[Book] History of British Trotskyism


By Rob Sewell

The present work is a unique contribution to the history of British Trotskyism. Ted Grant became the chief theoretician of British Trotskyism during the Second World War, and was responsible for writing all the main political documents of the tendency. Ever since, for a period of something like six decades, he has been a central figure in the Trotskyist movement. This has given him colossal personal experience, which he has drawn upon to produce this book, which spans the origins of British Trotskyism to the break-up of the Revolutionary Communist Party in June 1949. These were tumultuous years of revolution and counter-revolution, depression, fascism and world war, which tested Trotskyism to the limit. The way in which the movement was able to face up to its historic tasks, its successes and failures, is outlined in this book.

Over the last 70 years, Ted has made a lasting contribution to the Trotskyist movement, and he is regarded by many as the foremost Marxist theoretician alive. Today, he remains an active and leading figure within the Socialist Appeal group in Britain and in the international Marxist current associated with the successful In Defence of Marxism website, which is attracting growing support internationally.

The early years

Ted Grant was born in South Africa, just before the First World War in a place called Germiston, just outside Johannesburg. His father had emigrated to South Africa from Russia, while his mother came from Le Marais in Paris. After a long marriage, his parents eventually divorced, and after a six-month stay with his father, Ted went to live permanently with his mother. While she ran a small grocery shop in Johannesburg, Ted was sent off to boarding school and his sisters to the convent to continue their education.

In his youth, he was inspired by events in Russia. But, as is so often the case, his first contact with the revolutionary movement had an accidental character. In order to supplement the family income, his mother took in lodgers, one of whom was Ralph (Raff) Lee, who had been a member of the South African Communist Party since 1922, but was expelled during the first Stalinist purges. A dedicated communist, Ralph had regular discussions with Ted, introducing him to the writings of Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Maxim Gorky, Jack London and others. Within a short time, the reading material graduated to the writings of Marx and Engels, and also Lenin. By the age of fifteen Ted was a convinced Marxist.

Ted’s elder sister Rae vividly remembers how her mother fed the family and friends, including Ralph, at a large household table – French stew seems to have been the favourite dish. Ralph, who became a close friend of the family, was six years Ted’s senior. "Ralph and Ted were inseparable", said Rae. "Once Ralph convinced Ted about Marxism, that changed everything for him," she recalls. "I used to go on long walks with Ralph and he also tried to win me over to Marxism, but I was busy with another circle of friends, so he never succeeded." [1]

He did, however, convince Ted’s younger sister Zena to join the Trotskyist movement. Lee with others, including the fifteen-year old Ted Grant, had made contact with the international Trotskyist movement in early 1929 via the American Militant, which had been dispatched to South Africa by the newly-founded Communist League of America. "It changed our lives completely", says Ted, "and I started on a political road that now spans more than seventy years."

The inspiring story of how the South African Trotskyists began their revolutionary work under the most difficult conditions imaginable is one of the most interesting parts of the present book. Their work in the Johannesburg Laundry Workers Union remains an inspiration today. But the conditions in South Africa made successful revolutionary work difficult, and in 1934 Ted left for England in the company of another young South African called Max Basch. He was never to return. They broke their journey in France where they met Trotsky’s son, Leon Sedov, a member of the International Secretariat and co-ordinator of the work of the International Communist League, who was later murdered by Stalin’s agents.

On their arrival in Britain in December 1934, Max Basch changed his name to Sid Frost and Ted changed his from Isaac Blank to Ted Grant – apparently "borrowed" from two of the ship’s crew. In the same way, Trotsky had taken his name from one of his old tsarist jailors. Ted did this for personal reasons – to protect his family: whatever happened to him, he did not want anything bad to happen to his family back home in South Africa.

In London, they both joined the Marxist Group inside the Independent Labour Party. However, the possibilities for revolutionary work were becoming less and less, and within a matter of months, Ted Grant left the ILP to join the Trotskyists working within the Labour Party’s youth organisation – the Labour League of Youth. From then on, Ted helped to develop the Bolshevik-Leninist Group within the Labour Party, which later became known as the Militant Group, after the name of its paper. At this time, their main work consisted of fighting the growing Stalinist influence within the youth movement. The Stalinists were striving to penetrate the Labour League of Youth and fuse it with the Young Communist League. Their faction was led by Ted Willis, who later became famous as the author of Dixon of Dock Green – a well-known television series in the 1950s portraying the life of a friendly British "Bobby" – and who was made a Lord for his services to the British Establishment. His colleague Jim Mortimer ended up as general secretary of the Labour Party. Ironically, Mortimer helped to expel Ted Grant from the Labour Party in 1983.

Shortly after his arrival in Britain, Ted also became actively involved in the struggle against fascism, engaging together with other comrades in running battles with the Moselyite Black Shirts in the East End of London. Here he participated in the famous battle of Cable Street, when the workers of the East End mobilised to stop the fascists in their tracks. There exists a photograph of Ted on a barricade in Long Lane, Bermondsey, South London, taken in 1937, which was reproduced in the 1948 edition of his pamphlet The Menace of Fascism, published by the Revolutionary Communist Party.

The Paddington Group

Ted Grant’s early years in the South African group had given him a sound theoretical grounding in Marxism which placed him in good stead for the role he was to later play in the Trotskyist movement. After a few years, the failure of the leadership of the Militant Group to develop the tendency in any meaningful way, led to a growing dissatisfaction within its ranks. By the autumn of 1937, Ted’s own branch in Paddington had become the most active section of the Group, selling the bulk of its newspapers, intervening in the wider labour movement, and engaging in extensive public activity.

Towards the end of the year, a row erupted over the election of the Group’s leadership, where slanders were circulated about Ralph Lee. Lee had recently joined the Militant Group after arriving with others from South Africa during the summer. This episode led to a walkout and the formation of a new group, called the Workers International League (WIL).

Engels once remarked that sometimes a split could be a healthy thing. The 1937-38 split certainly came into this category, as subsequent events proved. It constituted a decisive step forward in the development of Trotskyism in Britain. The traditional party-building methods of the old groups – which were really a leftover from the methods of the pre-war socialist groupings – had become a barrier to growth. The cadres of the WIL turned their backs on the failed sectarian methods of the past and turned their faces firmly towards the broader layers of the organised working class. In reality, this marked the real beginning of British Trotskyism. Ted Grant played a leading role in this work, not only within the Workers International League but also within the Revolutionary Communist Party formed in 1944, which is fully covered in this book.

The War Years

The period covering the war years is also well documented in this book. It was a testing time. In the first few months of the war, a part of the leadership went to Ireland to establish a base in case the WIL was banned, leaving Ralph, Millie and Ted to run the organisation. In this period, Ralph Lee almost single-handedly produced a daily Workers’ Diary for use in workplaces. However, by the end of 1940, Ralph had returned to South Africa for personal and health reasons, and the work of building the organisation fell on the shoulders of the other leading comrades.

Above all, the WIL enthusiastically embraced the new proletarian military policy when Trotsky first put it forward. This was in reality a development and deepening of the Internationalists’ position during the First World War, and, while maintaining a principled opposition to the imperialist war, allowed the Trotskyists to connect with the working class. The interpretation of the new policy in Youth for Socialism did, however, lead to a dispute within the leadership in February 1941, with Ted and Healy (the "majority") on one side, and Millie, Jock Haston and Sam Levy (the "minority") on the other.[2] According to Millie, things got quite heated. But after a few articles in the internal bulletin the argument fizzled out. More pressing was the invasion of the Soviet Union by Hitler in June of that year. However, given the fact that the proletarian military policy was a new programme, such disagreements were likely, if not inevitable under the circumstances. In any case, the dispute showed that the WIL leaders could handle differences of opinion in a comradely and mature fashion.

The comrades of the WIL decisively challenged the attacks of the Stalinists, who after June 1941, took on a rabid chauvinist and strike-breaking role. The WIL, in a clear change in orientation, changed the name of its paper from Youth for Socialism to Socialist Appeal. The WIL energetically turned towards the factories, built up their position in industry and developed a national profile. In contrast, the official section of the International, the Revolutionary Socialist League, which rejected the proletarian military policy, collapsed. Eventually, its remnants fused with the WIL to form the RCP in 1944.

Soon afterwards, Jock Haston, Roy Tearse, Heaton Lee and Ann Keen were arrested for supporting a national unofficial strike of apprentices. After their release from prison, the RCP turned for the first time towards the parliamentary plane, and engaged in a by-election contest in the Welsh constituency of Neath. This allowed them to test out their ideas, build their profile and develop their organisation in South Wales. These great events are dealt with in detail in the book, and provide a heroic chapter in the history of our movement.

Without doubt, the WIL and the RCP played an outstanding role in the Second World War. Given their legal status, and correct policies, they were able to take advantage of the possibilities and connect with the advanced layers of the working class. Their success prompted the Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, to supply the War Cabinet with a secret memo outlining the policies of the RCP, and giving brief biographies of its leaders. Although it was not carried through in the end, it is clear that the capitalist class was seriously considering banning the RCP. Due to their work, the British Trotskyists emerged from the war years with a solidly proletarian organisation greatly strengthened numerically and with important points of support within the labour movement. It can be said without any exaggeration that the WIL/RCP is likely to have conducted the most successful work in wartime of any Trotskyist organisation in the world.

The Post War Period

The immediate post war period opened up tremendous challenges before the international Trotskyist movement. The victory of the Red Army against German fascism greatly strengthened the USSR and the Stalinist parties internationally. They were able to use this dominant position, together with the Social Democrats, to derail the revolutionary wave that was sweeping Europe. Despite the revolutionary crisis, the bourgeoisie was able to save themselves by leaning on the workers’ parties to carry through a counter-revolution in a "democratic form". This provided capitalism with a breathing space, and the political prerequisites for a certain social stability.

This new world situation, not foreseen by the Trotskyists, served to falsify their original war-time perspective of the movement of either a restoration of capitalism in the USSR or a political revolution, and a revolutionary crisis that would undermine the old parties and prepare the way for the creation of mass Trotskyist parties. In the words of Trotsky, "not one stone upon another would be left of the old organisations, and the Fourth International would become the dominant force on the planet." But the Trotskyists were far too weak to take advantage of the revolutionary situation that followed the war. Power fell into the hands of the Stalinist and reformist leaders, who, as in 1918, betrayed the movement and handed the power over to the bourgeoisie.

This new situation urgently required a new perspective to reorientate the international Trotskyist movement. The leadership of the RCP quickly came to an understanding of the new realities and changed their perspective accordingly. Ted Grant played a key role in this reorientation. It was his grasp of the Marxist method that permitted him to understand and explain what was taking place. By contrast, all the "leaders" of the Fourth International behaved like hopeless formalists and empiricists and were therefore incapable of grasping what was going on under their noses. Having completely failed to understand Trotsky’s dialectical method, they simply repeated his past words and statements, which were not applicable to the new situation. Rather than change the original prognosis, they clung to it like grim death.

Of course, the RCP leaders were not the only ones who sought to disentangle and understand what was taking place. In the immediate aftermath of World War Two, other individuals also made a serious attempt to grapple with the new situation – at least to begin with. These included in particular David Rousset in France, and Felix Morrow and Albert Goldman in the United States. The latter two had carried on an intense correspondence with the RCP majority, and clearly helped, to a certain extent, to shape some of the views of Grant and Haston.

Unfortunately they represented minorities within their own national sections. They were forced to fight an unsuccessful rearguard struggle against the ideas of the International leadership. They were either subsequently marginalized or expelled, or both. Their isolated opposition reduced their ability to arrive at a fully worked-out position and they subsequently went off in different political tangents. The same was true of the later Vern-Ryan tendency within the American SWP. The leaders of the RCP had a great advantage. These "dissidents" in the International had the political majority within the British section. They were thus able to work out their views in a comprehensive form and to arrive at an accurate Marxist appraisal of what was developing in Britain and internationally.

As the leading theoretician of the RCP, Ted was able to extend and develop Marxist theory in a whole series of new directions after 1945. These ranged from the Marxist theory of the state to the defence of Marxist economic theory, from the peculiar development of the colonial revolution to Marxist tactics towards the mass organisations and party building. These documents are an important legacy that deserves to be far better known to the new generation of revolutionaries internationally.

The period of Ted Grant’s "memoirs" contained in this book is a unique account by a leading participant and key theoretician of the Trotskyist movement. He examines the issues and difficulties facing the revolutionary tendency, and reveals the different positions taken at the time by its leading participants. However, this book is not simply a history, but an attempt to pass on the rich lessons from this turbulent period to the new generation of Marxists both in Britain and internationally.

Cannon’s manoeuvres

It was inevitable that part of the present work should deal also with the intrigues perpetrated by the so-called leaders of the International against the leadership of the British Trotskyists. Brought out clearly are the key contributions of individuals such as Ralph Lee and Jock Haston, as well as the miserable role of Gerry Healy, James P. Cannon, Michael Pablo, Pierre Frank and Ernest Mandel.

From 1943, Cannon had conspired to remove the leadership of the British section and replace it with a more compliant set of individuals. Cannon was schooled in the methods of Zinoviev and regarded himself as a Zinovievite at least until 1928. He intrigued with Healy, who led a minority within the RCP, to destroy the Haston-Grant leadership. The International leaders supported a split in the RCP, with Healy’s minority entering the Labour Party in late 1947, and the eventual fusion of the two groups in mid-1949, on Healy’s terms.

As the book explains, their support for Healy and their sabotage of the British section – in which Pierre Frank also played a prominent role – resulted tragically in the break-up of the RCP in June 1949 and the destruction of a whole layer of experienced cadres. Cannon’s stooge, Healy, together with their cronies in the leadership of the International, was directly responsible for this criminal state of affairs.

Once the fusion took place under Healy’s leadership, he acted in the most dictatorial fashion, expelling people on the most trivial pretexts. As a result, Jock Haston was by now completely demoralised. The activities of Healy and the clique in Paris effectively drove him out of the movement. Roy Tearse, Jimmy Deane, together with other former leaders of the RCP, were expelled from the so-called fused group, known as the Club. By the end of 1950, the wrecking actions of Healy had destroyed the Party.

Tony Cliff and his supporters, who held to the false position of state capitalism, were never threatened with expulsion from the RCP because of their views. Now Healy unceremoniously booted them out of the Club. Those who failed to vote for the expulsions were themselves expelled! The Cliff group subsequently moved away from Trotskyism and organised themselves as the Socialist Review group. Their "state capitalist" position led them to take a neutral position in the Korean War, failing to defend the deformed workers’ state of North Korea against the aggression of American imperialism.

Despite this and other fundamental disagreements, Ted Grant vehemently protested against the treatment of the Cliff group and the violation of their democratic rights. This was used by Healy as the pretext for Ted’s own expulsion! He was expelled after 22 years membership of the Trotskyist movement. He was also a member of the Executive Committee of the Fourth International, and had his expulsion ratified at the Third World Congress on the motion of Ernest Mandel (Germaine). Scandalously, Mandel described Haston and Grant as "embodying the tendency of British Trotskyism, which obstinately refused to integrate itself into the International, to assimilate the new course of Trotskyism."

The destruction of the British section

A whole layer simply dropped out of revolutionary politics from sheer disillusionment with the "new course". The movement, which showed so much promise, was in ruins. "It now seems clear [sic]," says the then Healy follower Harry Ratner years later, "that Healy and his closest collaborators actually welcomed these defections as removing a threat to their own leadership, so much so that others who did not resign, such as Ted Grant, Roy Tearse and Jimmy Deane, were expelled on various pretexts. For example, when Jock Haston’s expulsion was moved in the Political Bureau of the Club (comrades were not allowed just to resign, they had to be expelled), and Jimmy Deane asked that Haston be given the chance to produce a written statement in his defence before the vote of expulsion was put, he was told that ’it is necessary that you indicate in writing political support for the resolution condemning Haston without reservations immediately’. Refusing to do so, Deane was expelled for ’cryptic sympathy’ with Haston. When Roy Tearse refused to break off personal relations with Haston he, too, was expelled."[3]

The events of 1950, which represented the destruction of the British section of the Fourth International, constituted a watershed in the development of British Trotskyism. This period marks the end of Ted Grant’s "history". The new chapter in the subsequent development of the Trotskyist movement, which brings the story up until the present day, is outlined in the "postscript" at the end of the book.

Marx explained that history is made by individuals. The colossal contribution by Ted Grant in the history of our movement is an inspiration to all those fighting to change society. This book is a valuable part of our heritage and deserves to be studied by the new generation awakening to the ideas of Trotskyism and the ideals of the socialist future.

18 March 2002


[1] Interview with Rob Sewell, Paris, 2 February 2002.

[2] See WIL Bulletin articles, 28 February 1941, 20 March 1941, and 21 March 1941.

[3] Harry Ratner, Reluctant Revolutionary, pp.144-5.


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