Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 3


History of British Trotskyism

Ted Grant
History of British Trotskyism
Well Red Publications, London, 2002, pp. 303, £9.99

TED Grant has been a major figure in British Trotskyism for 60 years. In the 1980s and 1990s, he was a significant actor in the internal politics of the Labour Party. Born Isaac Blank, the son of immigrants from Russia and France, in Germiston, Johannesburg, in 1914, he joined the emerging South African Trotskyists in the early 1930s. He came to Britain in 1934, and was subsequently a member of the Marxist Group in the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and the Militant Group led by Denzil Harber in the Labour Party. He came to prominence after the breakaway of the Workers International League (WIL) from the Harber group in 1938, and he was subsequently in the leadership of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), the International Socialist Group and the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL) in the 1950s. After 1964, he led the RSL around the Militant newspaper. Having played an animating rôle in what became the most powerful current in the history of British Trotskyism, he was expelled by those he had politically fostered in January 1992. Today he remains active as leader of the small Socialist Appeal group.

The substance of this book consists of a 190-page essay by Grant tracing the fortunes of British Trotskyism from 1924 until the collapse of the RCP in 1949–50, and a postscript of some 30 pages by Rob Sewell sketching events in the life of the Grant tendency over the last half-century. The authors have done us all a service by putting between covers documents well-known to historians but relatively inaccessible, such as the wartime report of the Home Office and the security services on the Trotskyist movement, the account from 1943 of Gerry Healy’s expulsion from the WIL, programmatic statements by Grant, and a moving portrait of the RCP militant Olwyn Hughes by Alan Woods. There is also a useful appendix of biographical notes.

Despite its title, this volume is a history in only a limited sense. The authors have not returned to the documents, nor have they interviewed participants in any systematic fashion. They have not elicited substantial new evidence. While Grant is of the school which locates the real advent of British Trotskyism in the birth of the WIL, and he carefully re-examines the events of 1949–50, overall he adds little to, and corrects little in, existing work such as Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson’s Against the Stream and War and the International and Martin Upham’s unpublished PhD, History of British Trotskyism until 1949. Given his extensive experience, this could have been redeemed by extensive and conscious employment of recollection and critical reflection, by imaginative recuperation and probing exploration of the earlier lives Grant led in the foreign country of the past. But the book is autobiographical only in the most diffuse sense. The personal is largely suppressed, so that it is left to Sewell in his brief introduction to tell us a little about Grant’s family and his early life, and examples of pondering experience and self-reflection in the narrative are few. Even as memoirs (Sewell’s characterisation, p. 14) and in the face of invocation of Marx’s aphorism that individuals make history (p. 16), the text is reticent or restrained on people and their personalities. This is perhaps related to the book’s political sub-text: the austere assertion that the Socialist Appeal group is the direct descendant of Trotsky, the RCP and all that is best in the British revolutionary tradition, and that, suitably augmented and with a fair wind, it will go forward to build the party and make the revolution.

There are exceptions. Grant has some interesting new things to say about the work of the Trotskyists in the ILP, and he quotes extensively from a letter critical of the Marxist Group which, together with Harber and Stuart Kirby, he sent to the International Secretariat in 1935. He sheds new light on the creation of the WIL, arguing that the initial walk-out of Ralph Lee, Jock Haston, Grant and their comrades occurred with no thought of a split. This was prompted by Harber’s subsequent expulsion of those who condemned his circulation of Stalinist slanders concerning Lee’s handling of the funds of the South African Laundry Workers Union. He is educative and amusing on Cannon’s persistent but doomed attempts to weld the warring British factions into a united Trotskyist organisation in 1938. The authors have interviewed Millie Lee, and it is good to hear more about the life and work of this extraordinary woman. Grant usefully adds to the rehabilitation of Ralph Lee, the organisational dynamo who directed the initial success of the WIL. There are useful if brief snapshots and warm commendations of Lee, Haston and Jimmy Deane, all of whom were the objects of Grant’s admiration and affection.

The photographs which light the book are exemplary in evoking people, time and place, while Grant’s precise remembrances of Trotskyist songs lampooning the Popular Front (p. 48) and the Hitler-Stalin Pact (pp. 68–9) are invaluable in recalling the sensibility and structure of feeling of the time and preserving what otherwise might be lost forever. There is no derogation from the centrality of politics, but rather an attempt at deeper understanding of politics, involved in the attempt to illuminate and understand its protagonists, their characteristics and motivations and the social context in which politics is played out.

Several matters deserve further comment. Grant is correct favourably to contrast his rôle after 1945 in creatively attempting to grasp the transformations in capitalism, reformism and Stalinism with that of Pablo, Mandel, Cannon and Healy, who clung to dogma. Three points nevertheless require emphasis. Firstly, Grant’s arrogation to himself of the position of ‘principal theoretician of British Trotskyism’ (p. 193) is questionable, both for this and for later periods. A more persuasive reading of the embattled RCP leadership’s attempts to understand a changing world suggests collaboration and synergy rather than individualised theorising. Many remember Haston as a creative thinker who was no great shakes as a writer. Grant’s contribution, unassailable in itself, sometimes involved commitment of collectively elaborated ideas to paper. Overall it was made as part of a team. (See the exchange between ‘A Friend of George Edwards’ and Al Richardson, Revolutionary History, Volume 2, no. 4, Spring 1980, pp. 55–6).

Secondly, we might expect some critical assessment, making due allowance for the constraints of the time, as to how well the theorising of the RCP has stood up to the subsequent march of history. There is little of that here. Grant believes that his depiction of Stalin’s East European conquests as deformed workers’ states, progressive as against capitalism, requiring only political revolution and critical defence by revolutionaries, was right then and is right now. Yet at least as early as 1948, when the RCP leadership heralded the Stalinist dictatorship in Czechoslovakia as a victory for the working class, it was possible to perceive the fundamental problems with Grant’s theory of proletarian-Bonapartism and the idea that Stalinist statification from above, rather than workers’ revolution from below, creates workers’ states, no matter what their degree of infirmity. Many did so, arguing not only from the timeless, indispensable conception of socialism as the self-emancipation of the working class, institutionalising workers’ power and workers’ democracy, but also from the direct experience of the Czechoslovak Trotskyists. The belief that Grant developed through succeeding decades that not only China and Cuba but Cambodia, Laos and Benin were workers’ states, carried his theory away from the working class as the central agency of revolutionary history and into the substitutionist problematic. If he never succumbed to the conciliationism towards Stalinism of many Trotskyists, his theory, no more than that of his competitors, explained the dynamics of Russian despotism or its humiliating collapse. Yet there is no stocktaking here.

Thirdly, similar points can be made in relation to the limits of the RCP leadership’s estimation of the trajectory of capitalism after 1945. In contrast to the epigones’ prognostications of crisis, Grant admits that what he saw was a cyclical upturn rather than a quarter of a century’s-worth of boom. He is quite right to insist that nobody could have seen the future in 1944. But in succeeding years he nonetheless remained, unlike others, debilitatingly locked into Trotsky’s pre-war conceptions of terminal decline and impending crisis. If the slump was on the horizon rather than, as with Healy, just around the corner, it still structured his politics and obstructed understanding of the very real resilience of capitalism and its continued ability to remake itself and expand qualitatively. Already in 1957, Ted was announcing in the Draft Political Resolution at the RSL National Congress in 1957: ‘A new slump is absolutely inevitable in the next period. The consequences of the next slump can only be catastrophic from a capitalist standpoint. A new revolutionary wave will be the order of the day.’ And so it went on. Replacing Healy’s foaming at the bit with the patience of Job, the fatalism of impending crisis and its inevitable impact on the working class and the Labour Party were pivotal to Grant’s politics after the RCP. The coming slump would inevitably produce a powerful left wing and transform the Labour Party into a mass centrist organisation, paving the way for the ascendancy of the Marxists. What Stalinism was to Pablo, social democracy was to Grant.

This brings me to the perennial and vexed question of entrism. Grant asserts that he was entirely correct to oppose the RCP’s entry into the Labour Party from 1944 to 1949. The one mistake he will admit to is critically supporting entry in 1949 instead of sponsoring attempts to maintain the RCP as an open party. Thereafter, it seems, he has been consistently correct in supporting entry to this very day. His approach is questionable, and is based upon a partial invocation of Trotsky’s prescriptions for entrism, which, it goes without saying, must be treated as a very imperfect guide to a world the Old Man never lived in. Grant argues that the conditions which Trotsky used to justify the entry of the French section into the SFIO – conditions of capitalist crisis, workers turning towards social democracy in the context of a mass left-wing ferment within its ranks – were far from applicable to the Labour Party through the 1940s. It was therefore necessary to reject entrism and establish and maintain the RCP.

But Trotsky also adumbrated and applied, in specific relation to the British Trotskyists and the Labour Party, an approach to entry based fundamentally upon the weakness and isolation of the former and the potential of the latter in providing a sizeable audience for revolutionary ideas and the forging of organisational links with the labour movement. He argued, in his interview in 1936 with Sam Collins, that entry was necessary because of the fragility of the Marxist Group and the possibilities the mass reformist party of the working-class majority presented compared with the centrist ILP. The Old Man’s comments were particularly pertinent to the RCP, formed with around 500 members and enrolling only 350 a year or two later:

While it is necessary for the revolutionary party to maintain its independence at all times, a revolutionary group with a few hundred comrades is not a revolutionary party and can work most effectively at present by opposition to the social patriots within the mass parties. In view of the increasing acuteness of the international situation, it is absolutely essential to be within the mass organisations while there is the possibility of doing revolutionary work within them. (Trotsky’s Writings on Britain, New Park, 1974, p. 141)

Grant accepted this advice in 1936. Throughout this book he insistently urges us to keep a sense of proportion. If we do so, we discern that the RCP was never a party in Trotsky’s terms. Given the weakness of revolutionaries and the resilient allegiance which even advanced workers gave to Labour, entrism was the realistic option at least from 1944. This is not pipe-dreaming: although matters were certainly complex, this approach was urged at the time and the mistaken perspectives on which some of its advocates based their case did not completely detract from the cogency of the essential prescription. The RCP leadership, understandably, was carried away by their positive experience in the very specific conditions of wartime, and disoriented by their inability to grasp the reformist dynamic of Attlee’s government, as well as the problem of British Stalinism’s turn to the left from 1947.

The book’s account of the events of 1949–50 suggests that Ted was wrong (most explicitly stated by Sewell, p. 195) to stake everything on preserving the leadership around Haston by accepting the latter’s turn to entrism against the open party faction. But does this mean that Grant’s subsequent acceptance of entrism was mistaken and that the open party tactic was the one to apply in the 1950s? The best complexion we can put on things is that after the collapse of the RCP and the Open Party Faction, entrism was the only option that was left, although at one point Grant asserts that it didn’t really matter much whether the Trotskyists were inside or outside the Labour Party. Sewell then goes on to justify entrism in the 1950s – although we should not overlook the toying with the open party approach in the revamped RSL after 1956. He does so by partly rejecting the criteria which Grant applied in the 1940s, adopting a variant of Trotsky’s approach in the interview with Collins and then putting the two together. Thus while the Grant group was in the Labour Party in the early 1950s through their own weakness and the more favourable possibilities that work inside the party provided, this version of entrism ab debilitatio is not to be confused with entrism proper. It was rather what the French called entrism au Clifford Odets and the Americans Waiting for Lefty. The Grant group was, on its own account, in the Labour Party waiting for entrism, waiting for the crisis to arrive and create the indispensable conditions laid down by Trotsky at the time of the French turn.

The practice of entrism receives little assessment in the book. Grant refers to the work of the RCP majority’s entrist group around Charlie Van Gelderen to suggest that Labour Party work after the war was unfruitful. But this was, on the whole, shallow and half-hearted entry, entry as an annexe to the open party based on selling both the open paper and the colourless Militant and passing contacts quickly on to the RCP. This was very different from Healy’s assimilationist and substitutionist operation, and indeed from Grant’s later approach. It is disappointing that there is little critical reflection on practice, given Grant possesses more than a half-a-century’s experience of Labour Party work. Yet many have been only too willing to criticise what they categorised, certainly after 1964, as a practice mingling sectarianism and opportunism, the combination of a fierce independence, rejection of alliances, and strident denunciation of other tendencies combined with the public insistence that a peaceful parliamentary road to socialism was a possibility, and the transformation of the Labour Party into the party of the revolution a racing certainty. Of course, entry requires, at least to a degree, that revolutionaries become part of the Labour Party’s left-wing bloodstream. The question is to what degree and precisely how. Militant’s self-imposed separateness from the left it originally aspired to work within, can be questioned. Of course entrism requires a degree of public political adaptation. If you take sustained Labour Party work seriously, you have to reject purism. You have to relate to the Labour left, the issue is again to what degree and how you do it. While Grant’s Sinn Féinism militated against such relating, his group, invoking Trotsky, transformed what had been perceived by Trotsky as a short-term tactic into a long-term strategy and adapted energetically to Labourist politics, not least in its distorted histories of Labour as a socialist party hijacked by the right. In a different way, but just as much as Healy, the Grant group sought to become the left wing.

Ted Grant lived through troubled times for revolutionaries. His endurance and his tenacity in grappling with complex and sometimes intractable difficulties demands our respect, our admiration and our criticism. Rob Sewell’s attempt to cover his progress over more than 50 years in little more than 30 pages is bound to suffer from incompleteness. Although it lays out a useful itinerary for future historians, it should be read together with Jens-Peter Steffen’s Militant Tendency (see Revolutionary History, Volume 6, no. 1, 1995–96, pp. 175–84). I will just make a few points. More credit should be given to those who picked Ted up off the floor in the early 1950s, not only the Deane family but Sam Levy and the now almost forgotten Bob and Pauline Peters who laboured mightily in repairing the damage done in different ways by Haston and Healy. No more than in Ted’s History is there any analysis of how Grant’s entrism changed qualitatively after the 1940s, and how one tactic in the difficult construction of building a revolutionary party evolved into long-term strategy, entrism without end, at least this side of the revolution. What is missing is not so much what was right and what was wrong according to sacred texts, as a critical accounting of how the group’s policies developed in the years after 1950.

It is doing less than justice to Peter Fryer, Brian Pearce, Ken Coates, Jim Higgins and many more – Alasdair McIntyre! – who joined Healy after 1956, simply to write them off as uninterested in ‘ideas, theories and principles’ (p. 202). At times, Healy and Pablo haunt the text like pantomime villains to the exclusion of consideration of why they attracted support and how they exploited the real weaknesses of their political opponents. There is surely more to be said about Militant’s break with the Labour Party, the creation of Militant Labour, the Socialist Party and the expulsion of Grant and his faction than the tabloid tale of Peter Taaffe’s sudden emergence as a composite of Healy, Pablo and Iago. There is no engagement with alternative accounts (see, for example, Peter Taaffe, The Rise of Militant, Militant Publications, 1994, pp. 445–52). If we allow that the Militant majority were succumbing to delusions of grandeur, there were new problems confronting the organisation inside the Labour Party. Are there not real limits to what can be achieved by entrism in the face of an electoral-based, reformist party and a powerful bureaucracy determined on moving it to the right? And was the faction fight not to some extent the product of the maturation of long-term tensions?

Several mistakes require correction. Healy hailed from Galway, not Donegal (p. 78). The Stalinist Pat Devine, when questioned by Jimmy Deane as to why he was accusing Deane of malingering when he was not himself in the forces, allegedly responded: ‘I’m doing my utmost. I’m a blood-donor.’ – not vice versa (p101). The Daily Worker claimed that the contribution of Haston, not Grant as stated here, to the labour movement in his native Edinburgh could be inscribed on the back of a postage stamp (p. 113). Everything Grant knew, the paper claimed, had been picked up on the veldt. Rally first appeared in 1949 in Birkenhead; its driving force was Alf Rose, who went with Healy. The version edited by Beryl Deane in Walton (p. 208) was a later incarnation. The story of Ted’s selection and removal as Labour candidate for Walton in 1954 – not 1955 – (p. 206) is a little more complicated than it appears here. Ted triumphed by a single vote after two tied votes against the former WIL supporter, Bob Briscoe. It was this that facilitated bureaucratic intervention. Had Ted initially won by a substantial margin, it is possible that, like George Macartney in 1959, he would have been allowed to stand. It was not Pablo but Sam Bornstein who placed the famous advert in Tribune for the journal Fourth International (p. 200).

There are a number of silly errors such as ‘Campbell Stevens’ instead of Campbell Stephen (p. 29), ‘Joseph Hanson’ instead of Joseph Hansen and ‘Poasadas’ instead of Posadas (p. 209). It is not clear who Charles Lockland is, presumably the Leeds ILPer, Charles Loughlin (p. 113). On the whole, however, this is a stimulating, well-produced and attractive book, selling at a very reasonable price. It should be required reading for all interested in revolutionary politics.

John McIlroy

Sheila Lahr adds that in an attack upon reformists, Ted Grant writes ‘as the Bible says: you cannot serve two masters; you cannot serve God and Mammon’ (p. 46). And a reading of Rob Sewell’s appendix takes this religious analogy further, for Ted is referred to as Great Leader and Teacher (p. 210). In this book, or should I call it gospel, Trotsky is God and Ted is his prophet! Certainly, Ted cannot err, or if he admits an error he reclaims it on a later page.

For instance, with regard to the dissolution of the RCP – at which I was present – he states that he opposed the Open Party faction, of which I was a member, because of the necessity to preserve the RCP leadership. Ted, apparently, had entertained a cosy picture of the majority faction of the RCP entering in its entirety into the Labour Party to form a unit under its previous leadership. When the Open Party faction pointed out that any entry into the Labour Party would be under the leadership of Healy, Ted accuses them of political spite! But surely Ted must have known that in view of the support given to Healy by the International, this would be the case. When the International insists that to remain in the Fourth International, the dissolved RCP must accept Healy’s leadership in the Labour Party, Ted holds up his hands in horror. Following which, he boasts that although at the conference he supported dissolution and entry, he voted against accepting Healy’s leadership; while ‘the Open Party faction voted for it’! Thus Ted hedges his bets! He certainly put forward no plan for the dissolved RCP to enter the Labour Party as a separate non-Fourth International faction (pp. 185–6).

To continue with the religious angle, the persons presented in the book are dubbed either saints or sinner. The sinners are, of course, all those who disagreed with Ted. Even F.A. Ridley, a very honest man who lived all his adult life in poverty, is rubbished by being referred to as ‘middle-class’ – this being used as a pejorative term. Ridley was certainly no more middle-class than Ted, and probably less so as Ted had grown up as a white in a colonial country, South Africa. Ted refers to Healy’s minority as consisting of middle-class comrades (p. 170). Nothing could be further from the truth. Those members who formed half of the North London Branch until the dissolution were all working-class, having left school at the age of 14 years and working in industry. I would suggest that the contact of these early school leavers with Marxism and Trotskyism had been their first brush with abstract ideas. They must have been very proud at receiving what they saw as equivalent to an university education! However, if, unlike academia under capitalism, such ideas had been presented to them as incorporating their own life experience, instead of the bourgeois dichotomy between theory and practice remaining in place, the understanding of these comrades would have been vastly improved. Under bourgeois education, the student’s life experience is regarded as irrelevant, and within the Trotskyist movement at that time, it was generally regarded as ‘subjective’.

With regard to the Soviet Union, Ted states that while in the RCP he had claimed that Russia was a deformed workers’ state, while the East European states were proletarian Bonapartist. He returns to this at the end of the book in a republished document in which this time the USSR is referred to as ‘Bonapartist … resembling the Caesarism of Ancient Rome’ – whatever this might mean! I guess it doesn’t matter now, but to put the record straight, during all my time in the RCP we were told that the USSR was a degenerated workers’ state and Eastern Europe consisted of deformed workers’ states. More than probably, this change of designation has assisted Ted in explaining the collapse of the USSR and its satellites, but these designations were not used at the time to which he refers.

A further criticism I have of this book is the incorporation of wads from documents written by Ted some years ago. Surely these could have been précised and an analysis made as to why the power continually being prepared for never came about? In fact, if I were ever tempted to write such a book, which is admittedly 100 per cent unlikely, I would begin at the present day and examine why we failed and the lessons to be learned from this. Possibly some of the reasons for failure may be the continual attempt to tell the future – the Nostradamus tendency – put forward as perspectives. Surely dialectics tells us, and should have informed Ted, that all in this world is in constant flux!

With regard to the Fourth International, it is certain that its members played a Machiavellian rôle, and encouraged Gerry Healy to do so. Ted puts this down to the spite of Cannon against the RCP, but is it possibly to destroy a movement because of one person’s spite? Ulterior motives there may have been, but they need to be researched in the light of the political and economic climate of that time.

In conclusion, I would say that the title of this book is over-ambitious, and in no way has it provided a history of the British Trotskyist movement.

Updated by ETOL: 22.10.2011