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John Sullivan on British Trotskyism

As Soon As This Pub Closes

John Sullivan

As Soon As This Pub Closes


FOR many people their first contact with Militant has taken the disconcerting turn of hearing an audience groan as someone with a fake Liverpool accent and curious hand movements stands up and demands the nationalisation of the country’s 253 leading monopolies. When the political novice is then told that the strange figure is a Trotskyist, she is understandably confused, all the more so if she is familiar with any of Trotsky’s works. How do hand gestures, however elaborate, transform a series of reformist demands into such a fearful revolutionary perspective?

Given the glaring discrepancy between Trotsky’s ideas and those of Militant, attempts to convict the group of Trotskyism rely heavily on tracing its origin in the Trotskyist movement. This is easy enough to establish, and even the journalistic tripe-hound Michael Crick in his book on the organisation is able to show that Militant’s leader Ted Grant was a leading Trotskyist in the 1940s. Grant, like many others, was expelled from the Trotskyist organisation in 1950 by Gerry Healy, the apparatchik placed in the leadership of the British section by the leaders of the American Socialist Workers Party. Grant had tried to keep an independent organisation going in the horrendously difficult conditions of the late 1940s. His failure in that endeavour led him to conclude that life outside the Labour Party was impossible, a belief which he has never abandoned.

In 1953, when Michel Raptis (Pablo) fell out with the SWP and Healy, Pablo was left without a British concessionaire. Legend has it that Grant answered an advertisement for the post in Tribune. A dozen silver-haired veterans have sworn to us that they can remember reading the advert, but until they produce the clipping or give us a precise reference, we must regard the story as apocryphal. Grant’s meeting with Pablo went down in Healyite mythology as a left-wing equivalent of Frankenstein meets the Wolfman. Grant got the job and kept it for nearly 15 years, during which time he and his followers were known as the Pabloites. The practical advantages of the Grant/Pablo lash-up were obvious. The Fourth International felt that it had to have a branch in the country where Marx had carried out most of his life’s work, and Grant desperately needed the prestige of the international franchise to bolster the morale of his tiny group. All that remained was to devise a political formula to justify the marriage of convenience.

Pablo believed that the Cold War would end in a shooting war in the course of which the Stalinist bureaucracy would be forced to take revolutionary measures. Consequently, the role of the Fourth International was to abandon its previously independent posture and offer assistance and theoretical clarification to Stalinism, which was seen as revolutionary, however crude and deformed. Grant had already travelled most of the way to becoming the principled, consistent left Social Democrat which he now is, and he was never in the least attracted to Stalinism. How was the circle to be squared? Resort was made to the tried and trusted formula of British exceptionalism and the category of the unconscious agents of world revolution was expanded to cover the leaders of the British Labour Party, on the grounds that the Communist Party was very weak in this country. The Fourth International leadership was never really happy with Grant’s performance in edging slowly towards a three-figure membership over the next decade, but one must remember how difficult it was to get good staff in that time of full employment.

Pablo and his successor Ernest Mandel moaned continually as their ally failed to reap rewards from the Suez crisis, the agony of the Communist Party in the wake of the Hungarian revolution, and the rise of CND. For Grant these were epiphenomena whose only importance lay in providing an audience for the formula which he had already worked out. However, a more promising host appeared to feed off in the late 1950s, when the Labour Party reformed its youth organisation as part of the endless cycle of toleration and repression as it oscillates between the impossible tasks of harnessing youth’s idealism and forbidding it to have ideas of its own. Grant’s supporters already appeared as the sociological types with which everyone is now familiar. Grey, uninspiring figures, mainly clerks, who were also hard working and extremely loyal to their group. The Militant journal was founded, with the journalistic formula which remains today, although the dates on the readers’ letters have altered.

Nevertheless, Mandel, who had replaced Pablo as leader of the Fourth International, was becoming absolutely pissed off at Grant’s slow progress in the heady atmosphere of the 1960s where rival groups were growing rapidly. Disagreement reached breaking point in 1968 as the Vietnam War and student revolt drew tens of thousands into politics. Asked what his group was doing to seize the greatest opportunity in the postwar period, Grant demanded that Harold Wilson should arm the Vietcong, and that the student rebels should stop wasting their time in unproductive solidarity demonstrations, clashes with the police and college occupations, and get down to the Labour Party ward to ensure that Wilson did as he was told. Mandel gave Grant and his group the boot and scraped together about 30 people to form the International Marxist Group to replace him. Mandel’s belief that Grant was bound for the dustbin of history seemed plausible at that time, and during the ensuing period of industrial militancy, when Grant’s style of passive propaganda appeared like a survival of the pre-1914 Second International. However, in the 1970s, as industrial struggle ebbed and the International Socialists declined, Militant slowly grew to become the largest group on the left. The single most common complaint made against the Militant is that at meetings their members will endlessly reiterate the basic line, in spite of the fact that one of their comrades has just finished making the same speech with identical turns of phrase and the same curious hand movements. On this slender basis sensitive middle-class snobs erect a grandiose fable which talks about cloning, thought control and brain washing. In fact, the effect is produced by Militant’s thorough, but rather basic educational programme, which teaches the new recruit all he will ever need to know. As for those famous hand movements, they are not taken from some Russian training manual. Have a look at any Victorian book on public speaking and you will see them illustrated.

Opponents of Militant are so eager to find sinister explanations for its behaviour that they ignore the obvious mundane evidence which disproves their conspiracy theories. As is well known, Militant’s only trade union stronghold is in the civil service union, the CPSA, specifically among social security clerks. One can understand why Militant’s passive propagandism should appeal to such people rather than to the industrial militants who once formed the core of the Communist Party. A social security clerk is trained to assist the claimant in filling in her form correctly. If the details are even slightly wrong, she may lose her money. Inevitably, this attitude is carried over to the collective task of instructing the working class in the socialist formula for expropriating the bourgeoisie. Just as the individual claimant must put aside the wider calamities which surround her while she completes the form, the working class must concentrate on the nationalisation of the 253 monopolies and the Enabling Act which will make that possible. Therefore, just as a caring social security clerk will tirelessly repeat the correct procedure to the individual claimant, as a Militant member he will repeat his group’s formula at all meetings he attends. Those who, out of hysteria or intellectual snobbery, imagine that his behaviour is the result of a sinister programme of brain-washing, should examine the staff training document, drawn up by apolitical civil servants in 1947, which is the core of Militant’s educational programme.

An unadvertised feature of the same educational programme is the instruction given on rival groups. Militant seldom publicly acknowledges that other left groups exist, but in private it is recognised that they are a danger to the young, on a par with drugs, drink and glue-sniffing. New recruits are given a rather undifferentiated description and warning about their rivals, who are given the collective name of The Sects. Every member is warned of the cancerous nature of these groups and the danger involved in extending any toleration to them. Their main sin is not being in the Labour Party, and where the group is entrist, not having a programme. Militant, it proudly proclaims, does have a programme of nationalisation of the 253 monopolies under workers’ control. The programme itself most people will recognise as the traditional one common to all Social Democratic parties up till 1914. The main addition to the original consists of the proposal that a future Labour government should rush an enabling act through Parliament which will allow it to take control away from the speculators and saboteurs who might try to wreck it. Opponents like to present this as a revolutionary Trotskyist measure, but it was first suggested by Clement Atlee in the 1930s. Militant’s patriotism and constitutionalism was demonstrated during the Falkland’s War, when it was the only left group to reject the whinging pacifism of the likes of Tam Dalyell. Many were surprised that the group did not oppose the war, but any politically-educated person must know that Kautsky took an identical attitude to defending Germany in 1914.

In the early 1980s, we were told that the group’s journal was to become a daily, but as the speed of recruitment slackened the proposal was quietly abandoned. Not even the most loyal supporter would read its unchanging contents every day: really, it would be better as an annual. The most common complaint made against Militant by other Labour Party members is that the group refuses to cooperate with anyone else in the party. The fact that this is so surely refutes the unjustified charge of Trotskyism. Trotsky proposed the entry tactic in the 1930s to enable a small group of Marxists to make contact with the activists of socialist parties and to influence them through participation in joint activities and debate. Militant has absolutely no interest in what other members of the Labour Party think, and sees itself as becoming the party through a gradual process of recruitment.

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Last updated on 28.7.2007