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

The Fourth International and the Workers International League

31. The Trotskyist movement exercised extreme patience and dedicated precious resources to its efforts to unite the half-dozen groups in Britain claiming allegiance to the Fourth International. It did so by combating political relations characterised by factionalism and clique politics. Tensions were worsened by the siege environment suffered by the Trotskyists. The persecutions and assassinations perpetrated by the Stalinist bureaucracy included the murder of Trotsky’s son Leon Sedov, in February 1938 in Paris, and in July, his secretary Rudolph Klement, who was to have chaired the founding conference of the Fourth International. In Britain, the CPGB was the most enthusiastic supporter of Stalin’s political repression. During the Moscow Trials, the Daily Worker demanded, “Shoot the Reptiles”. Stalinist thugs frequently attacked Trotsky’s supporters, denouncing them as “fascist agents”, and encouraged others to do likewise.

32. In February 1937, preparatory to the founding conference of the Fourth International, discussions were held with three groups in Britain. Another four rounds of unity talks were led by Trotsky’s secretary, Erwin Wolf, who was later also assassinated by the Stalinist secret police, the GPU. In July 1938, Cannon travelled to Britain for further talks on behalf of the American Socialist Workers Party. This culminated in a national conference of Bolshevik-Leninists in London on July 30-31, 1938, where the majority of groups agreed to a Peace and Unity Agreement that formed the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL).

33. Of the groups refusing to endorse the Peace and Unity Agreement, the most significant was the Workers International League (WIL), led by Ted Grant and Jock Haston. The WIL cited no political differences to justify its refusal to affiliate with the RSL, other than its insistence that affiliation was dependent on agreeing to a common tactical orientation in Britain. A recent recruit to the WIL, of a few months standing, was Gerry Healy. Born in Ireland, he had left for England aged 14 and worked as a ship radio operator, joining the CPGB in 1928. Events in Germany and Spain led Healy to join the WIL in 1937.

34. The founding conference of the Fourth International took place in September 1938. It recognised the RSL as its British section, but invited the WIL to attend and state its case. Instead, the group sent a letter rejecting any decision of the conference that failed to comply with its demands. In a sharply worded statement written by Trotsky, the Fourth International insisted that there was no justifiable political basis for the separate existence of the WIL:

“The present conference signifies a CONCLUSIVE delimitation between those who are really IN the Fourth International and fighting every day under its revolutionary banner, and those who are merely ‘FOR’ the Fourth International, i.e. the dubious elements who have sought to keep one foot in our camp and one foot in the camp of our enemies... Under the circumstances it is necessary to warn the comrades associated with the Lee group [the WIL] that they are being led on a path of unprincipled clique politics which can only land them in the mire. It is possible to maintain and develop a revolutionary political grouping of serious importance only on the basis of great principles. The Fourth International alone embodies and represents these principles. It is possible for a national group to maintain a consistently revolutionary course only if it is firmly connected in one organisation with co-thinkers throughout the world and maintains a constant political and theoretical collaboration with them. The Fourth International alone is such an organisation. All purely national groupings, all those who reject international organisation, control and discipline, are in their essence reactionary.”[1]