Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 9 No. 4
Ted Grant (1913–2006)
The death of Ted Grant marks the passing of one of the last of that generation who came into revolutionary activity in the aftermath of the Russian revolution. I got to know him well over the past 40 years, as a member of the Socialist Party, since my first involvement with Militant in 1964. Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, Ted Grant remained firmly convinced in the ideas that had led that revolution until his death. It is impossible to write an obituary of Ted Grant without also writing a history of the Trotskyist movement, so completely was the story of his life also the story British – and international – Trotskyism.
It is also impossible, when writing an obituary, not to look back on the life of an individual and find in their youth the seeds of what they were to become. And so it is with Ted Grant.
Grant was steeped in the ideas and primarily the method of Marxism, and it was this understanding that enabled him to make his great contribution to the arsenal of Marxism, the application and development of those ideas to the situation the world found itself in after 1945.
For the revolutionary movement, that world was vastly changed from that it had worked in pre-war. The assassination of Trotsky had removed the last great thinker from the International, and the movement found itself rudderless in a rapidly changing world. Trotsky had indicated that the end of the war would see a revolutionary wave sweep the world, as had happened after 1918; its failure to materialise in precisely the way Trotsky had suggested threw the International completely off balance. The leadership turned in every direction in an attempt to understand the situation. For some, capitalism had solved its problems – the old cycle of slump and boom were gone. For others, the Chinese revolution was a victory for the Chinese bourgeoisie, and had ushered in a new period for capitalism. Still others saw in countries like Yugoslavia healthy workers states, and urged the youth of the International to go there to help build the new society.
In the International, only a few lone voices stood out. In America, a minority with Morrow and Goldman argued against a simple repetition of Trotsky’s perspectives. In England, it was Ted Grant and the Revolutionary Communist Party majority who recognised that the revolutionary wave had indeed taken place – the movements in Eastern Europe, the victory of the radical-sounding Labour Party in the UK, the independent movements of the working class in Paris and Italy, the Chinese revolution, the movements against colonialism throughout Africa and Asia – but that these were in the process of being derailed by Stalinism and social democracy. Yet this also brought out another aspect of Grant’s make-up – his refusal to acknowledge the contribution others made to the development of theory. There can be no doubt that others in the RCP leadership, such as Jock Haston and others, played an important part in developing the Party’s theoretical direction after the war, but no credit to them was ever given by Grant. Even his analysis of the period as being “counter-revolution in democratic form” draws on Morrow’s writings. I personally came across Morrow’s writings by accident; never did Grant attempt to develop and broaden the theoretical level by encouraging the youth to read others from the Trotskyist tradition and never was recognition given to the theoretical foresight of others.
From this period, Grant’s The Marxist Theory of the State (1949) was his first and probably most important contribution. After a false start, where he convinced Tony Cliff that the USSR was state capitalist, Ted looked over the edge and saw the abyss to which this idea could lead the movement. In one of his favourite phrases, he “went back to the books” and produced a major contribution on the question of the nature of the state, the dynamics of Stalinism and the processes of the colonial revolution. It is, of course, an irony that it was through this discussion in the RCP that Tony Cliff developed his theory of state capitalism. It was this method he used to analyse the Chinese revolution, being one of the first to hail it as the greatest event in the history of the working class since the Russian Revolution, an overthrow of landlordism and capitalism that took, however, the deformed form of Stalinism from the outset.
To those who argued that capitalism had changed its spots, he produced Will there be a Slump?(1960), restating the cyclical nature of capitalism and the dynamics of the capitalist economy. Taken as a whole, it was this body of work that armed the movement here and enabled the rebuilding of international Marxism in the years to come, the theoretical bedrock on which the Militant, the Socialist Party and the Committee for a Workers International (CWI) would be built.
An obituary, however, is not a eulogy; it must examine an individual as a rounded out human being, warts and all. The tragedy of Ted Grant’s life was that, despite the enormous contribution he made to the movement and despite the lasting importance of the body of work that he left behind, he was often a stumbling block to the very movement he had helped build, unable, towards the end of his life, to repeat the role he played in the 1940s of understanding the new world situation.
Others have written here about the post-war world. This was a difficult time for Ted. His party had been reduced to a handful of individuals, and there was the desperate need to rebuild and develop. Ted took various jobs – a door to door salesman, a telephone switchboard operator – to try to raise the money to finance the rebuilding. But if theory was the strongest weapon in Ted’s arsenal, organisation certainly was not. Objectively and subjectively, the post war years were a long and painful period.
The first requirement of a revolutionary leader is historical honesty; in all his writings, Trotsky was meticulous in recording accurately the truth of the events he took part in. For Ted Grant, unpleasant memories just did not happen. An example is the role he took at the end of the war. The RCP had been a high point for Marxism in the UK, yet the post war period saw its collapse into a number of competing factions. Where to work was the prime question; Gerry Healey and his group had left the RCP in 1947 and entered the Labour Party on a completely opportunist basis. However, towards the end of 1948, Jock Haston, then General Secretary of the RCP, began to argue for working in the Labour Party despite there not being any immediate prospects for large scale gains through this work. There is no doubt that work outside the Labour Party would have been more productive in that period – and there is also no doubt that Ted Grant knew this. Instead, he resolved to stand with “a tested leadership” against the newer, younger RCP members – the Open Party faction – calling for an open party to be maintained – and capitulate to those in the Labour Party. Rapidly, however, once the RCP had dissolved itself and all were inside the Labour Party, most of the old “tested leadership” fell away and the “unified” Trotskyist group in the Labour Party was purged of dissidents under the tender ministrations of Gerry Healey. Throughout his life, Grant argued that this had not been a mistake – either in or out of the Labour Party, he claimed, would have made no difference. Only towards the very end of his life did Grant finally admit that his stand had been a mistake.
After the collapse of the RCP, these were lean years for Grant and the small group around him. But to talk to him about these years, to try and discuss the development of International Socialism or Socialist Current – both short lived ventures in the 1950s – was an impossibility. It is hard not to draw the conclusion that the reason for this was that the group that continued to publish Socialist Current after breaking with Grant was composed of many of those who had been in the Open Party faction. For Ted though, the period between the high spot of the RCP and founding of the Militant had hardly happened.
Engels once commented that it was better to split an organisation and have a small group that turned itself out to the wider labour movement than a large organisation riven by internal dissent and paralysed from doing any real work. For Ted Grant and the supporters around him, though, the years of uphill struggle took their toll, and in the early 1960s attempts were made to ally with first with the youth of the International Socialists (forerunners of the SWP) in Young Guard, and then, under pressure from the Fourth International, with the International Group around Pat Jordan and Ken Coates. These attempts reflected the despair of sections of the group around Grant – and both were doomed to failure. Both mergers had been opposed by the comrades in Liverpool, at that time including Tony Mulhearn, Ted Mooney and Peter Taaffe. Indeed, the Liverpool comrades walked out of the unity conference. That Liverpool continued to produce a youth journal, along with the recruiting of fresh new supporters in other areas, was a significant factor in the decision to found the Militant in 1964.
It was that event, the founding of Militant, that changed the future for British Trotskyism. Objectively, the situation was ripe. Labour looked likely to win the election after years of Tory corruption and scandal. The comrades in Liverpool had built up a strong base for the tendency in the Labour Party through their work in the youth field the publication of Rally, the activity in Walton CLP and the, often haphazard, publication of Socialist Fight in London. At the same time, they had recruited a number of new comrades through their leadership in the area of the 1960 apprentices’ strike.
Virtually from the beginning, though, a question mark hung over Grant’s attitude towards work in the Labour Party. All the writings of Trotsky, all the documents that provided the theoretical grounding for work in the mass party, discussed this as a tactical issue, to be re-discussed and evaluated as other opportunities presented themselves, as the class struggle developed and changed in character. Yet for Ted Grant, this was becoming a mantra: work in the Labour Party was paramount and should be protected at all costs. This was in complete contrast to the great flexibility regarding the Labour Party shown by the WIL, the organisation Grant helped found in 1937, and later by the RCP. Already, in the 1950s, Grant had abstained in the vote when Bill Hunter was expelled from the Labour Party, in order to protect his own position. Honesty, principle and the ability to openly work for the ideas of Marxism were in danger of being sacrificed to the “principle” of work in the Labour Party.
In many respects, the work went on despite him, combining the tactic of work in the Labour Party with open work and campaigning struggle. A tremendous base was built for the ideas of Marxism, grounded on the theory that Grant brought to the movement. But theory without the ability to turn it into practice can lead to disaster. For years, Grant had armed the movement with the tactic of working in the Labour Party; convincing local Labour Party workers to support the ideas of Militant and select Marxist candidates, and the victory in getting three MPs elected, was a great success for Trotskyism in Britain. But this tactic became a principle writ in stone – nothing could be done that might endanger the position of the MPs. So Grant clashed on tactics during the Liverpool struggle, the campaign against the expulsions, during the fight against the poll tax – everything was subservient to keeping our position in the Labour Party, even to the extent of suggesting that our MPs pay the poll tax to prevent their expulsion from the Labour Party! Where would the name of Terry Fields now be in the history of the Liverpool labour movement if he had taken that road rather than go to prison as other working people did, let alone the 34 Militant supporters who were imprisoned? What had started out as a tactic was now an unchanging principle.
So too, that flexibility of thought and tactics that had been Grant’s hallmark in the 1930s and 1940s turned into mantras that could not be changed, with dire consequences for the development of the movement. The science of perspectives turned into repeated dogma. For example, the forced fusion with the International Group in 1963–1964 could have been a disaster; the first few issues of Militant bear testimony to their influence, and, as indicated above, nearly split Grant’s group. However, the long-standing political disagreements with the Fourth International led to the predicted split – or, rather, with the behind-the-scenes manoeuvring that was the hallmark of the USFI, the de facto expulsion of the British section and the recognition of the International Group as their new representatives in 1965. What could have been seen as a tragic isolation was seen instead by both Ted Grant and Peter Taaffe, Militant’s delegates to that World Congress, as a blessed liberation, the freedom to really start the building of Trotskyist internationalism. Turning their back on the old organisations, what Grant called the “groupscules”, they turned the face of the Militant towards the youth and the new, fresh layers of the organised labour movement.
But, if Grant inculcated these new recruits with an orientation towards the mass movement, he combined with it a dogmatic refusal to believe that anyone other than the accepted leaders of Marxism could make a contribution to ideas or knowledge. Books were dismissed out of hand, unread, whether historical written by a member of the SWP or scientific written by university professors. Even novels which had not had the seal of approval were rejected as “rubbish” – again, unread. That broadness of thought that so characterised Trotsky, that led Marx, echoing the Roman dramatist Terence, to say “nothing human is alien to me”, was missing from Ted’s make up.
In the realm of theory, Ted Grant’s Will there be a Slump? was one of the Militant’s basic propaganda documents; it answered those who argued that capitalism had solved its problems, whether Keynesian or “permanent arms economy”. Yet, for Grant, every turn in capitalism was a sign of this devastating slump to come. The harshest effect of this was in October 1987. Rather than soberly analysing the various factors at play, and thus preparing the movement for the different possibilities of what might occur, Ted predicted that Black Monday would lead to a 1929-style slump. When this failed to manifest itself, it had a major effect on the membership and supporters of the paper. Why had it not happened? Would it ever happen? How could a leader of the movement be so wrong? It was clear that others in leading positions had disagreed sharply with Grant over this; more and more Militant supporters were becoming aware of Grant’s increasing dogmatism and his increasing separation from the reality of the movement’s work.
The defeat of the Liverpool struggle, the defeat of the miners, the collapse of Stalinism, the fundamental change in the nature of the Labour Party – Ted Grant was unable to meet these new challenges. Instead, he retreated into stale repetitions of old tactics, old characterisations. For years, Grant refused to accept that capitalism had been restored in former USSR, in 1997 an introduction to his Russia: from revolution to counter-revolution still talked about “the attempt is being made to restore capitalism in Russia.”
The clash, when it came, came as in 1949 – between what Ted regarded as “old guard” – i.e. himself – and a large majority of the “younger” members of the party. To him, the “youth” could not be trusted with the ideas of Marxism – only he could show a correct way forward; this reflected itself in the increasing difficulty in getting Grant to keep to his time when he spoke at meetings. Often, deep political differences first manifest themselves as minor, seemingly secondary issues; the split in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party first arose over an obscure clause on Party membership. In the Militant, it was over who should speak at a European meeting, a “young” member (somewhat long in the tooth even then) or an “older member”. This apparently unimportant issue rapidly developed into major political differences – on the Labour Party, on how to build, on the Soviet Union. Discussing with Ted Grant during that period, it was often difficult not to see him as an old man being used by others with their own particular agenda. It was clear his best days were behind him. Even an analysis of the state of the movement in the past few years was beyond him; in one of his last interviews, he still blamed the decline in the position of Militant not to objective factors, but to the mistakes of one man – Peter Taaffe!! Grant simply kept repeating that there was no “political life outside the Labour Party”, just ignoring the fact that today the Socialist Party has 24 elected members on trade union national executives, far more than the Militant ever had.
A constant feature of Grant’s outlook was his contempt for the other so-called Trotskyist groups. He was fond of describing the post war years, when he spoke of them searching the world for new heroes – first Tito, then Ben Bella – that they could fawn on as the new leaders of world revolution. This reached its pinnacle when the official leadership of world Trotskyism dubbed Castro as an “unconscious Trotskyist” and Cuba as a healthy workers state. Hegel, Marx and Trotsky wrote of things turning into their opposite; how tragic and how ironic that Grant and the grouplet he led are now doing precisely that as they fawn at the heels of new, modern day “heroes” – in Venezuela but also, irony of ironies, Cuba.
One of the real tragedies of Ted’s later years was that he lost the respect and support of the very youth he saw as being so important for the future. If anything showed his inability to adapt to new conditions, it was war in Iraq and the Middle East. At the time of the Second World War, when there was mass revulsion at Nazism and a general mood amongst the working class to go to war, the Trotskyist movement opposed the war – but also argued that Marxists should go with their class into the army and carry out propaganda there, to turn the war into revolutionary struggle; the bourgeois were incapable of waging a war on Nazism. Fifty years later, the 1991 war in Iraq was clearly seen by large sections of the working class as a war for imperialism – “No Blood for Oil” – and any attempt at conscription would have led to mass refusal from the youth, a movement which the Marxists had a duty to intervene in and lead in a revolutionary direction. This was true even more so than in the US during the Vietnam war. For Grant, though, the old mantras held: if there was conscription, the youth would simply have to go and fight. When this was met with gasps of astonishment at one particular meeting, Grant reassured the youth: for every one of them that died, the movement would recruit ten more.
If this has been mostly a political obituary, it is also important to remember Ted as a human being. I first met him at the age of 15, just after the first edition of Militant was published. What impressed me most was the patience with which he explained things to me, a young, headstrong youth from a London East End Jewish Communist Party background. I learnt more about the fundamentals of Marxism from those early discussions with Ted than through years of reading and experience. I must have disagreed with something he said – now lost in the mists of time – but he called me a Doubting Thomas. From that day on, for the next 28 years, he continued to call me Thomas, although I am certain he knew my real name.
Then there were his eccentricities. His love of cowboy movies – “bang bangs” – was legendary; there is also the story of how he missed a vital meeting, only to be seen creeping out of the early Steve McQueen horror flick The Blob! He was adept at mangling English; for years I had the vision of the leader of Greek social democracy as an avuncular old gentleman called Pappy Andrew.
Other writers have commented on how he never lost his South African accent. He was once on a visit to Merseyside, and the mother of new young comrade in the wilds of Cheshire invited him round for a meal. “A cup of weak tea, please, dear” he asked. “Oh” she said, hearing his accent, “I never realised you were a colonial”.
For those of us who came into revolutionary activity in the period from the 1960s, Ted Grant was an important figure, the link with the past directly to Trotsky and the Russian Revolution, a bedrock for the ideas of Marxism. New, young recruits to the revolutionary movement should read his works, learn from them – above all their method – and apply the flexibility of thought and tactics that the young Ted Grant was able to apply, and in this way rebuild the movement he spent his life building. This would be his greatest memorial.
Updated by ETOL: 31.10.2011