History of British Trotskyism Postcript

By Rob Sewell

[Section 5]

The launching of Militant

This was probably the lowest point in the fortunes of the tendency. We were a tiny, isolated group, with no paper, no money, no full timers and no centre. In the YS we were one of the smallest groups. Alan Woods recalls:

"We faced continuous attacks not only from the bureaucracy but from the sects and from the International which was determined to crush us. But we had something more important than all these things. We had the ideas of Marxism, and we were not downcast in the slightest. We were confident in our ideas and perspectives. Ted played an absolutely key role at this time. He never lost his optimism, his unshakeable confidence or his famous sense of humour.

"Paradoxically, the difficult conditions helped to train us. The young comrades who were coming into activity at that time were used to fighting for the ideas. As a result we were not afraid of anything. It made us tough and determined and also sharpened us up politically and theoretically."

In the summer of 1964, a decision was taken to launch a new publication, and after much debate, the name of Militant was chosen. With Jimmy Deane's departure abroad for work reasons, another decision was taken to find a replacement at the London centre. A new young recruit from Birkenhead, Peter Taaffe, was chosen to come to London on a full-time basis and help produce the paper and assist with the national work. Within a few months of launching Militant, the group rented three small rooms from the ILP in Kings Cross Road. It was to mark a new chapter in the development of Ted Grant's Militant tendency.

The Healyites, who had no idea of what to do with their control of the YS, decided to break from the Labour Party and build their own independent youth organisation. They decided to provoke expulsion from the Labour Party by using hooligan methods. Despite their intolerable conduct, involving the use of physical violence to break up meetings, they did not find this very easy. Most Labour Party members are indulgent towards young people, and not enthusiastic about expelling them.

Eventually, in 1965 after a few expulsions, their ultra-left tactics brought the youth into collision with the bureaucracy and they split the majority of the youth away. As a consequence, the official YS was closed down, and later the youth that remained were reorganised into the Labour Party Young Socialists. The hooligan provocations of the Healyites gave the Labour bureaucracy the excuse to clamp down on the youth organisation. The bureaucracy imposed severe restrictions, such as the appointment of the National Committee by the adult party, the YS Federations were banned and discussions at conference were confined to youth issues. Every effort was used to get around these bureaucratic restrictions, including a tongue-in-cheek resolution moved one year "calling for the support of all members of the Viet Cong under the age of 25"!

On their departure the Healyites spread as many lies as they could about the "Pabloite Grantists" who allegedly assisted the right wing with their expulsions. In fact, while we totally opposed hooligan methods and violence anywhere in the labour movement, we vehemently opposed political witch-hunts, bans and proscriptions against the left. However, on one occasion the line had to be drawn.

The chairman of the Wandsworth YS was a Ceylonese comrade called Mani. He was an ex-member of the Healyites who had joined the Militant. He became the target of an organised hate campaign, in which members of the SLL recruited raw youth from the streets ("rockers" as they were popularly known) and sent them to break up a meeting where he was in the chair. They had been told that there was a "black guy who hates the rockers". On one occasion, Mani managed to persuade them to leave quietly, but the second time they caused a riot, whereupon the Party agent called the police. At that point, Mani closed the meeting in an attempt to defuse the situation. Subsequently, the bureaucracy moved the expulsion of a number of SLL members, and Mani counter-moved the expulsion of one who had personally been involved in violence.

Late on the Healyites tried to make a scandal out of this. In fact, there is no place for violence inside the workers' movement, and those who resort to violence against members of the labour movement fully deserve to be driven out. Such actions cannot be justified. Trotsky explained this long ago when the Stalinists first introduced these alien methods into the workers' movement. In fact, the Healy tendency had much more in common with Stalinism than with Trotskyism.

The Healyites did colossal damage to the image of Trotskyism in Britain and internationally. They systematically miseducated their members with the crazy perspective of imminent slump, world war or fascist dictatorship for more than 50 years. Their "third period" Stalinist methods acted like a mincing machine for their new recruits, burned out with paper selling and false promises of instant revolution. They quickly destroyed all those young people they had won, and having split away from the Labour Party on an ultra-left binge, were eventually reduced to splinters.

In a statement, entitled A Contribution on Ultra-Leftism, the Militant editorial board stated:

"In more recent times, we have had the activities of the ultra-lefts who, styling themselves Trotskyists, have abandoned all of Lenin's teachings on left-wing Communism, and repudiated the Transitional Programme of the Fourth International.

"For them it is sufficient to issue ultimatums to the working class, the trade unions, the Labour Party, the Young Socialists…. To give the working class its marching orders. And when the workers and militants pass them by, they 'take off', denouncing all those who fight, practically, for a consistent revolutionary programme and policy based on Lenin's principles, as centrists, scabs, and 'Pabloites'.

"Experience has taught the British comrades that those who shout loudest today about betrayals, about sell-outs, fake-lefts, etc., are precisely those 'revolutionaries' who were the deepest of deep entrists. The 'anti-Pabloites' of today were in fact the most hysterical of the 'Pabloites' of yesterday. Those who, in the past, refused to criticise Nye Bevan on the grounds that this would 'disrupt our relations with Tribune, are the same people who now denounce Tribune as the main enemy, and reserve their main fire, not - God forbid! - for the capitalist enemy, the Tories, or even for the right wing Labour leaders, but for the 'Left fakers', and, of course, the 'Pabloites'." (The Bulletin, August 1966).

The final break

The Grant tendency had consistently opposed the political position of Pablo and the leadership of the United Secretariat, as they were called after the fusion of 1963. There were fundamental differences over China, the Sino-Soviet dispute, Cuba, guerrillarism, and the Colonial Revolution, which are outlined in the document reproduced in the appendix, The Programme of the International and in Ted's book The Unbroken Thread. The conflict between the British section and Paris was such, that by the end of 1965, Pierre Frank, Mandel and Livio Maitan, who now called the shots in the International, decided to kick us out and recognise the Coates-Jordan group instead. This, despite the fact that that group represented less than nothing.

At the World Congress of 1965, the British comrades decided to put their views in writing. Since there was no confidence in the willingness of the USFI leadership to circulate our material, it was decided to duplicate the document Ted had written on the Sino-Soviet Dispute and the Colonial Revolution and send it to Paris for distribution. However, when the British delegates arrived they discovered that none of the other delegates had even seen the document. Ted commented ironically: "Lenin said that the Second International was not an International at all, but only a post office. But these people are not even a post office!"

At the International conference, Ted was given a total of seven and half minutes, excluding translation, to put the opposition case against the USFI position. A brief letter dated 19 January 1966 from Pierre Frank, who had consistently manoeuvred against the British section since it rejoined the International, informed us of our "demotion". The reply of the section simply stated that the leadership of the United Secretariat had no political authority, and was simply taking organisational measures to silence our opposition:

"The crisis of the International in part derives from a lack of understanding of this problem. For what fundamentally is the International? It is a programme, policy, method, and only lastly an organisation to carry out the former. We remain true to the ideas and methods of Trotsky." By this time Pablo had himself been expelled from the USFI (in 1964) and eventually went back to Greece and ceased active involvement in the movement. He died a few years ago in Athens at a ripe old age. Before he died he asked some of the Greek comrades to send his greetings to Ted and added: "You know, he was really the only honest man in those meetings (of the International leadership in the 1950s)."

After this experience, it was necessary to draw a balance sheet of the history of the Fourth International. Ted did this in a document called The Programme of the International. Thirty years of experience was surely enough to allow us to draw a clear conclusion. If a person or an organisation makes a mistake that is one thing. But if the same mistake is constantly repeated and no lessons are learned, then it is no longer a mistake, but an organic tendency. As painful as it might be, it was clear to everyone that this so-called International was dead, that any attempt to revive it was fruitless. After some discussion, it was decided that we should turn our back forever on these gentlemen and face firmly towards the mass organisations of the working class.

The opportunism of the Cliff group

By 1967, with the growing disenchantment at the Wilson Labour Government, the Cliff group (The International Socialists, who later became the Socialist Workers Party) and the International Marxist Group followed the SLL and left the Labour Party. They light-mindedly dropped everything they had said previously and ran off in all directions. In a purely opportunist fashion, they ran after the students involved in the anti-Vietnam protests, adapting their position to the prejudices of the students and petit-bourgeois layers.

The Cliff group, while holding onto their anti-Trotskyist theory of state capitalism nevertheless gave support to "state capitalist" North Vietnam. Earlier, however, they had refused to support North Korea at the time of the Korean War. The difference? In the 1960s, support for Ho Chi Min became very fashionable among the students. Later they scandalously supported the Mujaheddin Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan as "freedom fighters" against so-called Soviet imperialism.

In the early 1960s, Cliff had dropped any claim to Trotskyism and was even distancing himself from Leninist organisation. Rosa Luxemburg became all the rage among the petit-bourgeois enemies of Leninism - but only her weak side, of course. As crude opportunists, the Cliffites simply jumped onto whatever bandwagon was to hand. They drifted in whatever direction the wind was blowing.

A good example of this is their position on Ireland. In 1969, Militant opposed the sending of British troops to Ireland, and our supporters raised the issue as an emergency resolution on the floor of Labour Party Annual Conference. Although the resolution was overwhelmingly defeated, we made clear our opposition to British imperialism and the need for a united struggle of Catholic and Protestant workers based on a socialist programme as the only solution to the problems of Ireland. In contrast, the Cliff Group supported the sending of British troops to the North on the spurious grounds that they were being sent to "protect the Catholics".

The Marxist tendency represented by Militant explained that British troops were being sent in the interests of British imperialism, and that the working class should establish its own non-sectarian defence force based on the trade unions. But the Cliffites were "practical" people, who ended up supporting the instrument of British imperialism:

"The breathing space provided by the presence of British troops is short but vital", wrote Socialist Worker. "Those who call for the immediate withdrawal of the troops before the men behind the barricades can defend themselves are inviting a pogrom which will hit first and hardest at socialists."[14] Again, "Because the troops do not have the same ingrained hatreds of the RUC and B Specials, they will not behave with the same viciousness…" and that "The deployment of British troops in Ulster provides some sort of security against the lawlessness of the RUC and B Specials."[15] Later, in a complete volte face, these same people ended up supporting the campaign of individual terrorism by the Provisional IRA.

Embarrassed by these positions, they now attempt to deny or sweep them under the carpet. Eventually, Cliff, basing himself on his theory of state capitalism, would end up being neutral in the capitalist counter-revolution unfolding in the USSR and Eastern Europe. For him it was simply a shift "sideways", and was of no real significance.[16]

The IMG too gave uncritical support to guerrilla struggles everywhere while attempting to set up "red bases" [sic!] in the universities. They also supported every action of the Provos in Ireland, even going so far as to justify their bombing campaign in Britain as an "anti-imperialist struggle". "The IMG and Red Weekly unconditionally support the right of the Irish Republican Movement to carry on armed actions against British Imperialism", read their press statement issued on 23 August 1973. "We do not hold that in principle such armed actions have to be confined to the other side of the Irish Channel."

In practise, the IMG had completely abandoned the position of Marx and Connolly for the methods of Bakunin and the advocates of individual terrorism. The Militant, on the other hand, maintained a consistent class position. We, of course, condemned the repressive rule of British imperialism in Ireland, but we also unequivocally opposed the tactics of the Provisional IRA that completely played into the hands of imperialism and intensified the sectarian gulf in the North. As opposed to this petit-bourgeois stance of the IMG, we consistently argued for a class and socialist approach to the problems of Ireland as James Connolly had always done.

This tiny Mandelite sect, which had been pursuing the deepest of deep entry, now suddenly declared that the Labour Party was a bourgeois party, and actually called on workers to abstain in the 1970 general election (not that anyone heard them). They even went so far as to recommend that people should go to Labour Party meetings and break them up. Needless to say, they never attempted to do so themselves, preferring to confine this verbal demagogy to the university coffee bars, which was their exclusive sphere of "revolutionary action".

The Militant takes off

By 1970, the only tendency of any size, which remained in the Labour Party, was ourselves. The ultra-left sects found this amusing. But in the end the laugh was on them. These vulgar empirics had no perspective whatsoever and could see no further than the end of their noses (they have not changed much today).

Superficially, they seemed to have a point. The right wing policies of the Labour government of Harold Wilson led to a growing sense of anger and disillusionment among the workers. The attempt by Barbara Castle to introduce anti-union legislation resulted in miners’ lodges threatening to disaffiliate from the Party.

After the rampages of the Healyites, the LPYS had been reduced to a rump. I remember that in 1968, I was the only member left in the Swansea YS branch. Activity in the movement slumped. However, in relation to the LPYS, within a few years the Labour leadership relented and restored many of the democratic rights taken away in 1965, including the granting of a youth paper and a youth seat on the NEC.

The 1970s were a political watershed nationally and internationally. The defeat of the Wilson government and the coming to power of Heath ushered in a period of heightened radicalisation in the working class. Huge demonstrations took place against the government's anti-union legislation culminating in the imprisonment of five dockers and the threat of a general strike. Factory occupations had reached unprecedented levels and eventually the government was brought down by the miners' strike of 1974. The ruling class was on the retreat, with sections of the state preparing the ground for a future shift towards reaction, as witnessed by the views of Brigadier Kitson and others military figures at the time.

In Swansea, by turning to work among school students, we managed to win over a few young comrades, including Andy Bevan, who was to play a key role for the tendency. By 1970, democratic elections resulted in our tendency winning a majority on the national leadership of the LPYS, which started a national campaign to build up the youth organisation. Peter Doyle, chairman of the LPYS, was then elected as a youth representative on to the NEC of the party, the first time a Trotskyist was elected to such a position. We began to build up points of support within the Labour movement. Our decision to remain had been vindicated.

The mass organisations do not develop in a straight line but dialectically. Directly or indirectly, they reflect the processes at work in the working class and in society generally. The recession of 1974-75 put an end to the period of general capitalist upswing, which had lasted since 1950. This was the first serious economic recession since the war. Prior to that the cyclical recessions of the upswing had been very superficial, and had been barely noticed by the workers, while living standards generally increased. The 1970s were of a completely different character to the period that went before or even the subsequent period 1982-2000.

Internationally, the slump of 1974-75 had far reaching consequences. There were revolutionary movements in the ex-colonial world: Angola, Mozambique and elsewhere. Revolutionary developments also took place in Portugal with the overthrow of the dictatorship, in Greece with the overthrow of the military, in Spain with the end of the Franco regime. Italy experienced a pre-revolutionary ferment. In contrast to the period of "democratic" illusions in the 1950s and 1960s, the European bourgeoisie was preparing for a decisive showdown with the working class. The "Gladio" conspiracy proves beyond doubt that the ruling class was preparing for military dictatorships in Italy, Spain, Norway and Belgium. It has emerged since that sections of the ruling class and the military in 'democratic' Britain had even contemplated a coup against the Labour government of Harold Wilson in the late 1960s.

In this period the pendulum of society swung far to the left. In Portugal, after nearly half a century of fascist and Bonapartist rule, on May Day 1974, one million people demonstrated on the streets of Lisbon. Since the total population of Portugal was only 8 million, this shows the extraordinary sweep of the revolution. The Times published an editorial saying, "Capitalism in Portugal is dead." Once again the masses turned towards their traditional organisations. Unfortunately, it was the actions of the leaders of the Communist Party and Socialist Party - especially the Stalinists in the first instance - that again saved capitalism.

This radicalisation also reflected itself within the British Labour Party. The Left succeeded in winning a slim majority on the NEC. Official Party policy also reflected the swing to the left, when it adopted a programme containing the nationalisation of the top 25 companies. The Militant tendency intervened in these events in a decisive fashion and began to grow.

From fewer than 100 comrades in 1966, the tendency grew to more than 500 by 1975. We had acquired our own printing press and the Militant newspaper had gone weekly in 1972. The tendency gradually built up its position in the Labour movement. This was only possible because we did not succumb to the pressure of ultra-leftism, but remained within the Labour Party while others left. This was one of the secrets of the later success of the Marxist tendency in Britain - an historical breakthrough with no parallel elsewhere.

The Committee for a Workers’ International

Alan Woods, who played a leading role in the British organisation since the early 1960s, became the tendency's first regional full-time professional based in South Wales, which soon became a model area. From just the two of us in Swansea in 1969, we built a thriving area, with a number of shop stewards in Fords and the deputy convener, Albert Rosser, who played a key role in the Fords strike.

We had a good base among the miners as a result of our intervention in the miners' strikes of 1970 and 1974. The paper was sold in a number of key pits. We led the bakers' strike in Swansea and also a mass rent strike. On every national demonstration the South Wales contingent was among the biggest. But we did not base ourselves on "activism". We gave a lot of attention to Marxist theory. The South Wales Summer camp became the national Summer School. We also published the South Wales Bulletin of Marxist Studies.

In 1974, with a tiny handful of comrades in other countries, we set up the Committee for a Workers International. At this time Alan was given a key responsibility in our international work - that of building a section of the tendency in Franco's Spain. In January 1976, Alan and his first wife Pam - who was also active in the movement - made a big personal sacrifice, and moved to Madrid with two small children (five and two years old) to build the tendency under the difficult conditions of illegal work in the Spanish underground. Within a couple of years, starting with a tiny group of just six comrades (three Spanish and three British) the Spanish organisation grew to 350, and became the second biggest section within the CWI.

But the Spanish bureaucracy had learned from the British experience. After a ferocious witch-hunt by the Socialist Party bureaucracy - the paper was banned and the majority of the comrades expelled. However, we maintained our orientation to the mass organisations, including a flexible approach, and were able to build up an important base for Trotskyism. Today, this has allowed us to wage mass struggles under the banner of the Spanish School Students Union. On several occasions since 1987, the Students Union has led national strikes of three million students.

Alan remained in Spain for eight years, till 1983, when he was obliged to return to Britain because of health problems. After returning to Britain, Alan played a leading role in the International, helping to establish our presence also in Chile, Argentina, Pakistan, Mexico and other countries. He also became editor of the theoretical magazine, the Militant International Review, and was expelled from the Labour Party during the purge against Militant supporters.

It is no accident that the tendency in Britain and Spain achieved a breakthrough precisely at this time. The success of our work in the mass organisations is determined, on the one hand, by the objective situation and, on the other hand, by the existence of patient, long-term preparatory work, which lays the basis for reaching large numbers of leftward moving workers and youth when conditions are ripe.

Marxists have never made a fetish of any organisational form or tactic. The golden rule is at all times to find a way of connecting with the working class, beginning with the active layer. This necessitates taking advantage of each and every possibility that presents itself at each stage, while keeping firmly in mind the general orientation and strategy.

[To be continued]

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[14] Socialist Worker, 11 September 1969.

[15] Socialist Worker, 21 August 1969.

[16] See Ted Grant, Russia - From Revolution to Counter-Revolution, London 1997, pp.222-226.