The Latter Day Followers of Leon Trotsky

Those seeking to change the way society is organized will at some stage come across a fractured group of people with ideas about it. They are quite active and visible, though perhaps not so much as they once were. Demonstrations and picket-lines, selling papers at universities and outside tube stations is their stock-in-trade. These days they are not in the best of health and struggle to make the impact they once did. They are the followers of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.

Trotsky played a significant role in the 1917 Bolshevik takeover in Russia led by Lenin, but after Lenin’s death was squeezed out by his successor Josef Stalin, went into exile in Mexico and then was murdered there by Stalin’s agents in 1940. It is perhaps a little odd that his modern acolytes are as well-known and persistent as they are. Not unlike the splintered religious sects that offer a regimen of activity and surety of doctrine, with each one microscopically different to the other.

A new book by John Kelly called Contemporary Trotskyism (Routledge, 2018) has set out to examine this phenomenon. Perhaps surprisingly, it is the first book-length analysis of the Trotskyist movement in Britain for over 30 years. It is meticulously researched and packed with detail. ‘Left-wing train-spotters’ everywhere will cherish it dearly.

What is Trotskyism?

Political ideas – especially complex ones – often struggle to be defined coherently. Trotskyism is no exception. Kelly identifies nine ‘core elements’, though a number of these are actually beliefs held in common with Lenin and the Bolsheviks (Trotskyists see themselves as their true heirs) together with their advocates in the various ‘Communist’ parties and regimes across the world this last century or so.

One of the core elements is more fundamental than most of the others and – despite the excellence of the book in other respects – has not been brought out quite as clearly as it might have been. This is the idea that while the working class is considered to be the agent of social change – as in Marxist theory generally – it is deemed incapable of doing this while capitalist rule dominates. This was the view taken by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, including both Stalin and Trotsky, and so unites them all.

From this viewpoint much else follows. If the working class is unable to understand capitalist exploitation and overthrow the capitalist system because the dominant ideas are literally always those of the ruling class, then how can a socialist revolution ever occur? All those in the tradition of Lenin came up with an answer, based on adapting the Russian Bolshevik model of a minority political coup d’etat. This idea was to build up a political party of professional revolutionaries (the ‘vanguard’ or ‘advanced guard’ of the working class) that could overthrow the capitalist government. It could then try to create the economic and political conditions for a socialist society – including the desire of the working class for it – after the event. Rather like having the pregnancy after the birth.

But to build up the vanguard party of professional revolutionaries within capitalism there’s no point advocating socialism, as that would be to cast pearls before the proverbial swine. What is needed instead is a tactical approach that can form an ideological bridge between where we are today and where we could end up. And this, in most respects, is where Trotsky and his followers developed a set of theories – most of them really tactics – that have distinguished them from others in the tradition of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. In particular:

Transitional demands. These are reforms of capitalism advocated with the sole purpose of demonstrating that the system can’t deliver them. This creates tension with genuine reformists like those in the mainstream Labour and Social Democratic parties who know they are unattainable and unrealistic, so prefer not to pursue them. But for Trotskyists the point is to create disillusion with the system and its established leaders so that the more critical, questioning members of the working class will turn away from them and towards the leadership of the vanguard party instead.

The ‘united front’ tactic. Like advocating transitional demands, this has been a means of winning recruits from other parties as it involves putting forward specific demands and campaigns that will enable Labour, Communists, Trotskyists, etc to work together on certain issues such as anti-fascism, while enabling Trotskyists to remain critical of their partners in other respects. This is just slightly different from the old Communist Party tactic of the ‘Popular Front’ which had often involved overtly pro-capitalist parties too, like Liberals.

A critical stance towards the former Soviet Union and its satellites. This is the big issue that has created more disagreement in the Trotskyist movement than probably any other. This is because while all wish to be critical of the regime Stalin went on to build up while Trotsky was in exile, they nevertheless hold very dear to the political methods that created it in the first place. Trotsky’s own formula was to label Russia a workers’ state that had degenerated under Stalinist leadership. Some still adhere to this, while others have moved from this position over time to create greater distance, adopting the view that these countries became state capitalist, or were some other form of class society.

A ‘catastrophist’ interpretation of capitalism. Trotsky’s seminal text in 1938 was The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International and most Trotskyists believe capitalism has been in its death throes ever since, 80 years and counting. This view is not entirely exclusive to them, but they link it vigorously with the need for working class ‘leadership’ ie themselves as the vanguard party that can rescue the working class from crisis.

The need for a ‘Fourth International’ or similar. This is as a successor to the old Third International or ‘Comintern’ associated with Stalin and the Soviet regime. It would be an international body linking and uniting Trotskyist vanguard parties across the world with common perspectives, and also under a broadly common programme and set of tactical approaches.

The idea of spreading ‘permanent revolution’. This stands in distinction to the Stalinist idea that socialism could be built in one country and by stages, as Trotsky held the view that revolutions – if they were to succeed – needed to spread and not become isolated, hence the need for a Fourth International.  Nevertheless, the idea of a socialist revolution being one where a minority vanguard party takes power and then nationalizes the economy (as in Soviet Russia and China) is the same as the conventional Leninist and Stalinist view.

Trotskyism in Britain

One of the most notable features of the Trotskyist movement in Britain and other countries has been its tendency to fragment over time. From its origins in the tiny Balham Group of former Communist Party members in the 1930s it was united for a short time towards the end of the Second World War in an organization called the Revolutionary Communist Party, but since then has been split asunder many times.

Kelly has identified seven Trotskyist ‘families’ that emerged, though this is perhaps a little over-theorized. In reality, four main tendencies surfaced in Britain in the post-war era after the split of the RCP and these were led by four dominant individuals. This is perhaps not surprising. Trotsky himself had claimed that ‘The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat’ and Trotskyist organizations (like Lenin’s Bolsheviks) are characterized by top-down structures based on the principles of what they call ‘democratic centralism’, effectively designed to ensure self-perpetuating leaderships.

The four main Trotskyist organizations that emerged in Britain from the 1950s and 60s onwards may be familiar:

The Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP), formerly the Socialist Labour League, which was founded and led by Gerry Healy until it split into myriad fragments in the mid-late 1980s. This tendency has been characterized by Kelly as Orthodox Trotskyism, and it is hard to disagree as it holds rigidly to what it sees as Trotsky’s perspectives and recommendations before his death and has been known for its extreme sectarianism and hostility to other organizations.

The Militant Tendency (really called the Revolutionary Socialist League), led by Ted Grant and which became the most well-known Trotskyist organisation through its control of Liverpool City Council in the mid 1980s and its ‘deep entryism’ inside the Labour Party, even at one stage having three Labour MPs. It split in the early 90s and its successor organizations are the Socialist Party of England and Wales (SPEW) and Socialist Appeal. Kelly calls this tendency ‘Institutional Trotskyism’ because of its adherence to supporting Labour and use of parliament, though most of its attitudes, perspectives and ingrained sectarianism are not dissimilar to the Orthodox Trotskyism of the WRP – the main difference being that the WRP/SLL in its early life used entryism into the Labour Party as a tactic (as did the other main Trotskyist tendencies) whereas Militant made it a point of principle.

The International Marxist Group (IMG) led by Tariq Ali. This became the British section of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (for a while the dominant semi-official one), hence Kelly’s description of this as Mainstream Trotskyism. This is perhaps a little confusing as it was mainly noted for attempts by its international leaders Ernest Mandel and Michel Pablo to revise and update Trotsky’s ideas in an era of Third World revolts and student agitation. Again it splintered into various competing sects, some inside the Labour Party and some outside it, the most well-known survivor probably being Socialist Resistance.

The Socialist Workers Party (SWP), formerly International Socialism and led until his death by Tony Cliff. This is currently the largest of them all, even though it has suffered more splits and splinters than most, including in recent years. It was originally influenced as much by the ideas of Rosa Luxemburg as by Lenin and Trotsky and its distinguishing feature is its view that the Soviet Union and its satellites became state capitalist when Stalinism took hold, adopting a standpoint previously alien to the Trotskyist movement and pioneered by non-Leninist organizations like the SPGB. Kelly categorizes the SWP and most of its offshoots as ‘Third Camp’ Trotskyism.

Upwaves and downwaves

Kelly argues with some evidence that there have so far been four distinct phases in the British Trotskyist movement: 1950-65 which were the ‘Bleak Years’ of limited growth while inside the Labour Party, the ‘Golden Age’ of membership growth and influence from the mid 60s to mid 80s while the traditional Communist Party declined, then a period of ‘Fracture and Decline’ from the mid 80s until around 2005, when a period of ‘Stasis’ has endured.

There are currently 22 separate Trotskyist organizations in the UK though their total membership is less than 10,000 – well under half of the combined peak membership of the mid 1980s. Some organizations have splintered off over time and have moved away from Trotskyism such as the Revolutionary Communist Group (RCG), though these, along with Stalinist and Maoist-type groups, also have memberships that tend to be numbered in the low hundreds at best and more typically much less than that.

The commitment expected of members of Leninist organizations generally can be considerable, with many Trotskyist groups mapping out their members’ free time in any given week and expecting significant financial contributions – the Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL) had average annual membership contributions per head of over £330 a year in 2014 and Workers Power has effectively charged a ‘tithe’ of 10 per cent of income. This is in large part what enables Trotskyist groups to publish a very regular press and many even now are built around the sales of their newspapers and magazines. The WRP famously received funds from Libya and other Middle East states but this is exceptional – most Trotskyist organizations lurch from internal financial crisis to crisis, being repeatedly bailed out by their membership to keep their loss-making publications going. Nevertheless, the Revolutionary Communist Party of the 80s and 90s (a grandchild of the IS/SWP) and publisher of Living Marxism was bankrupted by a £1 million libel action from ITN. Today only two papers have regular print runs (not sales) of over 2,000, these being Socialist Worker (SWP) and The Socialist (SPEW), with print runs of 20,000 and 10,000 copies respectively per week. Some organizations are so small they only produce irregular magazines or concentrate on maintaining a web presence.


One of the more intriguing details to emerge in Kelly’s book is how much activity is stimulated and supported by paid officials. During the Militant Tendency’s peak of 8,000 members it had no less than 250 full-time equivalent staff (a not dissimilar total to the entire Labour Party). More recently, SPEW has the highest number of staffers with 45 full-time equivalent workers, compared to 32.5 in the SWP. Most of these are employed in publications-related work, with some being national, regional or campaign organizers.

Given all this, and the campaigns both initiated and hijacked by Trotskyist groups (from the Anti-Nazi League in the late 70s to the Stop the War Coalition more recently), it is perhaps surprising they remain as small as they do. Even more surprising perhaps given their relentless work in the trade unions, including trying to gain positions of influence at all levels, again meticulously detailed by Kelly. Similarly, in the last couple of decades there has been a generally increased focus on election campaigns as a means of generating publicity, from Respect to the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC). This has led to some long-term sworn enemies like the SWP and SPEW temporarily bury their differences, but with little practical effect.


The current state of flux in the Corbyn-led Labour Party has seen a number of Trotskyist groups identify a chance to engage closely with people who could be like-minded. The paucity of Trotskyist candidates standing against Labour in the 2017 General Election was a reflection of this, reversing the trend towards greater electoral participation since the 1990s. The evidence presented by Kelly suggests that the far left tends to do better on average (both in terms of electoral support and in party membership) when Labour is in government rather than in opposition. But it still does badly, and even organizations in other countries including some Trotskyist elements within them at various stages such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain only succeed when they build far wider leftist coalitions, dwarfing the Trotskyist contribution to the extent that it becomes almost invisible. And almost inevitably these parties have a tendency to end up – like Syriza – being respectable parties of capitalist government.

This is interesting, because Trotskyist groups have long argued that they do this because to do anything differently, such as advocate real socialism (common ownership, production for use, the abolition of the wages system, etc) is a waste of time. In fact, most of them only pay lip-service to this as being their long term goal at very best, and most take the traditional view of the Communists (ie Stalinists and Maoists) that socialism is really a nationalized, planned economy under the control of the vanguard party. But as in Soviet Russia this leaves all the economic features of capitalism intact – such as wage labour, production for sale on markets, etc – and is really just state-run capitalism.

It all gets to the essence though of why socialists oppose the Trotskyist movement and have long warned of the dangers of being involved in it:

  • they do not advocate (or in many case really believe in) socialism but actually believe in a form of state run-capitalism under their own leadership
  • they are elitist organizations that are dominated by small and generally unaccountable groups of leaders who see themselves as potentially great historical figures, guiding the masses with their supposedly superior political tactics
  • they are politically dishonest as they advocate demands (the ‘transitional programme’) in the full knowledge they cannot be met within capitalism and will only create disillusion – indeed that is the entire point of advocating them
  • they will periodically enter and otherwise give support (however ‘critical’) to anti-socialist organizations like the Labour Party
  • they have a well-known history of hijacking trade union and other struggles for their own ends.

Of course, we are well aware that they don’t have a high opinion of us either. We are usually guilty of things like ‘abstract propagandism’, which means not arguing for reforms of capitalism and they have sometimes derided us as the ‘Small Party of Good Boys’ and similar.

While we are far smaller than we would like to be and can certainly learn lessons from the last century and more, John Kelly’s book has thrown an interesting spotlight on a few things. And one of them is that despite the fact that we in the SPGB advocate the ‘maximum programme’ of socialism and nothing but – and despite all the tactical manoeuvrings and reform campaigns of the various Trotskyist groups over the years –  there are only two of them (the SWP and SPEW) that are actually bigger than us! Every other party and group from the WRP and Socialist Appeal to the AWL and Counterfire are smaller than we are. And so were former (and very visible) Trot groups like the RCP at their peak in the late 80s/early 90s.

Just think, then – if a few more of them had spent their considerable energies advocating real socialism rather than playing tactical games of footsie with the reformists, the movement for social change in this country would be a lot stronger than it is. That’s not to crow, as we of course wish we were a lot bigger than we are – but just to point out that the tactical genius of Leon Trotsky and his latter-day followers has been rather misdirected and somewhat over-rated. And that’s us trying to be polite.