Trotsky’s “planet without a visa”

“PLUS ÇA change; plus ça reste la même chose” (the more things change the more they stay the same ) as the French say.

Peter Taaffe, Socialist Party general secretary

New Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw today refuses the right of asylum in Britain for the victims of oppression and murder throughout the globe. His predecessor JR Clynes, Home Secretary in the MacDonald Labour government of 1929-31, acted in a similar fashion as previously secret government papers have revealed. He denied the right of entry into Britain of the persecuted revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky.

Four times Trotsky applied for asylum in Britain between 1929 and 1934 and four times he was turned down.

Hounded from pillar to post by the Stalinist bureaucratic elite and the capitalists, the whole world was for Trotsky, “a planet without a visa”. Yet the possibility of a MacDonald Labour government coming to power in 1929 raised his hopes.

In a meeting with Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Fabian co-thinkers of MacDonald, Trotsky expressed his intention to apply for a visa from the MacDonald government. Webb expressed the view that the government may not find itself strong enough, because of its dependence on the Liberals, to grant Trotsky’s request. Trotsky replied that a party that “isn’t strong enough to be able to answer for its actions had no right to power”.

Yet, when the Labour government did refuse a visa it met with protest from the Liberals! They were joined by Labour MPs of the time and trade unions, including the National Union of Teachers. No public reasons were given other than Clynes declaring: “The right of asylum does not mean the right of an exile to demand asylum but the right of the state to refuse it.” As Trotsky himself pointed out at the time: “By a single blow it destroys the very foundations of so-called (capitalist) democracy”.

THE RIGHT of asylum was inherited from the Christian church which in turn inherited it from paganism. The pursued ‘criminal’ could make his way to a temple, sometimes just touching the rim of the door to be safe from persecution. The church saw the right of asylum as the right of the persecuted to asylum, and not as an arbitrary exercise on the part of the pagan or Christian priests.

In its historical origin the right of asylum does not fundamentally differ from the rights of freedom of speech or assembly. But Clynes infringed this right 71 years ago as Straw does today with his attacks on democratic rights.

Clynes spells out in the secret papers that Trotsky was refused admission to Britain because it was necessary for the Labour government to mollify Stalin. “His admission might be regarded as an unfriendly act by the Soviet government…Trotsky’s supporters in other countries, France and Germany, will be encouraged and would have an effect on their Communist Parties”. He further argued that Trotsky was “one of the Bolsheviks who made the Russian Revolution” and would see his admission as “shaking hands with murderers”.

This theme is taken up by Andreas Whittam Smith, co-founder of The Independent, who in retrospect defends Trotsky’s exclusion from Britain by Clynes. He professes “admiration for (Trotsky’s) amazing firmness of purpose, single-mindedness, courage – and for his literary skills”. But he then goes on to make the astonishing and false claim that Trotsky “wasn’t any less ruthless than Stalin was to prove, nor did he shrink from judicial murder”.

A few days before Whittam Smith’s diatribes against Trotsky The Independent declared in an editorial comment, in relation to the actions of the MacDonald government: “An almost normal revolutionary (Trotsky) was kept out of Britain on behalf of a mass murdering revolutionary (Stalin)”.

Whittam Smith conveniently ignores that Trotsky applied force to the representatives of the dispossessed landlords and capitalists in Russia who attempted to overthrow the first workers’ government in history. This government had been brought to power through democratic elections in the soviets (workers and peasants’ councils). Stalin on the other hand used mass terror on behalf of a bureaucratic elite to destroy the Bolshevik party, the most successful workers’ party and the most democratic in history.

But even if Whittam Smith’s “bloodthirsty” charges against Trotsky were correct why not admit him in 1929 and practically demonstrate the advantages of British capitalist democracy? This is what HG Wells argued at the time: “Trotsky”, he said, “had trenchant literary power”, and had an “extraordinary career which gave him a hold on the public imagination”. Wells argued that if Trotsky was to live in Britain he may “change his present state of mind”. Wells argued that Britain had long been the home of so-called “dangerous opinions”. Asylum had been granted to Marx and Engels and Lenin. Indeed Trotsky had entered Britain and lived in London in 1902 and Trotsky made a further fleeting visit in 1907.

However, Clynes declared to the Cabinet: “It would be futile to expect him (Trotsky) to abstain from politics”. An official commented: “The idea of Trotsky in quiet retirement is comic.”

Yet, Trotsky was one man and there was hardly a Trotskyist movement in Britain at that stage. The viciousness and fear of MacDonald and Clynes, as well as the cowardly acquiescence of others such as Sidney Webb, soon to be Lord Passfield, is to be explained not by the force of numbers behind Trotsky but the force of his ideas. He could have enormously aided the development of a genuine Marxist force in Britain at that time, which was beginning to develop around the Independent Labour Party which seperated itself from the Labour Party in 1932.

Jack Straw, was one of the initiators of the witch-hunt against Militant, now the Socialist Party, in the Labour Party in the 1980s. Clynes persecuted Trotsky 70 years ago and sought to outlaw his followers now seven decades later Straw also keeps out the victims of oppression who seek refuge in Britain while allowing Pinochet, the murderer of the Chilean working class, to escape justice.

Straw and Blair have not joined a national government like MacDonald only because there already exists an element of this in the present New Labour government.

There is a symmetry in the actions of Clynes 70 years ago and Straw today. The lessons of this should be learnt by the present generation. A world without passports, without fortresses to keep out the dispossessed, hungry and persecuted is not possible through New Labour but only if we create a socialist world.