections of workers to break from social democracy at a time when the Stalinist parties could not, and would not, advance a genuinely revolutionary alternative. This political conjuncture produced a host of centrist tendencies advocating a “middle road” between reform and revolution, nationalism and internationalism. Trotsky’s approach to these groups was politically farsighted. Recognising that their influence expressed a leftward political shift in the working class, he insisted that the Left Opposition politically engage with them and challenge their semi-reformist leaderships. Otherwise, their persistent subordination of international principle to short-term tactical expediency would block the development of a genuinely revolutionary party and inevitably end in their retreat back into the camp of social democracy or Stalinism. Trotsky wrote:

“On the international field the centrist distinguishes himself, if not by his blindness, at least by his shortsightedness. He does not understand that one cannot build in the present period a national revolutionary party save as part of an international party; in the choice of his international allies the centrist is even less particular than in his own country.”[1]

27. The largest centrist formation in Britain was the Independent Labour Party (ILP), led by James Maxton and Fenner Brockway. In June 1929, a Labour government came to power under Ramsay MacDonald . Faced with global recession and mass unemployment, MacDonald urged cuts in wages and public spending and a 25 percent devaluation of the pound. His proposals split the cabinet and in August 1931, MacDonald resigned, forming a National Government with the Conservatives and the Liberals, which imposed austerity measures, signalling the beginning of the “Hungry Thirties”. The ILP quit the Labour Party in 1932 and a year later established the International Bureau of Revolutionary Socialist Unity, or London Bureau, bringing together seven left parties in Europe.

28. The London Bureau rejected the formation of a Fourth International and advocated, instead, a broad, “non-sectarian” international organisation—one that would leave it free to pursue its own national orientation. Trotsky’s supporters intervened to insist that the necessary unity of the working class, in the face of capitalist depression, fascism and war, could only be achieved by combating the wrecking actions of the Second and Third Internationals. The “Declaration of the Four”—the International Left Opposition, the German Sozialistische Arbeiter Partei and two Dutch organisations—was to provide the basis for the establishment of the International Communist League, the forerunner of the Fourth International. In Britain, a minority of the Communist League entered the ILP as the Marxist Group, where it successfully fought to prevent a merger with the CPGB, as advanced by the pro-Stalinist Revolutionary Policy Committee.

29. The evolution of the ILP confirmed Trotsky’s warnings. At its 1936 conference, it officially repudiated the Fourth International and moved to expel the Trotskyists. It oriented to the CPGB in a series of anti-fascist campaigns that anticipated the role of the POUM (Workers Party of Marxist Unification) in the Popular Front government in Spain. The price paid by the working class for the centrist politics of the London Bureau was the defeat of the Spanish revolution, which was preceded by the murder of the POUM’s leader Andrés Nin. During the three Moscow Trials of August 1936 and March 1938, the ILP acted as an apologist for the Stalinists’ brutal suppression of the representatives of revolutionary Marxism. It opposed the demand for an international commission of inquiry into the trials, with Brockway proposing instead a commission to investigate the political activity of Leon Trotsky.

30. The fight in the ILP provided an invaluable lesson in how to evaluate a social type that has bedevilled the British labour movement. Baron Brockway was the archetypal representative of an upper petty-bourgeois, and even bourgeois, layer that has included such figures as Beatrice and Sidney Webb (Baron Passfield), their nephew Stafford Cripps (Lord Parmoor), and latterly Tony Benn (formerly Viscount Stansgate). Gravitating to the labour movement as a result of the collapse of Liberalism under the impact of an acute class divide, they have utilised left reformist phraseology only to uphold the sanctity and supposed perfectibility of the bourgeois state.


Leon Trotsky, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1933-1934, (1975) Pathfinder Press, p. 233.