Rob Sewell

Ted Grant: A Brief Biography

Written: May 2002

Ted Grant was born in South Africa, just before the first world war in a place called Germiston, just outside Johannesburg. His father, Max Blank, had emigrated to South Africa from Western Russia, and was engaged in a mineral business, while his mother Adelle came from Le Marais in Paris. They married at the turn of the century, Adelle being 16 years of age and Max 32. They had two sons, Isador and Isaac (Ted), and three daughters, Rose, Rachael and Zena.

After a long marriage, their parents eventually divorced, and after a six-month stay with his father, Ted went to live permanently with his mother. While she ran a small grocery shop in Johannesburg, Ted was sent off to boarding school and his sisters to the convent to continue their education.

In his youth, he was inspired by events in Russia. But, as is so often the case, his first contact with the revolutionary movement had an accidental character. In order to supplement the family income, his mother took in lodgers, one of whom was Ralph (Raff) Lee, who had been a member of the South African Communist Party since 1922, but was expelled during the first Stalinist purges. A dedicated communist, Ralph had regular discussions with Ted, introducing him to the writings of Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Maxim Gorky, Jack London and others. Within a short time, the reading material graduated to the writings of Marx and Engels, as well as Lenin. By the age fifteen Ted was a convinced Marxist. Ralph also managed to win over Ted's younger sister Zena.

Lee, with others including the fifteen-year old Ted Grant, had made contact with the international Trotskyist movement in early 1929 via the American Militant, which had been dispatched to South Africa by the newly founded Communist League of America.

These South African Trotskyists set themselves the task of organising a group, and they managed to pull together half a dozen members. Despite their isolation and weak forces, they turned towards the workers and re-established the Johannesburg Laundry Workers Union in 1934. By the autumn of 1934, two members of the group left for "wider horizons" in England. They were Ted Grant and Max Basch. Ted was never to return. In a stop-over in France, they met Trotsky's son, Leon Sedov, who was a member of the International Secretariat and co-ordinator of the work of the International Communist League, who was later murdered by Stalin's agents.

On their arrival in Britain in December 1934, Max Basch changed his name to Sid Frost and Ted changed his from Isaac Blank to Ted Grant - apparently "borrowed" from two of the ship's crew. In the same way, Trotsky had taken his name from one of his old tsarist jailors. Ted did this for personal reasons - to protect his family: whatever happened to him, he did not want anything bad to happen to his family back home in South Africa.

In London, they both joined the Marxist Group inside the Independent Labour Party. However, the possibilities for revolutionary work were becoming less and less, and within a matter of months, Ted Grant left the ILP to join the Trotskyists working within the Labour Party's youth organisation - the Labour League of Youth. From then on, Ted helped to develop the Bolshevik-Leninist Group within the Labour Party, which later became known as the Militant Group, after the name of its paper. At this time, their main work consisted of fighting the growing Stalinist influence within the youth movement.

Shortly after his arrival in Britain, Ted also became actively involved in the struggle against fascism, engaging together with other comrades in running battles with the Moselyite Black Shirts in the East End of London. Here he participated in the famous battle of Cable Street, when the workers of the East End mobilised to stop the fascists in their tracks. There exists a photograph of Ted on a barricade in Long Lane, Bermondsey, South London, taken in 1937, which was reproduced in the 1948 edition of his pamphlet The Menace of Fascism, published by the Revolutionary Communist Party.

Ted Grant's early years in the South African group had given him a sound theoretical grounding in Marxism which placed him in good stead for the role he was to later play in the Trotskyist movement. After a few years, the failure of the leadership of the Militant Group to develop the tendency in any meaningful way, led to a growing dissatisfaction within its ranks. By the autumn of 1937, Ted's own branch in Paddington had become the most active section of the Group, selling the bulk of its newspapers, intervening in the wider labour movement, and engaging in extensive public activity.

Towards the end of the year, a row erupted over the election of the Group's leadership, where slanders were circulated about Ralph Lee. Lee, who had been a key figure in South Africa, had recently joined the Militant Group after emigrating with a group Trotskyists during the summer. This episode led to a walkout by Ralph, Ted and seven others that ended with the formation of a new group called the Workers International League (WIL), in December 1937.

The young comrades of the WIL turned their backs on the failed sectarian methods of the past and turned their faces firmly towards the broader layers of the organised working class. In reality, this marked the real beginning of British Trotskyism. Grant played a leading role in this work, not only within the newly-formed Workers International League but also within the Revolutionary Communist Party founded in March 1944.

The war proved a testing time. By the end of 1940, Ralph had returned to South Africa for personal and health reasons, and the work of building the organisation fell on the shoulders of the other leading comrades, especially Ted, Millie and Jock Haston.

The WIL enthusiastically embraced the new proletarian military policy when Trotsky first put it forward. This developed and deepened the Internationalists' position during the First World War, and, while maintaining a principled opposition to the imperialist war, allowed the Trotskyists to connect with the working class.

The WIL decisively challenged the attacks of the Stalinists, who after June 1941, took on a rabid chauvinist and strike-breaking role. The WIL, with a new orientation, changed the name of its paper from Youth for Socialism to Socialist Appeal, with Ted Grant as its editor.

It can be said without any exaggeration that the WIL/RCP is likely to have conducted the most successful work in wartime of any Trotskyist organisation in the world. Ted was central in this as the WIL's national secretary, then as the political secretary of the RCP.

The immediate post-war period opened up tremendous challenges before the international Trotskyist movement. The leadership of the RCP quickly came to an understanding of the new realities and changed their perspective accordingly. In contrast, the leadership of the International make one mistake after another.

Again, Ted Grant played an essential role in this reorientation of British Trotskyism. As the leading theoretician of the RCP, Ted was able to extend and develop Marxist theory in a whole series of new directions after 1945. These ranged from the Marxist theory of the state to the defence of Marxist economic theory, from the peculiar development of the colonial revolution to Marxist tactics towards the mass organisations and party building.

From 1943, James Cannon, the leading American Trotskyist, who had met with opposition from the WIL to his proposal to unify all the groups in 1938, conspired to remove the leadership of the British organisation and replace it with a more compliant set of individuals. Cannon was schooled in the methods of Zinoviev, intrigued with Gerry Healy, who led a factional struggle in the WIL and RCP, to destroy the Haston-Grant leadership.

Although Ted was a member of the International Executive Committee, in the early period due to a lack of a British passport, he wasn't able to participate in its work. This was left in the hand of Jock Haston.

Cannon and the so-called International leadership supported the splitting in the RCP, with Healy's minority entering the Labour Party in late 1947, and the eventual fusion of the two groups in mid-1949, on Healy's terms. Ted strenuously opposed both these actions.

Once the fusion took place between the RCP and Healy's group, Healy acted in the most dictatorial fashion, expelling people on the most trivial pretexts. As a result, Jock Haston was effectively driven out of the movement. Other leaders, such as Roy Tearse and Jimmy Deane, were expelled. Ted was bureaucratically expelled as well after 22 years membership of the Trotskyist movement. He was also a member of the Executive Committee of the Fourth International, and had his expulsion ratified at the Third World Congress on the motion of Ernest Mandel (Germaine).

By the end of 1950, the wrecking actions of Healy had destroyed the Party. Ted then attempted to regroup and salvage as much as possible from the wreckage of the RCP. Without any full timers or apparatus, the comrades struggled to hold things together. Ted, after being forced to give up full-time work by Healy, took a job as a door-to-door salesman selling brushes.

In May 1951, the first national conference took place in London. It was reported that there were 20 members in London and 11 in Liverpool, with a scattering of contacts around the country. The group had no alternative but to work in the Labour Party.

The conference decided to launch a theoretical magazine every two months. Figures like Jimmy Deane and his brothers Arthur Deane and Brian Deane, Alec Riach, Sam Levy and others helped to gather funds to launch the new publication. The first issue of the new magazine called International Socialist, with Ted as its editor, appeared in February 1952. However, the lack of resources and a paucity of funds meant that the magazine appeared only spasmodically between February 1952 and April 1954.

In 1953 a split took place in the International, with Healy and Cannon leaving to form their own grouping. This left the International without a section in Britain. After some discussions, Ted's group was recognised as the official British section. By the end of the year Ted again became full-timer worker, and a new magazine, Workers International Review, was launched.

This attempt to re-establish a group in Britain coincided with an unfolding political revolution in Hungary. The revolutionary events in Hungary created a storm of unrest within the Communist Parties internationally. In Britain, a big layer of the Communist Party was in ferment and open to the ideas of Trotskyism.

Ted raised the question of an open banner and the launch of an open organisation, as the only effective means of appealing to the dissidents within the CP. As a result, in early 1957, the Revolutionary Socialist League was launched.

Ted and other comrades made contact and discussed with a layer of CP dissidents, but few gains were made, and the experiment of the RSL was wound up after possibilities within the Communist Party dried up. The tendency issued a new publication called Socialist Fight, edited by Ted Grant, which appeared irregularly from January 1958 to June 1963. The paucity of resources resulted in the Socialist Fight coming out in a duplicated form during 1960, only reappearing in print in mid-February 1961.

In 1960, the Labour leadership re-established the youth section, called the Young Socialists. At the beginning, the YS attracted a large number of young people. With Healy's strong apparatus, and youth paper Keep Left, the Healyites were able to take control of the YS nationally by various dubious means. The next largest group in the YS at the time was the Cliff group, widely known as the "state caps", which produced Young Guard. This was followed by Ted Grant's group, made up of a few dozen comrades, and the smallest of the groups.

Slowly but surely, ones and twos were recruited and our base expanded especially in Liverpool, where we established a strong basis in Walton. The tendency also developed in London, Tyneside, Swansea and Brighton.

In 1964 there was an attempted fusion with the Mandelite International Marxist Group, but this soon broke down. The tendency had learnt a painful lesson on the impossibility of short cuts. This was probably the lowest point in the fortunes of the Ted Grant tendency. We were a tiny, isolated group, with no paper, no money, no full timers and no centre. However, we were not downcast in the slightest. We were confident in our ideas and perspectives. Ted played an absolutely key role at this time. He never lost his optimism, his unshakeable confidence or his famous sense of humour.

In the summer of 1964, a decision was taken to launch a new publication, and after much debate, the name of Militant was chosen. It was to mark a new chapter in the development of Ted Grant's Militant tendency.

In the meantime, differences had come to a head within the International. Our tendency had consistently opposed the political position of Pablo and the leadership of the United Secretariat, as they were called after the fusion of 1963. We had fundamental differences over China, the Sino-Soviet dispute, Cuba, guerrillarism, and the Colonial Revolution. In a manoeuvre at the World Congress of 1965, we were reduced to a sympathising section, and the IMG was promoted. We were effectively expelled and we decided to turn our back forever on these gentlemen and face firmly towards the mass organisations of the working class.

By 1967, after the departure of the Healy and Cliff groups from the Labour Party following the growing disenchantment at the Wilson Labour Government, the only tendency of any size, which remained in the Labour Party, was ourselves.

The 1970s were a political watershed nationally and internationally. The defeat of the Wilson government and the coming to power of Heath ushered in a period of heightened radicalisation in the working class. By 1970, the tendency won a majority on the national leadership of the Labour Party Young Socialists, and we started a campaign to build up the youth organisation. Our decision to remain had been vindicated.

From fewer than 100 comrades in 1966, the tendency grew to more than 500 by 1975. This was based on Ted's theoretical ideas and orientation towards the mass organisations. We had acquired our own printing press and the Militant newspaper had gone weekly in 1972. The tendency gradually built up its position in the Labour movement. This was only possible because we did not succumb to the pressure of ultra-leftism, but remained within the Labour Party while others left. This was one of the secrets of the later success of the Marxist tendency in Britain - a breakthrough with no parallel elsewhere.

On the international front, in 1974, with a tiny handful of comrades in other countries, we set up the Committee for a Workers International. Within a couple of years, starting with a tiny group of just six comrades the Spanish organisation grew to 350, and became the second biggest section within the CWI.

It is no accident that the tendency in Britain and Spain achieved a breakthrough precisely at this time.

The defeat of the Callaghan government in 1979 resulted in a massive radicalisation in the mass organisations. The shift to the left was a reflection of the disgust with Labour's pro-capitalist policies, and took the form of the rise of Bennism within the Labour Party. The SDP split away, which further reinforced the leftward shift within the party. It was under these conditions that the Militant tendency grew quite rapidly, with 1,000 active supporters registered by 1980. The rise of Trotskyism within the Labour Party alarmed the ruling class. The capitalist press soon launched a new witch-hunt against the tendency, demanding our expulsion from the party.

Eventually, in 1983, Ted Grant, who was the political editor, and the other members of the Editorial Board were expelled. But that did not stop us. In 1984 at the beginning of the miners' strike, our industrial broad left initiative, BLOC, had become the largest left force in the trade unions. For the first time in history, a Trotskyist, John MacCreadie, was elected to the General Council of the Trade Union Congress. During the year-long miners' strike, given our position in the mining areas, we managed to win over 500 miners to the tendency. In 1988, we filled the Alexandra Palace in London with 7,500 supporters, and were addressed by Ted and other comrades, including Trotsky's grandson Esteban Volkov. This was the high point of the Militant tendency.

On the political front, we had three comrades elected to parliament and controlled Liverpool City Council from 1983 onwards. The Militant tendency had become a household name and had grown rapidly in numbers and influence.

Under the political guidance of Ted, we had created the strongest Trotskyist tendency since the days of the Russian Left Opposition. From counting the pennies, we now had a turnover of over a million pounds a year, a large premises, a big web printing press, capable of printing a daily paper, and, incredibly, around 250 full time workers - which was more than the Labour Party itself. We had roots in many trade unions and Labour Parties, including about 50 councillors and three Marxist MPs.

After Thatcher introduced the retrogressive Poll Tax we lead a battle against the Tory government involving mass non-payment of millions of people. This was the biggest movement of civil disobedience in British history, led by the National Anti-Poll Tax Union, which we had established and led. 250,000 people demonstrated in London and a further 50,000 took to the streets of Glasgow. Without doubt, this mass movement, which terrified the strategists of capital, contributed to the repeal of the Poll Tax and the resignation of Thatcher in 1990.

Despite these enormous successes, there were serious problems in the tendency. The most serious was that the political level of the cadres was declining, and the leadership was doing nothing to counter this trend. In the end the reason for this became clear. Ted Grant continually stressed at editorial board meetings the need to thoroughly educate and train the new comrades who entered our ranks. Unfortunately, these calls went largely unheard.

Peter Taaffe, who had been appointed the editor of the paper, and the group around him favoured activism over theory, which they privately regarded with contempt. As long as Ted's political authority in the leadership was strong, this served to hold things together. However, behind the scenes Taaffe was getting big ideas about the real significance of the tendency and his role in it.

They were intoxicated with the successes of the tendency. Taaffe had delusions of grandeur and he resorted to behind-the-scenes manoeuvres to isolate Ted.

In April 1991, they convinced Taaffe to launch a "new turn" in Scotland and create an open organisation. Shortly afterwards, a violent row broke out within the international leadership with Ted and Alan Woods accusing Taaffe of organising a clique. This led to a sharp deterioration in relations within the leadership. Then in May, the tendency was demagogically stampeded into fighting a by-election in Walton, Liverpool.

The majority leadership proclaimed the disastrous result as a "success", which should be followed in other parts of the country! They were hell-bent on pushing the tendency into what Ted aptly described as "a short cut over a cliff." Within the leadership, Ted, Alan Woods and Rob Sewell firmly opposed this ultra-left "turn", which Ted characterised as "a threat to forty years work."

Taaffe and his supporters did not possess the necessary political armory to take on the Opposition in a fair fight. Instead they used the weight of the apparatus, the full timers, the weapon of slander, gossip and character assassination, to attempt to wear down and crush us.

In the heated faction fight, Ted and the Opposition were treated abysmally. We were presented not as comrades with arguments to be answered, but as enemies to be crushed. They resorted to the pettiest methods of harassment to undermine our morale. When we went to the centre, nobody spoke to us. Later, our bags were searched before we were allowed to leave the building, and so on.

This eventually led to our expulsion, which inevitably led to a split in Britain and internationally. In Britain the Opposition had the support of several hundred mainly experienced cadres and trade union activists. The situation was far more favourable in the international. In fact, if we exclude Britain, we almost certainly had the majority of the international tendency on our side.

At the time of the split, Taaffe took the big majority of the members in Britain, including the youth, almost all of whom he soon lost, the press, the money and the apparatus. He had apparently everything in his favour. By the end of the decade, the results of his stewardship were clear to all. He has almost single-handedly managed to wreck the organisation, and reduce it, after a series of splits, from 5,000 to a couple of hundred activists.

In 1992 we launched the Socialist Appeal magazine, which has gained a solid reputation for serious analysis, comment and militant policies in the labour movement in Britain and internationally. Our output of high quality Marxist theoretical material is second to none. In 1995 we began the publication of books, which have made quite a spectacular impact internationally, starting with Reason in Revolt, by Alan Woods and Ted Grant. This was the first attempt since Engels' Dialectics of Nature to apply the method of dialectical materialism to the results of modern science.

This was followed by Russia - From Revolution to Counter-revolution and Bolshevism - the Road to Revolution, and a new expanded edition of Lenin and Trotsky - What They Really Stood For. Our books are translated into Spanish, Italian, Greek, Russian, Turkish and Urdu. Reason in Revolt is currently being translated into German and Dutch. Our articles and pamphlets have also been translated into French, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Portuguese, Rumanian, Serbian, Macedonian, Polish, Indonesian, Hebrew and other languages.

Over the past decade, Ted has played a leading role in rebuilding our tendency from scratch. On an international scale we have had a numerous successes - especially in Spain, Italy, Mexico and Pakistan, where we have the potential to rapidly become a mass force.

We can say without fear of contradiction that the political authority of our tendency, both nationally and internationally, has never been greater than it is now. In 1997 we launched the extremely successful web site In Defence of Marxism, which has had far-reaching international appeal, and has been visited by hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. In the last year alone we had over one million successful page visits, and the number of visits is constantly increasing.

The key to our success has been our firm defence of the ideas of Marxism. We base ourselves on the classics of Marxism, and the contribution that Ted in particular has made over the last 60 years.

The contribution of Ted Grant, in close collaboration with Alan Woods, has been of the utmost importance. Ted's political experience has been the bedrock of the tendency. In the past, his method and orientation, which are rooted in Trotsky's approach, served to make the tendency a major factor in British politics. This process was unfortunately cut across by a combination of unfavourable objective conditions and the political weaknesses of a leadership that lost its head and was blown off course by events that it did not understand.

That does not worry us. We have been in a small minority before, as were the great teachers of Marxism. We are convinced that in the stormy period that opens up before us on a world scale, great events will propel the working class into action in one country after another.

Ted Grant's great contribution was to preserve the unbroken thread of genuine Trotskyism. On this unshakeable foundation we will prepare the cadres, theoretically, politically and organisationally, for the great tasks that lie ahead.

May 2002