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

The founding of the Socialist Labour League

110. Under conditions of a developing movement in the working class, the crisis in British Stalinism opened up a space for The Club. It played a noteworthy role in major industrial struggles and within the Labour Party, especially the movement in opposition to the development of the H-Bomb. In 1958, the youth paper Keep Left was relaunched as a monthly, and members were sent into the Labour Party’s youth movement, the Young Socialists.

111. Within the Labour Party and the trade unions, the Trotskyists centred their work on combating illusions in the “lefts”, demanding that they break with the right wing and take up the struggle for a Labour government pledged to socialist policies. In November 1958, the Newsletter held a rank-and-file industrial conference attended by 500 workers from the mines, railways, ports, engineering factories and bus depots. A comment in the Financial Times noted, “Already the group seems to have acquired some degree of influence.… This initial success of the Newsletter Group has only been possible because of the growing weakness and lack of appeal of the official Communist Party. This has created an ideological vacuum among the militants in the unions.”

112. The Labour Party responded by mounting a witch-hunt aimed at crippling the Trotskyists, threatening to expel those associated with the Newsletter. Healy went on the offensive and, in March 1959, the Socialist Labour League (SLL) was formed as an open political tendency. In an internal bulletin, he explained that over the preceding period the relative quiescence of the working class had meant that the Trotskyists had been isolated within the Labour Party, and its leading cadre exposed to constant attack. The opening up of a new wave of industrial struggles meant that the Trotskyists would be able to strengthen their work within the Labour Party—providing they were prepared to adjust their tactics to this change in the political situation, and establish the organisational framework for countering expulsions, and training and educating the new forces they were winning:

“Instead of allowing our people to disappear into the wilderness as a result of expulsions, we now saw the opportunity to reorganise them more openly as the core of the SLL itself. In other words the formation of the SLL was a strategic modification of our total entry policy to a new situation which could not have been foreseen when our movement entered the Labour Party in 1947.”[1]

113. The founding of the SLL was the product of the struggle against Pabloism, directly countering its efforts to liquidate the Trotskyist movement into the Stalinist and social democratic parties. On behalf of the Pabloites, Grant denounced the SLL’s formation in a March 1959 statement, Problems of Entrism:

“All history demonstrates that, at the first stages of revolutionary upsurge, the masses turn to the mass organisations to try and find a solution for their problems, especially the young generation, entering politics for the first time. With the tiny forces we are able to mobilise at the moment, it would be laughable to suppose that the development of the revolution in Britain will follow any other course…. Our job in the preparatory period, which still exists, is the patient winning of ones and twos, perhaps of small groups, but certainly not the creation of a mass revolutionary current, which is not possible at the present time.”[2]

114. Grant invoked tactical considerations of maintaining a base in the Labour Party to justify political prostration before the bureaucracy. This was the same argument he had used to sanction his group’s advocacy of an explicitly reformist programme, claiming that socialism could be achieved by the Labour Party in parliament. Inside the SLL, the Pabloites and the SWP, together with the Cliff group, formed secret factions amongst those who feared that the formation of an open tendency would disrupt their relations within the Labour Party and its periphery. Ellis Hillman wrote a document denouncing the SLL’s formation. A London County Councillor, he refused to associate himself publicly with the SLL and was expelled. He then joined Grant’s RSL and became a founder member of the editorial board of Militant.

115. The Stamford Group, headed by Peter Cadogan, had the support of Peter Fryer, John Daniels, Ken Coates and Alasdair MacIntyre. This secret faction was working with Tony Cliff. Cadogan later described how his group “became quite famous in the Trotskyist world. Three of us wrote long papers about the condition of the SLL which Pablo republished, so that the Trotskyist world all knew about the Stamford faction, it was the first real split in the Trotskyist movement after 1956.”[3] Cadogan advertised his group’s denunciation of Healy, The 1959 situation in the SLL, in the Tribune, providing ammunition for the Labour leadership’s attack on the Trotskyists. Cadogan, Coates and MacIntyre subsequently joined Cliff’s International Socialists. Announcing his resignation in the Guardian, Fryer famously claimed to have no political disagreements with the SLL—only with its supposedly undemocratic treatment of Cadogan. A tendency led by Bob Pennington factionalised with the state capitalist Socialisme ou Barbarie journal. When the faction was proscribed, it founded the “Solidarity” group, which merged with the Cliff group. Pennington later became a leading Pabloite.

116. The SLL also took a stand against the tendency led by Brian Behan, which called for the formation of an essentially syndicalist party. In the pamphlet, What is revolutionary leadership? Cliff Slaughter replied to this position:

“Somehow, it is assumed, the working class will develop revolutionary consciousness because it is exploited. But the ideological struggle within the working class is real, it has to be bitterly fought and won before the class can be fully mobilised for battle. When we say that the long-drawn-out crisis of British imperialism rots away the social basis of reformist politics, that is not to say that the reformists simply leave the scene and leave a vacant place for a naturally radicalised working class desiring a new form of party. Such a party has to be built in the course of struggle with the reformists, and it has to be built by those who grasp the historical process theoretically; it does not grow ‘naturally’ or ‘organically’ out of the economic base.”[4]

117. The SLL applied to the Labour Party for political affiliation and was rejected. The organisation was proscribed and dozens of its leading personnel, including Healy and Slaughter, were expelled. In November 1959, a National Assembly of Labour organised by the SLL attracted 800 delegates and visitors.


Gerry Healy, Some Reflections on the Socialist Labour League, March 1960, cited in What Next?http://www.whatnextjournal.co.uk/Pages/Healy/Sll.html.


Ted Grant, Problems of Entrism, March 1959, http://www.marxists.org/archive/grant/1959/03/entrism.htm.


Cited in Communist History Network Newsletter, Issue 20, http://www.socialsciences.manchester.ac.uk/chnn/CHNN20DUN.html.


Cliff Slaughter, What is revolutionary leadership? (1960) Labour Review. Available at http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/slaughter/1960/10/leadership.html.