Socialist Equality Party (UK)
The Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (Britain)

Reform and revolution in British history

9. Britain is a country with long democratic traditions stretching back to the Magna Carta, an immense and powerful culture, and a world literature. Ruling over the first imperialist country in the world, the British bourgeoisie was able to establish a position of global hegemony dwarfing anything enjoyed today by the United States. The huge wealth accrued from an empire on which “the sun never set” shaped certain negative features in the working class, including a belief in parliamentary reform, a deference to the existing order and a degree of national insularity.

10. Britain’s pre-eminent position found political expression in the domination of the workers’ movement by an “aristocracy of labour”—a more privileged layer of the working class, exemplified above all by the leaders of the trade unions—that preached the virtues of class collaboration and implacable hostility to Marxism and revolution. It was this that ultimately determined the character of the Labour Party, founded by the trade unions in 1906, as a bourgeois workers’ party based on the mass workers’ organisations, but committed to the defence of capitalism.

11. Those who fixate on the conservative tendencies in British history and in the working class, however, do so in order to justify their own agenda. Britain is also a country of abrupt political and social shifts. The bourgeoisie came to power as the result of a civil war that ended in the execution of the King. It was in Britain that capitalism then emerged, as Marx declared, “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt”. Vast inequality and social misery were enforced by every conceivable form of class injustice and repression—opposition to which found revolutionary expression in the great Chartist movement for universal suffrage. This long history has imbued in the working class a strong class identity; a deep trade union consciousness that has prepared it to take stubborn and often heroic action; a powerful sense of democratic rights and a commitment to social justice and the principle of equality.

12. Trotsky insisted that it was in Chartism that the working class had to see “not only its past, but also its future”:

“The era of Chartism is immortal in that over the course of a decade it gives us in condensed and diagrammatic form the whole gamut of proletarian struggle – from petitions in parliament to armed insurrection… As the Chartists tossed the sentimental preachers of ‘moral force’ aside and gathered the masses behind the banner of revolution so the British proletariat is faced with ejecting reformists, democrats and pacifists from its midst and rallying to the banner of a revolutionary overturn.”[1]

13. Trotsky’s words were written during the very opening stages of his efforts to combat the Stalinist degeneration of the Communist Parties affiliated to the Third International. The fulfilment of the revolutionary perspective he invoked would depend on those who rallied to this cause. From this point on, the development of socialism in Britain was inextricably bound up with Trotsky’s fight to defend revolutionary Marxism.


Leon Trotsky (1974) Where is Britain Going? New Park Publications, pp. 93-94.