Book Review – Contemporary Trotskyism

John Kelly Contemporary Trotskyism: Parties, Sects and Social Movements in Britain, 2018, Routledge, 9781138943810, £23.99, pp296

Reviewed by Gordon Morgan

The Fourth International held its first congress 80 years ago on 3 September 1938 in France. It is timely that this book has been published as it relates to the enduring legacy of Leon Trotsky, the Fourth International(s) and the many groups which describe themselves as Trotskyist particularly in Britain.

Chapter 2 of the book sets out and briefly explains the key theories espoused by Trotsky and espoused in some sense by Trotskyist groups. This is useful for those not familiar with terms such as ‘permanent revolution’, ‘united front, ‘transitional demands’ and ‘the workers state’. Those who have argued over these terms for decades may be frustrated. Nevertheless, it is a fair summary. Chapters 3 and 4 outline the development of the main Trotskyist groups in Britain from 1950-85 and 1985-2017. The significance of 1985 is that in some ways this marked the height of most groups and, thereafter, only the SWP and the Socialist Party have a significant membership, with most others diminishing in size or disappearing. It is here that some caveats need to be made. Many leading members of groups continue to identify as Trotskyists whilst working within other parties. Moreover, Ireland and Scotland are excluded from the analysis, largely due to lack of archival material, the complexity of the movements and lack of time.

Chapter 5 looks at doctrine, orthodoxy and sectarianism as part of the author’s analysis of the internal workings of the various groups as ‘sects’ within a wider movement. This section appears overly anecdotal and fails, I believe, to relate the many splits and internal disagreements to real events in the wider world. The next two chapters on party recruitment, electoral performance and organisational resources provide a very valuable record of how groups attracted members, how well they did in elections, the money they raised and the number of full-time party workers employed.

The following two chapters will prove most interesting to those who come across Trotskyists (but are not themselves Trotskyists) working in the unions and in social movements and ‘front’ organisations. This in reality is the meat of most Trotskyists’ activity irrespective of the group. Whilst different groups analysed priorities differently, Trotskyist groups invariably were at the forefront of many union disputes and campaign groups from 1968 to the 2000s. The final two chapters summarise the various splits in the Fourth International and provides the author an opportunity to assess the achievements and weaknesses of Trotskyism in Britain.

Overall this is a worthwhile book, well researched, most significant participants have been discussed with and provides a number of facts those of us who spent forty years in such groups did not know. It is a very academic book, lots of references and inevitably slightly skewed by lack of space and archival information. The focus on Britain and not Scotland and Ireland is understandable. However, some reference to Trotskyists in Vietnam, China, Latin America, France, USA etc over the past eighty years would have been worthwhile, otherwise the debates many of us had with other groups seem purely parochial.

Gordon Morgan is a member of the Scottish Left Review editorial committee

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