Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 9 No. 4

John Archer

As to how “Militant” developed

We present here a document found in the late John Archer’s files (for access to which we are grateful to Bob Archer). It takes the form of a draft letter to Bob Pitt. Cde Pitt has confirmed that he never received a letter from Archer about Militant, so we must assume the project was dropped, or redirected, perhaps at an audience within the “Lambertist” current (we use this personalisation merely as a convenience and not in a derogatory manner – their organisational names have changed a number of times and in recent years have declared themselves to be “The Fourth International”, which we think some readers may find confusing.) There are other documents among Archer’s papers that show he wished to contribute to work in the “Lambertist” current analysing the particular history of the Militant tendency and of Ted Grant.

Although clearly incomplete, the document brings to bear on the question of Militant and the political history of Ted Grant, Archer’s decades of experience of the political issues and the personalities through whom they are brought to life. The notes are undated but clearly refer to a period after the split in Militant that separated Grant and his supporters (Socialist Appeal/IMT) from Taaffe and his (now known as the Socialist Party, and their affiliates, and which Archer refers to as the majority tendency). Some sections dealing with these discussions have been omitted.

It would be unbalanced and wrong to make Grant the demon of the story. At the same time, his participation has been so inseparable that we have to write a political biography of him if we are to understand the “Tendency”. His political biography requires not merely that we trace what has changed and what has remained the same in his political outlook, but also that we trace his principal role as “ideas-man” to activist groups.

For this purpose, I think that we have to describe – necessarily with a broad brush but, I hope, with a minimum of distortion or subjectivity, not merely the experience of the Trotskyists in the 1940’s (to which leading elements in the “Majority” tendency of Militant have realised already that they have to go back), but even earlier, to the early 1930’s, if for no other reason than that otherwise there will be confusion about the 1940’s.

However remote the 1930’s and 1940’s may seem, this is not too formidable a task today. A good deal of the necessary preliminary research has been done. That a systematic analysis has not yet been achieved has to be blamed on the objective difficulties more than the shortcomings of the leaderships of the relatively larger groups, since the mere task of holding these groups together in a world situation in which for many years Stalinism and Social Democracy dominated the workers’ organisations have not only restricted the possibilities of intellectual work but led them into triumphalist claims ... To recognise this does not at all mean that we deny or forgive the disastrous mistakes which we must conclude that they have made. All we need is to see what these were.

The central purpose of these notes is to raise the prospect that some of us who regard ourselves as life-long Trotskyists may effectively achieve a political intervention in the present confusion in the “majority” tendency in order to promote the necessary development towards a workers’ party in Britain, the British Section of the Fourth International which Trotsky helped to found in 1938.

The “majority” in the former “Militant Tendency”, which split away under the leadership of Peter Taaffe in 1991 from the “minority”, with which Grant remains associated, appears to me to represent an advanced though far from wholly healthy tendency. I regard the split as progressive and, in any case, inevitable. It appears to me to open up serious political possibilities in the direction of laying the foundation for the future workers’ party. However, the “majority” took the step of splitting from the Grant circle empirically, under the influence of the layers of militant youth and of workers whom their activity mobilised in the Anti-Poll Tax Campaign. If the “majority” does not acquire the political means to clarify its position and to find the means which its members are seeking to go forward, then it will break up. The two fundamental problems, which underlie the multitude of episodic questions which these comrades are trying to discuss, are, not unsurprisingly, first the question of Stalinism and its collapse in the USSR and the world, and, secondly, (which is our immediate concern here) is centred round the British Labour Party. [1]

… believed that we must locate ourselves. Consequently, we believed that the class-struggle, in which correct work on our part would be an indispensable component, would break up the Labour Party, possibly isolating its reformist, right-wing and creating a mass centrist movement in which we would play a part. It was recognised that the “Militant Group” could not call openly in its press for the Fourth International at that stage, even while in their local work its members could raise in general terms the necessity for a new workers’ international.

In 1936 the “Militant Group” took the point of view that everyone who accepted this perspective should individually join the Labour Party. This was because at that time everyone who opposed “entry” also opposed the above perspective, in the belief that “openly raising the banner of the revolutionary Party” would “attract the masses”. In 1938, however, a serious possibility of combining “open” with “entry” work on the basis of the above perspective actually offered itself for a few months. In the unfavourable conditions of downturn in the class struggle, of defeat in France and Spain and of the rising threat of war, the Revolutionary Socialist League managed to produce simultaneously two modest monthly journals, one, Militant addressed to the workers inside the Labour Party around our fraction there, while the other, Workers’ Fight, could report on the Founding Conference of the Fourth International and publish its documents.

C.L.R. James and others who rejected any “entrist” perspectives in Autumn 1936, did so because they disliked what it involved – unconditional electoral support for the LP. Trotsky thought this out very clearly, as the report shows, in his conversation with C.L.R. early in 1939. Many others, who were to form the “Marxist Group” in Nov 1936 shared these views, which C.L.R. then expounded.

The “Militant Group” and the RSL did not advance their conception of “entry” as some kind of supra-historical “law”, to operate outside space and time, and today, in the light of more than fifty years’ later experience, it may be thought unwise to try to forecast in advance one form of break-up of the Labour Party rather than another. One possibility is that the extreme right could be driven out and that a centre would then be consolidated against the left, as has happened since the last fifteen years or so. We do not discuss here whether the Trotskyists could have gained more from the crisis in the Labour Party which led to driving out those who were to form the “Social-Democrats”. Alternatively, the left could lead out of the Labour Party, to form some new, more “independent” political expression of the class struggle. Thirdly, the Labour Party leadership after purging their internal critics on the Left – and those who could influence the selection of candidates for seats which Labour could expect to win, could be drawn into an alliance with the Liberals or even, in time of crisis, into a coalition with the Conservatives, which, if it had broken its links with the trade union membership, would mean that it could no longer claim to speak in the name of the working class. Nor can we exclude the possibility that the central apparatus could collapse, under the impact of financial crisis and successive electoral defeats; we would then go back to the pre-1900 days of separate local candidatures claiming the workers’ votes.

It would be absurd today to suggest that the “Militant Group” in 1936 could have pronounced the last word on “entry”. No one foresaw that, at the end of World War Two, Stalinism and Social-Democracy would between them substantially dominate the workers’ movement. At the same time, there can be no doubt that the “Militant Group” ruled out any notion of advancing itself as a ready-made “alternative leadership” to that of the reformists, or of short-term destructive “raids” on the Labour Party in order to pull individual militants out into “open work”. (Healy and Banda were to try this, with little success, in Clapham in 1961).

The “Militant Group” refused likewise to lay down in advance any precise date by which “entry” was to be terminated. That would depend on circumstances which could be neither foreseen nor fully controlled by it. But in any case it was not likely to lie decades ahead. It expected that “entry” would end when the tensions within the Labour Party had reached the point that a substantial force of militants was ready to follow a lead, to break out of the organisational constraints imposed by the Labour Party. It saw in its own work, one essential element in creating such conditions. Moreover, the first step by the new “independent” organisation must be to turn its back on “leftist” illusions and campaign for a united front with the Labour Party.

The “Militant Group” leadership saw themselves as undertaking the politically demanding task of maintaining its orientation towards the conflicts in the Labour Party in which those expressing the historic interests of the working class clashed with the agents of the bourgeoisie. To do so successfully meant avoiding opportunism on the one hand and sectarianism on the other.

Therefore, if the apparatus succeeded in driving some or all of its people out of the Labour Party, they would not thereupon assert that the Labour Party was “finished” or had “sufficiently exposed itself” (as Healy was to claim in 1964). They would continue to maintain their orientation to the conflicts within the Labour Party by a combination of “open” and “entry” work.

Moreover, the International Secretariat had kept them well informed about the difficulties which Trotsky and the French section had had in autumn 1935 in extracting their forces as a united body from the SFIO.

In general terms, therefore, they can be said to have conceived “entry”, in the general conditions of the period, as a specific application of the United Front, and that they would continue to apply the same tactic in a new form after “entry” had ended.

However, the conditions in which they had to work during: the later 1930’s, in which Stalinism and the threat of war contributed to paralysing the worker-militants, neither the “entrists” nor their opponents (whether inside or outside the Labour Party) could demonstrate their superiority by practical success. At the same time, sectarianism enjoyed something of a revival, fed by memories of the “Third Period”. This is hardly surprising in the light of the prevalent opportunism of the Labour and Communist Parties. The possibility should not be excluded that, in more favourable conditions, the differences between the “Militant Group” and the other groups claiming to speak in Trotsky’s name could not have been more deeply and successfully probed in the course of common work and discussion inside one organisation.

Today no one is likely to dispute that the central programmatic formula on which the “Militant Tendency” of later years, since 1965, has based itself has been that of “transforming the Labour Party”, and that this came out of the head of Ted Grant. We should therefore consider how he came to play a leading role in the politics of Trotskyism in Britain and, to a certain extent, internationally. He arrived early in 1935 in Britain from South Africa. He had had some earlier political experience under the guidance of Ralph Lee, but had no previous knowledge or experience of the workers’ movement in Britain. During his journey he had met Leon Sedov in Paris and soon joined “the Marxist Group in the ILP”, in which the majority of the Trotskyists in Britain were grouped at the time. He contributed to drafting the “Marxist Group’s” documents for struggle against the centrist leadership of the ILP at its National Conference at Easter 1935, at which the “Marxist Group” reached the top of its influence.

After Easter 1935 the “Marxist Group” could gain hardly any more ground in the ILP, which was falling to pieces. A long-drawn-out discussion in the “Marxist Group” followed, in the course of which Grant was to sign with a few others a letter appealing to the International Secretariat to intervene to resolve the differences about whether to leave the ILP or not and, if so, whether to turn to the Labour Party or to some kind of “open work”. (It is hardily surprising that the International Secretariat took the view that the British comrades had themselves to go through the effort to resolve their problems, and that without that effort they would not develop politically. The International Secretariat did not hesitate to send Wolff to Britain at the end of 1936 to help the Labour Party “entrists” with advice about how to organise their work along the political line which they had decided for themselves.) But we missed the opportunities which the Socialist League offered in 1934/5.

By the autumn of 1936 the fraction work in the ILP had manifestly passed the end of its usefulness, and Grant joined the “Militant Group”. In the spring on 1937 he was joined there by a second group of comrades from South Africa, led by Ralph Lee. Towards the end of 1937 Ralph Lee was to promote a “split” in the “Militant Group”, which took out a minority of its members, including Grant and some recent recruits from the Communist Party such as Haston and Healy, to form a new group, the “Workers’ International League”. Early in 1938 the International Secretariat was to condemn the split as devoid of any political activation, while at the same time it censured the leaders of the “Militant Group” for their inept handling of the conflict. In retrospect, the writer, who supported the majority against Lee at the time, believes that the issues were by no means completely personal, but had to do with the difficulties of operating the “entry” tactic especially in the Labour Party League of Youth. Such differences do not appear from the surviving archives ever to have been clearly expressed, and in any case the conflict was embittered by impatience and frustration.

In the summer of 1938 the “Militant Group” fused with two smaller groups to form the Revolutionary Socialist League, which the Founding Conference of the Fourth International recognised as its British Section. The Workers’ International League refused the invitation of James P. Cannon to join in the fusion. The documents in which it justified its separate existence and its refusal to participate are of political interest and will be considered later. The WIL was to join the Fourth International only in 1944.

This is not the place for the detailed study of the rich experiences of the Trotskyists in Britain during World War Two, which still awaits its historian. There was no significant difference between the political statements of the RSL and those of the WIL during the weeks immediately before World War Two was declared. However, soon afterwards, the WIL publicly attacked the RSL, interpreting its declarations in the “Militant” as being concessions to “pacifism” and as a retreat from a revolutionary attitude towards the war.

It is perfectly easy today to read in the archives what both parties actually wrote, but we cannot overlook that here we have an example of what has been a general feature of the experience of Trotskyists in Britain throughout over half a century of struggle. The same problems persistently recur in new guises in inter-group polemics, as, for instance, in connection with the Gulf War. Likewise the debates about the Labour Party become wearisomely repetitive. There is no continuous tradition of our history.

Lee went back to South Africa early in the war and a new leadership emerged in the WIL This was based on the former members of the Communist Party and of the YCL,. such as Haston and Healy and on a current of leftists and inexperienced worker-militants. None of these comrades had shared in the discussions in 1935–36 in which the leadership of the “Militant Group” had begun to work out its conception of “entry”. In 1937 Lee and his supporters had found themselves “entering” the Labour Party as part of the “Militant Group” because at that time the “Militant Group” was the largest and best-functioning Trotskyist group in Britain. The documents which the WIL produced in summer 1938 expressed this background in an empirical acceptance of “entrism”. Early in the war, in the changed conditions, they could quite easily write off the Labour Party as “moribund” and reject not merely its own “entry” but the Militant Group’s orientation towards the Labour Party also.

The WIL seized the opportunity of directly participating in industrial struggle soon after the Reichswehr invaded Russia in June 1941. Grant, who had been invalided out of the army, soon became prominent in the role which he was later to play in the “Militant Tendency”, writing political documents and doing the theoretical work for a predominantly activist group. The RSL and the WIL exchanged intensely polemical declarations between 1941 and 1943 about how best to assert the independence of the working class. While the Communist Party was collaborating with Churchill’s government in its war-effort after the Nazi invasion brought the USSR into the war on the Allied side, the bold interventions of the WIL in defence of workers in struggle to defend trade union rights attracted a whole layer of militants and the WIL grew in numbers and influence. At the same time, the RSL lost a number of its political and industrial cadres who had been conscripted into the armed forces. Only a few of its members could play a prominent part in the industrial unrest, while at the same time it was divided into three internal factions on the theoretical questions which the war posed and the differences between it and the war of 1914–19, the nature of transitional demands, and the historic role of the LP.

Consequently in this period, the Workers’ International League developed their presentation of their group as the future “alternative leadership”, denouncing in their press the Labour leadership and especially the “lefts” in the Labour Party, appealing to workers to join them and to ignore the Labour Party and calling for Labour not merely to end the coalition but to take the power “on a socialist programme”, which, partly copied directly from the Transitional Programme of 1938, was a propagandist expression of wholesale nationalisation such as could be read in the press of the “Militant Tendency”. Grant was the author of its programmatic document, Preparing for Power; here he hedged his bets; he accepted that masses of workers in the course of their radicalisation would turn to their traditional organisations, while at the same time he forecast that large numbers would “by-pass” the Labour Party and come directly to the self-proclaimed “revolutionary” leadership.

Thanks to the enterprise of the American SWP, which ensured that a number of its members joined the mercantile marine rather than be conscripted into the army, the British groups had regular personal contact with New York through visiting comrades as well as through the press of the SWP. This is not the place to discuss the problems of the leadership of the SWP (which included the jailing of their leading cadre) in the war, nor those of the International Secretariat, which had been moved from Paris to New York at the outbreak of the war. The authority of the SWP against the opposition of the majority of the leadership of the Workers’ International League (which still harboured a grievance over Cannon’s criticisms of its refusal to join the fusion of 1938), as well as the hesitation of the RSL, which rejected what it regarded as certain social-patriotic implications of the way in which the SWP advanced Trotsky’s Military Policy of the Proletariat, persuaded, in the optimistic atmosphere of rising class struggle and the imminent Nazi-led defeat of German imperialism that the groups should fuse. Healy, who had come into bitter opposition to the majority of the WIL and to Haston and Grant in 1942, led a “minority” in the WIL, which strongly supported the American view. The fusion was effected in spring 1944, on a basis of the WIL contributing 500 members and the RSL 100 (which may have exaggerated a little the actual strength of the RSL, many of whose people were in any case overseas in the British armed forces). The fusion conference voted down the documents of the three factions into which the RSL was divided and carried the positions of the WIL majority.

In the following month, the newly formed Revolutionary Communist Party came under a witch-hunt in Spring 1944 in which the Stalinists and the trade union bureaucracy associated with the tabloid press. The Government refused to ban the RCP, on the advice of the Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, a Labour member of the Coalition Cabinet, who had been a conscientious objector in World War One and had seen the effect of making martyrs unnecessarily. But it did prosecute certain leading comrades on a charge under wartime “emergency” legislation of encouraging the movement of engineering apprentices to strike against being conscripted to work in coal mining. Their trial forced out of a reluctant witness, Ernest Bevin, the Minister of Labour (also a Labour member of the Cabinet) that he had received several requests from delegations representing the engineering apprentices and had refused to meet them. On appeal the defendants were set free. During the witch-hunt only two of its members quit. One of these had been a member of the RSL before the fusion and the other a member of the WIL.

The relations of the RCP with the working class changed decisively for the worse with the election victory of the Labour Party with a substantial majority in the summer of 1945. First the workers placed great confidence in the Labour Government and were in no mood to do anything which could be seen to embarrass it. Moreover, the Communist Party had marginalised itself during the elections by calling for a continuation of the coalition with Churchill. The membership of the RCP and the circulation of its press declined. Militants who had been impressed by its support for workers in struggle during the war now expressed the view that its purpose had been served, the coalition had been ended, and they had “their” government in power. The individual membership of the Labour Party soared.

At the same time, members of the pre-war RSL, now back from military service abroad, were refusing to join the RCP because they could not accept the “independent” line of the majority.

It is not generally realised that the RCP majority, despite its opposition to “entrism”, and rejection of the view that “entry” was necessary to locate the party where it could grow, tolerated no less than two separate “entry” operations. One of these was the “minority” led by Healy. This tendency had the support of the international leadership, of Pablo and of Cannon. It shared their “catastrophic” economic and political perspectives. The other was a handful of former members of the RSL (the “Staines Group”), who supported the view of the “majority” that the conditions existed for an economic recovery. Some former members of the RSL in the North of England supported them.

A valuable opportunity offered itself in 1948 for the leaders (Gerry Healy and Denzil Harber) to collaborate in practical “entry” work when an important left current developed in the Labour Party and organised itself in the “Socialist Fellowship”. This was far from being a revolutionary tendency, but it attacked the pressure of the right wing in the Labour Party to call a halt in the development of nationalisation and of social services, and called for “more socialist measures”. On the one hand, it was full of reformist illusions, but on the other hand it was setting out on the road to testing by experience whether, and, if so, to what extent the Labour Party could be “transformed” into the instrument by which the working class could take power.

The “Socialist Fellowship” came into existence just at the time when the British Government, in alliance with the State Department, was decisively aligning itself in the “Cold War” against the government of the USSR. The “West;” now had the atomic bomb and it was not to unreasonable to speculate whether there was an immediate prospect of a Third World War. In Britain certain Stalinists who had managed to get elected as Labour Members of Parliament were being driven out of the Parliamentary Labour Party. In 1950 Healy’s energy and enterprise mobilised the resources for a new journal entitled Socialist Outlook, based on the Socialist Fellowship. It collaborated with certain fellow travellers of Stalinism in the Labour Party, in efforts to mobilise an opposition to the right wing.

In 1949 the RCP meanwhile was entering a terminal crisis. In 1950 the leaders of the “majority” decided that they could carry on no longer and wound it up. Ted Grant, the future ideological inspiration of the future “Militant Tendency”, was one of those who supported their final statement, in which they declared their intention of entering the Labour Party. Since 1941 he had been among the most articulate critics of “entrism”, and had played in the RCP the same role as in his later political life, of a theoretician and writer of documents for a group the orientation of which was towards activism.

In the early 1950’s, the Socialist Fellowship broke up on the question of the Korean War. A number of its leading members supported the American attack on Korea in the name of the United Nations, while their opponents refused to associate themselves with what could prove to be threats to the Chinese Revolution and to the USSR.

However, Healy’s operation, with Socialist Outlook as its axis, survived the break-up of the RCP and of the “Socialist Fellowship”, and was making progress in the direction of becoming a stable “entrist” group: in this period the critics of the Labour right-wing (now led by Hugh Gaitskell) were developing towards what in a very few years was to be the “Bevan Movement” inside the Labour Party. At this time a number of former militants in the RSL joined Healy’s group, which is known in history as “The Club” or “The Group”, and widened its basis in the Labour Movement in the North of England,

At this time, the “state-capitalist” tendency led by Tony Cliff was attracting some of the militants who had been scattered by the termination of the RCP. However, the former members of the RSL, who had no reasons to have any illusions about Healy, and who knew that his political conceptions and methods might present problems in the future, saw in the “Club”, not so much a ready-made vehicle as the only positive means by which to go forward on the lines in which they had been trained before the war. In their eyes, the “Club” was at least a bulwark against the prevalent liquidationism and desertion to state capitalism was defending the Transitional Programme and could enable greater experience of the “entry” tactic to be got under Healy’s vigorous leadership, with Socialist Outlook as the expression of the Labour Left.

In the early 1950’s, Grant’s political and organisational basis lay in ruins. When the RCP broke up he could not join Healy, who had been in bitter opposition to him and to Haston since 1942. He could not turn to Cannon and to Pablo, in the international leadership, because they had backed Healy, and he blamed the collapse of the RCP on their opposition to its “majority” leadership. Nor could he work with Sam Levy, Sam Bornstein and those who had the idea of “somehow” carrying on the RCP on its old basis (and who still were attacking “entry” in the late 1980’s.) He can hardly have avoided feeling isolated for a time, and, to his credit, it must be remembered, that unlike many others, for instance Haston, he did not desert revolutionary politics to enter the service of the reformist bureaucracy, nor did he retire into private life,

In these conditions, it may well be that he first came to formulate the conception of an “entry” into the Labour Party based on the slogan of “transforming” the Labour Party. No one is likely today to challenge the claim that it was Grant from whom this conception first came.

Grant’s writings during the war and later in the 1940s show that he was consistently arguing in favour of a somewhat rigid, formal, dogmatic position, “proclaiming” the “independence” of the party and opposing the entire “entry” perspective in bitter struggle against both the RSL and Healy’s “minority”. The mood of optimism which he owed to the rise of the WIL was based on the special circumstances of the war and was carried over beyond it into the immediate post-war years. He believed that there would at some unpredictable future date be a rise in the level of world revolution. This would undermine Stalinism and greatly reinforce the Fourth International. While in Britain more backward layers of the working class might still turn to the Labour Party in time of crisis, the more advanced workers must soon “inevitably” by-pass the Labour Party: the “open” Trotskyist party must therefore be prepared in advance, to put the revolutionary case to them and to receive them into an “independent” formation.

By 1950, however, events had by no means worked out in accordance with this formula. On the contrary, the Fourth International on the world scale had remained generally small and isolated, except in Bolivia and in Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, the Red Army had advanced to the frontiers of Western Europe. Communist Parties had won the leadership of millions of workers in France and Italy, while in China the Communist Party had destroyed the power of Chiang Kai Shek and formed a new government.

In Britain individual membership of the Labour Party had topped a million. It had five years of government behind it. In that time it had taken various measures directly aimed at benefiting the employers: these included its policy of limiting wage rises in a time of rising prices and full employment, with the help of the trade union leadership. It had continued British diplomatic support for US imperialism, on which the British economy depended, and had begun to manufacture nuclear weapons. But at the same time, such measures as nationalising coal-mining and the railways and as the National Health Service, which encroached on the freedom of action of the bourgeoisie but were of advantage to it, were also received by the working class with great satisfaction and the expectation of more.

This new situation cannot have failed to confront Grant with serious problems, for which his previous experience may be thought to have left him unprepared. Was there any role for the international which Trotsky had brought into being in 1938? How were the Marxist conceptions of the class struggle to be brought to the working class in Britain?

We have seen that there are grounds for questioning how far Grant ever grasped Trotsky’s underlying strategy for building the Fourth International any better after the RCP collapsed than before. He seems simply never to have known that his formula, consistent as it is with his deep-seated formal method of thinking – had never occurred to anyone before the war and would have been ridiculed by Trotsky if it had!

It is possible that he was impelled, under the temporary pressure of the predominance of the Labour Party in the late forties and early fifties as well as the political collapse of his former allies such as Haston, to make empirically a new “turn” through misunderstanding an interesting passage in Trotsky’s Where Is Britain Going? This is the passage which concludes:

“The Communist Party will occupy the place in the Labour Party that is at present occupied by the Independents (i.e. the Independent Labour Party).”

This was written more than twenty-five years earlier, in the winter of 1924–25, and first published in English in early 1925, before the General Strike (which it forecast) and, of course, many years before the world crisis of 1929–34 and World War Two. We discuss what Trotsky wrote in its context below.

But in any case the formula about “transforming the Labour Party” not only over-simplifies but seriously distorts the theoretical work of the pre-war “entrists”.

Healy also shared with Grant the same ignorance of the pre-war experience. Neither had ever been in a position to contribute seriously to the discussions which led the founders of the “Militant Group” to lead their supporters out of the ILP. Nor was either long enough a member of the “Militant Group” in 1937 to absorb the ideas of Starkey Jackson and Denzil Harber. After Healy left it at the end of 1937 he spent several active years doing his best to destroy the “Militant Group” and the RSL, not without some success. Moreover, after 1950 the “Club” operated empirically in the Labour Party up to the early sixties, but never was there a serious discussion on perspective, if only because Healy’s earlier role was being embellished with his highly imaginative re-telling of the history of Trotskyism in Britain! Thus the way was prepared for the Socialist Labour League to take the road towards “independence” which ended in the crisis of the WRP in 1985, under the dual pressures on Healy of Gaitskell’s witch-hunt and of such ex-Stalinists as Cliff Slaughter, who had been brought in from the Communist Party in 1957 and had never been informed, let alone convinced by ideas of “entry” in any shape or form.

Early in the 1950s a movement arose among militant young workers in Merseyside, in struggle against the right wing of the Liverpool Labour Party and the “Braddock Mafia”. These young workers were influenced by Jimmy Deane, an electrician who had been a member of the WIL during the war and a cadre of the “majority” of the RCP. (This can be no more than a broad outline. A more detailed study of the Trotskyist groups at this period would be welcomed.) It may be that this tendency found in Grant the source of theoretical argument and of ideas which seemed to them to be appropriate to their needs, Through many complications and difficulties, the “Revolutionary Socialist League”, the second group with that title, was formed early in the 1960’s, and followed in 1965 with the formation of the “Militant Tendency”.

The “Militant Tendency” got its big chance in 1964, when the Socialist Labour League pulled its forces out of the Labour Party Young Socialists. Since 1958, elements of the “Club” and later of the SLL had been carefully studying how to approach young workers, with a good deal of success, and in building a substantial fraction in the LPYS round their journal, Keep Left. They were opposed, not merely by the direct agencies of the right wing, but also by an alliance between supporters of the RSL and those of the “International Socialists”, who for a time produced a joint paper, Young Guard. When Keep Left appeared likely to win control of the LPYS at its national conference, the Labour Party apparatus, at the bidding of the NEC, abolished the National Conference of the LPYS and dissolved its National Committee. Keep Left then organised an “unofficial conference”, which adopted Keep Left as its paper and elected a new leadership drawn entirely from “Healyites”.

There followed a nationwide drive from the right to exclude supporters of Keep Left from local Labour Parties and the branches of the LPYS attached to them, to the number of several hundred.

We cannot overlook – otherwise the account would be unbalanced – that the “Club”, the Socialist Labour League and Keep Left had been subjected to an unrelenting witch-hunt ever since 1958, when Gaitskell, who saw himself as the next Prime Minister, drove out of local Labour Parties various members of the “Club” who were long-standing and influential Labour Party members, such as Ratner in Salford, Lake in Leeds and Healy himself in Streatham. After Gaitskell’s sudden death, Harold Wilson became Party Leader. He too had no desire to see Trotskyists influential in local Labour Parties and especially in CND, where they were working with some success to link the opponents of nuclear weapons to the opposition in the Labour Party and to mobilise those elements which saw the struggle against the bomb as a class question rather than a moral one, nor an active youth movement in the Labour Party when, as he confidently (and correctly) expected Labour won the next General Election.

Moreover, in 1963, Healy had got an account of the work of Youth Militant from 1935 to 1939 in the Labour Party League of Youth. This came from a comrade who had been deeply involved at the time, and highlighted the conditions of the second half of the 1930’s (Stay-in strikes in France and USA, civil war in Spain and impending world war) and helped to make up Healy’s mind that there was no future in more “entry” work in the LPYS and to withdraw as many of the forces round Keep Left as possible, in the hope of permanently smashing the LPYS. Healy therefore made a sudden, violent political “turn”, announcing that the Labour Party and the LPYS were “dead”. No serious fight, therefore, had to be put up against the witch-hunt, nor were such forces as could remain in the LPYS left there as a basis for future work.

At the same time, we had here a demonstration of two general characteristics of Healy’s political work, first, that politically unstable empiricism which his repeated and sometimes inexplicable oscillations between opportunism and ultra-leftism revealed, and, secondly, that centralisation of control in his own hands which his empiricism made an indispensable condition for maintaining the organisation.

Shortly afterwards, the International Socialists also withdrew their forces from the LPYS and from the Labour Party. It may well be that Healy and Cliff alike were adapting their politics to the newly-radicalised forces outside the traditional centres of trade unionism, which were making their voices heard – teachers, students, white-collar workers, hospital workers, as well as women, gays and blacks. Nothing in the experience of these currents, which were to play a far from negligible role in building trade unions, in resisting the war in Vietnam etc., had prepared them for such a sophisticated perspective as relating politically to the opposition in the Labour Party under the Wilson Governments of 1964 to 1970. There was simply no one around in a position to revive on a national scale the “entrist” tradition of the pre-war “Militant Group” and RSL Tony Cliff knew nothing about it, while Healy had done his utmost to eradicate every memory of it, so much so that a long research into the archival record of pre-war Trotskyism in Britain was necessary to recover it, a research which was not possible until the archives themselves became available in the late 1960’s.

Such was the success of the “Militant Tendency” in the early stages of the “Benn Movement” in the 1980’s, thanks to the activism of its young comrades as well as the general radicalism raised by the disasters of Heath’s Government, of the “Three Day Week” and the Miners’ Strike, which they achieved in spite of their extraordinary “standoffish” (and political backward) attitude to everyone in the wide spectrum of political life around the Labour Party – written off as “all sects”, regardless of what their ideas might in reality be – that in 1974 it could take the next step, following Grant’s pamphlet of 1959 on “Entrism”, which brought it into direct confrontation with the Labour Party apparatus and objectively posed the question of a split either in the Labour Party or in its own ranks.

This was the British Perspectives and Tasks document. Militant was organising its influence in local constituency Labour Parties to drive out particularly obnoxious or useless Labour MPs and to get selected in safe Labour seats people on whom the “Tendency” felt it could rely. (The “Tendency” was not, of course, the only Trotskyist group which defeated the choices of the apparatus). But this is the unforgivable sin; it is precisely to ensure that Labour MPs are “safe, “reliable”, “loyal” and generally acceptable to the Conservatives and to MI5 that the Labour Party apparatus exists as the “police” of the party. In September 1975, Underhill, already an experienced “smeller-out” of Trotskyists, got permission as National Agent to prepare a report on “entrism”, producing a short nine-page document in November 1975. At that time his work made little impact on the Party leadership, though it was taken up enthusiastically by the bourgeois press.

* * * * *

The remainder of the document deals with the internal discussions in the Taaffe current and what Archer saw as their evolution towards a criticism of Grant’s errors.


1. A page is missing from the document. It would appear that Archer begins an examination of the roots of Grant’s Militant in the RSL and the "Militant Group" led by D.D. Harber, of which Archer was a leading member.

Updated by ETOL: 31.10.2011