We present John Peterson's introduction to the newly published Ted Grant Selected Works Volume 2: The Work of Marxists in the Mass Organizations. Ted Grant’s writings on the mass organizations represent a deepening of our understanding of Bolshevik strategy and tactics when it comes to connecting the ideas of revolutionary Marxism with the working class, and Peterson's introduction concisely explains Ted's method and the history of the Marxist approach to the mass organizations.
The assassination of Leon Trotsky by a Stalinist agent in 1940 was a terrible blow to the world working class and the struggle for socialism. In one fell swoop, the greatest living Marxist and the last real link to the Bolshevik Party and the early USSR was lost. In retrospect, it is clear that his murder also sounded the death knell for Trotsky’s final and most important endeavor: the building of the Fourth International.
Without the “old man,” the leaders of the Fourth were blown every which way: from ultraleftism to opportunism; guerrillaism to studentism; Titoism to Castroism; and several dozen other “isms” in between. They had never absorbed Trotsky’s method, and without his guidance, they were unable to understand the dramatic changes that followed World War II.
After the war, Stalinism was strengthened, and imperialism survived the post-war revolutionary wave. A difficult era opened up for the Marxists: an era in which the workers were actually able to win tangible reforms from the capitalists. This led to a dampening of the class struggle for a whole historical period. In this new world—very different from the storm and stress of the 1930s and 1940s—there were new theoretical and organizational questions to be grappled with. However, the answer to these problems was not to be found in “new” ideas or the revision of Marxism. As at all turning points in the movement, it was necessary to return to the basics. And that is what Ted Grant did.
Even a cursory comparison of Ted’s writings with those of Cannon, Mandel, Healy, Pablo, Lambert, and co. will show that Ted had the most profound insight into the strengthening of Stalinism and the unforeseen processes that followed the war. He was the only one to have a truly firm grasp of the Marxist method. And after all, that is what Marxism is all about: the method. It is not about looking up a “recipe” in a revolutionary cookbook, or finding a snippet from Lenin or Trotsky to “prove” your point; it is about applying dialectical materialism to the real, living, complex, and contradictory world in which we live. It is therefore not at all an exaggeration to say that Ted Grant was the foremost theoretician of the Fourth International.
Unfortunately, he was not recognized as such by the leaders of the Fourth. He was a splinter in their side, consistently putting forward counter-resolutions at international conferences, and even worse—from their narrow perspective—being proved right by events. They marginalized Ted and eventually drove him out of the International. This is all explained in great detail in Ted’s book History of British Trotskyism.
Ted’s group was reduced to a small number of followers with no full timers, an irregular publication, and without an international. As a result, not many people outside of Britain were familiar with his writings until relatively recently. For years he toiled in relative anonymity. But he never lost faith in the ideas of Marxism and was always confident in the power of the working class to change society. Over a period of decades, Ted succeeded in patiently building up the forces around him into one of the most formidable and successful Trotskyist organizations of the post-war period: The Militant Tendency. How was this possible? How could a small group with no prospects for success make such a dramatic turnaround?
Like all the great Marxists, Ted’s understanding of the ideas was far more than theoretical. After all, as Marx explained, the point is not merely to philosophize about the world, but to change it. Ted’s understanding of the Marxist method was not limited to an understanding of international events and the big picture of geopolitics and the class struggle. He also understood how to connect these marvelous ideas with the workers, how to transform them into a material force that could move hundreds of thousands of workers into action in the struggle for a better world. This was the “secret” of the Militant’s success.
In the final analysis, it all comes down to meticulous attention to theoretical questions and to cadre building. Mistakes in theory will inevitably lead to disasters in practice. By the same token, the correct application of Marxist theory to a given situation can lead to results all out of proportion to what may be expected under normal conditions. In the confusion and turmoil of the postwar years, only Ted kept his head. It was Ted who distilled the essence of the teachings of the great Marxists of the past into what we may call a law of social development and history: when the masses first begin to move to change society, they do so through their traditional mass organizations. The masses do not understand small organizations, no matter how correct their ideas. In times of social, economic, and political upheaval, they will always turn first to the workers’ organizations, parties, unions, and leaders that are familiar to them. And it is here—with the masses—that the Marxists must be.
Following on the publication of Volume One of Ted’s Selected Works, which focuses on Stalinism and the class nature of the USSR, we are pleased to present Volume Two: The Work of Marxists in the Mass Organizations. As we shall see, Ted’s approach was not a radical, new innovation. It was, in reality, nothing more nor less than the consistent application of the fundamentals already laid down by Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky. His writings represent a deepening of our understanding of Bolshevik strategy and tactics when it comes to connecting with the masses, and are thus a very welcome addition to the theoretical arsenal of the current generation of Marxists.
Back to basics
When I first came into contact with the International Marxist Tendency while living in London in 1998, it was the power of the ideas of dialectical materialism that convinced me that Marxism was worth learning more about. But why should I actually get involved in trying to change the world for the better? At a time when capitalism had allegedly solved its problems and socialism was dead and buried, why should I toss aside my plans for the future and instead commit myself to helping to spread these ideas? In short, it was their attitude toward the Labour Party that helped “seal the deal.” To me—a young, raw worker just getting acquainted with these ideas—it just seemed natural. After all, how else to bring these ideas to the masses? As the saying goes, “If the mountain will not come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain!”
I had stumbled upon an antiwar demonstration in London—Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were threatening to bomb Iraq—and I ran into a whole series of different political groupings. The tired, old, but well-meaning Stalinists were no inspiration. The American SWP, who were saying that World War III was right around the corner were an immediate turn off. And the particularly vitriolic Spartacist League, who screamed at me about Grant and Woods and the Labour Party, were clearly not living on the same planet. Compared to these hysterical sectarians, piddling away on the fringes of the movement, the need to connect with the 4.5 million trade unionists directly affiliated to the Labour Party seemed a no-brainer.
Not that the Labour Party at that time was anything to write home about. The anti-union, anti-socialist Tony Blair was in power and was the lapdog of U.S. imperialism. The one Labour Party branch meeting I went to was full of decrepit, pessimistic activists who were there out of routine, not because they were confident in the working class’ ability to change society.
Nevertheless, I understood that it was not a matter of sitting in these kinds of meetings merely waiting for the masses to arrive, but that it was a matter of a general orientation to the traditional organizations of the working class. It was about perspectives for the future, and how the class would move once it finally did move into action. It would do so, not through tiny sects screaming shrilly from the sidelines, but through the unions, with their millions of members, and their traditional mass political parties. The idea that we should not abandon the workers to their reformist and pro-capitalist leaders, but rather, should fight shoulder to shoulder with them for a militant, class struggle leadership and for socialist policies made perfect sense. In the case of the UK, that meant the Labour Party. But in the case of the U.S., there was no such party, and many workers voted for the “lesser evil” Democrats. What was one to do in the U.S.? More on that later.
I hadn’t read much Marxist literature at that time, and even though my instincts told me this was a logical approach, I thought it was perhaps a special innovation developed by Ted. It is certainly what sets the International Marxist Tendency apart from all of the other so-called Trotskyist organizations in the world. But as I read and studied more, I found that this was not something new. It was merely the application of the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky to the current situation. It was a clear case of “back to the basics.”
This doesn’t mean that the “basics” are always simple. Often, the most profound ideas are quite simple—at least on the surface. Applying these ideas is where the real art is. In chess, the myriad and beautiful strategies and tactics that can develop in the course of a game can all be traced back to the simple, basic moves of the individual pieces. But without a solid grounding in the fundamentals, none of the other, flashier and more dramatic combinations are possible.
The Communist Manifesto
In fact, in the founding document of our movement, the Communist Manifesto, the attitude of the Marxists to the working class and its organizations is laid out. It is worth quoting at some length:
In what relation do the Communists stand to the proletarians as a whole?
The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties.
They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.
They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.
The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: 1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.
The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.
The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat.
There it is in black and white. The very first lines in the section explaining the relation of the communists to the working class make it crystal clear that we form part of the working class and must work accordingly. It explains that we “do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties”; and that we are merely “the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country.” Somehow, it seems, the majority of those who call themselves Marxists seem to have missed this part!
“Fair enough,” they say, “Marx and Engels did indeed say that. But times have changed!” Yes, they have changed, quite dramatically in many respects. But the fundamentals have not changed. As long as capitalism continues to exist, so too do its fundamental laws of motion, contradiction, and crisis, as we have seen first-hand in the last few years. And as long as the working class remains exploited by the bourgeoisie and the class struggle between them continues, and as long as we as Marxists aim to help bring about the socialist transformation of society, our fundamental approach also remains the same.
Lenin certainly seemed to think so, and applied these principles within the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, out of which the Bolsheviks developed and eventually seized state power. The same basic principle applies to the work in the trade unions as well. After the Bolsheviks came to power, Lenin devoted an entire book to it in order to educate the cadres of the Communist International on this question. “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder is a classic restatement of the basic principles already laid down by Marx and Engels. It is worth reproducing a few of the most relevant excerpts of his arguments against the “ultraleftist Lefts” to give a flavor of the thrust of the book.
On the question of the attitude that should be taken by the newly-formed, but still very small Communist Party, toward the Labour Party, he had this to say:
It appears that one of the greatest obstacles to the immediate formation of a united Communist Party is presented by the disagreement on the questions of participation in Parliament and on whether the new Communist Party should affiliate to the old, trade-unionist, opportunist and social-chauvinist Labour Party, which is mostly made up of trade unions....
It is true that the Hendersons, the Clyneses, the MacDonalds and the Snowdens [leaders of the Labour Party at the time—Ed.] are hopelessly reactionary. It is equally true that they want to assume power (though they would prefer a coalition with the bourgeoisie), that they want to “rule” along the old bourgeois lines, and that when they are in power they will certainly behave like the Scheidemanns and Noskes [Leaders of the German Social Democracy who betrayed the workers they were supposed to represent—Ed.]. All that is true. But it does not at all follow that to support them means treachery to the revolution; what does follow is that, in the interests of the revolution, working-class revolutionaries should give these gentlemen a certain amount of parliamentary support...
The liberal bourgeoisie are abandoning the historical system of “two parties” (of exploiters), which has been hallowed by centuries of experience and has been extremely advantageous to the exploiters, and consider it necessary for these two parties to join forces against the Labour Party. A number of Liberals are deserting to the Labour Party like rats from a sinking ship. The Left Communists believe that the transfer of power to the Labour Party is inevitable and admit that it now has the backing of most workers. From this they draw the strange conclusion which Comrade Sylvia Pankhurst formulates as follows:
“The Communist Party must not compromise.... The Communist Party must keep its doctrine pure, and its independence of reformism inviolate, its mission is to lead the way, without stopping or turning, by the direct road to the communist revolution.”
On the contrary, the fact that most British workers still follow the lead of the British Kerenskys or Scheidemanns [Kerensky was the reformist leader of the Provisional Government formed in the aftermath of the February, 1917 Revolution in Russia. Scheideman was his German equivalent.—Ed.] and have not yet had experience of a government composed of these people—an experience which was necessary in Russia and Germany so as to secure the mass transition of the workers to communism—undoubtedly indicates that the British Communists should participate in parliamentary action, that they should, from within parliament, help the masses of the workers see the results of a Henderson and Snowden [Labour] government in practice, and that they should help the Hendersons and Snowdens defeat the united forces of Lloyd George and Churchill. To act otherwise would mean hampering the cause of the revolution, since revolution is impossible without a change in the views of the majority of the working class, a change brought about by the political experience of the masses, never by propaganda alone...
At present, British Communists very often find it hard even to approach the masses, and even to get a hearing from them. If I come out as a Communist and call upon them to vote for Henderson and against Lloyd George, they will certainly give me a hearing. And I shall be able to explain in a popular manner, not only why the Soviets are better than a parliament and why the dictatorship of the proletariat is better than the dictatorship of Churchill (disguised with the signboard of bourgeois “democracy”), but also that, with my vote, I want to support Henderson in the same way as the rope supports a hanged man—that the impending establishment of a government of the Hendersons will prove that I am right, will bring the masses over to my side, and will hasten the political death of the Hendersons and the Snowdens just as was the case with their kindred spirits in Russia and Germany.
If the objection is raised that these tactics are too “subtle” or too complex for the masses to understand, that these tactics will split and scatter our forces, will prevent us from concentrating them on Soviet revolution, etc., I will reply to the “Left” objectors: don’t ascribe your doctrinairism to the masses! The masses in Russia are no doubt no better educated than the masses in Britain; if anything, they are less so. Yet the masses understood the Bolsheviks...
On the question of the trade unions, Lenin had even sharper words for the “ultralefts” of his day, at a time when the labor leaders were very far to the right:
We are waging a struggle against the “labor aristocracy” in the name of the masses of the workers and in order to win them over to our side; we are waging the struggle against the opportunist and social-chauvinist leaders in order to win the working class over to our side. It would be absurd to forget this most elementary and most self-evident truth. Yet it is this very absurdity that the German “Left” Communists perpetrate when, because of the reactionary and counterrevolutionary character of the trade union top leadership, they jump to the conclusion that ... we must withdraw from the trade unions, refuse to work in them, and create new and artificial forms of labor organization! This is so unpardonable a blunder that it is tantamount to the greatest service Communists could render the bourgeoisie. Like all the opportunist, social-chauvinist, and Kautskyite trade union leaders, our Mensheviks are nothing but “agents of the bourgeoisie in the working-class movement” (as we have always said the Mensheviks are), or “labor lieutenants of the capitalist class,” to use the splendid and profoundly true expression of the followers of Daniel De Leon in America. To refuse to work in the reactionary trade unions means leaving the insufficiently developed or backward masses of workers under the influence of the reactionary leaders, the agents of the bourgeoisie, the labor aristocrats, or “workers who have become completely bourgeois” (cf. Engels’s letter to Marx in 1858 about the British workers).
This ridiculous “theory” that Communists should not work in reactionary trade unions reveals with the utmost clarity the frivolous attitude of the “Left” Communists towards the question of influencing the “masses.” and their misuse of clamor about the “masses.” If you want to help the “masses” and win the sympathy and support of the “masses,” you should not fear difficulties, or pinpricks, chicanery, insults and persecution from the “leaders” (who, being opportunists and social-chauvinists, are in most cases directly or indirectly connected with the bourgeoisie and the police), but must absolutely work wherever the masses are to be found. You must be capable of any sacrifice, of overcoming the greatest obstacles, in order to carry on agitation and propaganda systematically, perseveringly, persistently and patiently in those institutions, societies and associations—even the most reactionary—in which proletarian or semi-proletarian masses are to be found. The trade unions and the workers’ co-operatives (the latter sometimes, at least) are the very organizations in which the masses are to be found. According to figures quoted in the Swedish paper Folkets Dagblad Politiken of March 10, 1920, the trade union membership in Great Britain increased from 5,500,000 at the end of 1917 to 6,600,000 at the end of 1918, an increase of 19 per cent. Towards the close of 1919, the membership was estimated at 7,500,000. I have not got the corresponding figures for France and Germany to hand, but absolutely incontestable and generally known facts testify to a rapid rise in the trade union membership in these countries too.
These facts make crystal clear something that is confirmed by thousands of other symptoms, namely, that class-consciousness and the desire for organization are growing among the proletarian masses, among the rank and file, among the backward elements. Millions of workers in Great Britain, France and Germany are for the first time passing from a complete lack of organization to the elementary, lowest, simplest, and (to those still thoroughly imbued with bourgeois-democratic prejudices) most easily comprehensible form of organization, namely, the trade unions; yet the revolutionary but imprudent Left Communists stand by, crying out “the masses,” “the masses!” but refusing to work within the trade unions, on the pretext that they are “reactionary,” and invent a brand-new, immaculate little “Workers’ Union,” which is guiltless of bourgeois-democratic prejudices and innocent of craft or narrow-minded craft-union sins, a union which, they claim, will be (!) a broad organization.... It would be hard to imagine any greater ineptitude or greater harm to the revolution than that caused by the “Left” revolutionaries!
Incredibly, this very clearly expressed position by Lenin has gone in one ear and out the other of all-too-many so-called “Leninists” today. Ted Grant used to wonder aloud why Lenin had bothered writing so many books, as it seemed so few “Leninists” had bothered to read them; and those who did read them had failed miserably to understand what he was saying! And as for participating in bourgeois elections and parliaments, Lenin had this to say:
Parliamentarianism has become “historically obsolete.” That is true in the propaganda sense. However, everybody knows that this is still a far cry from overcoming it in practice. Capitalism could have been declared—and with full justice—to be “historically obsolete” many decades ago, but that does not at all remove the need for a very long and very persistent struggle on the basis of capitalism. Parliamentarianism is “historically obsolete” from the standpoint of world history, i.e., the era of bourgeois parliamentarianism is over, and the era of the proletarian dictatorship has begun. That is incontestable. But world history is counted in decades. Ten or twenty years earlier or later makes no difference when measured with the yardstick of world history; from the standpoint of world history it is a trifle that cannot be considered even approximately. But for that very reason, it is a glaring theoretical error to apply the yardstick of world history to practical politics. Is parliamentarianism “politically obsolete”? That is quite a different matter. If that were true, the position of the “Lefts” would be a strong one. But it has to be proved by a most searching analysis, and the “Lefts” do not even know how to approach the matter....
In the first place, contrary to the opinion of such outstanding political leaders as Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the German “Lefts”, as we know, considered parliamentarianism “politically obsolete” even in January 1919. We know that the “Lefts” were mistaken. This fact alone utterly destroys, at a single stroke, the proposition that parliamentarianism is “politically obsolete.” It is for the “Lefts” to prove why their error, indisputable at that time, is no longer an error. They do not and cannot produce even a shred of proof. A political party’s attitude towards its own mistakes is one of the most important and surest ways of judging how earnest the party is and how it fulfills in practice its obligations towards its class and the working people. Frankly acknowledging a mistake, ascertaining the reasons for it, analyzing the conditions that have led up to it, and thrashing out the means of its rectification—that is the hallmark of a serious party; that is how it should perform its duties, and how it should educate and train its class, and then the masses. By failing to fulfill this duty and give the utmost attention and consideration to the study of their patent error, the “Lefts” in Germany (and in Holland) have proved that they are not a party of a class, but a circle, not a party of the masses, but a group of intellectualists and of a few workers who ape the worst features of intellectualism.
Second, in the same pamphlet of the Frankfurt group of “Lefts,” which we have already cited in detail, we read: “... The millions of workers who still follow the policy of the Center [the Catholic “Center” Party] are counterrevolutionary. The rural proletarians provide the legions of counterrevolutionary troops.” (Page 3 of the pamphlet.)
Everything goes to show that this statement is far too sweeping and exaggerated. But the basic fact set forth here is incontrovertible, and its acknowledgment by the “Lefts” is particularly clear evidence of their mistake. How can one say that “parliamentarianism is politically obsolete,” when “millions” and “legions” of proletarians are not only still in favor of parliamentarianism in general, but are downright “counterrevolutionary”!? It is obvious that parliamentarianism in Germany is not yet politically obsolete. It is obvious that the “Lefts” in Germany have mistaken their desire, their politico-ideological attitude, for objective reality. That is a most dangerous mistake for revolutionaries to make. In Russia—where, over a particularly long period and in particularly varied forms, the most brutal and savage yoke of tsarism produced revolutionaries of diverse shades, revolutionaries who displayed amazing devotion, enthusiasm, heroism and will power—in Russia we have observed this mistake of the revolutionaries at very close quarters; we have studied it very attentively and have a first-hand knowledge of it; that is why we can also see it especially clearly in others. Parliamentarianism is of course “politically obsolete” to the Communists in Germany; but—and that is the whole point—we must not regard what is obsolete to us as something obsolete to a class, to the masses. Here again we find that the “Lefts” do not know how to reason, do not know how to act as the party of a class, as the party of the masses. You must not sink to the level of the masses, to the level of the backward strata of the class. That is incontestable. You must tell them the bitter truth. You are in duty bound to call their bourgeois-democratic and parliamentary prejudices what they are—prejudices. But at the same time you must soberly follow the actual state of the class consciousness and preparedness of the entire class (not only of its communist vanguard), and of all the working people (not only of their advanced elements).
Lenin’s policy was a continuation of the basic approach outlined by Marx and Engels decades earlier. Engels used to like to say that “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” In 1917, the correctness of Lenin’s approach was shown, not in the pages of the Communist Manifesto, but in the coming to power of the Bolsheviks and the establishment of a workers’ state. This victory was prepared over a period of decades, with the dialectical relationship between the class, the party, and the leadership always at the forefront of Lenin’s considerations. At all times, his foremost concern was the following: how to transform the ideas of Marxism into a mass force that can actually bring about revolutionary social change.
Lenin keenly understood that before winning power, it was first necessary to win the masses. This apparently “small detail” is what made Lenin the Marxist giant that he was. His well-known slogan “patiently explain” was aimed at doing precisely that. Once the Bolsheviks had won the support of the majority in Russian society, as expressed by the votes in the Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies, the days of Kerensky’s bourgeois Provisional Government were numbered. After Lenin’s death, Leon Trotsky was to deepen this understanding even further, in the turbulent period leading up to World War II.
Trotsky’s struggle to win the masses
The rise and crimes of the Stalinist bureaucracy have been analyzed in great detail in the writings of Leon Trotsky. Ted Grant also made important contributions toward our understanding of proletarian Bonapartism—the scientific term for Stalinism—as evidenced in Volume One of his Selected Works.
Trotsky fought tooth and nail against the Stalinists and their betrayals of the Russian Revolution. In 1929, he was exiled from the USSR and hounded by the GPU to the end of his days. What attitude did he take to the increasingly Stalinized Communist International? Did he declare it dead simply because he was demonized by the bureaucracy and declared public enemy number one? Did he abandon the Soviet workers and the millions of others fighting under the banner of the Comintern to the Stalinist apparatus? Not at all. Although the Stalinist noose was tightening, Trotsky considered himself and his International Left Opposition as a faction of the Communist International, even if they had been formally expelled from it.
He oriented his forces around the world to the Communist Parties—the mass parties of the most advanced layers of the working class—arguing for genuine proletarian internationalism, working class unity, and for a return to the soviet democracy of the early USSR. He had no illusions that he would convince Stalin and co. to change course. His aim was to win the masses organized in the Communist Parties to genuine Bolshevism. In short, his policy was a continuation of the approach Marxists have taken in relation to the masses and their organizations since the founding of our movement.
Then, a qualitative change came. Hitler’s rise to power signified the political death of the Comintern. Stalin’s policy of the so-called “Third Period” had led directly to the rise of Hitler and the destruction of the flower of the German proletariat, once the mightiest force for revolutionary change on the planet. Millions of workers were doomed to an early grave in the all-but-inevitable conflagration to come. A revolutionary party is first and foremost its program, methods, banner, and traditions. The banner of the Comintern was stained with Stalinist filth and the blood of the Russian and European working class. Such a banner could no longer serve as a clarion call for the world revolution. It was then—and only then—that Trotsky began to lay the foundations for Fourth International.
Trotsky had the ideas, the methods, and was formulating what would become the Transitional Program, the founding document of the Fourth International. He had a handful of followers around the world, most of whom had come out of the ranks of the various Communist Parties, in opposition to the Stalinists. But he did not have the masses. How were the small forces of the International Left Opposition to win them?
Although the Socialist Parties had reached their political “expiration date” in 1914, when nearly every one of the leaders of the Second International throughout Europe rallied to defend “their” bourgeoisie during World War I, many workers still remained organized in their ranks. The growing polarization in Europe, the rise of fascism, and the revulsion many workers felt at the Stalinist CPs, led to a revival of the Socialist Parties. Yet again, the masses gravitated first to their traditional parties, despite the past crimes of the leaders. Here was a fresh layer of increasingly radicalized workers, not stifled by the iron grip of the Stalinist bureaucracy. In 1934, Trotsky urged his followers in France to dissolve their organization, the Communist League, and enter the French Socialists. This became known as the “French Turn,” and the tactic in general became known as “entrism.”
During this period of crisis and polarization, the left reformist leaders of the SPs were being pushed by the pressure from below toward a revolutionary policy. This vacillating “middle ground” between left reformism and revolution is known as “centrism.” However, it is not enough to determine that someone or some political current is centrist in nature. We must also determine whether they are in the “center” and moving to the left, toward revolution, or in the “center” and moving to the right, away from revolution. In the French Socialist Party in 1934, the leadership was being pushed toward a revolutionary policy. It was under these specific conditions that Trotsky urged his forces to “enter” the French SP, in order to argue for a consistent revolutionary policy, and ultimately, to win more members to the forces of Trotskyism, against reformism and Stalinism.
Trotsky envisioned this as a short-term tactic. The conditions were such, he believed, that if the Marxists could gather around them enough critical mass—which would come out of the centrist currents emerging in the traditional mass organizations—it could begin to take on a life of its own and serve as a pole of attraction to the rank and file of both the CPs and the SPs, and those not yet politicized. The tactic succeeded in bolstering the numbers of revolutionary Marxists gathered around Trotsky. With the founding of the Fourth International and the crisis of Stalinism and reformism, the future success of the world proletarian revolution seemed assured. By orienting to the workers’ traditional organizations, Trotsky had succeeded in building up the first cadres of a new international. The task was now to build on this work and win the masses to the banner of the Fourth International, wherever they may be.
Tragically, Trotsky’s assassination, and the complex chaos of World War II, cut across this perspective. As outlined briefly above, the main leaders of the Fourth International were ill-equipped to pick up where Trotsky left off, and drove out all those—such as Ted Grant—who were able to develop correct perspectives.
Unfortunately, many so-called Trotskyists have made a caricature of the entrist tactic. Some developed the idea of “deep entrism” in which one hides one’s political ideas in order not to “rock the boat too soon” in the party one is working in. In other words, no one in the party knows you are a Bolshevik until you suddenly “surprise” them with the news! With such a tactic, no one learns anything from the collective experience of the party, and the “deep entrists” are quite often absorbed into the reformist apparatus of the party in question.
Others have approached it as “head hunters” and splitters, barging in with guns blazing in order to quickly win a handful of people. Or they deliberately work to provoke a conflict with the leadership, in order to hasten expulsions or a split. Never mind patiently explaining your ideas to the rank and file in order to try to win the majority to a revolutionary perspective! When doing such work, we are always striving to be the best party members, exemplified not only by our hard work, but by our principled approach to political and organizational questions, always open about who we are and what ideas we defend. This is how we can win the confidence of the other party members, who will see that we have a genuine interest in strengthening the party in order to fight for genuine socialist policies.
After World War II, a prolonged epoch of relative capitalist stability opened up. The class struggle was dampened for a whole historical period, at least in the advanced capitalist countries. The forces of revolutionary Marxism were isolated, and marginalized, with few immediate prospects for success. The Trotskyist movement was blown off course, battered by the changed objective conditions and poor leadership. But Ted “stuck to his guns.” His political compass pointed unwaveringly toward the “true North” of Marxist theory and the inevitable revival of the class struggle at a certain stage. As he battened down the hatches for more opportune times to come, he could not have known that it would be roughly two decades before the objective situation began to change. Nonetheless, during this period, he continued to develop his analysis of world events and to train the handful of cadres that would eventually give fruit in the form of the Militant. Even in the darkest days of these years in the political “desert,” one question was always foremost in Ted’s mind: how to connect with the masses?
Ted’s “Unbroken Thread”
Marxists do not make a fetish out of organizational forms. While remaining firm on questions of principle, when it comes to organization, strategy, and tactics, we can and must be extremely flexible. The question here is of an overall orientation to the mass organizations. Ted is sometimes misrepresented as having a fixation on the Labour Party. Nothing could be further from the truth. Despite having an overall, long-term orientation to the traditional party of the British working class, the fact is that in practice, Ted was at various times working directly inside the party, and at others, doing independent work from the outside.
The overall perspective that the British workers, when they began to move, would do so through their unions and the Labour Party, never changed. But depending on the needs and possibilities of the given circumstances, Ted was always very flexible with how this general orientation was implemented in practice. Sometimes he was in favor of emphasizing party work, at other times, he argued against it. During some periods, the comrades focused their energies on the internal life and struggles of the Labour Party. During others, they almost exclusively engaged in open work: youth work, trade union work, solidarity work, etc. Ted even said that if we had enough forces, we would try to recruit in the Boy Scouts. Now that’s tactical flexibility!
The unifying aspect of everything Ted did was the need to recruit and train the cadres of revolutionary Marxism, no matter what the objective conditions or difficulties. The aim at all times was to connect with the advanced workers and youth, the “ones and twos,” who would form the backbone of the future mass revolutionary party. As Trotsky explained in the Transitional Program, the crisis of humanity is the crisis of leadership of the world proletariat. Revolutionary situations will arise in every country on earth. Of this there can be no doubt. The real question is whether or not the workers will succeed in replacing capitalism with socialism.
The twentieth century is full of tragic examples of the working class being “so close, and yet so far.” Time after time, the reformist and Stalinist leaders have “snatched defeat from the jaws of victory,” and delivered the workers to the capitalists and their state on a platter. The decisive factor in each and every one of these defeats was the lack of a revolutionary leadership able to win the workers from those who would betray the revolution and condemn them to decades more of capitalist wage slavery. Such a party is not built overnight. It must be steeled in struggle, steeped in the ideas and methods of Marxism, with deep roots in the working class and its organizations, and of sufficient size to be able to play a decisive role to change events in favor of victory for the workers. Ted’s life work—the same as those of us who are working to build on the foundations he helped lay—was to build such a leadership.
How to win the masses from poor leadership?
Ted’s approach to union and Labour Party leaders is also something we can learn from today. Building on what Lenin outlined in “Left Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, Ted understood that the way to win the masses is not to shrilly denounce their leaders from the sidelines. Whether we like it or not, the fact is that the Marxists have not yet won the leadership of the working class. The current leaders are in their position because at least a sizable layer of the workers have illusions in them. In other words, the rank and file has a reasonable expectation that their leaders will represent them, will defend and fight for them. Buying off workers’ leaders to do the dirty work for the bosses is one way the capitalists perpetuate their rule. We know this, and the most class-conscious workers know this. But that does not mean that the majority of the workers know this yet. How to drive a wedge between the two?
The instinct of many advanced workers and young people who have already drawn these conclusions is to vent their rage and frustration at these people directly. They want to denounce and expose their double-talk, vacillations, and betrayals. But for the workers who have not yet come to understand this through their own experience, this seems like an attack on the union or party as a whole. He or she may think: “I’m not entirely satisfied with my leaders, but who do these people think they are, coming here and attacking my leaders and my organization? They sound just like Scott Walker!” A far more effective way of driving a wedge between poor leadership and the illusions of the rank and file is to make positive demands on the leaders, as a loyal, hard-working member of the party or union.
For example, in a contract negotiation where cuts and concessions are being proposed, we might approach our fellow workers along these lines: “Our leadership says we have to accept concessions—we disagree! The company made $1 billion in profits last year, and the CEO makes 400 times what we make. Our leaders should do what they were elected to do, and that is to represent the workers against the bosses. Our leaders should mobilize the membership to fight against concessions and we will help them do it!”
This kind of approach can win broader layers of the workers to a perspective of struggle. And if the leaders do not carry out the reasonable demands of the rank and file, they will “expose” themselves, and the workers will draw their own conclusions as to the need for a militant, class-struggle leadership. The same basic approach applies also to the mass workers’ parties. This is clearly an oversimplification; life is always far more complex. However, the basic approach is a million miles away from that of the hysterical sectarians who swing wildly from opportunism to ultraleftism, and will never in a million years connect with the broader working class.
Ted’s writings from the postwar years are a treasure trove of Marxism as applied to this complex and difficult period. They represent a continuation and a deepening of the work of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky. The majority of the present volume is dedicated to articles and documents from this period, with a focus on the work of Marxists in the unions and the British Labour Party. History of British Trotskyism, Ted’s detailed account of the political and organizational battles in the Fourth International in the years after World War II, is also highly recommended and is also available from Wellred.
But Ted Grant’s name is most closely associated with the Militant Tendency. Ask anyone of a certain age in Britain if they remember the Militant, and most of them will answer in the affirmative, whether or not they were supporters or enemies of the organization. Militant was part of the culture and experience of an entire generation of British youth and workers—in the days before Facebook and Twitter.
The experience of the Militant Tendency is a classic example of how, with the correct program, methods, and ideas, combined with a flexible approach to the traditional workers’ political parties, the unions, elections, and the youth, a small group can grow rapidly in a relatively short period of time. From the work in the Labour Party Young Socialists and at Sussex University in the 1960s, to the 1984–85 miners’ strike, control of Liverpool city council, and the anti-poll tax campaign in the early 1990s, Militant became a household name and helped lead to the downfall of Thatcher. For the first time in Britain since Trotsky’s death, his ideas were capturing the imagination of a new generation of youth, and were being discussed on television and in the press. The future prospects for the socialist revolution in Britain were bright.
However, the success was not to last. A section of Militant’s leadership began to think it could build a mass revolutionary party outside the Labour Party. In a future revolutionary situation, that may well be the case. But that was not the case in 1991. The mass struggle of the workers and youth was ebbing, the collapse of the Soviet Union introduced tremendous confusion into the ranks of the movement, and the right wing of the Labour Party had succeeded in reasserting control through a series of repressive measures and expulsions.
The leadership of the Militant began a series of disastrous turns that in short order transformed it into a sterile sect. Following on Ted’s expulsion from the Labour Party in 1983, he and his supporters were now unceremoniously expelled from the Militant— the organization he himself had founded. Incorrect policies, a watering down of the membership’s theoretical level, inflated egos, and a search for shortcuts are a recipe for disaster in a revolutionary party. Decades of painstaking preparatory work was destroyed in just a few years. The dramatic rise and fall of the Militant Tendency is outlined in Rob Sewell’s article “How the Militant Was Built; And How it Was Destroyed,” included as an appendix to this volume. It gives an overview of the “good, the bad, and the ugly” of the experience of the Militant, and contains important lessons for the movement today.
For a mass party of labor!
Which brings us to the United States. Why should we bother reading Ted Grant’s writings on the mass organizations in a country where we do not even have a labor party? The answer is simple: we can and must learn from the collective experience of our class. As someone once said, “I am interested in history, because I am interested in the future.”
The perspective for the coming period is for tremendous economic, social, and political turmoil. The mass movement in Wisconsin, the Occupy movement, and labor’s mobilization in Ohio to defeat governor Kasich’s anti-union legislation are just the beginning of the beginning. A renewed explosion of the class struggle is firmly on the agenda. In the storm and stress of the historical period we have entered, the American workers will move to change their destinies. The unions will be shaken from top to bottom. The need for a class-independent political expression for the workers will become increasingly clear.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2010, the percentage of wage and salary workers who were members of a union was 11.9 percent overall, down from 12.3 percent in 2009, a decline of 612,000 to 14.7 million. In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent, or 17.7 million union workers. But as we know the rate is vastly different in the private and public sectors. After decades of being hammered by layoffs and off-shoring, private sector unionization is at just 6.9 percent, whereas it is 36.2 percent in the public sector. This explains the mad drive by the capitalists in going after and demonizing the public sector.
New York has the highest unionization rate, at 24.2 percent, and North Carolina has the lowest at just 3.2 percent. However, we understand that these numbers do not tell the whole story. Over the last few years, there has been a form of “off-shoring” to the South, as big manufacturers move production to the low-wage, non-union South instead of the East coast, Midwest, or foreign countries. This has produced a volatile mix of conditions; the South is a veritable powder keg of the class struggle, just waiting to explode.
In 2009, strikes reached their lowest level since 1947, the year the Department of Labor began tracking this data. In 2009, there were just five major work stoppages in the entire country. Between 2001 and 2010, there were just 17 such strikes per year on average, compared with 34 per year from 1991–2000, 69 from 1981–1990, and 269 from 1971–1980. However, similar conditions lead to similar results. We are entering a period far more like the 1930s or the 1970s than the 2000s, and we can be sure the class will begin to move accordingly. The capitalists have another thing coming if they think the sleeping giant of labor will take these kicks lying down!
At a certain stage, there will be waves of strikes, millions more workers joining existing unions or forming new ones, class struggle opposition currents forming in the unions, with leaders pushed out or pushed to the left, and eventually even general strikes. Already in Wisconsin and then in Oakland, the question of the general strike has been posed more directly than it has in many decades. And with fewer industrial workers in the country, this means fewer workers have more power in their hands. The dockworkers, for example, hold enormous power in their hands. As do transport and transit workers, communications workers, utilities workers, and so on. We should never lose sight of the fact that although greatly reduced numerically and as a percentage of the workforce, unionized workers have an enormous amount of potential power if mobilized. Add to that the millions of workers who would like to be in a union, and you have a powerful force to change society.
The labor leaders will be compelled to do something to at least appear to be fighting in the interests of the workers. Otherwise, they stand to lose their positions. This can snowball into something bigger than they wanted. Reformism has no base without reforms. With only counter-reforms on the table, they will have no alternative but to fight.
In the cynical political calculus of the two main parties, labor is no longer a “must have” constituency. In exchange for guaranteeing class peace and getting union voters to the polls, the union bureaucracy carved out a nice niche for itself. But they are now on the verge of being tossed out like an old, used-up rag. In order to preserve their “seat at the table” they may be forced to go further than they themselves would ever imagine. For example, they may demagogically threaten a labor party to try to get back some clout and leverage from the Democrats. This could also unleash forces in that direction that could get out of their control.
Ted Grant understood the need for the American workers to build a mass party of their own. He was keenly aware of the need for a labor party in the U.S., and wrote about it in an article about Henry Wallace’s visit to the UK, way back in 1947. He also followed the development of the Labor Party in the U.S. in the 1990s with great interest. The Workers International League (WIL), which bases itself on the ideas of the International Marxist Tendency, founded by Ted Grant, has picked up where Ted left off, and has further developed this perspective. As explained in the 2010 U.S. Perspectives document of the WIL:
This is why our demand for a mass party of labor based on the unions is a key and defining demand. Why do we repeat it so often? Because this demand flows from the objective situation. The working class has no mass political representation. This is one of the most glaring contradictions in the situation in the U.S. No one else is raising this demand in a serious and consistent way. It is a clear point of differentiation between ourselves and the sects.
Those who limit themselves to a critique of capitalism and then advocate either a “lesser evil” vote for the Democrats, or present themselves as the party of revolution, are in practice impotent or worse. We must be clear that only mass forces—not an organization of 60 or even of 6,000—but of millions of workers, with all the resources and capabilities of organized labor, can offer a serious challenge to the two parties of capital. This is why this demand, in the tradition of the International Marxist Tendency’s orientation to the traditional mass organizations and parties, is so important. We even changed the banner of Socialist Appeal [The official publication of the WIL] to reflect this general orientation—even when such a party does not yet exist.
The idea of orienting to the mass organizations is seen by many on the Left as a “new” or innovative approach to politics. Others, who do not have a dialectical view of how the class moves, see it as opportunism or reformism of the worst sort. However, while on the surface it may seem mundane or even “boring,” it is in fact the most revolutionary lever there is. After all, the aim of such work is to win the masses to the perspective of socialist revolution. There is no perspective more revolutionary than that! And as we have seen, this approach is nothing more nor less than a continuation of the policy adopted and applied by all the great Marxists; by Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky, and further developed in the post-war period by Ted Grant.
In order to orient the reader and provide historical context, this volume opens with two British Perspectives documents, one from 1946, and another from 1968. Articles on the Independent Labour Party (a split from the Labour Party) and the Labour Party itself follow. We then reprint three articles on the Militant Tendency, followed by two important articles on the broader question of work in the mass organizations. One of Ted’s only articles on the U.S. is also included, which takes up the question of Henry Wallace’s presidential campaign and his visit to Britain in 1947. Then there are several articles on the trade unions, the general strike, and workers’ control of industry. Throughout these articles, we can see “unbroken thread” that unifies Ted’s work: absolute confidence in the working class, the urgent need to build the cadres of revolutionary Marxism, and a consistent approach to the mass organizations.
By the time I met Ted Grant, he was already quite old and not as involved in the day-to-day work of Socialist Appeal in the UK. I was perhaps one of the last comrades directly trained by Ted Grant, albeit only for a few short months. But the political and personal impact he made on me is undeniable. The power of the ideas of Marxism, as explained so clearly and concisely by him in our weekly conversations, convinced me to dedicate myself to the cause of the world proletariat. We started with just one person based in Fargo, North Dakota in 1998. Since then, the Workers International League—named after Ted’s first group in Britain—has grown into a modestly-sized organization with a growing presence around the country.
Ted Grant understood that the ultimate success of the world socialist revolution depended on the success of the revolution in the world’s most powerful capitalist country. By combining theory with action, political clarity with sacrifice and perseverance, those of us in the WIL are working hard to make Ted’s perspectives a reality. We invite you to join us! You can learn more by visiting www.socialistappeal.org.
Just one decade ago, the ground in the U.S. may have seemed a barren wasteland for these ideas. But Ted’s ideas have indeed taken root in the United States. There can be no doubt that the conditions are ripe for a revival of revolutionary Marxism. This is reflected in the hundreds of thousands of U.S. visitors to the In Defence of Marxism website at www.marxist.com. We are therefore pleased to present this new volume of Ted’s writings as a further contribution toward the theoretical arming of a new generation of Bolsheviks.
Minneapolis, December 19, 2011