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

Stalinism and the degeneration of the Third International

21. Stalin emerged as the foremost representative of this bureaucratic caste, advancing the theory of “Socialism in One Country”, which asserted that the task was to build socialism within the boundaries of the Soviet Union. From that point, the struggle waged by Trotsky and the Left Opposition, formed in 1923 to reform Communist Party policy in the Soviet Union and fight for a correct line in the Communist International, was to centre on two irreconcilably opposed conceptions of socialism. Trotsky explained:

“The completion of the socialist revolution within national limits is unthinkable… the socialist revolution begins on the national arena, it unfolds on the international arena, and is completed on the world arena. Thus, the socialist revolution becomes a permanent revolution in a newer and broader sense of the word; it attains completion only in the final victory of the new society on our entire planet.”[1]

22. The arena for one of the first strategic conflicts between the Left Opposition and the Stalin faction was Britain. The country had emerged from the First World War in a much weakened position, and the Bolshevik revolution became a pole of attraction for the most advanced workers. The Labour Party tried to combat its influence by introducing Clause Four into its constitution, promising to take the commanding heights of the economy into social ownership. But the conditions had been created for the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in 1920. Against a background of escalating class struggle, the CPGB’s influence grew—culminating in the formation of the National Minority Movement, encompassing a quarter of all trade union members by 1924. Trotsky paid great attention to developments within the centre of world imperialism. He wrote:

“England’s fate after the war was a subject of absorbing interest. The radical change in her world position could not fail to bring about changes just as radical in the inner-correlation of her forces. It was clear that even if Europe, including England, were to restore a certain social equilibrium for a more or less extended period, England herself could reach such equilibrium only by means of a series of serious conflicts and shake-ups. I thought it probable that in England, of all places, the fight in the coal industry would lead to a general strike. From this I assumed that the essential contradiction between the old organizations of the working class and its new historic tasks would of course be revealed in the near future.”[2]

23. The General Strike that began on May 3, 1926 was provoked by a lock-out of the miners. It developed into a semi-insurgent movement encompassing four million out of the five and a half million workers organised in the trade unions. For nine days, a situation of dual power existed in the country. The political task facing socialists was to unmask the trade union and Labour leaders, in particular their “left” representatives, as the central prop of capitalist rule. Instead, the Soviet bureaucracy, disdainful of the small forces of the CPGB, looked to the trade unions as a more viable means for extending Soviet influence and waging the class struggle in Britain. As Trotsky explained:

“The weaknesses of the British Communist Party gave birth at that time to the necessity of replacing it as quickly as possible with a more imposing factor. Precisely then was born the false estimate of the tendencies in British trade unionism. Zinoviev gave us to understand that he counted upon the revolution finding an entrance, not through the narrow gateway of the British Communist Party, but through the broad portals of the trade unions. The struggle to win the masses organised in the trade unions through the communist party was replaced by the hope for the swiftest possible utilisation of the ready-made apparatus of the trade unions for the purposes of the revolution.”[3]

24. The slogan of the CPGB was “All power to the TUC General Council!” On May 12, the TUC General Council called off the strike, with the full connivance of the left, abandoning the miners to the coal-owners’ revenge. The defeat of the General Strike was a major strategic experience for the British working class. Its demoralising effect was felt for generations. The influence of the CPGB, which lost two-thirds of its membership, was greatly reduced. But the policies pursued by the Stalinist bureaucracy led to even graver setbacks internationally, including the defeat of the Chinese Revolution in 1927 and, most terribly, the events in Germany, where the Communist Party allowed Hitler to come to power unchallenged, in January 1933. This world historic betrayal was accepted by the parties of the (Third) Communist International, signifying that they were dead for the purpose of social revolution. The turn by the leading stratum in Moscow to the defence of its own privileges was now made directly at the expense of the class interests of the Soviet and international proletariat. Trotsky concluded that it was necessary to abandon the perspective of politically reorienting the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and its affiliated parties and begin the construction of a new, Fourth International.

25. The blows inflicted against the international working class further strengthened the Stalinist bureaucracy—culminating in Trotsky’s expulsion from the CPSU in 1927 and his enforced exile from the Soviet Union in 1929. Nonetheless, his penetrating critique of these events found a response within the CPGB, winning the support of the Balham Group, comprising a dozen members, including Reg Groves and Harry Wicks. The group worked within the CPGB, under the guidance of James P. Cannon and the US Trotskyists. It was expelled from the CPGB in 1932 and reconstituted as the Communist League, the official section of the Left Opposition.


 Leon Trotsky (1975) Permanent Revolution, London New Park Publications, 1971, p. 155.


Leon Trotsky (1979) My Life, Penguin, pp. 549-550.


Leon Trotsky (1974) Trotsky’s writings on Britain, New Park Publications, Volume 2, p. 241.