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International Socialism, Autumn 1986


Sheila MacGregor

The history and politics of Militant


First published in International Socialism Journal 2 : 33, Autumn 1986, pp. 59–88.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Militant Tendency have been the subject of a serious, and substantially successful, witchhunt over the last year.

One of their best-known theoreticians, Ted Grant, was a leading member of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) in the 1940s, British section of the Fourth International and therefore an orthodox Trotskyist. When the RCP collapsed, Ted Grant joined the Labour Party.

In the Labour Party, Ted Grant succeeded in pulling a number of supporters round him. In 1964, the Militant newspaper was launched with a view to rebuilding the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS), after Gerry Healy’s grouping had been expelled. The forerunners of the Socialist Workers Party departed shortly afterwards. This left Ted Grant and his supporters an open field inside the LPYS. By 1974, the Militant Tendency had captured control of the LPYS. From then on the Tendency built slowly, using the LPYS as a springboard to gain support inside the Labour Party.

In 1979, the fortunes of the Militant Tendency changed dramatically, with the rise of the Bennite left inside the Labour Party. In 1982, Kevin Roddy, a Militant supporter was elected president of the largest civil service union, the CPSA. In 1983, Militant supporters captured control of Liverpool council and five members of their editorial board were expelled from the Labour Party.

Liverpool council was the centre of attention briefly in 1984 and then again in 1985. The prominence of Liverpool council and the notoriety achieved through the expulsions in 1983, undoubtedly led to a substantial growth in support for Militant in this period. By early 1986, this growth in support began to falter as Kinnockism began to take deep root inside the Labour Party and trade union movement in the wake of the defeat of the miners’ strike and the collapse of the fight against rate capping in 1985.

Militant claim to be the ‘Marxists’ inside the Labour Party. This article is an attempt to look both at the nature of their Marxism and their practice as Marxists inside the Labour Party. The main contention of this article is that work inside the Labour Party has led to Ted Grant’s abandonment of the Trotskyist heritage, i.e. the October Revolution and the first four congresses of the Third International.

In reality, Ted Grant and his supporters have come to substitute the Labour Party for the building of an open revolutionary organisation independent of the Labour Party and parliament for the working class as the agency of social change. In the process they have also abandoned the Marxism of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky for that of Kautsky and the Second International.

Socialism without workers’ power

The central question which faced Trotskyists in the post-war period was the class nature of Russia. The advent of a series of regimes in Eastern Europe without the working class playing a central role but which looked identical to Russia, threw into question Trotsky’s own characterisation of Russia as a degenerated workers’ state. This question was debated inside the RCP. Tony Cliff, leading member of the Socialist Workers Party, argued that Russia should in fact be characterised as bureaucratic state capitalist. Grant’s reply to Cliff, reprinted today under the title of The Marxist Theory of the State [1] contains the seeds of substitutionism on the role of the working class and parliament.

The most important argument advanced by Grant for the purposes of this article, is that there are two roads to socialism: one via complete nationalisation of the economy and the other on the basis of workers’ power and the smashing of the state.

In defence of the ‘nationalisation road to socialism’, Grant uses a passage from Engels in Anti-Dühring:

But the whole essence of the problem is that where we have complete statification, quantity changes into quality, capitalism changes into its opposite.

How otherwise explain the statement of Engels: But at this extreme it [the capitalist relationship] is transformed into its opposite. State ownership of the productive forces is not the solution of the conflict, but it contains within itself the formal means, the key to the solution’? [2]

According to Grant, once total nationalisation has taken place, it is possible to abolish capitalism:

What causes the conflict within capitalism is the fact that the laws manifest themselves blindly. But once the whole of industry is nationalised, for the first time control and planning can be consciously asserted by the producers. [3]

What Grant omits to mention is that Engels in Anti-Dühring predicates socialism only on the seizure of political power by the proletariat. Indeed he himself stresses that ‘The proletariat seizes political power and turns the means of production in the first instance into state property.’ [4]

Having argued nationalisation on its own as a possible road to socialism, Grant quite validly concludes: ‘So we see a state can be a proletarian state on the basis of political power, or it can be a proletarian state on the basis of the economy.’ [5]

Having dispensed with the principle of the self-emancipation of the working class and the need to smash the state, the way is clear for Grant and his supporters to take a soft approach to the state machine. In August 1983, Lynne Walsh writes: ‘Contrary to Tory mythology, however, Marxists are not opposed to police action to catch criminals and to protect people’s safety and personal property.’ [6]

It also leads to Militant attacking the oppressed fighting the police and the army, whether in Northern Ireland or in the inner cities: ‘No labour movement, while defending workers’ rights to defend their areas from attack, can support looting, arson and petrol bombing as forms of protest.’ [7]

The most important consequence of Grant’s defence of Russia as a workers’ state, can be seen in the strategy for socialism pursued by Militant supporters in Britain. They are adamant that ‘the cry that Militant would establish a socialist Britain by violence is a red herring.’ Peter Taaffe writes:

‘If the next Labour government introduced an Enabling Bill into Parliament to nationalise the 200 Monopolies, banks and insurance companies which control 80–85 per cent of the economy, a decisive blow would be struck against the 196 directors of those firms who are the real government of Britain.’ [8]

The most the working class can do is to play a supporting role to such a government.

Militant attempt to differentiate themselves from left reformists in the Labour Party by saying that such people only argue for piece-meal nationalisation, instead of total nationalisation, which is perfectly possible provided ‘the full power of the Labour movement is boldly used to effect this change.’ [9]

The consequence of abandoning the principle of the self-emancipation of the working class run like a thread throughout Militant’s theoretical positions.

In the hands of Militant supporters, transitional demands cease to be connected to the real struggles of workers. They become an abstract programme of resolutions to be moved inside the Labour Party and the trade unions. Militant then use the successful passing of such resolutions as a test of whether unions and the Labour Party, and therefore workers themselves, are moving to the left.

The demands for ‘nationalisation of the top 200 monopolies’, a minimum wage, shorter working week etc., cited regularly in meetings by Militant supporters, are supposed to be transitional demands, the implementation of which by a Labour government would lead to a break with capitalism. Tony Aitman, delegate for the NW Region and LPYS National Committee to the 1973 LPYS conference: ‘As opposed to the Labour leadership’s attempt to manage capitalism better than the Tories themselves, this programme would represent a decisive break with the anti-working class policies carried out by past Labour governments and would lay the basis for a Marxist alternative.’ [10]

In similar fashion, entrism [11], a tactic conceived of by Trotsky by which a small group of revolutionaries could acquire both numbers and experience of the working-class movement, in the hands of Ted Grant becomes a principle.

Originally, Ted Grant, a leading member of the RCP and of the majority which rejected entrism into the Labour Party argued against the assumptions of today’s Militant supporters, namely that going through the experience of reformism necessarily involved revolutionaries joining reformist parties. He also firmly rejected the notion of building a left wing inside the Labour Party. The majority’s document argued:

What did Lenin and Trotsky mean when they spoke of the masses going through the experiences of the Labour Party in power? Did they mean automatically and of necessity, the masses must go through the local organisations of the Labour Party? In that event, the Communist Party should never have been formed in Britain, nor the Trotskyist party. The Trotskyists should have entered the Labour Party and remained there until the masses had completed their experience. This position which was evolved by the ‘left faction’ who split from the RCP in 1945, is now being seriously repeated in the camp of the British Minority. This conception, however, is a miserable caricature of the tactic of the Fourth International. [12]

The document continues:

‘Presumably, by recruiting to the Labour Party, we will commence with the organisation of the left wing. Presumably the Trotskyists will create the centrist current where none exists. We doubt that a more hare-brained perspective has been developed in our movement before, certainly not without repudiation from an authoritative leading body.’ [13]

Today, Militant supporters do not simply argue for the building of a left wing inside the Labour Party, but for the transformation of the Labour Party in its entirety. On 25 September 1980, Ray Apps writes in Militant:

‘... it is also necessary to transform the Labour Party into a mass socialist Labour Party – a party with a mass membership, firmly based among working people, committed to implementing a socialist programme, armed with a socialist leadership.’

Anyone familiar with Trotsky’s own writings on entrism will know how much of a caricature of his position this is. To shield his supporters from such embarrassing knowledge, Grant has reproduced a selection of Trotsky’s writings on entrism [14] which omits any of Trotsky’s extremely sharp polemics with his supporters on when to leave reformist organisations and of the opportunism of those who did not.

In similar fashion, another consequence for Militant of arguing that the Labour Party can be changed can be seen in their treatment of the history of the Labour Party. Lenin’s attitude to the British Labour Party was very clear:

Of course, most of the members of the Labour Party are working men. However, whether or not a party is really a political party of the workers does not depend solely upon a membership of workers but also upon the men who lead it, and the content of its actions and its political tactics. Only that determines whether we really have before us a political party of the proletariat. Regarded from this, the only correct point of view, the Labour Party is a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although made up of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that, who act quite in the spirit of the bourgeoisie. It is an organisation of the bourgeoisie which exists to systematically dupe the workers with the aid of the British Noskes and Scheidemanns. [15]

By contrast, Militant argues that the Labour Party was originally built by Marxists and by implication has been ‘hijacked’ by the right wing. In Militant 29 March 1985, in a major article on the Labour Party, Mike Waddington defends the tradition of Keir Hardie [16] and the Second International, citing Engels and Lenin in support. Nowhere in the article does Waddington make clear that Lenin broke from the Second International over its role in the first world war and went on to build the Third International in 1919.

A further example of how Militant are forced to rewrite the tradition is on the question of the trade union bureaucracy. For Trotsky’s sharp analysis of the role of the trade union bureaucracy, Ted Grant substitutes an analysis which reduces the problem with the left bureaucracy to one of the politics of individual leaders:

‘The left leaders, because they are not Marxists, do not prepare the workers for the overthrow of capitalism but on the contrary try to act as mediators with the capitalists within one system.’ [17]

As if the problem is their subjective beliefs rather than the objective role that they play in capitalist society!

History of Militant 1964–1979





        50 [19]














A comparison in the growth of support for the two political tendencies, ourselves and the Militant, in this period is instructive. The figures illustrate how the membership of the SWP grew qualitatively in two periods, 1968 in the campaign against the Vietnam War and during the period of offensive working-class struggle against Heath’s Tory government of 1970–1974. In the same period, Militant’s support grew only slightly.

1964 was a turning point for the Militant. It was the year that the newspaper with that name was launched. Militant supporters adopted a simple strategy for growth: building the LPYS. With no serious competition inside the LPYS with the expulsion of Healy’s supporters in the SLL/WRP, it was possible to win young people to the LPYS and thence to support for Militant through a series of campaigns against unemployment, bad housing etc., combined with abstract anti-capitalist propaganda. In the early 1970s, the LPYS campaigned single-mindedly on the issue of Franco’s Spain.

Militant’s dismissal of student struggles in the late 1960s and their concentration on the Labour Party, flowing from a schematic analysis which decreed in advance that workers in struggle would automatically turn to the Labour Party, meant that Militant in practice missed the real movement of students around the Vietnam War and that of workers in 1970–1974.

In the period 1964–1974, the Militant newspaper reads like a paper for the LPYS with enormous emphasis placed on the LPYS conference held every Easter. Militant public meetings at these conferences were used to build influence and support.

But Grant was paying a high price for his strategy of building rigidly through the LPYS. It meant treading very carefully to prevent expulsion by the Labour Party bureaucracy and forced his supporters into the confines of Labour Party organisation in a period when thousands of students were being radicalised through the mass demonstrations in Grosvenor Square in 1968 against the Vietnam War. Militant contains no mentions of these demonstrations. The Autumn one mobilised 100,000. Neither does the reader find any guidance in the pages of Militant as to how to take the Vietnam Campaign forward nor for the need to build links with the working class.

In the period of working-class struggle which saw the defeat of the Tories over incomes policy, trade union legislation and in a General Election, the most advanced workers did not move into the Labour Party. Membership figures for affiliated CLPs, inflated because the basis of affiliation until 1980 was a thousand, hardly changed. The percentage voting for the Labour Party fell from 42.9 per cent in 1970 to 37.2 per cent in 1974. And, most importantly, the leadership for the key struggles of the miners, car workers and dockers in 1972 was not provided by the Labour Party. By confining themselves to work inside the Labour Party, Militant supporters missed the few thousand workers who were moving towards revolutionary politics as the result of their own struggles against the government and the state.

Militant’s insistence on only working through the ‘official movement’ led to a distinctive form of sectarianism, with Militant refusing to throw themselves into any campaigns which were not organised either through the Labour Party or by themselves. The two most glaring examples of this are the National Abortion Campaign in 1975 and the Anti-Nazi League in the late 1970s.

NAC emerged out of the Women’s Liberation Movement and was unquestionably the most successful campaign of any conducted by that movement. It not only succeeded over the years in repulsing the worst attacks on abortion rights under the 1967 Act, but also succeeded through sheer persistence in making abortion a trade union issue. This culminated in the TUC being forced to organise a massive demonstration in October 1979 against the Corrie Bill.

During 1975, there is not one single article about abortion or NAC in Militant. The 50,000-strong demonstration in June 1975 warrants neither photo nor report. In 1975 and 1976 there are two letters about abortion, one appealing for support for NAC and the other from Women for Life, an anti-abortion organisation.

Not until 1977, when Tory MP Hugh Benyon launched another attack on abortion does Militant carry a full page article on 25 February under the headline Tory Threatens Abortion Rights. But the article attacks NAC for being a single-issue campaign!

Militant supporters were very concerned with combating racism and the rise of fascism under the Labour government 1974–1979. Militant’s pages are full of LPYS activities in this field. However, from the pages of the Militant, you would not learn that the Anti-Nazi League existed, never mind that it was the focus for fighting the National Front from 1978 onwards, drawing anti-fascist, immigrant organisations, the Communist Party and Labour Party members in its wake. Neither of the two massive ANL carnivals in 1978 warrant a mention, never mind support.

Building support for Militant

During the upturn in working-class struggle, support for Militant grew only slowly. Their own methods made it even slower. One ex-supporter [21] of Militant described the process as one of only recruiting cadres as supporters. Anyone who wanted to become a Militant supporter had to go through a period of formal or informal ‘probation’ for about six months. During that period, an individual would have to learn in depth the political analysis of Militant on a whole range of questions: Marxist economics, Russia, Ireland, revolution not reform, the need for a revolutionary party, work in the Labour Party, etc. Only when someone had a proven record on the ideas of Militant and of activity was he/she even approached to become a Militant supporter. The decision about whether someone was allowed to become a Militant supporter was not left to the individual to decide on the basis of agreement with the ideas. It was taken by existing Militant supporters, after discussion in the supporters’ group. During the probationary period, individuals were allowed to attend the educational part of Militant supporters’ meetings but not the rest. In a sense. Militant supporters could be said to be educated in revolutionary Marxism. It was accepted that a revolutionary party had to be built outside the Labour Party.

The main activity of Militant supporters in this period, according to an ex-supporter from Glasgow [22], consisted in ‘attending LPYS meetings, ward meetings, the local GMC and Militant supporters meetings. He was never given any direction on building at work. If anyone sold Militant at work, it was a plus. He was expected to go to his union branch, but often did not. His local group never went to sell Militant on picket lines, nor at strikers’ meetings.’

He then described the political basis on which support for Militant was won:

‘During the period of the Social Contract, there was no particular orientation on pushing resolutions critical either of the social contract or the left trade union leaders, Scanlon and Jones [left leaders of the two main unions in manufacturing, AUEW and TGWU respectively], who were instrumental in pushing it through.

‘We attracted workers by putting demands to attract their attention like the demand for the nationalisation of 200 monopolies. Workers would support such arguments and realise in due course they would have to adopt revolutionary politics, that such demands, ie transitional demands, could not be realised through parliament. It did not matter what was going on, we always raised the same demands. We never talked about strikes for wage demands, we always talked in grand terms. In fact we kept our heads down and pushed the general programme of Militant.’

This is borne out by reading the issues of Militant in the period. Criticism of the Social Contract is muted until 1978 when the TGWU and Labour Party conferences passed resolutions against it. And criticism of Scanlon and Jones is non-existent. The model LPYS resolution pushed at the time contains no reference to the Social Contract nor to the role of the left trade union leaders.

The problem the above ex-supporter encountered was that he knew from experience that workers were not turning to the Labour Party:

‘I knew strikers in my area did not go to the Labour Party wards. The Boilermakers were entitled to send 15 delegates to the GMC. They only sent me and I only went because I was a Militant supporter, so LPYS could have another delegate. The only shipyard delegates in the Labour Party at the time were foremen. Ward meetings were often inquorate. The quorum was only 6. Trade union bureaucrats would go, branch secretaries and Co-op Party people.’

The result of having all his energy directed towards the Labour Party was what led the above comrade to give up being a Militant supporter. His own verdict on his experience of Militant:

‘I felt the politics were there in Militant. I wouldn’t have been a Marxist if it weren’t for Militant. There was a very high level of political discussion in group meetings and at aggregates. Nobody went unprepared to meetings. Everyone had to read and do meetings. Everyone quoted Marx, Lenin and Trotsky. The problem was the politics remained abstract. I felt the connection to reality was missing. The problem was how to put the politics into practice. I felt I was going to meetings and influencing no-one. I was influencing more people at work. So I just drifted away.’

Work amongst students was also channelled into building the LPYS. An ex-supporter of Militant active in Liverpool 1976–1978 recalls:

‘I was secretary of the Labour Club in the university. We used the Labour Club in the same way as the LPYS to attract the best students. We used to intervene in student union meetings and then try to get students into YS and away from the union. We weren’t really involved in student politics, apart from supporting the left. We tried to get into Labour Clubs at the Poly, Christ College and Central College. During Freshers’ week we would send out teams to get names and addresses and then follow them up for the LPYS. It was national policy not to get involved in student politics.’

Although, in this period, Militant’s orientation was on building the LPYS and working inside the Labour Party to the exclusion of anything else taking place outside the Labour Party, this did not mean that Militant supporters had a perspective of taking over the Labour Party. The same ex-supporter remembers:

‘I went to Church ward, where there was a strong Liberal and Tory vote. The Labour Party was moribund. It was so moribund, I was made treasurer. This wasn’t typical. We had no intention of taking positions. Our policy was only to stand for positions where we had the strength and support. I only took the treasurer’s job because I had to. I didn’t want to. At that time we didn’t concentrate on what was going on in the council. We weren’t bothered. We were much more interested in getting the YS going. We rejuvenated the Labour Party through the YS.’

Period of growth 1979–1984

Militant’s pattern of growth had begun to change with the onset of the downturn in the late 1970s. Although their sectarianism meant they did not take part in either NAC or the ANL, they were able to find support as a layer of individuals, having lost faith in the ability of workers to change the world, turned to the Labour Party. From 1974 to 1979, they grew from 500 to 1,500.

With the advent of the Tory government, Militant’s fortunes changed. The rise of Bennism inside the Labour Party, led to a period of substantial growth in support for the Militant Tendency:














The above figures must be treated with a large dose of scepticism, as Militant supporters notoriously exaggerated their size and influence in this period. A better indication of their size can be deduced from certain facts. In 1985, the Militant-organised national rally in the Albert Hall was attended by four and a half thousand supporters and the paid sale nationally for Militant in the Summer quarter of 1984 was only 10,000 copies weekly. [23]

The SWP argued that the rise of Benn was in part a product of a move to the right by a whole generation away from revolutionary politics. It was also a political upturn within a period of overall industrial downturn, the consequence of which would be that either the level of industrial struggle would rise to the level of the political upturn, or the political upturn would founder on the rocks of the industrial downturn. Given the nature of the Bennite movement, which did not see working-class struggle as central to achieving socialism, we anticipated that the Bennite movement would in the end collapse. Militant’s own perspectives were quite different. In August 1979 [24], they wrote:

The present Tory government far more than the Baldwin government of 1924 is preparing the way for an explosion of hatred against it and against the ruling class. The level of struggles opening up will dwarf even that of 1970–74. In 1974 the Heath government was shattered as a result. The Tory Party became largely a party of South East England, mainly of the commuter and rural belt. It is by no means certain that the Tories will succeed in maintaining themselves in power for a whole term of office. The electoral consequences for them could be even worse than they were for the Heath government. [25]

Further on we read:

‘Under the pressure of events, mass opposition from the working class, and the disillusionment of the middle class the Tory Party will crumble ... Probably before the next election, Thatcher will be junked.’ [26]

Militant’s predictions for developments inside the Labour Party are equally wild:

‘Changes will take place in the Trade Unions as a consequence of the struggles of the working class against the measures the Tories are trying to implement. In the course of these struggles the working class will find that industrial action is not enough to solve their problems, and that political action is necessary ... Once they take the road of political action, there is only one way in which they can go, and that is to try to change the organisation which was built up by the unions, to move into the Labour Party with the purpose of transforming it to meet their needs.’ [27]

The left would gain ascendancy:

A transformation of the Labour Party to the left will in turn stimulate an influx of mass membership to the Labour Party. Under these circumstances, all the attempts to compromise between left and right wings of the Labour Party, particularly under the pressure of the right wing trade union leaders, will not succeed ... There is not the slightest future or hope for the right wing. It is doomed in spite of all its frantic efforts to maintain its position, on the basis of decades of domination of the Labour Party and the trade unions ... The irresistible tide of history is against the ideas of the right wing. The right would be defeated and the Labour Party would begin to renew itself and to march in the direction of radical politics more than at any time in its history ... The ideas of Marxism will gain enormous support. Active trade union members will participate in the Labour Party on a far greater scale. [28]

The document ends with a prediction that socialism is on the agenda:

‘On the other hand there can be days or a few days in which 25 years can be compressed. This is the situation towards which we are developing at the present time. Only a Marxist leadership in the labour movement will be adequate to take advantage of a period of this sort as was shown in 1968 in France ... In Britain there will be one wave after another of offensives by the masses, followed by reaction and even more furious offensives by the workers. This will culminate in victory for the working class if the subjective element is adequate to the task.’ [29]

This optimistic assessment of both developments inside the Labour Party and for the advent of socialism changed the way Militant supporters worked. An ex-supporter from Ebbw Vale remembers the period of Bennism well:

‘There was a lot of activity in the Labour Party. We were almost openly winning supporters at the time. The sales of Militant were going really well. Confidence was really high and there was very little hostility or opposition. I used to sell 20 Militants at GMC meetings – an increase on the previous steady sale. We used to sell Militant when we went out canvassing for the Labour Party. I don’t recall any opposition to us doing that.’

The ex-supporter from Liverpool remembers the turn towards more open growth coming in 1978:

‘As soon as people showed an interest, they were won to being Militant supporters and then trained-up. There was a lot about witch-hunts in the press. This warranted a much more audacious approach. By the time I left, we would ask people to become Militant supporters before they joined the LPYS or the Labour Party.’

With the rise of Benn, Militant supporters suddenly found themselves cutting with the grain and able to win people quite quickly to their political analysis. It was a period of rapid growth. Those who had previously looked to the working class as the key to socialism, were now looking towards the left of the Labour Party. In that context, Militant appeared as much the most consistent and hard opposition to the right wing. Equally, as Benn’s star began to wane after the defeat of the deputy leadership campaign in Autumn 1981, Militant were able to make gains.

In line with a perspective of fast growth, Militant supporters groups tended to be small, around ten. Larger numbers would lead to a split and another group being set up based on a different constituency. Although group meetings continued to take place weekly, starting with political discussion/education, more emphasis was placed on reading Militant’s own perspectives documents rather than the Marxist classics. There does not seem to have been the same demand for each supporter to prepare an introduction to a political topic as in the past and the emphasis on reading was less. Bookstalls seem to have become more of a rarity. Bearing in mind where Militant gained most of their support, this must have led to a form of political ‘dilution’.

Phil Taylor, Glasgow SWP organiser, describes their growth:

‘Militant’s natural growth areas in Glasgow are on large housing schemes on the outskirts of the city, such as East Kilbride, Pollock, Clydebank, Easterhouse. It was the same in Manchester – Wythenshawe, the largest council estate in Europe, Oldham, and the outlying suburbs. In such areas where the Labour Party is traditionally right wing, the LPYS provides both a social life for disaffected youth and a left alternative to the right wing. The arguments are always with the right. Rarely do Militant supporters in such circumstances come across arguments from the left, such as ourselves who openly call for the overthrow of the state.’

Militant’s growth and role in Liverpool provides the best example, not only of how they were able to grow so rapidly in this period, but also of their politics in practice.


The Liverpool Labour Party became notorious in the 1960s [30] for being a particularly moribund organisation. Militant, who had a base in Liverpool from the beginning, admit it was the state of the Labour Party locally which enabled them to build so successfully. Tony Mulhearne writes:

‘From 1974 onwards, a campaign took place in which Militant supporters played a significant role to rebuild the Labour Party in all the areas which had traditionally been dominated by the right wing, areas where the party membership had declined to a shell of an organisation. As a result of the campaigning policies the party was gradually rebuilt ...’ [31]

The turning point for Militant’s influence came in 1978, when John Hamilton [32] was challenged for leadership of the Labour group by Roderick, a leading right winger. Militant’s swift campaign to convene the District Labour Party, not only ensured John Hamilton remained leader of the Labour Group, but also established the accountability of the councillors to the DLP.

Two other factors were however crucial to Militant’s success in Liverpool: the catastrophic collapse in manufacturing in the late 1970s and early 1980s and the impact that had on militants in the Transport and General Workers Union, the dominant union in the city, and the base built by Ian Lowes, Militant supporter and Chief Steward for the council workers in the GMBATU.

From 1979–84, almost 50 per cent of manufacturing jobs were lost as the major firms either closed or cut their workforces by half. The BL Speke No. 2 plant, one of the best organised plants in the country still on piece rates and with shop stewards retaining a high degree of mutuality on the shop floor, closed without a fight in 1979.

The speed and scale of the collapse of manufacturing robbed the workforce of a base from which to fight. Industrial militancy ceased to be an adequate means to deal with the devastation being wrought on the working class locally. And the council became central to local politics in two ways: firstly as a source of jobs. The council became the single largest employer and of strategic importance as provider of services and houses as well as controller of rent and rates. Almost overnight, the strategy of municipal socialism offered by Militant must have seemed the only possible alternative, an attraction powerfully reinforced by the record of the then current Liberal administration presided over by Trevor Jones. A whole layer of TGWU shop stewards, with roots in the local union machine (Len McCluskey, a TGWU official was a Militant supporter, as was Alan Quinn, NEC member) swung behind the left inside the Labour Party. From 1983 onwards, this was to become increasingly important as the TGWU and GMBATU delegates effectively controlled the DLP.

The overwhelming majority of council manual workers are members of the GMBATU. In any fight by council workers, the role of the 8,000 GMBATU members would be crucial. Ian Lowes [33], who had already built a strong sectional base in the workforce, describes how Militant built a base amongst those workers:

Initially we fought on the basis of trade union militancy 1979–83. My members have a real sense of power. We can stop the refuse collection with only 3 men. And we can stop the housing maintenance with only four. In 1982 there was a dispute over the cemeteries because the council cut earnings for two weeks. I was taken off the pay roll for 10 weeks in 1982, but the Liberals put me back on again to resolves the cemeteries dispute. They tried to sack me. We organised a mass meeting and that stopped it. We also had a three week strike over the use of private contractors. Then we started relating to the political struggle and fought privatisation as a political issue not an economic issue. We got involved with the Labour Party to get a Labour council elected. We needed a change in council politics. So we ran a joint campaign with the Labour Party. We called workplace meetings to discuss the issues. We got [a couple of hundred GMBATU] people to join the Labour Party. We argued that it was in the interests of the workforce to kick out the right wingers in the Labour Party and influence the direction of the Labour Party. There were always sellers of Militant at workplace meetings. We then organised special Militant meetings for local authority workers, meetings on Marxism. The collapse of the private sector also helped the growth of militancy. All sorts of people who had been shop stewards in local factories which had gone down without a fight came into the local authority workforce. Having lost their jobs once without a fight, they wanted to fight the next time round.

Clearly, Ian built up support based on a combination of confident sectional militancy combined with an orientation on the Labour Party and council politics. The aim of the operation was to get a left-wing council elected which would create jobs, build houses and keep the rates down. Although the operation was clearly highly successful, it is nevertheless no different from that of left reformism elsewhere in council politics.

It is clear also that the electoral success of Terry Fields, MP for Broadgreen constituency in Liverpool, was based on left reformism. The central slogan for Terry Fields’ campaign and for the other Militant parliamentary candidates was ‘For a workers’ MP on a workers’ wage’. A good populist slogan but hardly revolutionary.

If the means of building support in Liverpool is consistent with left reformism, then the strategy adopted to fight the Tories illustrates the dilemma at the heart of Militant’s politics of trying to use the state and the Labour Party as the means of social change.

In 1983 Militant gained a commanding position in Liverpool council from which the confront the Tories. Ian Lowes’ base was crucial to successful confrontation. But did Militant themselves understand that Ian’s base represented the key link in the chain?

To answer that question means looking at the relationship between the DLP, the councillors and the Joint Shop Stewards Committee in the council of which Ian Lowes was chairman. It was a complex one. The Labour Group was (quite rightly) controlled by decisions of the DLP within which the GMBATU and TGWU delegations had a controlling say. On the face of it, the manual workers and in particular the council manual workers could decide Labour Group policy and the course to be adopted by the councillors in any confrontation with the Tory government. But who decided what the council workers would do? The DLP or the JSSC and what bearing did that have on the role of the councillors?

The Communist International [34] is very clear on precisely this question. The task of Communist councillors (i.e. Marxists) is to further the struggle by workers against the state and if possible to push for the creation of a local workers’ council. The difference between controlling the local council and a workers’ council would have been a delegate body of workers. Delegates would have to be elected from the workplace, accountable to it and recallable by it. In Liverpool nothing like that existed of course. But the Comintern method would have meant the JSSC or an elected strike committee leading the fight as part of the process to create a generalised, alternative workers’ leadership. This would have included workers of different political persuasions and would have had to take responsibility for the running of Liverpool, the defence of the working class against the use of police or troops by the Tories. In other words, the JSSC or strike committee would represent a shift of power away from the bourgeois state to the working class based on its collective organisation and power rooted in the workplace. The responsibility of Marxist councillors in Liverpool should have consisted, not in determining any fight against the Tories, but in campaigning for workers to fight and for them to take the fight into their own hands. It would have meant campaigning for the councillors to be subordinated to the JSSC or strike committee in the first instance.

It is clear that Militant thought that the DLP should play the leading role in Liverpool:

‘In 1926 during the General Strike it was not so much the Labour Party but the Trades Councils that fulfilled the role of workers’ councils. Yet in Liverpool the impotence of the Trades Council and the increased strength of the Labour Party, which held snap meetings of 500 and upwards, means that in the event of another 1926 – of a general strike situation – it would be the DLP and not the Trades Council that will be the focal point of the struggle.’ [35]

This passage is a clear example of substituting a political party for the working class, revealing a total confusion about the difference between the organisation of a political party and class organisation and the relationship between party and class, a confusion which is paralleled in the way Militant equate work in the Labour Party with work in the trade unions. It is also an example of sheer ultra-leftism to talk about a workers’ council in Liverpool, which came nowhere near the level of struggle even of the miners’ strike.

A comparison between the DLP and the JSSC makes the substitutionism even clearer. NALGO by definition could not send delegates to the DLP as it is not affiliated to the Labour Party. This may reflect the political backwardness of NALGO nationally as a union, but the council in Liverpool employs 8,000 NALGO members, thousands of whom would have been involved in any strike in Liverpool. They were represented in the JSSC but could not be in the DLP.

In truth, because Militant started from the premise that the Labour Party could lead the fight against the Tories and the DLP could become a workers’ council, the initiative in the strategy pursued always lay with the councillors and not the workforce, with the exception of the call for the all-out strike in September 1985. Then the weakness inherent in Militant’s strategy of looking to the Labour Party became apparent. That the initiative lay with the councillors can be made clear from a number of examples.

Firstly, who decided the financial strategy? This is crucial, as it determined whether there would be a confrontation or not. According to John Hamilton, Liverpool council leader, Tony Byrne, fellow councillor, was the architect of the strategy. Tony Byrne was not a Militant supporter, although clearly a fellow traveller:

‘Only Tony Byrne understood the finances. He was a very closed man. He grouped a lot of power to himself and didn’t trust anyone else. Militant were pushed by his decisions. Between 1984 and 1985 we seemed to live day to day. In the summer of 1984, Mulhearne [Liverpool councillor and Militant supporter], Hatton and co. decided they’d got enough at that stage to claim something of a victory. We never seemed to have a plan or strategy.’

Andy Drummond, a NALGO shop steward and delegate to the JSSC until early September 1985, recalls the same period:

‘In 1984 there were a series of training schools for stewards from NALGO on the council’s campaign. We held department meetings, small meetings and large meetings. Every single member in the council education department attended one such meeting. There was very strong support for the council. At some stage people knew they would have to fight. Then all of a sudden the councillors, Hatton, Byrne and co. came back from London saying they had won a victory, that there was no need for a strike. That convinced people that the fight could always be put off, that someone else could do it for them, that the government would back down.’

From the above, it is clear that decisions were taken by the councillors. Not only did Liverpool workers not get the chance to take the decision for themselves, because of Militant’s own failure to trust workers to think and act for themselves, backing down in 1984 represented a massive stab in the back to the miners. When Alex May, an SWP NALGO shop steward, argued at a shop stewards meeting that the settlement, which included a 17 per cent rate rise and capitalisation, had been won on the backs of the miners, he was shouted down. Six months later, Derek Hatton was saying the same thing. July 1984, in the midst of the national docks strike and the miners’ strike, presented the best opportunity not only for Liverpool workers to fight, but to render potentially successful the struggle of the miners as well as themselves. They were not even consulted on the matter.

One of the clearest examples of the fact that the councillors decided and the JSSC implemented, came with the strategy of issuing redundancy notices in 1985. No group of workers left to themselves would dream up the idea of sacking themselves. It arose because non-workers, i.e. councillors, who are also managers of the local state, were taking the decisions.

The events around the 25 September strike call illustrate clearly that Militant’s strongest base in the council around Ian Lowes, simultaneously the most militant, was crucial to the successful subordination of the workforce in total to the councillors. Andy Drummond recalls:

‘There were always regular caucus meetings of the GMBATU stewards before JSSC meetings. They were held in the same building. We had to wait for an hour once to start our meeting because the caucus meeting overran. Motions to the JSSC used to come from the GMBATU senior stewards committee and the GMBATU delegates always voted as a block. The GMBATU were not in the majority, but they were the key to putting the council’s strategy.’

Ian Lowes could only carry the council’s arguments in the JSSC as long as their strategy coincided with the interests of the workforce. Over the issuing of redundancy notices, this was no longer possible and the JSSC voted for an all-out strike.

The rest is known. The strike was called off with a 47 per cent vote for strike action. The largest percentage vote was in Ian Lowes’ section with a 75 per cent strike vote. With that kind of solid support and armed with majority votes in the TGWU, UCATT and the GMBATU, if Ian had taken his section out on strike, he would have stood a good chance of transforming the situation in Liverpool. A strike spread quickly through flying pickets, directed by an elected strike committee with each new section of strikers electing delegates to it, could have built a real fight against the Tories.

Had this been done, the centre of gravity for decision-making would have had to have been wrenched from the councillors and the DLP and switched to the strike committee. This would have meant winning the argument that workers have to lead and direct their own struggles through their own class organisations. The Labour Party would have had to seek its influence through the delegates on such a strike committee and not expect to control the strike through the DLP.

That this did not happen is not the fault of Ian Lowes, but the fault of a political tendency which does not understand the real nature of class struggle, the nature of the state locally or nationally, nor the difference between class organisations such as unions, JSSCs, strike committees or workers’ councils and political parties.

Militant never did what the Communist International laid down: campaign for class struggle led by workers against capital. They did not do it because their strategy for socialism is that the working class does not lead and develop its own struggles and fight in its own right for socialism. Tragically, Ian Lowes was the key to Militant’s strategy in Liverpool. Simultaneously he was the key to a real fight. On the night of 24 September 1985, that key was thrown away and with it went, ultimately, the whole strategy.

In the event of a Militant-dominated government in Britain in conflict with the ruling class, we would all face the same dilemma presented in Liverpool: does the working class lead a fight against the ruling class up to and including the building of workers’ councils and the smashing of the state, or do workers simply act as a back-up to an elected left Labour government? Liverpool illustrates how positions acquired on an electoral basis lead to the subordination of the working class to the state.

Work in the unions

Over the past few years, Militant’s work in the unions has been synonymous with the Broad Left Organising Committee, or BLOC, and the building of Broad Lefts in a range of unions.

Broad Lefts in the unions have been built twice before by the Communist Party: the National Minority Movement in the early 1920s and then again in the 1960s. BLOC is modelled on the Minority Movement.

In essence, any Broad Left organisation is the expression of a contradiction: the aspirations of union members wanting to fight and who experience the union officials and leadership as an impediment to their ability to fight, combined with the view that the way to deal with that impediment is to replace right-wing officials and leaderships with left wingers. In other words, Broad Lefts encapsulate a will to fight combined with electoralism. Which element predominates inside a Broad Left depends partly on the direction given to it by the political organisation at its centre and partly on the period in which it is built.

In the 1960s, the two most successful Broad Lefts in the AUEW and in the NUM reflected the confidence and independence of working-class organisation in that period. Hence the element of ‘self-activity and struggle’ predominated over the electoralism, despite the electoralist strategy of the Communist Party (the driving force behind the Broad Lefts at the time), as long as those Broad Lefts formed the opposition to the right wing inside their respective unions.

The new Broad Lefts emerged under the impact of the rise of Bennism. They combined Benn supporters and the Militant, reflecting inside the unions an enthusiasm amongst a layer of activists for Benn’s strategy for changing the Labour Party and achieving a Socialist Britain.

By March 1984, Militant had become the dominant force behind BLOC. Over the next three years they organised four BLOC conferences.

The first Militant-organised BLOC conference took place a few weeks into the miners’ strike. The twin aims of BLOC are summarised in Unity [36], the official BLOC newspaper:

‘Our aims are clear – to transform the Trade Unions into fighting socialist bodies that will coordinate the opposition of working people against this Tory government and its policies and help spearhead the return of a socialist Labour government.’

Building Broad Lefts was also seen as a means of changing the Labour Party. George Williamson, BLOC organising secretary, writes:

‘The present will prove to be the right’s undoing. Once the right wing led unions (such as the CPSA) move to the left, that will reflect itself in a shift to the left on the General Council itself ... Of course, the implication for the Labour Party too will be enormous.’

Militant’s strategy for challenging the right wing inside the unions is identical to that of the Communist Party: replacement of right-wing leaders by left-wing ones. As George Williamson put it:

‘The General Council composition has been gerrymandered to give the right wing a built-in majority, with automatic representation. The right wing may change the rules and manoeuvre the structure as much as they like, but when the rank and file are determined to have a representative and accountable leadership, no amount of manoeuvres will stop good class fighters being elected to the General Council.’

In the same issue of Unity quoted above, Williamson outlines how the new Broad Lefts should be built:

‘As the trend towards the left continues, the right wing’s grip is easily being steadily whittled away ... But Broad Left activists cannot be complacent. It is absolutely vital during the coming period that they turn to their members with a fighting programme and strategy to take on the bosses ... To win a majority in their unions, the Broad Lefts must become campaigning bodies, with a clear alternative to the present leadership ... Over a period of time, through perseverance and determination, the Broad Left won the battle of ideas. What has been built in the CPSA and the POEU (now NCU) will be built in many other unions over the next few years.’

All the problems with Militant’s strategy are contained in the above: the assertion of a trend to the left inside the unions, the idea that ‘perseverance and determination’, combined with producing a journal are sufficient to create a left and ‘win the battle of ideas’. Despite the reference to the need for BLs to be campaigning bodies, there is no indication that the key to ‘winning the battle of ideas’ lies in workers’ confidence in their own power and that only comes from successful struggle.

The only conclusion which can be drawn is that Militant thought that propaganda for left ideas would be enough to build the Broad Lefts. Such an orientation combines an orientation on the union machine with complete passivity of the membership. No wonder that admonitions from Pat Wall [37], prospective candidate for Bradford North, to beware the pitfalls of electoralism which had beset the old BLs, in practice fell on deaf ears.

The above flaws in Militant’s strategy are illustrated by the role of BLOC during the miners’ strike.

BLOC’s strategy for the miners’ strike is outlined in the issue of Unity previous quoted:

‘The left Trade Union leaders and those unions prepared to stand by the miners, must now be preparing their members to take sympathy action on a national level ... A conference of executives of these unions could act as a rallying point, hammering out a strategy and drawing up plans to build the solidarity action needed to achieve a miners’ victory.’

This appeal to ‘left’ trade union leaders was combined with calls for a 24-hour general strike:

‘A nationally co-ordinated “Day of Action” or to give its proper name, a 24-hour general strike must be organised as a beginning of a national campaign of industrial action to force MacGregor and Thatcher to back down.’

The call for a general strike was not a realistic possibility. The longer the strike went on, the clearer it became that industrial solidarity was not forthcoming. In these circumstances, the demand for a 24-hour general strike as a central demand played into the hands of the right wing who had no intentions of doing anything and deflected the minority of militants away from the real solidarity they could deliver in favour of a general panacea. Such a demand only served to reinforce passivity inside the working class, because the balance of forces was against its realisation. The demand for a general strike grew in the strike in proportion to the increasing likelihood of defeat for the miners.

Unlike the BLs in the early 1970s, BLOC was not in a position to deliver the level of industrial solidarity needed to win the miners’ strike. Militant and BL supporters were centrally active in collecting money and food. Militant supporters were also active in building miners’ support groups through Labour Party wards. What BLOC did not do was to attempt to play a central coordinating role in the collection of money and food and integrate such solidarity work into the building of individual BLs. The role of coordinating the miners’ support groups, the majority of which were not Labour Party bodies, was in fact played by the Miners’ Defence Committee which organised a national conference in December 1984 and by the local miners’ support committees.

A further surprising failure of BLOC was that no attempt was made to build an NUM BL until 1986. This was not due to lack of criticism of the NUM leadership. In the Bulletin of Marxist Studies, Tom Pierce writes as follows:

‘One has only to contrast the magnificent response of the Liverpool working class to the uneven response to the call for action made by the leadership of the NUM in the miners’ strike. Arthur Scargill is undoubtedly one of the most Left and popular, if not the most popular, trade union leaders (at least with the activists) in Britain at the present time. The mass of the miners, particularly the young miners, have demonstrated a magnificent capacity for struggle in the course of the present miners’ battle. But, to say the least, the tactics of the leadership and of the Broad Left in general have left a lot to be desired.’ [38]

Leaving aside the absurd claim that the leadership in Liverpool which never led an all-out strike was better than that of Scargill, who led 140,000 on strike for one year, why did Militant not attempt to fill the gap? Was Scargill too popular for them to take on? Not only did they not attempt to set up a BL during the strike, Militant supporters in the NUM did not even meet nationally to discuss strategy and tactics throughout the strike.

Leadership of working-class struggle is concrete. Where an organisation does not have the muscle to implement concrete ideas, it still needs to make ‘concrete propaganda’ on the necessary steps necessary to take the struggle forward. This BLOC failed to do in general terms inside the unions as well as in the NUM. This was a failure of Militant itself, illustrating their inability to relate concretely to struggle as well as their inability to correctly estimate the real course of struggle and the balance of class forces.

The fate of BLOC was tied to the miners’ strike. In the wake of that defeat and the subsequent witchhunt inside the Labour Party, BLOC has steadily declined in both size and influence:

MARCH 1984


MARCH 1985


APRIL 1986




The above figures of numbers of delegates attending BLOC conferences mask the real decline. At the April 1986 conference, the theme was changed from the fight against privatisation to the witch-hunt. It was sponsored by Liverpool Labour Party and many of the delegates were clearly LPYS supporters, not bona fide trade union delegates.

The decline in support for the BLs is further illustrated by developments inside the NCU and the CPSA, Militant’s two prime examples of BLs. After the 1986 NEC elections, the BL retained only one supporter in the NCU and the right retained control of the NEC in the CPSA. The right also felt sufficiently confident to challenge the election of Militant supporter John Macreadie, ordering an enquiry and refusing to allow him to take office. Even if Macreadie is re-elected, he will remain the prisoner of a right-wing NEC whose decisions he has said publicly he will abide by. At a BLOC fringe meeting at the 1986 TUC, Macreadie also pledged his support for Kinnock as well as the Labour Party.

The main enemy is abroad

Just as the outbreak of the First World War provided a test for all Marxists in the Second International, the Falklands War was a test for revolutionaries in Britain. It is a test which Militant failed abysmally. They adopted a political position to the right of Tony Benn.

Instead of arguing that the main enemy is at home, the coverage in Militant contrived to give the impression that the main enemy is abroad. This was done in three ways. Firstly through the use of neutral headlines:








Secondly, the coverage, which was sparse in the extreme, contained more attacks on Argentina than on the British ruling class. The following passage by Ted Grant is typical: ‘Thatcher and the Tory government did not seek a conflict with the bonapartist military-police dictatorship ... But once Galtieri seized the Falklands the Tories had no choice.’ [39]

Thirdly, Militant opposed the demand for the withdrawal of the British fleet. In Militant 21.5.82 Ted Grant writes:

‘Such a demand, is completely unrealistic and futile ... If the Labour leaders had mobilised the workers against the ruling class policy on the war, the situation would be different. Once the Task Force has been sent, the die is cast. The lefts, by putting forward a negative pacifist position, cannot gain the support of the ruling class.’

Whilst it is true that Lenin railed against pacifists during the first world war, arguing the need for workers to fight a civil war against their own ruling class, he denounced those who supported their own ruling class even more.

Instead Militant argued for a general election! Small wonder their supporters did not take part in the anti-war demonstration in London on 23 May l982. [40]


The Bennite left went into decline after Benn’s defeat in the deputy leadership campaign of 1981. This was further reinforced by the impact of the Falklands War and the disastrous election defeat for Labour in 1983.

Militant did not suffer in the same way, no doubt benefiting from the decline of the Bennites. In 1982, the BL won control of the CPSA executive and Kevin Roddy, Militant supporter, became president. In the NCU, prospects looked good. In 1983, Militant won control of Liverpool council and two Militant supporters were elected to parliament.

Just as the rest of the left was reeling under the impact of Labour’s defeat, Militant was overcome with euphoria. An ex-supporter from Ellesmere Port at the time of the council elections in 1983 and one of the many drafted in to help with the campaign, tells of the impact: ‘There was massive euphoria. People thought “the revolution is round the corner”.’

The same feeling is reflected in the pages of Militant. The issue of 10 May, after the 1983 May elections, is devoted to the success of winning Liverpool council. Although there is one article in the weeks after the general election entitled The lessons of Labour’s defeat, week in and week out, readers are regaled with the success of Militant, in particular in Liverpool. It is not too sharp a verdict to say that for Militant, the centre of political life became Liverpool and their own success. The front page headling of Militant on 1 July 1983 was: Workers’ MP Lashes Tories. In an article on 8 July entitled Lessons of Broadgreen, Richard Venton writes:

‘British politics will never be the same again. The Tories and their class will regret the day they won the 1983 General Election … A spark has been lit which will fire the imagination of tens of thousands of workers throughout Britain, hastening the day when the transformation of society is on the agenda.’

On 9 September, Militant held a rally for supporters in Wembley drawing 2,000 supporters. The report in Militant headlined Brilliant Success for Militant starts:

‘The Militant rally at Wembley Conference Centre triumphantly showed the growth of Marxist ideas in the labour movement ... Last year, the labour movement conference against the witchhunt ... was addressed by Militant supporters who were parliamentary candidates. This year two Militant supporters spoke as Labour MPs.’

Even the successful expulsion of the five from Militant’s Editorial Board is turned to illustrate the strength of ‘Marxism’. The report of the Labour Party conference says:

On the question of the five members of the editorial board, the NEC obtained an endorsement of their action. However, it was clear from the mood of the conference that they had achieved a completely pyrrhic victory ...

In reality the five won the argument and scored a moral victory in the conference ...

Marxists can have every confidence the support for their ideas – real socialist ideas – will grow in the future. It is only a matter of time before the five are re-instated.

Three years later, we are still waiting for that reinstatement.

That Militant had a measure of support is seen by the fact that 80 per cent of CLP delegates at the conference voted against the witch-hunt. The greetings pages printed in the issue of Militant for the LP conference show support from 16 district LPs, 9 CLPs, 4 wards, 2 council women’s sections, 48 LPYS branches, 9 trade union bodies plus assorted Militant supporters’ groups and individuals.

Militant now began to exhibit all the signs of ‘triumphalism’. Perspectives for growth were no longer to be measured in ones and twos, but thousands. Targets for paper sales, numbers of supporters and finance were set. The goal of a daily paper was launched. With the setting of targets and perspective for exponential growth, came the seeds of Militant’s own future problems. The targets provided a measure on the ground for the optimistic view of the world outlined by Militant’s leadership.

An ex-supporter of 8 years work with Militant explained the dilemma:

‘Our group was against the big appeal, the big headquarters and the notion that we could build a mass tendency in 2 years with a daily paper. There were only 3–4 of us, but we were down on paper as 7–8. All our targets were based on 7–8. This was true nationally. We weren’t allowed to discount someone as a supporter until the district leadership said so. The local full-timer was no help. If he had talked to someone and said they were a supporter, then they were, even if we never saw them in Wigan. In the end the group just collapsed. It was like a self-fulfilling prophecy. The leadership said we could build, so we had to, so no-one was allowed to drop out.’

The gap between the optimistic perspective and reality on the ground took its toll politically. Two ex-supporters trained in the early tradition of Militant that the Labour Party could not be changed, both had long arguments with local full-timers on precisely this question in 1985. Neither could quite believe what they were being told. Their conclusions are similar.

The ex-supporter from Glasgow said:

‘I can see the seeds of reformism being sown in Militant. If you compare them now with when I was a supporter in the mid-1970s, you can see how success has changed them. We were always clear about what to do when it came to the threat of expulsions. We would have made plans for leaving the Labour Party. Today, Militant go to the High Court.’

The ex-supporter from Wigan said:

‘Militant always used to present themselves as the left tendency inside the Labour Party, but being a Militant supporter meant accepting revolutionary politics and the need to build a revolutionary party. Today, people are being won to Militant on the basis of being the left tendency inside the Labour Party. Instead of breaking people from reformism, it is now being reinforced by Militant with all those ideas that “the Labour Party is our party”.’

Militant supporters today can believe either that the Labour Party can be changed or there is the need for a revolutionary party in a way that was not possible in 1973. The combination of growth on the backs of left reformism and impossible targets has led to a clear shift to the right in Militant’s politics.

Militant claim to stand in the Trotskyist tradition. In truth they stand in the tradition of Karl Kautsky and are best described as centrists. They attempt to occupy a centre ground between revolutionary socialism and left reformism, but end up swinging between both positions. This accounts for their ability to sound like revolutionaries in certain situations and indistinguishable from left reformists in others. They share with Karl Kautsky, rewriting the Marxist theory of the state, abandoning revolutionary Marxism over imperialist wars and a mechanical Marxist view of the world. [41] They combine pure voluntarism in building support for their Tendency with a view that the working class will ‘automatically’ fight and move to the left. They suffer from optimism of the intellect and pessimism of the will. Always optimistic about the future, their day-to-day practice in the unions, the Labour Party and most clearly over Liverpool in September 1985 is profoundly pessimistic of the ability of workers to fight.

In terms of building political organisation, they have abandoned the Marxist tradition of attempting to win workers to use their economic power for political ends, for the reformist separation of the economic and political struggle. Support for abstract resolutions in trade unions and the Labour Party is seen as more important than the day-to-day struggles of workers. They have also abandoned the Leninist conception of a revolutionary organisation based on the minority of revolutionary workers inside the working class only able to become a majority in a revolutionary situation, for unity with the right at any price.

Time and again, Militant argue for unity with the right at the expense of upholding clear political principles. Hence Derek Hatton accepted a trade union enquiry into Liverpool at the Labour Party conference 1985 in the interests of unity. Such unity allowed the trade union leaders to do their hatchet job on behalf of Kinnock, the price of which Militant are still paying today.

1985 and the witch-hunt

The defeat of the miners’ strike enabled Kinnock to resume the task of breaking the left inside the Labour Party by expelling leading Militant supporters from Liverpool.

In 1983, Militant had grown as a result of the witch-hunt. Their approach in 1985 was similar. It combined wild over-optimism about the strength of the left in relation to the right in the Labour Party, plus an exaggerated view of Liverpool council, with a legalistic defence of those facing expulsion. The main slogan used in the defence was ‘Expel the Tories, not the Socialists’. No reference is made to Kinnock. At a rally against the witch-hunt held in London on 26 February 1986 [42], Peter Taaffe argued: ‘The reason for this campaign is because the ruling class in Britain were absolutely terrified by what developed in Liverpool in the course of the last three years.’

He then concluded:

‘And therefore we say, no bowing of heads, we’re not at all despondent. The attacks of the capitalist press will have no effect on us whatsoever ... the best of the working class will rise to our banner. No witch-hunts. For the transformation of the Labour movement on socialist lines. For a victory of working people for a socialist Britain and a transformation of the world.’

At the same rally, Tony Mulhearne and Derek Hatton both pledged that the Labour Party wards in Liverpool as well as the Labour group and DLP would never bow to the witch-hunt.

Despite this optimism, Militant supporters chose to rely on Tory judges and went to the High Court to try to stop the expulsions. This only delayed but did not stop Kinnock.

The entire defence at the NEC hearings was legalistic. In Marxism on Trial [43], Militant reprint the defence of Tony Mulhearne, Derek Hatton and Ian Lowes. In response to the question of whether he attended rallies and meetings of Militant, Tony Mulhearne replied: ‘... I have spoken on many platforms within the Labour Movement, particularly in response to a request to explain the position of Liverpool City Council.’

To a similar question about signing a leaflet, Mulhearne says: ‘I have signed many leaflets ... I explained that I didn’t recall signing the leaflet. If I did it was because the leaflet contained a message of support for the Liverpool City Council.’

The issue of Mulhearne being used as guarantor for a headquarters in Liverpool, was dealt with as follows:

‘... after the NEC decision which stated that the Militant editorial board and Militant was regarded as proscribed I contacted Tony Aitman and instructed him to remove my name from the documents. I didn’t want my position as guarantor to be seen as an organisational link-up which could perhaps be used against me by the right wing some-time in the future.’

And so it goes on. The same kinds of arguments were used by each in turn. And despite the denials of organisational connections with Militant, all were expelled.

The most public denial of association with Militant came from Pat Wall, prospective parliamentary candidate for Bradford North. He told the NEC he had broken all links with Militant in 1983. On that basis, he was endorsed as candidate by the NEC.

The retreat was not confined to those directly threatened. Militant sellers began to disappear from the streets after a series of supporters were expelled for selling their paper.

The Labour Party is not content to expel leading Militant supporters. Kinnock aims to undercut the basis of support for Militant by breaking their hold over the LPYS. Hence there are plans to reduce the age limit from 25 to 21 and to have the NEC youth representative elected jointly by NOLS and LPYS. The annual LPYS rally is to be turned into an annual youth conference made up of delegates from the LPYS, CLPs, the women’s organisation and the student movement. Militant accept that reducing the age limit will cut the membership of LPYS by half [44], a membership which has clearly been declining over the last two years.

That Militant’s support inside the Labour Party and the unions has declined is shown by the reduced number of greetings in Militant for May Day 1986, compared with 1985 and 1983, as well as the election results in unions already quoted.


There is no doubt that Militant are retreating in the face of the witch-hunt. Derek Hatton was prepared to sacrifice his ward chairmanship in an attempt to protect Terry Fields’ base in Broad Green constituency. The past few months have proved that staying in the Labour Party is more important to Militant than raising their standard high and marching proudly out to build an open opposition to Kinnock.

It is possible for a small, socialist sect to remain alive inside the Labour Party wards, sections of the LPYS and the lower levels of the trade union bureaucracy. Militant’s ideas can still have a certain attraction for Labour Party members opposed to Kinnock but not yet willing to break with the Labour Party. Militant can provide them with some kind of political niche. The same is true of left wingers inside the unions, who want to oppose the right, who have no faith in the ability of the rank and file to fight, and who look to changes inside the bureaucracy as the way to do things.

Whatever happens, Ted Grant and his supporters have well and truly abandoned their Trotskyist heritage. Building the revolutionary alternative in Britain requires making a complete break with their politics.


1. Ted Grant, The Marxist Theory of the State, London 1980. [Online in Against the Theory of State Capitalism, section entitled The Marxian Theory of the State. Two Classes One State – Cliff’s Contradiction. – Note by ETOL

2. Ibid., p. 25, emphasis in the original

3. Ibid., p. 26, emphasis in the original.

4. F. Engels, Anti-Dühring, London 1969, p. 332, emphasis in the original

5. Ted Grant, op. cit.,p. 26.

6. L. Walsh, The Police, in The State: A Warning to the Labour Movement, London 1983, p. 56.

7. Ibid., p. 48.

8. P. Taaffe, What We Stand For, London 1986.

9. Ibid., p. 25.

10. Reported in Militant, 20.4.73.

11. For full discussion on entrism and the Trotskyist tradition, see Duncan Hallas, International Socialism 2 : 16.

12. Document of the RCP, 1947, Tarbuck Papers, Modern Records Library, Warwick University, p. 30.

13. Ibid., p. 43, my emphasis

14. Ted Grant, Entrism, London n.d.

15. Minutes of the discussion on affiliation to the Labour Party at the Second Congress of the Communist International, Vol. 2, New York 1973, p. 183. Noske and Scheidemann were two notorious betrayers of the German Revolution in 1918, both were leaders of the SPD and in the government in Germany at the time

16. For full discussion on the politics of Keir Hardie, see the article by D. Gluckstein in International Socialism 2 : 32.

17. Ted Grant in The General Strike, London 1976, p. 54.

18. Taken from Militant publications.

19. The numbers in 1964 under-represent Militant’s influence because of the tight definition of ‘supportership’ in this period.

20. Figures for IS/SWP are from Ian Birchall’s History of the International Socialists, International Socialism 1 : 76 and 77, 1973.

21. Ex-supporter active first in Liverpool, then Wigan, 1976–84. During May 1986, I conducted exhaustive interviews with 20 ex-Militant supporters. Not all have been quoted in this article, but were invaluable for me in building a picture of the growth and nature of Militant. I was assisted by Barry Blinko and Mary Black, who both conducted interviews for me. Many thanks to all the comrades involved for their time, patience, papers and documents.

22. Active with Militant 1974–77.

23. Information provided by a leading Militant full timer to a Militant supporter in 1984.

24. British Perspectives, London 1979.

25. Ibid., p. 11

26. Ibid., p. 12.

27. Ibid., p. 18.

28. Ibid., p. 20

29. Ibid., p. 52.

30. See Barry Hindess, The decline of working-class politics, London 1971.

31. Tony Mulhearne, Liverpool Fights The Tories, London 1985

32. John Hamilton provided me with invaluable background information on the history of Liverpool Labour Party and its development since the Second World War when I saw him in May 1986.

33. Interview conducted with Ian Lowes, Militant supporter and senior steward, in May 1986.

34. See Communism, The Struggle for The Dictatorship of the Proletariat and the Utilisation of Bourgeois Parliaments, Second Congress of the Communist International, Vol. 2, New York 1977.

35. Tom Pierce, Liverpool, The Role of Marxist Leadership, in the Bulletin of Marxist Studies, London, Summer 1984, p. 2.

36. Unity, London, March 1984

37. Taken from his speech to the BLOC conference in 1985. Referred to in Socialist Worker, 31 March 1985.

38. Tom Pierce, op. cit., p. 3.

39. Ted Grant, Falklands Crisis: A Socialist Answer, London, May 1982

40. For a full analysis of Militant on the Falklands War, see Pete Goodwin in Socialist Review, 1982 : 6.

41. Cf. S. Salvadori, Karl Kautsky and the Socialist Revolution, London 1977, particularly pp. 161–162. For full discussion on ‘mechanical Marxism’, see Chris Harman, Base and superstructure, International Socialism, 2 : 32.

42. The tape of the rally is available from World Books, London

43. Marxism on Trial, London 1986.

44. Report in Militant, 25 July 1986.

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