We present part one of 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. Order your copy of Volume 2 at Marxistbooks.com.
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.