Contemporary Trotskyism: Parties, Sects and Social Movements in Britain, 1st Edition (e-Book) book cover

Contemporary Trotskyism

Parties, Sects and Social Movements in Britain, 1st Edition

By John Kelly


296 pages | 5 B/W Illus.

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Almost 80 years after Leon Trotsky founded the Fourth International, there are now Trotskyist organizations in 57 countries, including most of Western Europe and Latin America. Yet no Trotskyist group has ever led a revolution or built an enduring mass, political party. Contemporary Trotskyism looks in detail at the influence, resilience and weaknesses of the British Trotskyist movement, from the 1970s to the present day.

The book argues that to understand and explain the development, resilience and influence of Trotskyist groups, we need to analyse them as bodies that comprise elements of three types of organization: the political party, the sect and the social movement. It is the properties of these three facets of organization and the interplay between them that gives rise to the most characteristic features of the Trotskyist movement: frenetic activity, rampant divisions, inter-organizational hostility, authoritarian and charismatic leadership, high membership turnover and ideological rigidity.

Trotskyist groups have been involved in a wide range of important social movements including trade unions, student unions, anti-war, anti-racist and anti-fascist groups. While their energy and activity in civil society have had some success, their influence has never been reflected in votes or seats at elections even after the financial crisis.

Drawing on extensive archival research, as well as interviews with many of the leading protagonists and activists within the Trotskyist milieu, this is essential reading for students, activists and researchers with an interest in the far left, social movements and contemporary British political history.


A fascinating study of a politics that refuses to disappear. This book is essential reading for anyone interested in the possibilities and the limits of revolutionary politics. Matthew Worley, Professor of Modern History, Reading University, UK

John Kelly has written the definitive guide to contemporary Trotskyism in England and Wales. The analysis is sharp and clear, always taking its subject matter seriously, probing every aspect of the phenomenon. It fulfils the author’s intention to explain the structure, influence and ambition of the movement utilising the techniques of political science and a deep knowledge of the history of the far left. John Callaghan, Professor of Politics and Contemporary History, University of Salford, UK

Contemporary Trotskyism is a fascinating and well-researched excavation of a much maligned and under-studied social movement. Mocked and feared in almost equal measure, John Kelly’s account provides a thorough overview of its highs and lows, its persistence and challenges, as well as those moments Trotskyism influenced the development of British politics as a whole. Dr Phil Burton-Cartledge, Lecturer in Sociology, University of Derby, UK

Concentrating on developments after 1970, and covering England and Wales only, Kelly’s detailed and thoroughly researched account charts the rise in the number of Trotskyists from 124 in 1950, to 475 in 1960, 4,000 in 1970, nearly 10,000 in 1980, and peaking at over 20,000 in 1985. He calls the 1932–49 period ‘The formation’, 1950–65 ‘The bleak years: limited growth inside the Labour Party’, and 1966–85 ‘The golden age’. This is followed by ‘Disintegration’, with numbers down to 5,900 by 2004, and ‘Stasis’, with 9,500 counted in 2016 (40–1). Dave Lyddon, Keele University

Table of Contents


Chapter 1 - Theoretical Perspectives

Chapter 2 - Trotsky and the Origins of Trotskyism

Chapter 3 - Development of the Trotskyist Movement in Britain, Part 1: 1950–1985

Chapter 4 - Development of the Trotskyist Movement in Britain, Part 2: 1985–2017

Chapter 5 - Doctrine, Orthodoxy and Sectarianism

Chapter 6 - Party Recruitment

Chapter 7 - Party Electoral Performance

Chapter 8 - Organizational Resources

Chapter 9 - Working in the Trade Unions

Chapter 10 - Social Movements and Front Organizations

Chapter 11 - The Proliferation of Trotskyist Internationals

Chapter 12 - The Achievements, Limitations and Weaknesses of Trotskyism

Appendix 1 British Trotskyist Organizations 1950–2017

Appendix 2 Sources for Trotskyist Organizational Membership Figures

Appendix 3 Trotskyist Organizations in Western Europe 2017

Appendix 4 Defunct Trotskyist Internationals 1970–2017

Appendix 5 List of Interviewees


About the Author

John Kelly teaches at the Department of Management, Birkbeck College, University of London. He has published widely on trade unions and the labour movement.

About the Series

Routledge Studies in Radical History and Politics

The series Routledge Studies in Radical History and Politics has two areas of interest. Firstly, this series aims to publish books which focus on the history of movements of the radical left. ‘Movement of the radical left’ is here interpreted in its broadest sense as encompassing those past movements for radical change which operated in the mainstream political arena as with political parties, and past movements for change which operated more outside the mainstream as with millenarian movements, anarchist groups, utopian socialist communities, and trade unions. Secondly, this series aims to publish books which focus on more contemporary expressions of radical left-wing politics. Recent years have been witness to the emergence of a multitude of new radical movements adept at getting their voices in the public sphere. From those participating in the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, community unionism, social media forums, independent media outlets, local voluntary organisations campaigning for progressive change, and so on, it seems to be the case that innovative networks of radicalism are being constructed in civil society that operate in different public forms.  

The series very much welcomes titles with a British focus, but is not limited to any particular national context or region. The series will encourage scholars who contribute to this series to draw on perspectives and insights from other disciplines.

Learn more…

Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
POLITICAL SCIENCE / Political Ideologies / General