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C. van Gelderen


How British Trotskyism began

(Winter 1975)

From International, Vol. 2 No. 4, Winter-Spring 1975, pp. 51–52.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Reg Groves
The Balham Group: How British Trotskyism Began
Pluto Press, hardback £1.80, paperback 75p

When the definitive history of British Trotskyism comes to be written – a long overdue task – this little book by Reg Groves will provide valuable source material. It records the founding of the first Trotskyist organisation in Britain and provides information which it is difficult to find elsewhere.

In May 1932 a handful of members of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) published, anonymously, a duplicated journal The Communist, most of it devoted to Trotsky’s Germany – The Key to the International Situation. The very fact that the publishers did not dare to publish their names reflected the situation which had developed in the Communist International and in its British section with the rise of Stalinism. Gone were the days of free discussion and critical assessment of policies which were characteristic of the Comintern of Lenin and Trotsky. In its place was policy making from above, bureaucratically imposed. To oppose was to invite expulsion.

The Balham Group, as the early Trotskyists grouped round Reg Groves came to be known, fought Stalinism on principled grounds, attacking the ultra-leftist Third Period, the rejection of the Leninist tactic of the United Front, and the sectarianism which proclaimed social democracy a greater danger to the working class than fascism. (This at a time when Germany was on the very brink of the fascist avalanche which was to create such havoc in the European labour movement for years to come and imperilled the very existence of the Soviet Union itself.) Trotsky’s desperate efforts from his Prinkipo exile to sound the tocsin and to steer the Comintern back on the road of Leninism not only went unheeded but were violently denounced as ‘Left Social-Fascism’.

In 1935, after Hitler’s victory, the Stalinised Comintern swung from the ultra-leftist denunciation of the Leninist United Front to the opportunist class-collaborationist policy of the Popular Front. Principled Communist opposition to imperialist war gave way to opportunist manoeuvres with petty-bourgeois pacifism. It was for their fight against the fake Amsterdam World Congress for Peace that Groves and his comrades were expelled from the CPGB.

It will be difficult for younger members of our movement to imagine the difficulties involved in this open breach with the Party. These comrades had been deeply involved in Party activities. The Communist Party was the party of Lenin and Trotsky; the Soviet Union was the fatherland of all the toilers. A break with the Party meant ostracism from life-long comrades and isolation from the mainstream of working class politics. It is no wonder, therefore, that the Balham Group hesitated before finally throwing in their lot with the Left Opposition.

Today, when Groves has joined the ranks of the International Socialists, he tries to justify this hesitation retrospectively, as if even then he had doubts about the nature of the Soviet Union and Bolshevism. He writes:

‘Our doubts were, if not dispelled, at least held in limbo by our respect for Trotsky’s brilliant mind, experience and revolutionary integrity. He argued forcefully ... that the Russian state ... remained a workers’ state, temporarily off course because of wrong leadership and policies. It did not convince us deep down in our troubled and uneasy consciences ...’

One would search in vain through the writings of the members of the Balham Group at the time for any such expression of doubt, as the very valuable collection of documents of the period which the booklet contains will verify. It is only with his belated conversion to ‘state capitalism’ that he can now equate Bolshevism (in its Trotskyist form) with Stalinism and write that ‘We were still in the same psychological sphere as the people with whom we were in conflict’.

Groves, of course, broke organisationally with the Trotskyist movement many years ago. By 1935 he was well entrenched in the Labour Party, a parliamentary candidate and an active leader in Stafford Cripps’ Socialist League, in which role he was particularly hostile to the Trotskyists who entered the Labour Party and the Labour League of Youth as an organised tendency in that year But his early contribution to our movement and that of the small band of comrades round him will be remembered and valued long after his subsequent journey away from Trotskyism is forgotten.

A few comments should, perhaps, be added on the review of Groves’ book published in Workers’ Press, 15 June 1974. While much of Jack Gale’s political criticism of Groves’ present-day role and retrospective renegacy is correct, the language in which it is couched is reminiscent of that used against oppositionists by ‘Third Period’ Stalinists. This is, perhaps, no accident. For, while Groves, Wicks, Purkiss. Sara, Dewar and the rest fought this ’Third Period’ madness, the present leader of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party (WRP) remained a loyal member of the CPGB throughout this whole period and only broke with Stalinism when it swung from ultra-leftism to popular frontism.

Perhaps it is significant that when an international commission came to Britain in 1938 to unite the various Trotskyist groups prior to the Founding Congress, only two groups refused to enter the unified British Section of the Fourth International – that led by Groves and the Workers’ International League in which Healy of the WRP and Ted Grant of the ‘Militant’ current were prominent leaders. Above all, this reflects the insularity of that tradition of ‘British Trotskyism’ which pays lip service to proletarian internationalism but abjures it in practice.

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