Revolutionary Socialist League (UK)

From Academic Kids

The Revolutionary Socialist League was the name of two Trotskyist political parties in the United Kingdom, one in the 1930s and 1940s and a second one which was founded in the 1950s and existed into the 1960s.

The first RSL was formed in early 1938 with the merger of two different parties, the Marxist League led by Harry Wicks and the Marxist Group led by C. L. R. James.

In August 1938, James P. Cannon and Max Shachtman came to London in an attempt to unite all four British Trotskyist groups. The RSL, the Militant Group and the Revolutionary Socialist Party merged to form a new Revolutionary Socialist League, but the Workers International League refused, claiming that agreement on perspectives was insufficient and that the new group represented a dilution of democratic centralism.

The new RSL became the British affiliate of the newly formed Fourth International. They maintained the Militant Labour League as an united front for those members who were involved in Labour Party entryism and published The Militant.

The position of the WIL was swiftly vindicated when the Revolutionary Socialist Party left, most of the leadership joining the Independent Labour Party while younger members joined the Workers International League (WIL).

The group adopted a defeatist policy during World War II, which they modelled on Lenins Revolutionary defeatist tactics of the 1914-18 war but which was seen byy thier rivfals in the WIL as being pacifist, and had some initial successes when the Shop Assistants' Union (later USDAW) adopted their position in 1940. This led the Labour Party to ban the Militant Labour League. In addition, the group became increasingly inactive as many younger members were conscripted into the British Army.

More importantly the group's position opposing the war became a major cause of factional strife both within the group and between it and the WIL. Three major positions developed which help to explicate the ensuing factional divisions outlined below. Firstly a Left Fraction formed which opposed the war on a basis all other factions described as pacifist. Secondly the leadership faction around D D Harber held a position that opposed the Proletarian Military Policy (PMP) of the WIL and was described by its opponents as semi-pacifist. Finally the WIL and tendencies leaving the RSL at different times adhered to the aforementioned PMP.

In 1939, some RSL members split to form the Revolutionary Workers League, which Isaac Deutscher soon joined, due to the inaction of the RSL leadership when war began. Initially they used the name RSL as the official group was inactive only changing their name later. However the majority of the RWL joined the WIL in 1940, the remainder rejoining the RSL in 1941. Another split produced the Socialist Workers Group, which published Socialist Fight and entered the ILP, some of its former members eventually joining the Trotskyist Opposition, a group, expelled in 1942 from the RSL. This group, led by John Lawrence, advocated adoption of the PMP of the Socialist Workers Party an was in favour of fusing with the WIL. in fact collaboration between the Trotskyist Opposition and the WIL was so close that lawrence was employed by the latter on technical tasks. Finally, in 1943, the Left Fraction who were opposed to that policy were expelled.

The leadership of the RSL refused to enter into any unity negotiations, despite the party's drastic reduction from 300 to 20 members, until in 1944 the Fourth International held a two-day conference. This conferene being required to re-unite the group so that it could fuse with the WIL into a single organisation which could then affiliate to the Fourth International. As planned on the first day, the Trotskyist Opposition and the Left Fraction were reunited with the RSL. Despite the objections of the Left Fraction, the second day saw the reformed RSL unified with the WIL – on the WIL's terms – to form the new Revolutionary Communist Party.

After the dissolution of the RCP, some former members of the RCP around Ted Grant who were expelled from the RCP's successor, The Club, in 1950 went on to form the second Revolutionary Socialist League in 1953. It was an entrist group within the Labour Party. In 1958 the group was recognised as the British section of the International Secretariat of the Fourth International but lost this designation in the 1965 after the departure of what became the International Marxist Group. In 1964 the RSL founded a newspaper called Militant and the group itself soon became known as Militant or the Militant Tendency.


Against the Stream, Sam Bornbstein and Al Richardson (London, 1986) War and the International, Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson (London, 1986)


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