This is the second chapter of the biography of Ted Grant, written by his friend and collaborator for more than 50 years, Alan Woods. It describes Ted Grant's First contacts with the revolutionary movement in Europe. The book is available for sale on Wellred Books (UK and US) and as an Ebook on Amazon and other markets. We will be publishing it here over the coming weeks.
If we have chosen the position in life in which we can most of all work for mankind, no burdens can bow us down, because they are sacrifices for the benefit of all; then we shall experience no petty, limited, selfish joy, but our happiness will belong to millions, our deeds will live on quietly but perpetually at work, and over our ashes will be shed the hot tears of noble people. (Marx, Letter to His Father, 1837)
With Leon Sedov in Paris
Thomas Paine once wrote: “The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion”. That same revolutionary internationalist outlook is echoed in one of those stirring old Italian anarchist songs:
Nostra patria è il mondo intero
nostra legge è la libertà
ed un pensiero
ribelle in cor ci sta.
Our fatherland is the whole world,
Our law is Freedom
And a rebel thought
Is in our heart.
You have to admire the revolutionary spirit of the old anarchists. That same spirit beat in the hearts of these young comrades and the same rebellious thought was embedded in the depths of their soul, although unlike the anarchists they were guided by the scientific principles of Marxism. They were prepared to leave behind their homes, their friends and families, mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters, and travel to the other end of the world to fight for the cause of socialism. And this decision they took with a light heart, unhesitatingly, cheerfully and with no regrets.
In the autumn of 1934, Max and Isaac clambered up the gangplank of a German-owned passenger-cargo ship. In view of Hitler’s recent accession to power, the comrades in Cape Town thought this was a bit risky at the time, but these fears turned out to be baseless. The journey proved to be uneventful but painfully slow, taking about six weeks to reach Europe. As the ship steamed lethargically along the coast of West Africa, the only relief from boredom were the occasional stopovers at numerous ports where the ship took on cargo and new passengers.
There was one such stop-off at Lagos that stood out in Ted’s memory. They had disembarked for a coffee, following the other passengers in search of a decent café. They ended up in a small coffee place where a most unpleasant surprise awaited their fellow white South Africans. The latter, being used to “whites only” places, were horrified when blacks sat down next to them, probably quite deliberately. Speechless with impotent rage they were reduced to muttering: “bloody kaffirs!” But they could not do a thing about it. “Oh, we had some great laughs then!” recalled Ted.
During the long sea journey, as the ship gradually left the warm southern seas to enter colder and more turbulent waters, the young revolutionaries discussed excitedly till the early hours of the morning the prospects of revolutionary work in Europe. They decided that it would be advisable to change their names, mainly to avoid any negative consequences that their political activities might cause for relatives in South Africa. Max Basch changed his name to Sid Frost. It seems that the name of Ted Grant was “lifted” from one of the ship’s crew, in a similar way that Trotsky took the name of one of his tsarist jailers. I imagine Able Seaman Grant would have been a bit surprised to know his name had become famous.
Eventually the ship reached the shores of France. After an eight-hour night train journey they arrived in Paris. Paris! That enchanted city of pleasure: the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the magical River Seine with its ancient bridges, its waters reflecting the majestic cathedral of Notre Dame, the Avenue des Champs-Élysées with its cinemas, cafés, luxury specialty shops and neatly clipped horse-chestnut trees, the lively cafés of Montmartre, the exotic night life... All that could attract a couple of adventurous young men who had never been outside South Africa was there for the taking. But that side of Paris interested them very little, if at all. They had come to Paris for far more important reasons.
Trotsky, their hero, was living in France at this time, and they were obviously keen to meet him. But they were immediately doomed to disappointment. The political situation in the country was highly unstable. Trotsky had written:
The situation is revolutionary, as revolutionary as it can be, granted the non-revolutionary policies of the working-class parties. More exactly, the situation is pre-revolutionary. In order to bring the situation to its full maturity, there must be an immediate, vigorous, unremitting mobilization of the masses, under the slogan of the conquest of power in the name of socialism. This is the only way through which the pre-revolutionary situation will be changed into a revolutionary situation. (Trotsky, Whither France? 1934)
Under these conditions Trotsky’s presence in France became a very controversial issue. Only a few months earlier, in February 1934, the fascists had attempted to bring down the government. Both the Stalinists and the fascists were waging a furious campaign against Trotsky, who was completely isolated in the mountain village of Domesne, near Grenoble. Given the tight security surrounding his household, it was out of the question for two unknown young comrades from South Africa to visit him.
Before they left South Africa they had been given instructions on how to make contact with the French comrades. They were to walk along a famous boulevard (probably Boulevard du Montparnasse) and wait opposite a certain café. For about an hour they waited on the street with growing impatience. They were becoming anxious (was this the right café?) when finally their contact showed up. They were to meet Trotsky’s eldest son Leon Sedov and his partner Jeanne Martin, Erwin Wolff (who was subsequently murdered by the GPU in Spain), Pierre Frank, Erwin Bauer and Raymond Molinier.
Paris was now the centre of the International Left Opposition, the place where the celebrated Bulletin of the Opposition was produced by Leon Sedov. Ted and Sid stayed there about a fortnight before departing for England. They had a long discussion with Leon Sedov, mainly about the situation in France. Trotsky had suggested that the Trotskyists should enter the Socialist Party (the SFIO). This was known as “the French turn”; although in reality, Trotsky had already proposed something similar for Britain. Molinier, Frank and the others were against entry and later Trotsky broke with them. This was to become a common feature among the so-called Trotskyists, and not only in France.
Leon Sedov was pleased to hear that they were going to Britain. Ted had the impression that he wasn’t very happy with the way things were progressing in Britain and in particular with the leadership of the group, who had only recently commenced work within the Independent Labour Party. His later experience showed him why. “He was a good guy”, recalled Ted, referring to Leon Sedov. “He asked us whether our group was composed of workers, and when we said it was he was delighted.”
This little anecdote is highly significant. In the early days the Left Opposition was plagued with crises and splits, mainly reflecting the unsatisfactory class composition of the organization. The truth is that many of those who came over to the Opposition did not do so because they were convinced Bolshevik-Leninists, but as a reaction against the excesses of Stalinism. Some were demoralised elements, others were tired and worn out, and many were politically disoriented. There were ultra-lefts, anarchists, syndicalists, Bordighists and other deviations.
All these problems were present in a concentrated form in the French Trotskyists. They were mainly petty-bourgeois types. Trotsky was well aware of this problem. “The Old Man had a lot of trouble with them,” Ted said, referring to Trotsky. That fact is well expressed in Trotsky’s book The Crisis in the French Section. This covers the period 1935-36, and therefore, what is written there would apply to the time when Ted met Leon Sedov. Most revealing of all is the transcript of an interview Trotsky gave to Fred Zeller, who was then a leading French Left Young Socialist.
When Fred Zeller reproached Trotsky with the bad conduct of his followers in France, he did not attempt to defend them: “You know, he said, there isn’t much choice. You have to work with the material you have on hand. That is not always convenient.” (Trotsky, “On Organizational Problems”, November 1935, in The Crisis in the French Section, p. 67)
Trotsky insisted that the French Trotskyists must work in the Socialist Party, in great measure as an antidote to the bad social composition of the French group. In general, many of those “revolutionaries” who object in principle to work in the Labour Movement are only expressing the inability of the petty-bourgeois sectarians to approach the proletariat and its organizations. Like Lenin, Trotsky had a very clear and realistic attitude to the mass organizations of the class, and knew how to creatively develop transitional slogans that really corresponded to the concrete conditions. By contrast, the sectarians regard slogans and tactics as a kind of Categorical Imperative, abstractions outside of space and time. Molinier and Frank were expelled within a year, on Trotsky’s insistence, after breaking with the French group.
Another person they met was a man who called himself Etienne. He was working closely with Leon Sedov on the Bulletin of the Opposition. “I did not like the look of Etienne,” Ted recalled. “There was something about him I did not trust.” Ted’s instinct proved to be correct. The man he knew as Etienne turned out to be an agent of Stalin’s GPU whose real name was Mark Zborowski.
Following orders from the GPU, Zborowski had infiltrated the Left Opposition and worked his way into a position at the top of its apparatus. Through his work in publishing the Bulletin of the Opposition, he gained access to secret information that he passed on to Moscow. As a result, the contents of the Bulletin were placed on Stalin’s desk every morning, sometimes before the magazine had even been printed. This gangster later played a key role in the murder of Leon Sedov, which was a serious blow to the Left Opposition.
In December, Ted and Sid crossed the Channel, arriving in a cold and foggy England. They had exchanged the clear blue skies of South Africa for the glowering grey of rainy London. But Ted very quickly adapted to his adopted country and soon became very English indeed. In fact, he was the most English man I have ever known.
The England he found was a country in crisis. True, it had not yet reached the critical point that was reached with Mussolini in Italy or Hitler in Germany. Nor was it about to erupt into a civil war as Spain was on the point of doing. The former workshop of the world had built up a layer of fat, and the Empire gave it a degree of protection against the worst effects of the world crisis of capitalism and prevented an immediate collapse.
All over Europe the brown tide of fascism was advancing. Hitler was consolidating his tyrannical rule. In Austria, the armed workers of Vienna had taken to the streets and were put down. In France, the fascists of the Croix de Feu staged violent demonstrations aimed at overthrowing the Radical government. The Stalinists, still under the influence of the Third Period frenzy, had joined with the fascists in an attempt to oust the “Radical Fascist” Daladier. In October, the workers of Asturias in Spain staged an insurrection to prevent the clerical-fascist CEDA of Gil Robles from entering the government.
On April 8, 1935 in the Welsh spa town of Llandrindod Wells, the Conservative leader Stanley Baldwin addressed the National Council of Evangelical Free Churches. In his speech he defended the government’s White Paper on defence, and urged an increase in the size of the Air Force. Giving voice to that smug sense of superiority that characterised the British ruling class at that time, he said that when he looks at what is happening in Europe. “I sometimes feel that I am living in a madhouse.”
Commenting on Baldwin’s speech, Trotsky wrote:
Baldwin thinks that Europe is a lunatic asylum; England is the only country that has kept her reason: she still has the King, the Commons, the Lords... England has avoided revolution, tyranny, and persecution. As a matter of fact, Baldwin understands exactly nothing about what is taking place before his very eyes. There is a much greater distance between Baldwin and Lenin, as intellectual types, than between the Celtic druids and Baldwin. England is nothing but the last ward of the European madhouse, and quite possibly it will prove to be the ward for particularly violent cases. (The Labour Party and Britain’s Decline, in Trotsky, Writings on Britain, vol. 3, p. 30)
In fact, the world crisis was already hitting Britain hard. There was mass unemployment and hunger marches. The Labour Party had won two elections and formed two governments. The second was a government of crisis. Ramsay MacDonald was Prime Minister in the 1929-31 Labour government. When he was unable to gain support for cuts in unemployment benefit in 1931, he broke away from Labour to form a National Government with the Tories and Liberals.
In 1932, the Independent Labour Party (the ILP), split away from the Labour Party and moved sharply left in the direction of centrism (that is, moving towards a revolutionary phraseology without fully breaking with reformist practice). Trotsky urged the small number of followers he had in Britain to enter the ILP, but with the customary prejudices of sectarianism that infected the Trotskyist movement from the beginning, they wasted time and threw away an opportunity, which the Stalinists were not slow to seize.
At the other extreme of the political spectrum, Mosley’s fascist movement, the British Union of Fascists, closely modelled on the Italian and German versions, was beginning to raise its ugly head. Oswald Mosley was an upper class adventurer who entered British politics as a Tory, switched to Labour, then split to form the New Party, which he transformed into the British Union of Fascists in 1932. Moseley’s Blackshirts had achieved some modest electoral success in the East End of London in the 1937 London Council Election, but their activities provoked strong opposition in the working class. They were also organizing provocative marches through poor Jewish areas in the East End.
The victory of Hitler had sent shock waves through the British Labour Movement. Ted said:
At the TUC Conference there was uproar. The delegates were demanding to know how was it possible for the mighty German labour movement to be smashed without even calling a general strike. Walter Citrine (later Lord Citrine) said: “Comrades! If our German brothers had fought it would have meant civil war. The streets would have been running with blood”. In the event there was terrible bloodshed. Millions perished in the concentration camps, and Hitler’s victory paved the way for the Second World War in which 55 million people lost their lives.
Ted and the other comrades threw themselves into the growing anti-fascist movement. They were advocating Trotsky’s policy of the united front of workers’ organizations against fascism. That culminated in the celebrated Battle of Cable Street on Sunday, October 4, 1936, when 100,000 workers mobilised to stop the Blackshirts from staging a march in the East End. There is a photograph of Ted on a barricade in Long Lane, Bermondsey, in 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. This activity enabled the comrades to make contact with the rank and file of the Communist Parry and especially the Young Communist League, which became a fruitful ground for recruitment.
While Ted was still getting on his feet in London, he received a lacerating personal blow. Tragic news came from South Africa. His mother, who suffered from gallstones, had gone for an operation to remove them. It was a routine operation and should have been straightforward, but her usual doctor was unavailable and she was operated on by a stand-in surgeon. Unbeknown to them, the man had a drinking problem. When Ted’s sister Rae visited her mother in hospital she noticed that blood was seeping through the blankets. During the operation, he had severed a major artery and her life was draining away. She bled to death a few days later.
Rae explained how the family agonised over who would contact Ted and how they could break the news of the tragedy. Eventually, it was Rae herself who contacted her brother. It must have been a completely shattering experience. Ted loved his mother deeply and yet he had left her without saying goodbye. He was tortured by regrets and feelings of guilt, but what could he do? Separated by thousands of miles and with no money, he was in no position to return to South Africa. To make matters worse, the family believed the surgeon was drunk at the time of the operation. They contemplated taking legal action. “But what was the point?” said Ted bitterly. “Nothing could bring our mother back.”
The entire history of the international Marxist movement provides ample proof of the demoralizing effects of exile on revolutionaries. Marx and Engels broke off all relations with the German exile groups in London after the defeat of the revolutions of 1848-49, preferring to consolidate their links with the British Chartists and trade unionists. Lenin and Trotsky frequently criticised the poisonous atmosphere in exile circles that sink into a sordid swamp of gossip, character assassination and petty intrigues.
In this case, however, the situation was very different. The young South Africans who had recently arrived in London were not the shattered and demoralized flotsam and jetsam of a defeated revolution, but fresh and enthusiastic revolutionaries, eager to plunge into the work. They had taken a conscious decision to leave their homeland, not under any external compulsion, but in search of broader and more fruitful avenues for revolutionary work.
By contrast, the “native” Trotskyist groups in Britain had all the typical features of exiles. They were in fact exiles in their own land. Although geographically they were based in Britain, they might as well have been on the planet Mars. The first Trotskyist groups in Britain were, like the French, dominated by petty-bourgeois elements, organically incapable of breaking out of the small circle mentality and finding a road to the working class. They were sick with the disease of sectarianism, which has plagued the movement from its inception and which Trotsky criticized many times:
Though he may swear by Marxism in every sentence, the sectarian is the direct negation of dialectical materialism, which takes experience as its point of departure and always returns to it. A sectarian does not understand the dialectical interaction between a finished program and a living (that is to say, imperfect and unfinished) mass struggle. The sectarian’s method of thinking is that of a rationalist, a formalist and an enlightener. During a certain stage of development rationalism is progressive, being directed critically against blind beliefs and superstitions (the eighteenth century!) The progressive stage of rationalism is repeated in every great emancipatory movement. But rationalism (abstract propagandism) becomes a reactionary factor the moment it is directed against the dialectic. Sectarianism is hostile to dialectics (not in words but in action) in the sense that it turns its back upon the actual development of the working class.
The sectarian lives in a sphere of ready-made formulas. As a rule, life passes him by without noticing him; but now and then he receives in passing such a fillip as makes him turn 180 degrees around his axis, and often makes him continue on his straight path, only... in the opposite direction. Discord with reality engenders in the sectarian the need to constantly render his formulas more precise. This goes under the name of “discussion”. To a Marxist, discussion is an important but functional instrument in the class struggle. To the sectarian discussion is a goal in itself. However, the more he discusses, the more actual tasks escape him. He is like a man who satisfies his thirst with salt water: the more he drinks, the thirstier he becomes. Hence the constant irritability of the sectarian. Who slipped him the salt? Surely, the “capitulators” of the International Secretariat. The sectarian sees an enemy in everyone who attempts to explain to him that an active participation in the workers’ movement demands a constant study of objective conditions, and not haughty bulldozing from the sectarian rostrum. For analysis of reality the sectarian substitutes intrigue, gossip and hysteria.
These remarks from his 1934 article Centrism, sectarianism and the Fourth International could have been written with the British Trotskyists in mind.
Tactics are a concrete question. Lenin and Trotsky were always extremely flexible on organizational and tactical questions. At one point (1933), Trotsky even suggested the setting up of an International including centrist parties (the German SAP, Centrist groups in Holland, and even the ILP), together with the International Left Opposition. This initiative did not succeed because the centrist leaders, fearing the ideas of the International Left Opposition, rejected it. But it shows the flexibility Trotsky always displayed on such questions.
Ted described the situation thus:
There was a small group called The Red Flag which was Groves, Wicks, Sara and Dewar. They had been four district members of the Communist Party and were expelled for standing for a United Front against Hitler in Germany. The ILP had split from the Labour Party for the wrong reasons, the wrong method, the wrong policy and at the wrong time, as Trotsky said.
Trotsky said that they should go in to the ILP and Groves, Wicks and the others, being haughty gentlemen, said “no way”. Trotsky had an instinct on this question. The ILP was a centrist party, with about a 100,000 members at that time, mostly workers, and Trotsky suggested that they could win big sections of the ILP and perhaps even a majority to Marxism, but they rejected it and it caused a split and only the younger elements went into the ILP. Within two years they had not only not entered the ILP, but they had actually collapsed into the Labour Party. That is what happened to Groves, Wicks and so on, with all their profession of the principle of the revolutionary party and so on that they claim. Anyhow that was their line. (Sam Bornstein, Interview with Ted Grant)
Thus, only a small group of fifteen or twenty people finally went into the ILP. Unfortunately, they were young people, mostly green and very inexperienced. And they had entered the ILP very late, when it was already losing ground. They were known as the Marxist Group. When they finally arrived in London, Sid Frost and Ted found accommodation in Kings Cross, and began to work closely together in the Marxist Group. They both joined the Holborn branch of the ILP, and carried on revolutionary work within its ranks. Ted delivered a speech on the “Workers’ Movements in South Africa” in the spring of the following year.
They produced a whole series of documents, but the ILP was very undemocratic and refused to allow factions, so they had to act in a semi-clandestine fashion, although everybody knew what was happening. They made certain gains, growing to perhaps forty or fifty members after a couple of years. Perhaps their biggest success was winning CLR James, who was a famous cricketer from the West Indies, in 1935.
In October 1935, when Mussolini invaded Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), a controversy broke out inside the ILP. By this time, the Stalinists had dropped their Third Period ultra-leftism and were moving rightwards in the direction of popular frontism. As a result, the Comintern supported the policy of the League of Nations in advocating sanctions against fascist Italy to halt its invasion of Abyssinia. The Labour Party had the same line.
The ILP opposed the League sanctions, and instead advocated a policy of workers’ sanctions against Italy. That was a better position, but the ILP leadership spoiled it with muddle headed centrist arguments, as Ted recalled, “[John] McGovern made a speech in which he said he was against both dictators, Haile Selassie and Mussolini. Our position was that as Abyssinia was a colonial country we supported them. There were no differences in our Tendency over that.” (Ibid.)
Trotsky sharply criticised the ILP leadership for failing to distinguish between a poor oppressed colony and an imperialist nation. He was even more scathing about the ILP’s electoral policy. In the General Election of 1935, the ILP was demanding that support be given only to those Labour Party candidates who opposed sanctions. However, this idea was not fully accepted by the leadership of the Marxist group, which had a confused position on this question.
Millions of Labour voters still had illusions in Atlee and Morrison and it was necessary to put them to the test. In practice, the ILP policy amounted to a partial boycott of Parliament. But it is ABC that you do not boycott parliament unless you are in a position to overthrow it. Trotsky wrote, “The ILP’s misfortune is that it doesn’t have a truly Marxist programme. That too is why its best activities, such as sanctions against British imperialism, are always influenced by pacifist and centrist mixtures”. (Trotsky, In the Middle of the Road, The ILP and the Fourth International, September 1933).
Ted pointed out that,
Trotsky had suggested that the ILP should put up a half a dozen candidates, and in all other constituencies they should support Labour candidates, irrespective of whether they were for or against sanctions. Well, there was almost a split [in the Group]. But when Trotsky came down firmly on the side that said we vote for Labour candidates irrespective of whether they were for or against sanctions, the group accepted that position once it was explained (...). (Sam Bornstein, Interview with Ted Grant)
However, the British Trotskyists had wasted time and the possibilities for revolutionary work in the ILP were waning rapidly. Trotsky came to the conclusion that there was nothing more to be gained by working in the ILP, which was in steep decline. As the party in opposition, the Labour Party swung sharply to the left and made big gains, while the right-wing split-off led by Ramsay MacDonald was wiped out.
Trotsky saw that there were clearly more favourable opportunities opening up within the Labour Party, especially in the Labour League of Youth. “Since the ILP youth seem to be few and scattered, while the Labour Youth is the mass youth organisation,” he wrote, “I would say: Do not only build fractions—seek to enter. The British section will recruit its first cadres from the thirty thousand young workers in the Labour League of Youth.” (Leon Trotsky, Writings, 1935-36, p. 203).
From then on, Ted helped to develop the Bolshevik-Leninist Group within the Labour Party, which became known publicly as the Militant Group, after the name of its paper.
In the middle of 1937, they were joined by Ralph Lee and a small number of other comrades, recently arrived from South Africa. They were all shocked at the poor state of Trotskyism in Britain, which a despairing Ted described as “your typical Bloomsbury bohemians”.
The campaign against Lee
The precursor of what then became the main British Trotskyist organisation, the Workers’ International League, and later the Revolutionary Communist Party, was known as the Paddington Group, the most active branch of the Militant Group. Although it had just eight members, it was, in reality, the beginnings of genuine Trotskyism in Britain. The Paddington Group was far more audacious than any of its other branches. Despite the smallness of its numbers, the group was very active, selling papers in Hyde Park Corner and propagandising the ideas of Trotsky.
Nowadays, Hyde Park Corner is dominated by religious fanatics and assorted cranks spouting nonsense from the top of a ladder. But in the 1930s, it was a vibrant place of political debate where the Left was well represented, and there were passionate discussions on the burning political issues of the day. Many working class families from the provinces, coming down to London for the day, would visit Hyde Park and stop for a while to listen to the speeches. There was not much money around and it was a free source of entertainment. Ted said they made a lot of contacts like that.
There was one contact, however, that they must have regretted ever meeting. Gerry Healy was a member of a Stalinist gang who went to Hyde Park to pick arguments with, provoke and physically assault Trotskyist speakers. One victim of his provocations was Jock Haston, who was then a member of the Militant Group. In the course of their repeated arguments, in which it seems they even came to blows, Haston succeeded in winning Healy over to Trotskyism. That was in 1937.
But there were problems inside the Militant Group. The energy and resourcefulness of the young South Africans was in direct contradiction to the amateurism and passivity of the leaders of the group. Ted was staying with Haston at the time. He recalled that, out of 800 copies of the Militant sold, 500 were sold by the Paddington group. “We were very dynamic,” he said, “and the leaders thought that Haston, Lee and myself might take over the leadership.”
In common with all the other British Trotskyists, the Harber group had been educated in the narrow spirit of a small circle. Lacking a real political life of their own, such groups live in a state of constant hysteria, in which the rumour mongers and purveyors of gossip are the heroes of the hour. The Militant Group was just such an outfit.
Gossip is a poisonous thing that corrodes the organization and destroys all trust between comrades, but it is the very lifeblood of small groups with an unhealthy class composition that are divorced from the real life of the workers and the labour movement. The most disgusting rumours about Ralph Lee, originating from the South African Stalinists, were being circulated. It was insinuated that Ralph Lee had stolen money from the Laundry Workers’ Union during the strike. In fact, the opposite was the case. Ralph and Millie had put a lot of their own money into the union. But to the slanderers and gossipers the truth was what mattered least of all.
The real reason for the campaign against Ralph, as Ted suspected, was because the leaders of the Marxist Group feared the energy and dedication of the South African newcomers, which cruelly exposed their own inertia and amateurism. It was they who put these dirty allegations into circulation. This behaviour poisoned relations between the two groups and inevitably led to a split in December 1937.
The rumours were started by Charlie Van Gelderen. This story was completely false, but it suited the Militant leaders, who used it to turn people against the Paddington Group. In the election for the Executive that took place at one of the monthly meetings of the Militant Group the Paddington comrades were surprised when they didn’t get any votes. Since they were by far the most active and successful branch, they were absolutely staggered when they were so heavily defeated. Only later did they discover the cause.
The leaders had gone around spreading the poisonous story about Ralph Lee. If they had really believed it, they should have confronted him with it, but they never did, preferring to repeat this dirty story to the whole group. The only ones who knew nothing about it were the Paddington comrades. They only found out about it by accident, although they could see that something was wrong.
At the next meeting, they raised the question forcibly, demanding another election, but were voted down. There was a gasp. Somebody said the leaders were rotten, but what could they do? Furious at this conduct, Haston walked out, and the others walked out in solidarity with him. The moment they walked out of the door, Harber moved their expulsion.
Expelled from the Militant Group, they began to meet to discuss what was to be done. Ted recalled:
We met late into the night for many nights. We discussed and discussed, and finally came to the conclusion that it was a waste of time to stay in this petty bourgeois group. The atmosphere had been poisoned and it would be an absolute nightmare. We would eventually get the leadership of the group, but it wouldn’t be worth it. So we decided to launch the WIL. We decided then something we have carried out ever since in practise: to turn our backs on the sects. They were a waste of time, mostly rubbish. We would build our movement from workers. (Sam Bornstein, Interview with Ted Grant)
The first issue of Workers’ International News came out in January 1938. They were only a handful, but what they lacked in numbers and resources they made up for with sheer youthful élan and revolutionary enthusiasm. In the early days of 1938, some recruits were won from the ILP Guild of Youth. Others were recruited at Hyde Park. Ted said:
We had eight members. We were active; we sold in Hyde Park, Piccadilly and Tottenham Court Road. Where there were strikes, we intervened and won people that way, we won workers. We were the only workers’ group as you know. We wanted workers; we did not want the rubbish that was in the other groups again.
Most of the other people won weren’t in the Labour Party either. We won people from the unions, we won some at Hyde Park, we won some from nothing at all, fresh workers, from strikes and so on. I don’t think we won one member from the Labour Party at that time. That was the paradox, but our orientation was correct. (Ibid.)
The Moscow Trials
In the summer of 1936, the world was stunned by news of trial of the “Trotsky-Zinoviev Centre”. The defendants, who were accused of intending to kill the leaders of the party and government, included leading Old Bolsheviks such as Zinoviev, Kamenev, Smirnov and others. They confessed to the most heinous crimes against the Revolution and the USSR, pouring dirt on their own heads in the process.
Lenin’s old comrades were accused of having committed the most grotesque crimes against the Revolution. Usually, they would be accused of being agents of Hitler and the Mikado. In the same way, during the Thermidorian reaction in France, the Jacobins were accused of being agents of England. The man who acted as the accuser of these famous old revolutionaries and comrades of Lenin was State Prosecutor Andei Vyshinsky, the former Menshevik and bitter opponent of Lenin and the October Revolution. This was the man who described these Old Bolsheviks as, “These mad dogs of capitalism, [who] have tried to tear to pieces the very best of the best people of our Soviet land”.
The only “evidence” produced was the confessions of the accused themselves. They confessed to terrorism, wrecking and working for Hitler. Zinoviev, in a lifeless voice, claimed he was the political inspirer of the murder of Kirov. Trotsky, who was effectively under house arrest in Norway, at first, could not understand why they had confessed to such monstrous lies. But it soon became clear that these confessions were extracted under torture, or by blackmail and tricks.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the archives of the GPU and the CPSU have become available for inspection. There is not a shred of evidence for the existence of any “Trotsky-Zinoviev Centre”, nor for any terrorist acts organised by the Opposition against Stalin. Ever since Khrushchev’s infamous secret speech to the CPSU 20th Congress in 1956, everybody knows that it was Stalin who was behind the murder of Kirov in December 1934.
The purpose of this first trial was to prepare the ground for other, more sweeping trials. Stalin’s aims were simple: to completely destroy all those who could become a rallying point for the discontent of the masses. They even went as far as arresting and murdering thousands of people who had been totally loyal to Stalin, whose sole crime was their direct link to the experience of the October revolution. The trial of the 17, the so-called “Anti-Soviet Trotskyist Centre” (Radek, Pyatakov, Sokolnikov, etc.) followed in January 1937.
Then there was the secret trial of the army officers (Tukhachevsky, Yakir and others). This decimated the Red Army and had catastrophic consequences when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. The monstrous witch hunt culminated with the trial of the 21 (Bukharin, Rykov, Rakovsky, etc.). It was dangerous to be friend, neighbour, father or son of any of those arrested. In the concentration camps there were to be found whole families, including the children. Trotsky’s own children, grandchildren and relatives all fell victim to Stalin’s infernal machine.
The main defendant was not present at the trials. Leon Trotsky, after having been denied the right to asylum by all the countries of Europe, finally found refuge in Mexico, where he was welcomed by its head of state, the progressive anti-imperialist general Lázaro Cardenas. From these distant shores, Trotsky watched as the never-ending chain of horrors unfolded. He described the notorious Moscow Trials as “a unilateral civil war against the Bolshevik Party”.
Trotsky took the initiative in setting up the Dewey Commission to investigate all the charges against him. He organised an international protest campaign against the Moscow trials. The British Trotskyists reacted energetically to this appeal. They published articles and turned up at meetings of the YCL and Communist Party to denounce the Moscow trials and put the Stalinists on the spot. They obtained the support of Labour Lefts, notably Sydney Silverman, whose sons Roger and Julian joined our Tendency in the 1960s.
After the Second World War, the RCP, in collaboration with Trotsky’s widow, Natalia Sedova, tried to appeal to the Nuremberg Trials for War Crimes. They issued a leaflet that contained photos of all of Lenin’s Central Committee, each with a caption “shot”, “committed suicide”, “disappeared” or “dead”. In the centre was a photo of the man who organized the extermination of Lenin’s Party with the caption: “Stalin, the executioner, alone remains”. As could be expected, the Nuremberg judges paid no attention.
How not to unify
Shortly before the war, the Workers’ International League obtained its first printing machine. More accurately, they got hold of an ancient wreck, which Lee, who was very skilful, managed to get to work. They published a theoretical magazine called Workers’ International News and also a paper called Youth for Socialism. They also produced a small pamphlet of Trotsky’s article The Lessons of Spain, with an introduction that Ted wrote in collaboration with Ralph Lee.
In August 1938, shortly before the Founding Conference of the Fourth International, James P. Cannon of the US Socialist Workers’ Party came to London with the aim of uniting the different groups of British Trotskyists in a single organization. Because of their special relationship with Trotsky, the leaders of the SWP thought they had a privileged position in the international Trotskyist movement. This was particularly the case with Cannon, who took it for granted that the British Trotskyists would follow his lead in all things.
Ted recalled their first meeting with Cannon. By then they had thirty members, all workers. When they told Cannon he expressed disbelief. He had been told by the other groups that we had ten or at the most fifteen. So they invited him to a meeting in Haston’s house where he could speak to the members. None of the other groups were able to do this, for the simple reason that they had next to no members to whom to speak. Ted estimated that the largest was CLR James’ group, which had fourteen or fifteen people. The comrades argued that unity was only possible on the basis of an agreed tactic. The idea that it was possible to cobble together a unified group with two tactics was unprincipled. It wouldn’t work. There had to be one tactic, with the minority having the right to win over the majority.
Cannon was unconvinced, but agreed to come to a meeting. He came, at half past seven on the dot. There were ten people there, and Cannon said: “let’s start”. The comrades replied: “give the others a chance to get here, just another few minutes.” By twenty to eight there were twenty people, and at a quarter to eight there were thirty people in the room. They did not reach agreement, but Cannon tried to persuade them to unify with the other groups. They told him that he would unite three groups into ten. He then asked if they would come to the Unity Conference and they agreed to come and put their case.
The members of the WIL were understandably cautious. After their recent experience with the Militant group, they were unsure as to how any meaningful unity could be achieved. But they dutifully went along to the conference, all thirty of them, which was almost a majority. They were, of course, fully in favour of the Fourth International and held Cannon in high esteem, but when they turned up at the Conference they were utterly scandalized at what they saw. The full story can be found in The History of British Trotskyism.
Ralph Lee had a biting wit. When he saw what was happening, with doors opening and closing and people going round and round, canvassing and lobbying as the different participants engaged in horse-trading and back-room deals, he likened it to a French bedroom farce. The only people who were neither lobbied nor consulted were the members of the WIL.
At bottom, the problem was that it is impossible to unite groups with radically different policies, tactics and orientation. The comrades of the WIL tried to point this out to Cannon, but he was unimpressed. He demanded unity and that was all there was to be said. In the end, the WIL refused to join, arguing that the unification agreement, which allowed those Trotskyists opposed to entry to engage in open work, was bound to fail.
The manoeuvring was so blatant that in the end even CLR James was beginning to have second thoughts. According to Ted, the only way that Cannon could get him to agree to the so-called fusion was to promise him behind the scenes that he would take him to America. Observing these shenanigans, Lee warned Cannon: “You are going to tie their tails together like Kilkenny cats and they will tear each other to bits.”
Cannon’s reply was entirely in character. He said: “We crush splitters like beetles.” Henry Sara, who was in the chair, said to Lee “you can’t talk to a guest like that”. Ted got up and protested that “even if comrade Trotsky were present, we would have the right to put forward any position we like. That is the democracy within our movement no matter who is here.”
On such a basis no viable unification could be arrived at. Ralph Lee’s warning was confirmed within one week. Maitland, who was there for the RSP, was repudiated by his own group and they rejected unification. Other splits soon followed. Within six weeks the whole thing was already a shambles. Cannon was not pleased. He was used to getting all his own way. He blamed the WIL for his problems. The resulting resentment he felt towards the “awkward squad” of Lee, Haston and Grant lasted for years and had very negative consequences.
At the Unity Conference, Cannon asked Ted and Jock Haston to go and see him. He asked them if they would send a delegate to the founding conference of the Fourth International and ask for sympathetic affiliation. They answered that they would apply for sympathetic affiliation, although they might not be able to raise the funds. Cannon replied: “Do what you can. If not, send a letter.” As they did not have sufficient funds to travel to the conference, they drew up a letter. They discussed it and agreed on a text expressing support for the Fourth International and asking for acceptance as a sympathising section, which was dictated to Millie Lee, the only one who could type.
In 1938, the founding conference of the Fourth International recognised the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL), which was what emerged from the “unity conference”, as the official British section. The French delegate moved that the WIL should be accepted as a sympathetic section. It would almost certainly have been accepted, but for the intervention of Cannon, who took his revenge on the comrades in the most petty and spiteful way.
The letter of the WIL was not read out. Instead, Cannon delivered a diatribe against the WIL for having split, allegedly over mere personal grievances. This was entirely false, as Cannon knew very well. In conclusion, Cannon advocated recognition of the RSL. This proposal was naturally accepted since the delegates had not been given the correct information. On the basis of a whole series of lies, the WIL’s request for sympathetic affiliation was rejected.
As a result of these manoeuvres, the WIL was unjustly censured. “All purely national groupings”, the official statement read, “all those who reject international organisation, control and discipline, are in their essence reactionary.” When Cannon wrote a report for Trotsky about the Fourth International’s founding conference, he gave a dishonest and distorted version of his visit to Britain and the fusion conference and gives the following assessment of the WIL:
The Militant group in the past six months had suffered from an unfortunate split led by Lee which resulted in the creation of another group without any principled grounds for the split (the Workers’ International News). This could only introduce confusion and demoralization—the more so since both groups work exclusively in the Labour Party. At the same time, the Liverpool branch had withdrawn from the Militant group on opportunistic lines. (…)
In the London conference, a week later, I had their support [the Edinburgh group] from the start for a general unification. This undoubtedly exerted considerable pressure on the [CLR] James group.
The political resolution accepted as a basis for unification provided that the main emphasis should be placed on work in the Labour Party without making Labour Party membership compulsory upon those comrades who have not been members up till now. This at least provides a definite orientation for the united group. It was the maximum possible. It seems to me that the most important thing, if we could at least get a correct orientation, was to bring all the comrades together and get them in the habit of functioning in one organization which would be firmly affiliated to the Fourth International. We carried on a strong crusade against irresponsible splits and made it clear that the international conference would do away with the possibility of a multiplicity of groups, and recognize only one section in each country. (…)
The Lee group consists of about thirty, mostly youngsters, who have been deeply poisoned with personal antagonism to the leadership of the Militant group. They attempted to obstruct the unification but were pounded mercilessly at the unification conference, and their ranks were badly shaken. Their attitude was condemned by the international conference.
Shachtman, during his visit to England, also had a session with this group. His opinion is the same as mine—that they will have to submit to the international decision and come into the united British section or suffer a split. It is only necessary for the British section to take a firm and resolute stand in regard to this group, and in no case to acknowledge its legitimacy. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. The English comrades, alas, are gentlemen. They are not accustomed to our “brutal” (i.e. Bolshevik) treatment of groups who play with splits. (James P. Cannon, Impressions of the Founding Conference, October 12, 1938, in Joseph Hansen, James P. Cannon—The Internationalist, July 1980)
In the last sentence of this tendentious and one-sided report we see the essence of Cannon’s brand of “Bolshevism”. This was the first example of Cannon’s manoeuvres against the British comrades. It was not to be the last. Soon after, Max Shachtman visited London to justify what they had done. Ted recalled that he got a hot reception:
It was Shachtman who got the backlash of that when he came to speak at a meeting [in London]. We laid into him like hell. At the end he tried to justify it by saying it was just a manoeuvre. He tried to back Cannon, although he was already in disagreement with him (...) and the outline of the split was already there. You have got to give him [credit for] that. All he could say was that it was a manoeuvre. He was aghast, but he repeated that it was a good manoeuvre, it was for the best.
(...) The important thing to remember is that Trotsky never attacked the WIL in the whole of his writings. He was waiting to see what was going to happen. He knew [how] Cannon and those people behaved. He had experience of them, and therefore Trotsky never attacked us. (...) He wrote praising us, praising our getting a press, praising the introduction that Lee and I wrote to the pamphlet Lessons of Spain. (Sam Bornstein, Interview with Ted Grant)
Ted remembered their joy when they received a letter from Trotsky congratulating them on publishing this pamphlet, in which he emphasized how important it was for a revolutionary organization to have its own printing press, independent of capitalist establishments. Somehow, over the years, this letter went missing and, as far as I know, has never been found, a fact that Ted bitterly regretted. Ted thought that Haston had given all this material to Healy after the RCP and Healy’s group fused in 1949.
Everything indicates that Trotsky was following the work of the WIL with interest, and was receiving regular material from them. Although formally outside the International, Ted and the others still continued to regard themselves as part of it. “We saw ourselves as the bastard child of the International”, he explained. They were confident that sooner or later they would be recognized as the rightful British section. History proved them right. As we have seen, the “unified” group started to break up as soon as the conference was over.
The WIL, however, continued to make steady progress, even taking chunks out of the RSL. They won over the RSL Liverpool and Leeds groups, bringing over the entire Deane family in Liverpool in the process.
In a small group, personal relationships can play a disproportionate role. Millie Lee was a very pretty girl with auburn hair and a bubbly, exuberant character. She was completely dedicated to the cause and had good organizational skills, although she was not a profound thinker. Jock Haston was a handsome seafarer with a strong Scottish accent, enthusiastic, intelligent, articulate and bold. For the second time in her young life, Millie was swept off her feet. Maybe her relationship with Ralph Lee was already on the rocks, but in any case, she left him and went to live with Haston. They stayed together until his death. It must have had a very bad effect on Ralph and may well have played a role in his decision to return to South Africa.
The reasons for this decision are in fact unclear to me. They may have been personal (the breakdown of his marriage), or for health reasons (the British climate was causing him problems), or perhaps he was worn out by the constant attacks made on his person. Probably it was a mixture of all these things. Either way, it was a fateful decision. In 1940, Ralph Lee went back to South Africa.
On returning to South Africa, Lee attempted to resume his revolutionary work. Apparently, before leaving, he had shifted towards Shachtman’s position that Russia was not a deformed workers’ state, but rather, that it was a new form of society called “bureaucratic collectivism”. But he never raised this publicly, and Ted was adamant that he was never a Shachtmanite.
Lee later established the South African WIL, which was engaged in a number of struggles, but conditions were even more difficult than pre-war, and they all ended in defeat. The organization soon collapsed. Already worn out by his bad experience in Britain, Ralph was now mentally and physically exhausted, ill and penniless. Contrary to the poisonous gossip spread by Harber and co., he had spent all his money on the movement and was now completely broke and suffering considerable hardship. All this undermined his health and morale. In the Ted Grant archive there is a handwritten letter to Ted. It bears the signature of Ralph Lee. It is short but deeply moving. I reproduce it in full:
I got your letter sent per that red-haired girl—I have forgotten her name. It was so long ago that I suppose you have forgotten it. I could not work up enough energy at the time to reply. But apologies are, I think, unnecessary between you and me.
I have been corresponding recently with MGP [Murray Gow Purdy]. I want you now, by return of post, to tell me how he stands with you, politically and personally. Answer right away, by air letter.
Tell me also about yourself. Are you getting enough to eat? Are you having any fun?
As for myself, I have been this many and many a year, in Swift’s phrase, “like a poisoned rat in a hole, dying of rage.” Very sad, is it not?
This letter is dated Johannesburg on July 15, 1948. It shows the close personal relationship between the two men, which continued in spite of Ralph’s long struggle with depression, the physical separation, and long periods of silence. It also casts a tragic light on Ralph’s state of mind. We know nothing of what happened to Ralph Lee afterwards. The official records show that he died in South Africa in 1965. Ted believed he had committed suicide long before then.