In Terry Bisson’s interview with Ken MacLeod in The Human Front (PM Press, 2013), there’s this great answer to Bisson’s question “How come so many UK leftists are Trots?” :
Short answer: because Trotskyists in Britain moved fast on the CP’s crisis in the 1950s, and moved with the times in the 1960s.
Long answer: in the 1960s in a lot of countries semimass currents arose to the left of the official Communist Parties. In some countries, including the United States and West Germany, most of the radicals who wanted to be revolutionaries became some kind of Maoists. In others, including the UK and France, much the same kind of people became Trotskyists. I think part of the explanation goes back to the 1950s, and especially the aftermath of 1956 and the Soviet intervention in Hungary.
The crisis of the Communist Party of Great Britain gave rise to a very serious opposition around a magazine called The New Reasoner, involving academics and people with real labour movement roots, which became what’s now called the Old New Left. Some of these people were very open to Trotsky’s arguments, and none of them were interested in adopting a new personality cult or clinging to the old one.
The funny thing is that in the United States the Trotskyists were much better organised than in Britain. For one thing, they were all in one party, the Socialist Workers Party (except for the Shachtmanites, who were busy becoming social democrats). In Britain they were all in one party too, but it was the Labour Party, and they were split into (at least) three mutually hostile groups. But the largest group was able to intervene in the crisis of the CP and rip off a couple of hundred serious people: intellectuals and trade unionists. Then they picked up more young people from the first wave of anti-nuclear activism—the Aldermaston marches and all that. They proceeded to lose or burn out the best of them, largely because their leader, Gerry Healy, was a thug as well as an ultra-left. The regime in Healy’s group was far worse than anything anyone had experienced in the CPGB. Say what you like about Harry Pollitt (the CP’s general secretary until 1956) he never thumped another communist, or threw anyone down the stairs. But other Trot groups were there to pick up people from the heap at the bottom of Healy’s stairwell. What’s worrying, actually, is how many went back up the stairs. In the United States, the SWP fumbled the CPUSA’s crisis, saw the CP left wing walk past them and into the increasingly ultra-left Progressive Labor, and followed up by failing to dive into the Civil Rights struggle. The mass movement they did dive into was the Vietnam anti-war movement, and even there they found themselves to the right of the young radicals who wanted to wave Vietcong flags. They came across as a very staid, conservative organization, rather like the CPUSA itself, and missed the 1960s. It took some doing at the time for a revolutionary organization to recruit almost no one out of SDS, but the SWP managed it.
Two of the British Trotskyist groups of the 1960s, the International Socialists and the International Marxist Group, were very much more open to the so-called counterculture. They didn’t frown on kids with long hair who smoked dope. They waved their own Vietcong flags. They shifted farther and faster than the U.S. SWP did on gay liberation, as it was then called. They had plenty of militant working-class struggles to pitch into, which the SWP didn’t to the same extent (and it missed out on the ones it did have).
So Britain is infested with ex-Trots instead of with ex-Maoists, which is a small mercy.
The lesson, yet again: don’t go hating on the kids with weird hair and strange habits…