Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History
British Trotskyism in 1931
Albert Glotzer, born in 1908, was expelled from the Communist Party of the United States of America in 1928 and was a leading member of the Communist League of America and the Socialist Workers Party until he split away with Max Shachtman in 1940 to form the Workers Party. His cadre name in the period dealt with here was Albert Gates. Later on he was a leader of the Social Democrats USA. He spoke at a meeting held in New York in 1977 defending SWP leader Joe Hansen against Gerry Healy’s slander campaign, Glotzer was introduced by SWP leader George Breitman to John Archer during the latter’s visit to the USA in 1981 and at Comrade Archer’s request, he wrote the following account of the visit he and Shachtman made to Britain in 1931 to organise the Left Opposition.
Trotsky’s critique of the Marxian League, Tasks of the Left Opposition in Britain and India, appears in Writings of Leon Trotsky 1930-31, New York, 1973, pp.337-343. Three letters from Trotsky to Shachtman concerning the visit to Britain have been published. Personal sympathies and political responsibilities, appears in the above collection, pp.376-377. and To help in Britain and Better to seek the solid appear in Writings of Leon Trotsky – Supplement 1929-33, New York, 1979, pp.98-99 and 101-102. The second chapter of Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson, Against the Stream, London, 1986 contains further information on the Marxian League
Long before I arrived in Europe in October 1931, the matter of establishing a Trotskyist organisation in Great Britain had been discussed by the Political Committee of the Communist League in the United States. The discussion was initiated by a request from the International Secretariat that the League send a representative to England whose task it would be to assist in the formation of a league there. Contact had been made by British sympathisers of the International Left Opposition with the IS in Paris, as it was more commonly known, who sent Pierre Naville, one of the founders and leaders of the French Trotskyists and one of the very few there with a knowledge of the English language, to London to begin discussions with the English people in the hope that it could lead to the creation of an organised movement there.
The American League was in no position to send anyone to England for financial reasons. These were the “dog days” for the organisation which had difficulty sustaining its national headquarters and staff, and its paper, The Militant. The IS was advised of these facts and the matter was set aside for a time.
My arrival in Paris served to reopen the English question. The IS was convened. There was present at the meetings, an Indian, Chandu Ram (Aggrawala) who resided in London at the time. Chandhu Ram spoke for himself and F.A. Ridley apparently the leading figure in the Marxian League which was the petitioner asking for recognition and acceptance by the IS as the Trotskyist organisation in England. Differences between Ridley, Ram and their comrades and the ILO were so deep and fundamental in those years, that it made their affiliation unacceptable. Any political-organisational relations with them would merely have resulted in a sharp and incessant conflict.
In the period prior to Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, the basic position of Trotskyism was that its organisations were essentially expelled factions of the communist parties and the Communist International and, therefore, its primary activities flowed from this premise. It was only after fascism vaulted into power by the craven surrender of the German Communist Party, its refusal to unite in a common struggle with a timid and frightened social democracy, that international Trotskyism concluded that it was no longer possible to reform the Communist International and its parties, including the Russian, and called for new parties and a new International.
The Marxian League anticipated this position by several years and logically was outside the political perimeters of the Trotskyist movement. It sought the creation of dual communist parties and a new International immediately, in 1931. That was not the only area of conflict, however. The Marxian League, in its sectarian appreciation of the political situation in Great Britain, considered the trade union movement to be moribund and led by reactionaries. They were willing to do some political work in this vast organisation, but saw no important future role for the British Labour Party. This was one of the matters I was to discuss with Trotsky, as a result of which he wrote several important documents.
At the Paris meeting of the IS, I reflected the opinions of the leadership of the Communist League, in rejecting the views of the Marxian League. We regarded the general positions of the Marxian League to be sectarian and its analysis of the situation in Great Britain and role of the parties of the working class to be false.
At the meeting of the IS, I told Chandu Ram that the International Left Opposition could not recognise his League as the sole representative of the Trotskyist movement as he requested because, while it agreed with many criticisms which the ILO had made of the Stalinised Comintern and the Russian Communist Party, they were essentially in sharp conflict with the ILO on major questions of theory and political programme. The minutes of the Secretariat of 13 October 1931 record that I said in response to Ram that:
I invoked the authority of Lenin, an almost automatic gesture in those years, by referring, as the minutes reveal, to his pamphlet Left Wing Communism; and to Trotsky’s articles on syndicalism and the decisions of the early congresses of the Communist International on this question.
Chandu Ram-Aggrawala did not take kindly to my comments any more than to those of the other members of the Secretariat who concurred with them. He made it abundantly clear that while some adjustments of their views on some questions were possible, there could be no reconciliation of positions on the main questions. Although we parted in a friendly way, it was clear to him as it was to us, that the Marxian League was not going to be the basis for establishing a Left Opposition in Great Britain. I was involved in the matter again during my sojourn in Turkey.
Even before I was able to discuss problems of our movement in the United States, except briefly whenever Trotsky found a moment, we did give attention to the British question. Trotsky had received a copy of the minutes of the IS and was familiar with the views as expressed there by the representative of the Marxian League. He had also read letters from several individuals in London which were then given to me in a marked file. The contents of the file indicated that there were several groups and individuals who declared themselves adherents of the International Left Opposition. They sought relations with the leader of the movement, each asking to be recognised as the persons or groups with whom discussions should he held. Whoever had that recognition from Trotsky would, it was clear from the correspondence, have represented themselves as the “official” Trotskyists in Great Britain. Trotsky was not ready to endorse anyone, knowing perhaps better than anyone involved, that the first need was to gather together all the claimants arid in the process of clarification of ideas and programme, genuine supporters would emerge out of which the British Trotskyist organisation would be created.
After 1929, when the first European Trotskyist groups emerged, time soon revealed that many of them had not fully understood, absorbed or accepted the real view of the Russian Left Opposition. A considerable stress and turmoil was visited on all these organisations who went through severe and destructive factional disputes, splits occurred often as many found they were really at odds with the basic ideas of the ILO. Being anti-Stalinist, we knew even then, was not enough, and did not automatically or necessarily qualify one to represent our movement in Great Britain, or permit them to speak in the name of Leon Trotsky.
Of course, Trotsky knew this, undoubtedly better than anyone else, for he had now sufficient experience with the European groups to know that a mere declaration of solidarity could often be misleading. He asked me to go through the file of correspondence from England and then to discuss with him my reactions to the correspondence to be followed with my writing agreed-upon answers to such mail. The sudden impulse that led to Trotsky’s turning to the British problem in the midst of his pressing schedule was a thesis sent in to him by the Marxian League. The writing was apparently a response to the discussion in the International Secretariat. They had indicated that they were writing such a document of principles, but I was certain that the discussion with Ram-Aggrawala hastened its appearance.
The correspondence file contained letters and other material from a group of members of the British Communist Party who had only recently been expelled from the party and who desired to establish relations with Trotsky. Reg Groves spoke for this group which was located in the Balham district of London and were known as the Balham Group. Groves and his group impressed me more favourably than others and this opinion was confirmed several weeks, later when I was in London to help lay the groundwork for the eventual creation of a Trotskyist Communist League in England.
I believe they represented the most consistent and authentic Trotskyist group among the many diverse elements in London. The Balham Group had close relations with another party group led by an old respected socialist, Dick Beech. who was married to Margaret Conolly, the daughter of James Connolly, the heroic revolutionary socialist leader of Ireland. In a broader group was Ned MacAlpin, a veteran of the left-wing struggle in the old Socialist Party in the United States where he lived for a time, an associate of John Reed in the post-World War I years.
The Marxian League, led by Ridley and Ram, was violently anti-Communist Party, but were never members of it. That would have raised no objections to them except, as I have already noted, their political views disqualified them from membership in the ILO, given the theoretical and political premises of Trotskyism in the early thirties. In addition to those views held by them which I have already described, they had forecast the end of parliamentary democracy in Great Britain arid its replacement by fascism. not as a future possible development, but as the next immediate political stage in British history. In the course of developing these views arid expressing the immediate need for a new party and new International, they attacked my intervention in the meeting of the International Secretariat.
On 7 November, Trotsky wrote a brief reply to Ridley and Chandu Ram entitled: Tasks of the Left Opposition in Britain arid India - Some Critical Remarks on an Unsuccessful Thesis. Taking up the questions of the imminence of fascism first, Trotsky quotes the thesis, “Great Britain is at the present time in a transitional phase between democracy and fascism”, and replies:
Proceeding from this point, Trotsky continues, saying:
It was in this discussion of the trade unions that Trotsky wrote: ”The American Comrade Glotzer, in speaking of the necessity of working in the trade union organisations for their conquest, appeals in absolute correctness to Lenin’s pamphlet Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder. To this Comrades Ridley and Ram answer with four objections.
The reply of Trotsky marked the end of relations with the Marxian League and we were their able to concentrate all attention on those who promised more certain results. Trotsky and I both communicated with Groves and Beech in preparation for my arrival in England. In the meantime, I received a note from Max Shachtman, who was then in Spain, asking whether I was going to waste my life in Turkey or whether I would join him in London to accomplish great deeds!
I arrived in England on December 5th, made my way at once to the home of Reg Groves in Tooting, where I was to stay during my visit to London. Once settled down, Groves and I went on a search for Shachtman who, instead of keeping his appointment with me in Paris, left for England on the morning of the day I arrived from Germany. He ran into an unprecedented storm in the English Channel (all storms in the English Channel, I was informed, are unprecedented) and was now at Dick Beech’s home in Clapham. We found him still asleep on a tiny couch, showing all the evidence of the tough 20-mile trip across the rough waters that lasted for 12 hours. Actually he arrived not too long before me and I always felt that some mysterious force had punished him because he did not keep his appointment to meet me in Paris. It could have been that he attended a meeting of the French Trotskyists that sent him on his way.
Within a short time, however, we began the many rounds of meetings and discussing with all the British people we had been in touch with and others with whom we became acquainted during these rounds. The people we did not meet were those of the Marxian League, on whom we had given up. The Marxian League, we learned, was experiencing some inner difficulties. One of its leading persons, an individual who became prominent in the Trotskyist movement in England, left the group in a dispute over ideas and programme, but also over the bureaucratic nature of the organisation’s directors
The two leaders, Ridley and Ram, had kept Trotsky’s reply to their ”unsuccessful theses” from the membership, contending that there had been misunderstandings which they were in the process of clarifying. We, on the other hand, felt that meetings with the Marxian League would have wasted what precious little time we had left in the country to achieve out main objective. A good deal of our time was spent in getting acquainted with people who we had met for the first time. There were meetings with “historical” figures such as Dick Beech, Jack Tanner and Ned MacAlpin, who belonged to the period of the rise of the communist movement. They did not contribute much in what we were trying to do, but it made the effort more pleasant because the personal relations were friendly.
We finally gathered all the people we had been seeing at one meeting at which the views of the Left Opposition were presented by Shachtman and me. We were questioned for a very long time which was not altogether unexpected. This was the first time that Trotskyism was a subject of discussion among those present, whose origins were the communist movement. The discussion was quite animated because the people present were articulate and politically experienced. Though no specific organisation emerged from this discussion, either during my stay or in the brief period that remained to Shachtman, the spadework had been done for its later emergence.
Our earlier feeling that the formation of a Trotskyist organisation depended on Reg Groves was justified. It took some months but through the efforts of Groves, and his associates, Wicks, Dewar, Sara, Purkis and others, British Trotskyism made its first organised appearance in Great Britain. This development was described in part, but briefly, in a booklet by Groves published in 1974 as The Balham Group, How British Trotskyism Began. It is far from telling the whole story, being essentially a sentimental and nostalgic memoir of a cohesive and long-time friendly group of comrades residing in the Balham area of London.
In a letter of 5 November dictated to me, Trotsky advised Shachtman that he had written to one Ivor Montague in London, about the possibility of a re-issue of Where is England Going?, asking for Montague’s opinion, and suggesting that he might facilitate your stay in London in every respect”. Trotsky had mentioned the matter to me before he dictated the letter and I understood from him that he counted on me to see this person then unknown to him. When he had finished preliminaries for the meeting of the various comrades. We arranged for a visit to Montague’s office.
Our visit with Montague was a brief one. Formally cordial, Shachtman and I had the feeling instantly that Montague was not very enthusiastic about our visit or the suggestion that he do anything on behalf of the book or the Left Opposition. He could not hide his discomfort behind his smile. Although Trotsky cautioned us against compromising Montague because his business organisation and interests were related to Russia, he need have had no fear of that because we could easily see that Montague would never allow his true relations to be compromised by anyone, including Trotsky, I don’t know whether Shachtman went to see Montague again, an event I doubt occurred, because of the reaction we had to our initial visit.
Montague’s name appeared on all kinds of Stalinist front organisations in the years following our visit. At the time we did not fully understand the coolness of our reception because Trotsky’s letter and discussion with me led us to expect a more friendly reception than the cool one we did get. On 20 December, after I returned to the States. I wrote to Trotsky, about the affairs in England and as to Montague. I said: “Was able to see Montague only once and did not get very much satisfaction from him”.
So ended my first visit to Trotsky which led to my travel to England, also for the first time and which, in turn, set in motion the Trotskyist movement there on a new basis and in a new direction.
Among the materials Trotsky gave me to review, there was a batch that disclosed that George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells each wrote appeals to the government to grant asylum to Trotsky. Great Britain, in its long democratic tradition, had often provided such asylum to political exiles. It did so for Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, for German revolutionaries of 1848, Paris Communards and Italian Garibaldians, and continues to provide asylum to this day. Shaw and Wells thought they could obtain such a visa for Trotsky and sought backing for the enterprise among England’s noted men of letters, science and other public figures.
Shaw’s letter was signed by Arnold Bennett, the Bishop of Birmingham and Lord Olivier, a Fabian socialist and colonial expert.
Wells’s letter was signed also by Arnold Bennett, but in addition, by J.M. Keynes, C.A. Gregory, an editor, Lord Beauchamp, a Liberal peer, Graham Wallas, noted Fabian socialist, C.P. Scott, Editor of the Manchester Guardian, Ramsay Muir, a liberal historian, A. Gardiner of the Daily News, Beatrice Webb and Harold J. Laski.
No replies were received from Gilbert Murray, A.P. Herbert and Sir William Orpen.
Those who refused to sign either letter were England’s four great scientists, Sir Arthur S. Eddington, Sir James Jeans, Sir J. Thomson and Ernest Rutherford, astronomers, physicists and mathematicians. Among others who refused were Dean Inge, Lord Brentford, J.M. Barrie, John Galsworthy, R.L. Mond, Rudyard Kipling, the Bishop of Gordon and the Archbishop of York. So it was in 1931.
Updated by ETOL: 28.6.2003