Death of a Tendency
The recent death of Ted Grant at the age of 93 has been a landmark, albeit a minor one, in British political history.
Grant was the last of the three great gurus of the British Trotskyist movement and the eminence grise of what became known as the Militant Tendency. Along with his two main Trotskyist rivals, Gerry Healy (of the Socialist Labour League/Workers’ Revolutionary Party) and Tony Cliff (of International Socialism/the Socialist Workers’ Party) he had a considerable input into what became – with the decline of the Communist Party – the most significant political trend to the left of the Labour Party.
Born Isaac Blank just outside Johannesburg, he changed his name to Grant when he came to Britain during the turbulent mid-1930s with a small band of other South African militants, convinced that it would be more fertile political territory than his country of birth. Attracted to the political ideas of the exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, this small group of South African émigrés had already been influential in the founding of South Africa’s first Trotskyist organisation, the Workers’ International League, and soon made a mark on the fledgling British Trotskyist movement. Of the two small British Trotskyist groupings of the time, the Balham Group and the Revolutionary Socialist League (later to be called the Militant Labour League, selling a newspaper called Militant), Grant and his colleagues were attracted towards the latter. In what became a tradition of the Trotskyist movement not only in Britain but internationally, they soon split from it though to form their own organisation, this time a British version of the Workers’ International League they had left behind in South Africa. Among those joining them was the Scottish orator Jock Haston and a voluble Irish militant, Gerry Healy.
In 1938 Leon Trotsky and his followers set up an international organisation intended to rival the worldwide Communist (‘Third’) International. This ‘Fourth International’ cast around for a British section, but the tiny group around Grant, Haston and Healy was ignored and the franchise went instead to the larger Militant Labour League. For this key event in Trotskyist history then, Grant and his comrades were shunned and Grant himself never got to meet Trotsky before the ‘Old Man’s’ assassination by Soviet agents in Mexico in 1940.
During the Second World War, Grant’s WIL was active on the industrial front and soon began to eclipse its parent organisation in both membership and influence – so much so, that by 1944 the Fourth International persuaded the two organisations to merge, in what was effectively a WIL takeover. The new organisation created was called the Revolutionary Communist Party and was the first (and last) time the British Trotskyist movement was united in the one organisation.
Grant became editor of the RCP’s paper, Socialist Appeal, and Grant and Haston were the organisation’s first delegates to the Fourth International. The RCP existed for three years and grew to 500-600 members, being a thorn in the side of the Communist Party before, in true Trotskyist fashion, internal strife led to decline and a split.
Significantly, in the late 1940s three main factions had begun to emerge which were to be the main tendencies within the Trotskyist movement in Britain in the decades thereafter. Those around the Palestinian émigré Tony Cliff developed a distinctive version of the theory that what existed in the Soviet Union was a form of state capitalism (though only after Stalin’s accession to power in 1928) and therefore couldn’t be supported by socialists, while the groups around Grant and Healy held on to Trotsky’s own belief that what existed in Russia was a workers’ state, albeit a degenerated one. Indeed, the Grant and Healy factions had much in common politically, and it was mainly the bitter personal hostility that developed between the two men that kept their groupings separate.
In the early 1950s, Grant and his small number of followers started a magazine called International Socialist. Grant lived in London and worked as a night-time telephone operator, which left him free to pursue his political work as a Trotskyist during the day. At this time he began to build up a close political relationship with a Trotskyist from Birkenhead called Jimmy Dean, who was the driving force behind Rally, a paper popular with the youth section of the Labour Party in the North West of England (and soon edited from Liverpool by a teenage Pat Wall, later one of the Militant supporting Labour MPs).
By 1955 Grant and his supporters decided that the time was right to found a new organisation. Harking back to the group Grant first joined on his arrival from South Africa, it was called the Revolutionary Socialist League and its first General Secretary was Jimmy Dean. It effectively fused two small Trotskyist bases in London and Liverpool where Grant had an influence, and was a tightly-knit organisation built on the Leninist principles of the vanguard party, being hierarchical and secretive in almost equal measure, operating like other Trotskyist groups before it as a clandestine faction within the Labour Party.
Coincidentally, two years earlier the Trotskyist Fourth International had split. Healy’s faction had the UK franchise but went off with the splitters, leaving a vacancy for a British Section which the leadership of the FI allegedly tried to fill by placing an advertisement in Tribune, which Grant answered. By 1957, the RSL was given the British franchise by the FI but advanced only sporadically, starting a new paper called Socialist Fight but otherwise being eclipsed by other Trotskyist groups, particularly Healy’s. At the time the Healy, Cliff and Grant factions were all building up support by working inside the Labour Party as secret parties within a party, focusing especially on the Labour League of Youth, but Grant’s faction was so unsuccessful that the FI forced it to merge with an up-and-coming young group of Trotskyists in Nottingham around Ken Coates called the International Group. When this marriage of convenience led to the inevitable divorce within a year or so, the FI took the opportunity to rescind Grant’s franchise altogether, giving it instead to the Nottingham faction which by then had turned itself into the International Marxist Group (IMG), a current which went on to develop a strong student base under the leadership of Tariq Ali.
The loss of the Fourth International franchise was an understandable blow to Grant, but around the same time his group had begun to take steps which were to prove more fruitful, the most significant of which was the creation of a new publication to be called Militant – for Labour and Youth. It’s editor was a young Liverpudlian with strong organisational abilities called Peter Taaffe, who became Grant’s lieutenant-in-chief, while Grant himself was political editor. The striking design of the paper was created by Roger Protz, later of the Campaign For Real Ale, but who was a notable activist at various times in each of the three main Trotskyist factions in British politics (later, in Cliff’s International Socialists, he became editor of Socialist Worker). It was to be growing sales of Militant, combined with systematic, organised activity in the Labour Party, which was eventually to bear fruit for Grant’s faction.
By 1966 they were the only one of the three main Trotskyist factions still inside the Labour Party. Healy’s group had, by the early 1960s, almost completely taken over the (now renamed) Labour Party Young Socialists and after several attempts they were eventually expelled, with Grant personally refusing at one stage to vote to keep Healy-ites in the Party. Cliff’s faction disengaged from Labour in the mid-1960s, seeing propaganda opportunities in disassociating itself from Wilson’s Labour government, leaving the field free for Grant. By 1970 Grant’s RSL had a majority on the Labour Party Young Socialists Executive and from 1972 onwards always had one of its members on the Labour NEC as the LPYS representative.
Throughout the 1970s, the influence of what by this time was becoming known as the ‘Militant Tendency’ grew apace, both in the Labour Party and trade unions. Grant’s organisation moved from being the least well-known of the major Trotskyists sects to becoming the most well-known, with something of a ‘workerist’ face, placing less emphasis on building up student support than most Trotskyist groups and more on recruiting the skilled and semi-skilled working class, especially local government workers.
By the 1980s Militant’s growth and influence was such that it could claim scores of Labour councillors across Britain as ‘supporters’ (when in reality they were RSL members who couldn’t publicly admit to being a ‘party within a party’). In addition, they could claim several Labour Parliamentary candidates – three of whom (Dave Nellist, Terry Fields and Pat Wall) eventually became MPs, and – most controversially of all – they took effective control of Liverpool City Council, with Derek Hatton as the council’s Deputy Leader and Tony Mulhearn (a long-time RSL member more trusted by Grant) as his aide de camp.
The mid-1980s, when the Tendency claimed over 8,000 ‘supporters’, was the peak of Militant’s influence on British politics and the nearest Grant came to fulfilling his dream of creating a mass Trotskyist base within the Labour Party. But its size, influence and the notoriety attached to it by the mainstream press led to the first systematic attempt to deal with Trotskyist infiltration in the Labour Party since the expulsion of the Healy-ites. Earlier, in 1975, Lord Underhill had written a report on Militant’s activities in the Labour Party for a left-wing dominated Labour NEC that chose at the time to do nothing about it. But in the 1980s the Labour leadership acted, first under Michael Foot and then under Neil Kinnock, with his famous attack on the Militants on Liverpool City Council at the 1985 Labour Party conference, after they had deployed the tactic of refusing to set a rate, issuing 30,000 council workers with redundancy notices.
Labour initially started by picking on the most obvious candidates for expulsion, the five members of Militant’s Editorial Board, including Grant and Taaffe, who were expelled in 1983. After this, large and increasing numbers of their comrades were systematically put outside the Party they claimed was ‘the mass party of the working class’.
Throughout the lifetime of the RSL, ‘entryism’ into the Labour Party was one of its defining characteristics as a Trotskyist current. Others used entryism as a tactic, including Cliff and Healy, but for Grant’s group it appeared to amount to more than this – it was a defining political position. Sometimes called ‘deep entryism’ it was not simply about a Trotskyist organisation going into the Labour Party, building up support and effectively raiding it for new members before emerging into the outside world stronger and fitter. For Grant, as Militant’s main theoretician, the task of his tendency was to ‘win the Labour Party to socialism’ on the grounds that a united Labour and trade union movement under a Trotskyist leadership was unstoppable.
The means for achieving this goal was deep entryism plus a particular variety of Trotsky’s ‘transitional demands’ programme, a strategy developed from Lenin’s premise that the working class in capitalism was not capable through its own efforts of developing a socialist consciousness. This transitional programme was a carefully calculated list of demands – such as massive public works programmes, the nationalisation of the top 200 monopolies, and an implausibly generous minimum wage – which would be superficially attractive to supporters of reforms in the wider Labour and trade union movement, and which Militant thought contained the seeds of a future socialist society. The intention was a dishonest one, for Grant and Militant’s other leaders knew that these demands were not generally capable of realisation within the normal politics of capitalism – indeed, that was the very point of advocating them. The resultant anger they expected within the working class when these demands were unmet would lead, they hoped, to a lurch towards the left under the leadership of the Trotskyist vanguard itself – the RSL.
The desire to stay in the Labour Party at all costs coupled with distinctive transitional demands that could lead to a Trotskyist leadership introducing ‘socialism’ (really state-run capitalism based on nationalisation) via an Enabling Act in parliament – and supported by workers’ councils in the industrial field – was what really defined Militant in relation to the other Trotskyist sects. Also, and uniquely, the RSL quickly identified the arena of local government as a means for criticising traditional, piecemeal reformist politics (saying they would always oppose rent and rates increases), raising its programme of more radical transitional demands instead as the ‘bridge to socialism’:
“To lift the horizon of the local parish pump politicians on to the broader national and international field – this is the first task of the revolutionary Councillor . . . It is necessary within the Labour Groups and in open council to point out the limitations of particular struggles and reforms and show how (in theory and practice) reformism (nationally and locally) cannot resolve the contradictions of capitalism.” (RSL ‘Notes on Council Work’, by Ellis Hillman, 1961.)
These socialist-sounding phrases, in reality masking the advocacy of what were, in effect, just more radical reforms of capitalism, was typical of their entryist tactic, as later exemplified in Liverpool. Combined with their relentless workerism and disdain for non-economic issues, this constituted their ‘Unique Selling Point’ within the Trotskyist milieu (unlike others, Militant had relatively little interest in sexual or student politics, or supporting Third World nationalist movements).
These were the key perspectives handed down by Grant himself, consistently over decades. Indeed, it was often said by his supporters and opponents alike that Grant was saying the same things in the 1980s as he had been saying in the 1940s, and his book, “The Unbroken Thread: the Development of Trotskyism Over 40 Years“, is testament to this. This would have to include his oft-repeated claim (following Trotsky, and like his rival Gerry Healy of the WRP) that capitalist collapse leading to a Trotskyist leadership of a revolutionary working class was imminent in ‘the coming period’ of the next 10-15 years, somewhat in the perpetual manner of ‘tomorrow never comes’.
In the eventually, capitalism outlived Grant himself. Indeed, Grant’s end appears to have been a rather sad one, in an old people’s home, years after having been kicked out of the Labour party and then, rather more remarkably, the RSL itself. The campaign of the Labour leadership in the 1980s against Militant had been so successful that by 1992 the majority of the RSL, led by Taaffe, came to the conclusion that continuing with entryism was pointless and stood ‘Militant Labour’ candidates against the official Labour Party, with mixed success. A group around Grant and one of his protégés, Alan Woods, refused to accept this reversal of what the Tendency had always stood for, and were expelled.
Just as Grant had borrowed from early Trotskyist groups when founding the Revolutionary Socialist League and its paper, Militant, so this expelled rump from the RSL started a new paper called Socialist Appeal, the name of the journal Grant edited while one of the leaders of the RCP just after the war. Never more than a couple of hundred at most, this group made little impact, while after a period of serious decline the slightly larger Militant Labour eventually voted in 1997 to dishonestly turn itself into the ‘Socialist Party’ (of England and Wales – SPEW to its enemies), effectively trying to usurp the name of the SPGB. This grouping has since declined further, though its leading elements in Scotland, such as Tommy Sheridan, were instrumental in forming the rather more successful but equally reformist Scottish Socialist Party.
The modern legacy of Ted Grant is an interesting one, for in many respects he was the most successful of the three main British Trotskyist leaders, while still falling well short of his ultimate goal. From a socialist perspective, the Militant Tendency (like the other Trotskyist groups) did much to muddy the waters of revolutionary politics in the UK, posing as socialist while supporting the usual Trotskyist stew of radical reformist demands with the long-term aim of state-run capitalism organised by a Leninist vanguard party, another classic ‘dictatorship over the proletariat’, with Grant as leader-in-waiting.
Grant knew full well of the real socialist alternative promoted by the Socialist Party of Great Britain and our companion parties overseas (he debated Socialist Party speaker Tony Turner in 1945 and was wont to deride us as ‘ultra left’ sectarians) but he rejected real socialism for the type of politics that cast him in the role of leader, manipulating the mass of the proletariat towards a ‘revolutionary situation’. But, as history proved, the working class were not so easily manipulated by Grant’s particular mix of Trotskyist tactics, and his lifetime was effectively wasted on an ultimately dishonest political cause.
This was a shame, because like Tony Cliff, Grant had much energy and some talent as a writer and speaker. He was an obsessive analyst of – and collector of information about – the capitalist economy, though arguably (because of his unsupported belief in capitalist collapse) his best works were not in this field. His political tract Against the Theory of State Capitalism in 1949, for instance, was a relentlessly logical attack on the irrationality of the Cliff (SWP) position from an orthodox Trotskyist perspective, implying that the only coherent state capitalist theory applied to the Soviet bloc, etc came from those, like the Socialist Party, who rejected Leninist and Trotskyist politics altogether. And in more recent times, he collaborated with Alan Woods to write an excellent book called,” Reason and Revolt: Marxist Philosophy and Modern Science“, a history of science and scientific methods from a general Marxist standpoint. Grant will be remembered, above all else though, for founding a political tendency which hit the headlines and gained public notoriety but which otherwise did the socialist movement huge amounts of damage.
His political heirs in Socialist Appeal and SPEW fittingly continue to peddle the same kind of elitist and outdated reformist nonsense now as Grant did when he first became a Trotskyist in the 1930s. Indeed, for years Grant was derided by many for sounding rather like an old, broken record – and today, his surviving political heirs most certainly stand out as badly scratched vinyl in what is a transparently digital age.