By Jock Haston
10 June 1950
It is now 15 to 16 years since I broke with Stalinism and 14 years since I joined a British Trotskyist organisation. The best, and I think the most fruitful years of my political experience have been spent in the Trotskyist movement. My break, therefore, was a landmark, a turning point in my personal life decided upon only after considerable thought.
During the past period, largely as the result of the development of the world political situation, but more so as the result of the discussions which have taken place within the International Executive Committee and the actual evolution of ideas and organisation of the various sections of the International and its future perspective. I have arrived at the conviction that in its present form and on the present road, there is no future for the organisation as at present constituted.
When the Fourth International was founded in 1938, it was based on a rounded out programme. No section of the International, to my knowledge, in its public agitation today has found it possible to operate that programme without considerable modification or concretisation in a way which, not so long ago, would have been vigorously denounced by us all as revisionism or capitulation to reformism.
Of course, the need of the day remains to unite the working class on an internationalist socialist programme. So also, to give this movement organised political expression. But on the basis upon which we attempted to achieve this task, we have failed, and any comrade who wants to give an honest accounting of our role and examine our history cannot escape this conclusion.
From the thesis that Stalinism and Social Democracy had betrayed the working class, we drew the conclusion that a new International was necessary. We went further and declared that we – who constituted ourselves the Fourth International – were the established leadership of the world working class. It seems to me, however, that the critical spirit which animated our movement during the early ’30s is dead. The contemporary analysis of political events which placed our movement in the vanguard of the working class when the Old Man was alive has been replaced by an abysmal failure to analyse the great changes following the Second World War. Today we tail behind events which often leads to an outright denial of much of what we said when great historical changes were under way. Consequently, there does not, and there cannot exist among the members that innate conviction that the Fourth International gave, leadership and scientific analysis of the greatest social changes since the Russian revolution., which is essential to any tendency claiming for itself the unchallenged ideological leadership of the world working class.
On all the major questions of the day, phrasemongering has replaced a Marxist analysis and approach. Thus history has struck heavy blows at one “thesis” after another. When European economy, under the impetus of American aid, was already making a considerable upswing, the International repeatedly declared that we faced a period of stagnation and decay. In 1947, when British production was making the biggest leap forward in recent history and the Labour Government was introducing major reforms, the International was declaring that Britain was in a production crisis which they could not overcome, and that there was no possibility of reforms in our epoch. The incredible thesis of the “ceiling”, above which production could not possibly be pushed, and the whole discussion of boom or slump, or partial and temporary stabilisation is too ridiculous to discuss in the light of the present economic and political situation.
When I first raised on the IEC the fact that India had achieved political freedom and the right to determine its own form of government under the leadership of the Indian bourgeoisie, this was denounced as a denial of the theory of the permanent revolution and a capitulation to “British imperialist chauvinism”. Yet today there is no section of the movement which would claim that India has not freed herself from the political domination of Britain. But not one word of explanation.
Five years after the event, we see the beginning of a grudging admission of what has been plain to every petty bourgeois politician: that capitalism had been overthrown in Yugoslavia and Eastern Europe and that there are no longer capitalist state in these areas. In China, the International not only failed to recognise a revolution when it was in the process of taking place, but vilified those who did, and contented itself with analogies and references to the 1925-27 struggles in China when in fact the situation was completely different.
In the past, the Fourth International was bound together, above all, on its interpretation of the Russian question by the leadership and foresight of Trotsky. It cannot be said that we have this cohesion today. Apart from Shachtman’s position, we have two main currents: the orthodox one that Russia remains a degenerated workers’ state (to which I still adhere) and the state capitalist thesis elaborated by Comrade J.R. Johnson and more recently by Comrade Cliff. Cliff produced the most elaborated criticism of the fundamental Trotskyist conceptions of the class relations in Russia. Yet, despite the fact that his document influenced a number of members in the International in various parts of the world, the International leadership remained completely silent regarding this contribution, as it did to Comrade Grant’s reply to it. In view of the fact that the Russian question is still the yardstick by which orthodox Trotskyists are judged in the International, this silence was nothing short of an abdication of leadership.
Within the majority tendency which accepts the thesis that Russia is still a workers’ state, there are various fragmented ideas regarding the class character of the buffer countries as a whole and their separate parts.
Briefly, the various positions held on this question are as follows:
1) Russia is a degenerated workers’ state and so also the Eastern European countries and China: all must be defended in the event of war with world imperialism.
2) The same position as above, with the exception of China.
3) Russia is a degenerated workers’ state: the Eastern European countries and China are capitalist. Therefore we are for the defence of Russia and not the rest.
4) Russia and Yugoslavia are workers’ states, but not the rest of Eastern Europe. We are for the defence of the former, but not the latter.
5) Russia and Eastern Europe are all state capitalist and we adopt the same defeatist attitude to them as to the rest of world capitalism-imperialism.
6) The bureaucratic collectivist position, held by some comrades who are still in the International, with all that follows from the Third Camp slogans.
The divergencies between these currents are not incidental or secondary, but fundamental. When the question was first posed at the International Executive and the International Conference that, among others, Yugoslavia was a workers’ state, the leadership declared that to concede that the Stalinists could overthrow the capitalist system in Yugoslavia or elsewhere and establish even a deformed workers state, would lead to a revision of our conception of the role of Stalinism as well as that of the Fourth International. The object of this was to frighten those who wanted an objective analysis of the historical changes that had taken place. But we will hear no more of this.
Today the attention of the International is centred on Yugoslavia and here is to be seen the tendency of ideological collapse in the International in its clearest form. When Comrade David James wrote his document in which he said that Yugoslavia was a workers’ state and tentatively posed the question as to whether or not the Fourth International had been by-passed in the historical task, he was answered only with abuse by the international leadership. Only Comrade Grant attempted to answer him, but his reply was condemned as inadequate. But there will be no political answer. For since James was denounced, many of the leading elements in the International have themselves tailed behind James and are putting forward the conception that Yugoslavia is a far healthier workers’ state than James ever suggested! To propose that the Yugoslav regime be criticised in the public organ of the British section is met with blank refusal. (I refer here to Comrade Lee’s letter which was refused publication.) If this position is adopted in the International, it completely vindicates James’ viewpoint, for not only did we, as the Fourth International, fail to recognise the event of the establishment of the workers’ state in Yugoslavia when it was in the process of taking shape, we failed as an International to recognise it for years after; and now, finally having done so, we fail to pose the question: what follows from the fact that some force other than the Fourth International has been capable of overthrowing the capitalist class outside the boundaries of the Soviet Union and established a healthy workers’ state.
It follows from the above that we have no right to claim political and organisational authority as the international leadership of the world proletariat. On the basis of our experiences over the past 10 or 15 years I consider we must adopt a more modest title, perspective and role. Instead of continuing with the pretence that we are a healthy and virile ideological leadership wielding authority over 35 sections. I believe it is time to squarely face up to the fact that the International has not provided the leadership and has no reasonable authority to wield an organisational discipline over its few members. Those who genuinely seek to assemble the experiences of the workers will undoubtedly strive for international collaboration and organisation. In the long run, socialism cannot be a world ideology or system without a world organisation.
What I believe to be needed in the present circumstances is some form of international consultative centre, whose function could only be the exchange of Information and discussion on contemporary theoretical and political problems. This would embrace all left wing currents, including elements of the left wing of social democracy. This is of course a revision of what I have advocated in the past as part of the International. But I consider that our experience calls for such a revision. I do not lay the blame for our failure on this or that group of comrades. On the contrary, it is the objective situation which caused the crisis in the movement, and we ourselves with all our limitations ware the product of the period. It is time to take stock of our real stature and role, and temper our actions and ideas accordingly.
As regards the situation in Britain, here too I have arrived at conclusions that are fundamentally different to those I have accepted and advocated in the past. I reject the thesis that the Labour Party cannot under any circumstances be the instrument of socialist emancipation and that only through the form of Soviets can a transformation of society take place in Britain. Although I have never excluded the possibility of the parliamentary overthrow of capitalism in the advanced countries, particularly in this country, I now believe that it is our task to advocate the use of parliament as the most economical vehicle for the complete transformation of British society. If, however, in the course of the class struggle it becomes necessary not only to advocate, but to participate in the formation of alternative forms of government, only renegades to socialism would fail to advocate such forms. In practice there is not a section of the Fourth International today In the Western countries which advocates the creation of soviets as opposed to the existing parliamentary institutions. I believe it is our duty to state what is and speak with one voice on this question, instead of two.
So also have I revised my view that it is historically and practically necessary to form a tightly disciplined, secret organisation separate from the mass party of the working class as the only possible instrument of socialist emancipation. The perspective that it is necessary to work for a split which we have so unsuccessfully pursued for years. I now believe to be completely false. It seems today to be incomprehensible that I could have seriously visualised success on this basis, namely, that a mass revolutionary current could be developed on the basis of a tight, secret fraction. On the contrary, the very nature of the group necessarily did in the past and will in the future confine the Trotskyist movement to that of a sectarian clique. With this method we cannot approach the workers squarely and honestly with a rounded out case. Only the select few must be brought into the confidence when they are considered to be sufficiently well seasoned. This is not a moral question. It is a political question of the greatest importance.
The Labour Party has many bureaucratic features. Nevertheless, it is one of the most democratic workers’ organisations in existence. There is a considerable measure of freedom to advocate and give organised expression to revolutionary socialist criticisms of policy and to present an alternative to that at present pursued by the leadership. Indeed, there in far more lively written discussion on basic question than there is inside the Trotskyist organisation. (For example numerous pamphlets and articles on mixed economy, workers’ control and socialist management). How long this will and can last will depend primarily on the level of consciousness of the organised workers. But so long as it does, it now appears to me to be one of the basic causes of our sectarian ills that we have preferred to continue on the basis of a secret faction, alien to the mass organisation, instead of acting along the lines of our public declarations, loyally adhering to the mass party and seeking to transform it along the lines it advocates.
The existence of this secret fraction is secret only to the Labour Party rank and file – with the exception of the handful who find their way into the organisation and those who find their way out of it. The Labour Party leadership is fully aware that such an organisation exists. The Stalinists know the most intimate details of its structure and members. The police know it. If the leadership of the Labour Party takes no action it is primarily because they more correctly estimate the role of the group than the leadership of that faction does itself.
It may well be that the Labour Party will not be the instrument through which the working class of Britain will overthrow capitalism and that some other organisation will be necessary for the achievement of that task. But of one thing I am convinced: that it is the party through which the mass of the workers pool their ideas and experiences and work out practical solutions to their problems, as well as seek the solution to the conquest of the capitalist system. Either the Labour Party will carry out the task as the result of its own internal transformations or else the mass socialist current will emerge from its ranks as the party of socialist emancipation.
On this promise, the task is to loyally adhere to the mass party and seek to drive it forward on the road to the complete transformation of the system. It follows that the maintenance of the secret disciplined fraction within the Labour Party is not only unnecessary but undesirable, and may readily prove to be an obstacle in the present conditions of democratic legality to the creation of a mass alternative current and policy to that pursued by the leadership.
The existence of the secret fraction trying to find public expression leads to two distinct and even contradictory lines which cannot assist in the development of a healthy revolutionary wing. Publicly in the paper it is argued, not by right or left wing Labour Party members, but by Trotskyists, that the Labour Party is a socialist party, the mass party of the working class to which all workers must loyally adhere; and that this party can transform society through parliament. But privately within the confines of the groups the opposite is advocated. Allegedly on the basis of Marxist theory, it is categorically denied that the British workers can use the Labour Party as the instrument of its emancipation. It is categorically denied that it is possible to transform this party into an instrument for the overthrow of capitalism, and that parliament can be used as the vehicle for such a transformation. The line in the paper cannot be accepted as a mere stratagem designed to cover up a theory with a more popular approach. It is either “a capitulation before the pressure of bourgeois democratic public opinion” or a tacit admission that this aspect of “fundamentals” is not applicable.
It is not the object of this letter to make a full critical analysis of the contents of the paper of the British Trotskyists. However, the schizophrenic conflict between public and private policies permeates every aspect of the life of the fraction. Thus the editor can write an article uncritically supporting Tito from which the only conclusions to be drawn are that Yugoslavia is a healthy workers’ state. Yet when asked on the EC to publish a mildly critical letter saying we must be careful not to create too many illusions that there exists complete democracy in Yugoslavia, the editor thought up the crushing answer: that he did not know what Comrades Lee and Haston were complaining of since they believed Yugoslavia was a workers’ state while he, the editor, thought it was a capitalist state! To such levels of polemic has the British Trotskyist organisation descended.
One final outcome of this game of speaking with two voices is that the somewhat ultra-left criticisms of the Labour leadership which appear from time to time are combined with the most tender regard for the Stalinists and their fellow travellers in the Labour Party. On the plea that it will drive these fellow-travellers away from the paper, if they criticise Stalinism, they refuse to tackle Stalinism sharply in any aspect of its policy. Thus, instead of guiding the fellow travellers in a socialist internationalist direction, they are drawn onto the trailer of the Stalinist caravan.
I do not believe that a healthy socialist current can live in such a milieu. The first prerequisite is to break the mental bonds, the phrasemongering and double-talk that fetter the movement today. If this is done the Trotskyist cadres may still play a valuable and leading role in the struggles of the working class for socialist emancipation.
Many of my closest friends and collaborators have been highly critical of my action in walking away from the organisation and refusing to conduct a struggle. I wished at all costs to avoid a struggle on the old and now familiar lines when I made the break. I hoped to maintain the best possible relations with the members of the organisation so that a wide field of collaboration could still exist between us. At all costs I wanted to avoid the impression that I sought to form a group along similar lines to the existing organisation. In the long run, I am convinced that the majority of the comrades who will play a useful role in the British Labour movement will travel a similar role to the one I have taken. I do not propose to defend the belated writing of this letter. My inclination was to delay it still further until I could present a fuller exposition of my ideas. However this brief summary will serve the purpose of informing those comrades who have asked for a statement as to the reasons for leaving the organisation.
My break provided the opportunity of witnessing more clearly the degeneration of the British organisation, revealed in the reaction of the leadership. The membership were presented with an ultimatum to break not only political, but also personal relations with me on the pain of expulsion. It was further stated that Haston had to be driven out of the Labour movement and especially out of the National Council of Labour Colleges. Only the Stalinists, to my knowledge, have carried out this practise, one which was universally condemned by the Trotskyist movement. Unfortunately, this is a tendency which now characterises the movement and reflects its sectarianism. This campaign has, of course, a serious aspect, especially for the illegal organisation. For example, a few days after I left the organisation I was approached by a student of one of my NCLC classes, a Labour Party member, who asked me why I had been expelled from the Trotskyist organisation as a “renegade” and “enemy of the working class”. He could not understand this in the light of my lecture with which he was in complete accord. To expose the accusations, it was necessary to give my reasons for leaving the organisation. If a public discussion develops on this premise, the responsibility for the outcome must rest with the maligners.
There is a certain irony in the present situation that the National Executive of the Labour Party have twice turned down my application for membership (although I have acted as full time propagandist for the Acton Labour Party during the General and Municipal elections). Asked why by an influential member of the Labour movement, the answer given was that they knew the Trotskyists had entered as a fraction and I was kept out for this reason. However, with the backing of the Acton Divisional Labour Party, when accommodation can be found for me in that district, I have no doubt that Transport House will accept my membership.
At the present time a widespread discussion is taking place within the Trade Unions and Labour Party on the experiences of five years in power. What next to drive the movement forward? What form of control and management should be introduced in the enterprises which have been taken over? To what extent will the mixed economy be disrupted and shattered by world crisis? What steps should be taken to avoid such a disruption? How far should the policy of nationalisation be pushed forward? All these and other problems are now the subject of an intensive literary and verbal discussion. There is ample scope for the expression of ideas. For my part, I hope to make some contribution without being afraid to make mistakes or learn from others in the course of the discussion.
In Britain, the Labour Party may be pushed back by the swing of the pendulum in the next election. But, in the long run, it will be through the Labour Party that the workers will express themselves when they take the next step forward. There is ample opportunity for every comrade to play a role in pushing the movement forward, and for all who want to remain in contact to exchange ideas and publish material on the basis of a common orientation, to do so within the framework of the Labour Party. With this perspective, I hope that many of the comrades with whom I have worked so closely in the past, will keep in touch so that we can play our part to the full in the socialist tasks that confront us.