This is the third chapter of the biography of Ted Grant, written by his friend and collaborator for more than 50 years, Alan Woods. It describes the struggle to build the fources of Trotskyism in Britain during the Second World War. 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.
There is only one way of avoiding the war—that is the overthrow of this society. However, as we are too weak for this task, the war is inevitable. (Trotsky, Some Questions on American Problems, 1940)
The murder of Trotsky
As the beat of war drums grew ever-louder in Europe, another bloody drama was being played out in Mexico. Stalin regretted that he had committed the serious error of exiling the leader of the Opposition in 1927. Subsequently, in 1937, he had issued the order for the assassination of Trotsky, and was discontented that it had not yet been carried out. He demanded that the man he most feared should be eliminated without delay.
Pavel Sudoplatov was the man charged by Stalin himself with the murder of Trotsky. In his memoirs, he describes how Stalin saw the Trotskyist movement as a serious danger. He also understood that without Trotsky, the movement would be helpless. At a secret meeting in the Kremlin, Stalin told Sudoplatov and Beria, the boss of the NKVD:
There are no important political figures in the Trotskyite movement except Trotsky himself. If Trotsky is finished the threat will be eliminated. (Pavel Sudoplatov, Special Tasks, the Memoirs of an Unwanted Witness—a Soviet Spymaster, p. 67)
The first attempt, in May 1940, was a bungled affair. An armed gang led by the Mexican painter and Stalinist, David Alfaro Siqueiros, attacked Trotsky’s house in Coyoacan in the middle of the night. The bedrooms were sprayed with machine gun bullets, but miraculously nobody was killed. The young Esteban Volkov (Seva) was wounded in the foot. Esteban told me he thought that the gunmen were nervous and did not even put the lights on. They fired into the dark and failed to hit their intended target. “Perhaps they did not want to see the faces of their victims”, he said.
After the attack, the guards began to strengthen the perimeter defences. Esteban explained that Trotsky was sceptical about the attempts to “fortify” the house against attack: “The next attack will be completely different”, he said, which it was.
On August 20, 1940, a man with a raincoat over his arm entered the Trotsky household in Coyoacán. He was greeted as an old friend by the young guards who ushered him into the room where Leon Trotsky was waiting to correct an article he said he had written.
The man known as Jacson (Ramón Mercader) stood behind the old man as he was reading the manuscript. Silently, from underneath his gabardine, he produced an ice pick. Suddenly, the air was rent by a piercing scream. The guards rushed in—too late! Despite putting up a superhuman struggle, Trotsky had been mortally wounded. His last recorded words were: “I am confident of the victory of the Fourth International. Go forward!”
Many years later Ted Grant remembered the day the news of Trotsky’s murder came over the radio, as he lay in bed in a London hospital: “One can’t imagine the fury, anger and frustration felt by all the comrades throughout the world. It was the second time they had tried to assassinate him; this time they succeeded”.
In 1990, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassination, Ted wrote:
The events of the war at that time were so stupendous that Trotsky’s death didn’t have the impact it would have had in peacetime. That is why Stalin calculated on murdering Trotsky at that time. He thought it wouldn’t be noticed in the general turmoil of the war. But it made an enormous impact on us and made us even more determined to carry on Trotsky’s work, as we have done in Britain and internationally in the succeeding years. (...)
Our immediate response was to launch a campaign to expose the Stalinists’ crimes. The news of the assassination was presented by J.R. Campbell in the Communist Party’s Daily Worker of those days in an absolutely scandalous way, as if one of Trotsky’s followers had murdered him and Stalin and the bureaucracy had nothing to do with it. We exposed this lie.
At the time I was involved in the Workers’ International League, building up the struggle against the imperialist war. We were campaigning for a Labour government to come to power and then, if necessary, wage a revolutionary war against Hitler, after having nationalised the economy.
Without Trotsky we would have been blind. He was in many ways even greater than Lenin, in the theoretical work he did between 1923 and 1940 to deepen and develop the ideas of Marxism and Leninism. His analysis of the events in Spain, particularly the 1931-37 revolution, France, Britain at the time of the general strike, China in 1925-27, and Germany in the struggle against Hitler, armed his followers for the struggles that lay ahead.
Above all; without Trotsky we would not have had an analysis of Stalinism. His criticisms of the Communist International were shown over and over again to be correct in the light of events. (Militant, August 17, 1990)
The British comrades were bitterly critical of the American Socialist Workers’ Party for not having guarded Trotsky better but didn’t say anything publicly. Ted told me the comrades were stunned and heartbroken by the news. “We were furious at the SWP and the guards who were supposed to be protecting the Old Man”, he said. “How was it possible for a man dressed in a raincoat in the summer to be left alone with Trotsky?”
The SWP tried to make all kinds of excuses. They said that the Old Man did not like to have a guard present when he was in a political discussion with someone. Ted indignantly brushed this aside: “Comrade Trotsky was a disciplined Bolshevik. If the guards had insisted that they were responsible for his protection and had to be present, he would have accepted it.”
Many years later, Gerry Healy, who had for years been a stooge of Cannon and the Americans, accused Joseph Hansen of being an agent of Stalin’s GPU. He launched a noisy campaign and invited us to participate. Ted refused. He did not believe the accusation, although he did consider the Americans to be guilty of a grave dereliction of duty.
I discussed this several times with Trotsky’s grandson, Esteban Volkov. Although he personally had warm memories of the American guards, he admitted that they lacked any professionalism: “They were not guards at all but only young kids”, he said. He gave me one example. Trotsky found that the young American guard Robert Sheldon Harte had left the door open, and sharply rebuked him: “Harte, if the GPU get through that door, you could be killed.” His words were prophetic. After the raid on Trotsky’s house in May 1940, Harte was kidnapped and murdered. Although Trotsky refused to believe it, he turned out to be a Stalinist agent, who was probably murdered because he had had second thoughts after the attack.
Esteban pointed out that even if Mercader had failed in his attempt, Stalin would have found other means to kill his grandfather: “They could have dropped a bomb on the house or poisoned the water system and killed us all.”
But such arguments made little impression on Ted, who replied: “Even if he had been given another year to write, just think what a contribution he could have made!” Ted considered that the best works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky were written towards the end of their lives, because these works were the product of their most mature understanding and experience:
We felt a burning regret, because perhaps Trotsky’s best work was done in the last year of his life. His book, In Defence of Marxism, remains correct to this day in its analysis of the Soviet Union and the processes of Stalinism.
He showed that the bureaucracy was not a new class or new formation but an aberration from socialism which could not bring socialism. His marvellous book on Stalin was also written at that time, though it was only published in 1945. Stalin exerted pressure on the governments of the United States, Britain and other countries to prevent the publication of Trotsky’s work until after the end of the war. These works gave a sound theoretical foundation to the movement. If he had lived—for another five years, turning out material of that sort, it would have been an enormous plus for the development of the workers’ movement.
He would have supported our analysis of these events—that there would be a consolidation of capitalism, in the industrialised countries at least, and a consolidation of Stalinism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union for a temporary period, a period which has now passed.
If Trotsky had lived on into the post-war period it would not have made a fundamental difference to the course of events—the victory of Stalinism on the one hand and the revival of capitalism on the other. This was due to the policies of Stalinism and reformism which prevented the carrying through of the revolution, which Trotsky had looked forward to.
In France, Britain, Germany and other countries if the so-called Communist Parties had been revolutionary parties they could have carried through the revolution on the European continent and solved the problems of the working class nationally and internationally once and for all.
But had Trotsky lived on he would have armed the workers better. There would not have been the absolute disasters perpetrated by those who claimed to be supporters of Trotsky but in reality completely distorted his ideas. And there would not have been so many losses from the movement at that time and later if Trotsky had been there to direct and guide it. (Militant, August 17, 1990)
The assassination of Trotsky in August 1940 dealt a devastating blow to the young and untested forces of the Fourth International. Stalin certainly knew what he was doing when he murdered Trotsky. When he gave the order for the second attack, Sudoplatov pointed out that this would mean putting in danger the extensive network of Stalinist agents who had infiltrated the Trotskyist movement worldwide. Stalin answered:
The elimination of Trotsky will mean the total collapse of the entire Trotskyite movement, and we will have no need to spend any money on combating Trotskyites and their attempts to undermine the Comintern or us. (Sudoplatov, Op. Cit., p. 76)
Stalin was not far wrong in his assessment. The leaders of the Fourth International were not up to the level of the tasks posed by history. Deprived of Trotsky’s leadership, they made a series of fundamental mistakes. Only the leadership of the RCP in Britain was able to readjust to the new situation on a world scale after 1945. Ted was profoundly inspired by Trotsky’s sacrifice and determination in defending the ideas:
Even now, when I think back to the assassination of Trotsky it brings tears to my eyes. What enormous sacrifices he made. His family was murdered, his comrades, the old Bolsheviks, were entirely annihilated. There was a victory for Stalinist and reformist reaction. Trotsky went right through all that but it did not stop him from doing the necessary work to prepare the cadres for the development of the movement. It is on the basis of his ideas, extending and deepening them however, that we will go forward to victory. (Militant, August 17, 1990)
The outbreak of war
Britain’s policy of appeasing Hitler in the 1930s was partly an expression of weakness on the part of Chamberlain and his faction. But it was also an attempt to divert Hitler’s attentions towards the East—towards a war with the Soviet Union. Hitler allowed them to entertain this illusion by swallowing first Austria and then Czechoslovakia. But the invasion of Poland, an ally of France, was one step too far. Britain and France declared war. In order to protect his rear flank, Hitler signed a pact with Stalin. This left his hands free to turn west and crush France with one mighty blow.
The outbreak of war changed everything. All the calculations of the imperialist powers were thrown into confusion. The French bourgeoisie had felt supremely confident behind the trenches and concrete bunkers of the Maginot Line, but was astonished to see Hitler’s armies brush its defences aside as a man swats a fly.
Ted pointed out that the French ruling class was more afraid of the French workers than of Hitler. With memories of the Paris Commune burned on its consciousness, the cowardly French bourgeois refused to arm the population to resist Hitler. They preferred to kiss the Nazi jackboot and hand Paris over to the tender mercies of the Gestapo rather than face the risk of another Paris Commune.
Britain was now in a dire position. The British army had suffered a crushing defeat and thousands of British soldiers were trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk, where they were at the mercy of the German Stuka fighter-bombers. They were only rescued by the skin of their teeth by an improvised armada of fishing vessels. Since the British are experts in presenting a defeat as a victory, the “Dunkirk Spirit” has ever since been held up as a most glorious moment in our history. In reality it was the most ignominious of defeats.
The threat from the state was recognised by the comrades, who at one stage at the beginning of the war were expecting to be made illegal. In preparation for such an eventuality, they sent Jock Haston to Ireland to investigate the setting up of a radio station to broadcast to Britain. But before that, Gerry Healy left the country, without consulting the group. He was afraid of being called up into the army, and in order to avoid this he went to Ireland. This was entirely contrary to party policy, as he knew full well. Ted commented:
Healy beat it, and then we decided to send Haston to try and establish a group in Ireland in the event of our being made illegal. (...) Nobody knew what was going to happen and we were raided on the first day of war. In the event of our being made illegal, we intended setting up a radio station in Ireland, and would get material over here by ship and so on. So we first sent Haston over and then we sent Tommy Reilly over and then John Williams in order to establish a group. [I will provide] the details of how Healy was expelled.
Well, what happened was they were working in the Labour Party and doing very well, and Healy became the business manager of the Plough and the Stars which was the paper of the [Irish] Labour Party. Now they were living on a small amount of money that we were able to send at that time. They were a small collective, and Healy said he had [received] no money from the Labour Party. [But] they found out [that he had]. There was a row and he was expelled. But Haston persuaded them to rescind the expulsion and that he [Healy] be sent back to Britain, as Healy was a good organiser. Haston and myself were quite wrong on that question. (...) Every time he was expelled, we always brought him back because he was a good organiser, although that was not sufficient reason to bring him back. (Sam Bornstein, Interview with Ted Grant)
The Irish mission was not very successful, and in any case, the WIL was never illegalised. However, while he was in Dublin, Jock Haston entered into contact with members of the IRA and the Irish Labour Party, including Nora Connolly O’Brian, the daughter of the famous Irish Marxist and Labour leader James Connolly, who was shot by the British after the Easter Rising of 1916. Nora was very sympathetic and helped the comrades a lot.
Haston, with his usual flare, won over several members of the IRA to Trotskyism, a fact that did not endear him to the leadership, which was pro-German with right-wing and fascist leanings. The IRA sentenced Jock to death, whereupon he hastily returned to London. This story reminded me of the case of Brendan Behan,3 who, when he was sentenced to death by the IRA, said: “They have sentenced me in my absence, so they can carry out the sentence in my absence too!”
At home the mood was bordering on desperation. Ted recalled: “I have never seen anything like it. People were really scared. They expected the Germans to invade at any time. There was no enthusiasm for the war, as there had been in 1914. People had already been through that experience and they knew what war was like. But they were prepared to fight in what they believed was a war for democracy against Nazism.”
In order to get the support for the war, Churchill and the ruling class were compelled to conceal their real interests and cover themselves in the cloak of “democracy”. Before the war they had all been admirers of fascism. Churchill, in particular, spoke highly of Mussolini, and most of his class saw in Hitler a bulwark against Bolshevism.
In publications like Searchlight and Youth for Socialism, which was later renamed Socialist Appeal, Ted wrote article after article exposing the hypocrisy of the British ruling class and laying bare the naked class interests that lay behind the official demagogy about the “struggle to defend democracy”. In September 1939, in the Youth for Socialism lead article entitled Down with the War, he wrote:
Defence of whose country? Defence of the landlord and the boss!
We defend the country when we have a country to defend. Cut down the profits out of war 100% first. Let the mines, factories, railways and workshops come under the control of the working class. The working class on both sides of the frontier has no interest in the struggle of one or another group of vultures fattening on the corpses of the working people. If British capitalists win the war, they are preparing to carve up Germany among their allies and themselves. Already the Evening News, formerly an enthusiastic supporter of Hitler, when he was destroying the trade unions and other organisations of the working class, former enthusiastic backer of Mosley and British fascism, has hinted in its leader columns of this intention upon the part of the British ruling class. If Hitler wins he will impose his monstrous tyranny on the whole other sections [sic] of Europe and the colonies, as he has upon the Czech people. British workers and German workers have no reason to slaughter one another. Let us turn upon our real enemies, the German and British capitalist class. (Youth for Socialism, vol. 2 no. 1, September, 1939)
Lenin and revolutionary defeatism
To understand Ted Grant’s position during the Second World War it is necessary to understand the real essence of Lenin’s “revolutionary defeatism” during the First World War. There is perhaps no part of Lenin’s writings that has been as distorted, misunderstood and misrepresented as his position on war. In 1914, he said that the defeat of Russia was the lesser evil, and called on the workers to turn the imperialist war into a civil war. Ever since then, there have been people who repeat these words and imagine themselves to be great Leninists, parading their intransigent “Bolshevism” like a little boy with a new pair of shoes.
It is necessary to understand the concrete conditions in which these works were written and who they were aimed at. Endless confusion has arisen from the fact that this has not been grasped by people who have read a few lines of Lenin without understanding Lenin’s method. Why did he think it necessary to express himself in such extreme terms?
Ted explained that in 1914, Lenin was not writing for the masses. During the First World War, Lenin was completely isolated. The slogans he advanced at that time were not intended for the masses. Lenin was writing for the cadres. If we do not understand this, the most grotesque errors can result. Moreover, the way in which Lenin formulated the question of defeatism left a lot to be desired.
The betrayal of the leaders of the Second International signified the end of the Social Democracy as an instrument for the fight for socialism. It caused tremendous confusion, demoralisation and disorientation in the ranks of the Marxists everywhere, including Russia. Not for the first time, Lenin tended to exaggerate a formulation in the heat of a polemic, in order to hammer home a point that had not been grasped by his own supporters.
Lenin himself was at first taken aback by the overwhelming tide of national chauvinism which seemed to sweep all before it. Cut off from Russia, he was also worried by the possibility of vacillations among his own supporters on the question of war and the International. It was necessary to re-establish basic principles. The stakes were very high. What was involved was the fate not just of the Russian, but of the world revolution. For this reason, diplomacy and ambiguity was out of place. Lenin’s wife Nadezhda Krupskaya explains:
Ilych deliberately put the case very strongly in order to make it quite clear what line people were taking. The fight with the defencists was in full swing. The struggle was not an internal Party affair that concerned Russian matters alone. It was an international affair. (Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin)
The idea that a military defeat of Tsarism would accelerate the process of revolution in Russia was obviously correct and was confirmed by events. But to go before the masses in Russia with the bald assertion that the revolutionaries were for the victory of the Kaiser would have been suicidal. As a matter of fact, it would have been defencism turned inside out, and would have laid them open to the accusation (used later by the Provisional government) that the Bolsheviks were German agents.
The change of regime from tsarist autocracy to a bourgeois democratic republic after the February Revolution in 1917 did not mean that the war on Russia’s side was any less imperialist than before. But when he returned to Russia, Lenin said that he had found, as well as the usual social-chauvinist crowd, a wide layer of honest working class defencists in the soviets who had to learn by experience and argument the reactionary nature of the war. Here is what Lenin wrote in April 1917 in an article entitled: Honest Defencism reveals itself:
Events in Petrograd during the last few days, especially yesterday, illustrate how right we were in speaking of the “honest” defencism of the mass as distinguished from the defencism of the leaders and parties.
The mass of the population is made up of proletarians, semi-proletarians, and poor peasants. They are the vast majority of the nation. These classes are not at all interested in annexations. Imperialist policies, the profits of banking capital, incomes from railways in Persia, lucrative jobs in Galicia and Armenia, putting restraints on the freedom of Finland–all these are things in which these classes are not interested.
But all these things taken together just go to make up what is known in science and the press as imperialist, annexationist, predatory policy. (Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 24, pp 204-206)
How Lenin spoke to the masses
With his unerring instinct for the psychology of the masses, Lenin was able to adapt his policy of revolutionary defeatism to changing conditions and present it in a way that ordinary Russian workers, soldiers and peasants could understand. To have merely repeated the old slogans would have been to cut off the Bolsheviks utterly from the working class. A new approach was needed, which reflected the difference between writing and speaking for small groups of party activists, and addressing the broad mass of workers recently awakened to political life.
Let us see how Lenin presented the question of war in 1917. In a speech to the Soviet, which was still overwhelmingly in favour of the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries at this stage, Lenin ruthlessly stripped away all the diplomatic verbiage to lay bare the class interests that lie beneath:
The capitalists continue to plunder the people’s property. The imperialist war continues. And yet we are promised reforms, reforms and more reforms, which cannot be accomplished at all under these circumstances, because the war crushes and determines everything.
However, having explained the imperialist nature of the war, Lenin goes on to explain that the Bolsheviks were not preparing to abandon the military fight against German imperialism:
It is slander to say the revolutionary struggle for peace that has begun from below might lead to a separate peace treaty. The first step we should take if we had power would be to arrest the biggest capitalists and cut all the threads of their intrigues. Without this, all talk about peace without annexations and indemnities is utterly meaningless. Our second step would be to declare to all people over the head of their governments that we regard all capitalists as robbers—Tereshchenko, who is not a bit better than Milyukov, just a little less stupid, the French capitalists, the British capitalists, and all the rest.
Clearly impressed, almost in spite of themselves, the majority decided to give the speaker extra time, and Lenin continued his speech, exposing the imperialist nature of the war, but, again taking into account the “honest defencist” inclinations of his audience, explained revolutionary defeatism in a language which could get an echo from the workers and soldiers. We are not pacifists, he says. We are prepared to fight against the Kaiser, who is also our enemy. But we do not trust the capitalists. Get rid of the ten capitalist ministers! Let the soviet leaders take the power, and we will wage a revolutionary war against German imperialism, while fighting to extend the revolution to Germany and all the other belligerent powers. That is the only way to get peace:
When we take power into our own hands, we shall curb the capitalists, and then the war will not be the kind of war that is being waged now, because the nature of a war is determined by what class wages it, not by what is written on paper. You can write on paper anything you like. But as long as the capitalist class has a majority in the government the war will remain an imperialist war no matter what you write, no matter how eloquent you are, no matter how many near-socialist ministers you have…
The war remains an imperialist war, and however much you may desire peace, however sincere your sympathy for the working people and your desire for peace—I am fully convinced that by and large it must be sincere—you are powerless, because the war can only be ended by taking the revolution further. When the revolution began in Russia, a revolutionary struggle for peace from below also began. (...) And if circumstances then obliged us to wage a revolutionary war—no one knows, and we do not rule out the possibility—we should say: “We are not pacifists, we do not renounce war when the revolutionary class is in power and has actually deprived the capitalists of the opportunity to influence things in any way, to exacerbate the economic dislocation which enables them to make hundreds of millions.” (...) The capitalists are in a situation where their only way out is war. When you take over revolutionary power, you will have a revolutionary way of securing peace, namely, by addressing a revolutionary appeal to all nations and explaining your tactics by your own example. (Lenin, Collected Works, Speech to theFirst All-Russia Congress of Soviets, vol. 25 pp. 21-23 and 26-27)
What is most striking here is the complete absence of Lenin’s earlier formulations on “revolutionary defeatism”. No reference to civil war. No call to the soldiers to turn their bayonets against their officers, and certainly no hint that the defeat of Russia would be the “lesser evil”. This change reflects an important shift in Lenin’s approach to tactics since February.
The question of defencism versus revolutionary defeatism, which he frequently presented in very black-and-white terms in the previous period, turned out to be not so simple. Of course, fundamentally, Lenin’s position on the war had not changed. But the way in which revolutionary defeatism had to be presented was quite different. Here we have the real essence of Leninism, not the lifeless caricature that reduces Lenin’s method to that of a priest mindlessly repeating the words of the Catechism without ever thinking about what they are supposed to mean.
The Proletarian Military Policy
We can’t oppose compulsory military training by the bourgeois state just as we can’t oppose compulsory education by the bourgeois state. Military training in our eyes is a part of education. (Trotsky, On Conscription, 1940)
The most decisive question for revolutionaries is the attitude to war. The outbreak of war posed new problems for the Trotskyist movement. On the question of war, Trotsky had exactly the same dialectical method as Lenin. Before he was murdered in August 1940, he had worked out a transitional programme for the new situation that arose from the war. It had nothing in common with the abstract schemes of the ultra-lefts who presented a caricature of Lenin’s policy of revolutionary defeatism.
Like Lenin in 1917, Trotsky set out from the concrete conditions of the American working class in 1940, which were not at all the same as in Russia in 1917. Of course, the imperialist character of the war was the same in its essence. But the way in which it was perceived by the workers was different, and this had to be taken into account. As Trotsky explained:
The present war, as we have stated more than once, is a continuation of the last war. But a continuation does not imply a repetition. As a general rule, a continuation implies a development, a deepening, a sharpening. Our policy, the policy of the revolutionary proletariat towards the second imperialist world war, is a continuation of the policy elaborated during the last imperialist war, primarily under the leadership of Lenin. But a continuation does not imply a repetition. In this case, too, a continuation means a development, a deepening and a sharpening. (Trotsky, Writings, 1939-40, p. 411)
Shortly before his death, he gave very concrete advice as to how the Trotskyists should approach tactics in the new conditions:
If one proceeds only on the basis of the overall characterisation of the epoch, and nothing more, ignoring its concrete stages, one can easily lapse into schematism, sectarianism, or quixotic fantasy. With every serious turn of events we adjust our basic tasks to the changed concrete conditions of the given stage. Herein lies the art of tactics. (Trotsky, On the Question of Workers’ Self-defence, in Writings, 1939-40, p. 103)
He went on to outline the Marxist approach to the war:
Without in any way wavering from our programme we must speak to the masses in a language they understand. “We Bolsheviks also want to defend democracy, but not the kind that is run by sixty uncrowned kings. First let’s sweep our democracy clean of capitalist magnates, then we will defend it to the last drop of blood. Are you, who are not Bolsheviks, really ready to defend this democracy? But you must, at least, be able to the best of your ability to defend it so as not to be a blind instrument in the hands of the Sixty Families and the bourgeois officers devoted to them. The working class must learn military affairs in order to advance the largest possible number of officers from its own ranks.”
“We must demand that the state, which tomorrow will ask for the workers’ blood, today give the workers the opportunity to master military technique in the best possible way in order to achieve the military objectives with the minimum expenditure of human lives.”
“To accomplish that, a regular army and barracks by themselves are not enough. Workers must have the opportunity to get military training at their factories, plants, and mines at specified times, while being paid by the capitalists. If the workers are destined to give their lives, the bourgeois patriots can at least make a small material sacrifice.”
“The state must issue a rifle to every worker capable of bearing arms and set up rifle and artillery ranges for military training purposes in places accessible to the workers.”
Our agitation in connection with the war and all our politics connected with the war must be as uncompromising in relation to the pacifists as to the imperialists.
“This war is not our war. The responsibility for it lies squarely on the capitalists. But so long as we are still not strong enough to overthrow them and must fight in the ranks of their army, we are obliged to learn to use arms as well as possible!”
Women workers must also have the right to bear arms. The largest possible number of women workers must have the opportunity, at the capitalists’ expense, to receive nurses’ training.
Just as every worker, exploited by the capitalists, seeks to learn as well as possible the production techniques, so every proletarian soldier in the imperialist army must learn as well as possible, when the conditions change, to apply it in the interests of the working class.
We are not pacifists. No. We are revolutionaries. And we know what lies ahead for us. (Ibid., pp. 104-5)
However, the Proletarian Military Policy was not accepted by many who called themselves Trotskyists. Mostly they took an ultra-left position that was a complete caricature of what Lenin had written in 1914. Since they never understood Lenin’s position, how could they be expected to understand what Trotsky was saying?
We see the same thing repeated time and time again. We saw it on the issue of entrism, which many “Trotskyists” rejected “on principle” before the war. We saw it again on the war question. And we saw it on an even bigger scale after the war, when the leaders of the Fourth showed their complete inability to understand Trotsky’s method and eventually abandoned Trotskyism altogether. As Rob Sewell points out:
When Trotsky raised the proletarian military policy, it provoked widespread opposition within the ranks of the Fourth International. Many leaders, such as those of the Belgian and British (the RSL) sections, deliberately purged any references to this policy. The Belgian group, for example, struck out several paragraphs on this question from the clandestine version of the May 1940 Manifesto. There were also “reservations” held by the French section and even the European Secretariat of the Fourth International. As a consequence, their whole approach, rooted in a false appraisal of the real situation, completely failed to connect with the working class faced with the onslaught of Hitler fascism. Their tactics were stuck in the past and tainted with pacifism. As a result, they were confined to the fringes. Even the American SWP, which had adopted the military policy under Trotsky’s pressure, interpreted the policy in a passive fashion, reducing it to mere propaganda divorced from any perspective for workers’ power. (Introduction to Ted Grant’s Writings, Vol. 1, p. 24)
The confusion of the leaders of the Fourth was evident from the conduct of Pierre Frank, who was in exile in Britain at the start of the war. In 1940, he was calling on the British workers to occupy the factories. At that time, with Hitler’s troops poised to invade, the workers were voluntarily working long hours in the factories to produce arms to defend the country. This detail showed just how out of touch these “leaders” were from the real world of the working class. This condemned them to isolation and impotence in the face of the war.
The RSL had a completely ultra-left position on the war. Masquerading under the banner of Lenin’s revolutionary defeatism, they advanced the idea “the victory of Hitler is the lesser evil.” Ted said: “they were very rrrrevolutionary—in the bedroom!” Of course, they would never have dared to say things like that in the factories or union branches. One of them did raise this nonsense in his Labour Party branch—and was surprised when he was expelled!
The mistake of the RSL has been repeated a thousand times since by all the ultra-lefts who imagine that they are great Leninists because they have read a few lines of Lenin that they have not understood. All these people repeat like automata isolated phrases of Lenin and Trotsky, which, torn out of their historical context, become utterly meaningless.
The Workers’ International League (WIL), and later, the RCP, developed Trotsky’s Proletarian Military Revolutionary Policy and applied it brilliantly to the concrete situation in Britain. Ted told me: “When we first read about Trotsky’s Proletarian Military Revolutionary Policy we were very pleased, because we had worked out the same position as the Old Man independently.”
4 Later Ted recalled:It is only fair to point out that initially, even some of the leading comrades in the WIL had doubts about Trotsky’s line on the war. But Ted embraced it wholeheartedly. In February 1941, two articles by the EC majority published by the Socialist Appeal and the Workers’ International News sparked an internal debate. Jock Haston, Millie Lee and Sam Levy were on one side, and Ted Grant, Harold Atkinson, Andy Paton and Gerry Healy were on the other. Jimmy Deane also supported Ted’s position on the war.
We had the position of Trotsky and the American SWP. In fact, the Americans actually produced some of the articles from the Appeal in their paper. (...) The material we put into the paper at that time (...) was very good. Haston objected. At that time he had an ultra-left position. Like all ultra-lefts, he ended up as an opportunist. (...) Although it is true that Healy was on our side, he tried to turn it into a monstrous, personal, factional thing. But we stopped that: Atkinson, myself and Andy Paton. (Sam Bornstein, Interview with Ted Grant)
Full agreement within the WIL was eventually achieved through democratic discussion and the development of events themselves. In the meantime, the Fourth International’s official section (RSL) was putting forward a completely incorrect position. In 1943, Ted wrote a brilliant reply to the RSL, where we read the following:
War is part of the life of society at the present time and our programme of the conquest of power has to be based, not on peace, but on the conditions of universal militarism and war. We may commiserate with the comrades of the RSL on this unfortunate deviation of history. But alas we were too weak to overthrow imperialism and must now pay the price. It was necessary (and, of course, it is still necessary) to educate the cadres of the Fourth International of the nature and meaning of social patriotism and Stalino-chauvinism and its relation towards the war. Who in Britain in the left wing has done this as vigorously as WIL? But we must go further. The Transitional Programme, if it has any meaning at all, is a bridge not only from the consciousness of the masses today to the road of the socialist revolution, but also for the isolated revolutionaries to the masses.
The RSL convinces itself of the superiority of its position over that of Stalinism and reformism. It comforts itself that it maintains the position of Lenin in the last war. This would be very good... if the RSL had understood the position of Lenin. However, for Trotsky and the inheritors of Bolshevism, we start (even if the RSL correctly interpreted Lenin, which it does not) where the RSL leadership finishes! We approach the problem of war from the angle of the imminence of the next period of the social revolution in Britain as well as other countries. The workers in Britain, as in America, [quoting Trotsky] “do not want to be conquered by Hitler, and to those who say, ‘let us have a peace programme’ the workers will reply: ‘but Hitler does not want a peace programme’. Therefore we say, we will defend the United States [or Britain] with a workers’ army with workers’ officers, and with a workers’ government, etc.”.
Those words of the Old Man are saturated through and through with the spirit of revolutionary Marxism, which, while uncompromisingly preserving its opposition towards the bourgeoisie, shows sympathy and understanding for the attitude of the rank and file worker and the problems which are running through his mind. No longer do we stop at the necessity to educate the vanguard as to the nature of the war and the refusal to defend the capitalist fatherland, but we go forward to win the working class for the conquest of power and the defence of the proletarian fatherland. (Ted Grant, Reply of WIL to the RSL criticism of “Preparing for Power”, Writings, Vol. 2, pp. 375-6)
These words convey very well the essence of Trotsky’s proletarian military policy. Marxists do not have one policy for peace, and another, totally different policy for war. Long ago, Clausewitz explained that war is only the continuation of politics by other means. Instead of adopting the impotent attitudes of pacifism, the Marxists must develop a revolutionary proletarian policy in war, which is a continuation of the revolutionary class politics we pursue in “normal” times.
While denouncing the imperialist character of the war, and demanding that the Labour leaders break with the bourgeoisie, it was necessary to explain our programme in language the workers could understand and accept. Instead of opposing conscription, it was necessary to propose transitional demands to the effect that the workers should exercise control over military training, which should be closely linked to the factories and the trade unions, the election of officers, full rights for soldiers, etc.
Following Trotsky’s advice, the WIL and then the RCP did outstanding work in the armed forces. In Ted’s case, however, military service did not last very long. Having been called up for the Pioneer Corps in 1940, he almost immediately had a traffic accident that resulted in a fractured skull. He was invalided out of the army and spent the rest of the war pursuing revolutionary activity.
The case of Frank Ward was rather more typical of party policy. I knew Frank in Swansea when I was in the Young Socialists, and he explained to me how he succeeded in winning over all his comrades-in-arms when he was in the air force. So successful was he, that in order to remove him, he was honourably discharged from the RAF, and spent the rest of the war trying to get back in. All issues of Socialist Appeal carried letters and articles by soldiers. Andy Paton, a WIL Executive Committee member, wrote regular reports under his pen name Andrew Scott for Socialist Appeal while in the army.
“Our Eighth Army”
In their eagerness to persuade people that this was a “war for democracy”, the British ruling class had to make some concessions. One of these was to allow a measure of political debate inside the armed forces. The chairman of the “forces parliament” in Egypt was a Trotskyist elected by the soldiers of the Eighth Army. In February 1944, over 600 attended a session which voted to nationalise the banks, build four million houses, and nationalise land, mines and transport.
In his lead-off at the 1943 WIL congress, published in Workers’ International News, January 1944, Ted said: “The ruling class says it is their Eighth Army, but in fact it is our Eighth Army”. Ted’s passing remark about “our” Eighth Army was intended as a comment on the growing influence of the Trotskyists in the army.
A few months later, in March 1944, the fusion congress of the WIL with what was left of the RSL gave birth to the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). Ted and the other leaders of the RCP were shocked and surprised when they found out that these words were torn out of context and inserted for factional reasons by the IS representative (Sam Gordon, known in the party as Stuart) in his report of the RCP founding congress, circulated to all members of the US SWP. The report was presented in such a way as to distort the real proportions of the different groups involved in the fusion, which were an embarrassment to Cannon. It would have revealed to SWP members that the vilified WIL comprised the vast majority of delegates attending the congress. Furthermore, Gordon insinuated that some of the leaders of the unified party were displaying defencist and chauvinistic tendencies, or a “deviation of national colouring”, in Stuart’s words, echoing the factional accusations thrown at the WIL by the old RSL.
Stuart could not have heard these words at the RCP congress, because Ted Grant’s speech had been given at a previous congress of the WIL, several months earlier.
That Stuart was the source of these distortions was not a surprise to the comrades. They had become well acquainted with his methods during the long and frustrating preparation for fusion. Already, Stuart’s manoeuvres had elicited a collective protest to the IS on behalf of the WIL leadership in September 1943.5
The real question was the following: how was it possible that a completely dishonest report, written by a biased source, was published and distributed by Cannon and the leadership of the SWP, without even checking the contents of the report with the RCP leaders themselves? They could have easily answered Stuart’s accusations in detail, and thus, a serious incident could have been avoided. But that was not the method of Cannon and co., as Ted and his comrades were to discover in the future.
A sharp reply to Stuart’s “report” by the RCP was issued in January 1945, in the form of an Open letter to SWP members. Among other things, Stuart’s report stated:
In defence of the resolution on military policy, a leader of the majority in the new CC made some remarks that called forth astonishment and protest, particularly among those in agreement with the resolution, which is by and large a correct statement of the international policy. Characteristic of these remarks was a reference to Montgomery’s Eighth Army as “our Eighth Army”. The protests only brought reiteration from the speaker with a stronger emphasis than before: he spoke with pride of “our Eighth Army”.
The RCP leaders expressed their sense of outrage:
To tear a phrase out of its context for the purpose of demonstrating a “deviation”, is nothing short of a scandal in the ranks of the Fourth International. And that such stuff should be circulated by the PC [Political Committee] of the SWP without a check is not easy to understand.
This “scene” is supposed to have taken place at the fusion conference. This is false. The incident, distorted above, took place at the WIL conference in 1943, during a discussion not on military policy, but on European and British perspectives. The resolution to which comrade Grant was speaking is published in a pamphlet, The world revolution and the tasks of the British working class, drafted by him and accepted as a basic document by the fusion conference.
This speech was edited for publication, and several illustrations of minor mutinies and struggles among the ranks of the forces which led to this statement, were omitted because of government censorship.
The background to this speech can be seen when one takes into consideration that the Tories received 14 seats out of 600 in the elections to the mock Forces’ Parliament in Cairo, Labour received the overwhelming votes of the soldiers, Commonwealth6 next, and then the Stalinists. So great was the radicalisation that the authorities dissolved this “Parliament”. A Trotskyist was elected Prime Minister of the Benghazi “Forces’ Parliament” which was also disbanded.
Another indication of the radicalisation of the Eighth Army: during the tremendous campaign which accompanied the arrests of our party members for “inciting to strike”, the Eighth Army News published a full page article under the headline: “The right to strike is one of the freedoms for which we fight”.
One would have imagined that the revolutionary content of this speech was clear. (Open Letter to SWP members, in Ted Grant, Writings Vol. 2, pp. 460-77)
The same “intransigent Leninists” had earlier complained that the WIL was “defencist” because it put forward the transitional demand for deep air-raid shelters in which the workers could find refuge from German bombers. Evidently it was the internationalist duty of the workers of Britain to display a stoic calm while the German workers in uniform rained fraternal bombs on them and their families from on high. A highly original interpretation of proletarian fraternisation!
It is not even worth mentioning the clownish antics of the RSL. It is self-evident that during the war, the WIL was de facto the only voice defending the policies of the Fourth International in Britain. The reason for this was that the “official” section, the RSL, proved to be completely incapable of building. Like so many groups that claimed the mantle of Trotsky, they had an entirely abstract conception of Trotsky’s ideas and were unable to put them into practice or to find a road to the workers.
The Revolutionary Socialist League was a complete flop. Its ultra-left position on the war condemned it to utter sterility. As a result, it stagnated within the Labour Party, and in the end, the International lost patience with its “British section”. By contrast, the growth of the WIL convinced them that the time had come to change their bets. Cannon had to beat a retreat.
However, even now the WIL was not recognised as the official section. Instead, the International Secretariat pressed for a fusion. The only way Ted and his comrades could get into the Fourth was to spend a lot of time and energy in painful negotiations for a principled fusion. This was because of the dominant position the WIL achieved in the British Trotskyist movement and the parallel disintegration of the RSL. This eventually led to a fusion congress which gave birth to the Revolutionary Communist Party, British section of the Fourth International.
(...) The point is the Americans wanted to save face. The RSL was split into three. (...) And what happened is that they insisted we should unify with them, and we unified on our terms. In order to get some sort of face-saver they unified their three groups a week before, and unified with us a week after. (Sam Bornstein, Interview with Ted Grant)
Later, Ted recognised that the RSL had been badly treated by Cannon and the leaders of the Fourth, but he also recognized that they were a completely sectarian and petty-bourgeois outfit. “They were real Bohemians,” he said, unable to suppress his laughter. “Some of them even went around dressed in cloaks and sandals. That was really something in those days!”
Ted Grant’s role
The RCP in its heyday attracted the best kind of proletarian elements, which made up over 90 percent of its ranks. Ted was always very proud of the work done by the WIL and the RCP, of which he often spoke with enthusiasm. During the war and afterwards, he was effectively the political leader of the WIL, and later the RCP. He was political secretary of the WIL and the editor of Socialist Appeal. Even after Haston was elected political secretary of the RCP, Ted continued writing most of the important political documents and statements.
Of course, there were other outstanding comrades, especially Jock Haston. Once Lee went back to South Africa, the collaboration between Ted and Haston was the very foundation for the successes and the development of the WIL and the RCP, and it was also one of the main reasons why Ted tried so tenaciously to save Haston later on.
Jock Haston was a brilliant organiser, a dynamic man and a charismatic leader. Ted remembered him as “a very friendly bloke, a good builder of the Tendency. Haston was one of the main builders of the RCP, there is no doubt about that”. There were many other talented people: Jimmy Deane, Harold Atkinson, Heaton Lee, Roy Tearse, Millie Lee, Andy Paton and many others. But in the theoretical field, there was only one outstanding figure, and that was Ted Grant.
In the 1980s, Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson wrote a book about British Trotskyism called War and theInternational (published in 1986). This book has serious faults. In particular, the authors systematically play down Ted’s leading role, while exaggerating the role of all kinds of secondary and minor figures and groups.
This is no accident. As is usual with people who have left the movement and dedicate themselves to commenting from the sidelines, Bornstein had an axe to grind. It is always the same story. It was the same story in Marx’s day, when the forgotten men, the “Men of Exile”—Schapper, Willich, Vogt and so many others—were constantly trying to belittle Marx’s role. In this way, the small men try to boost their own petty contributions. But one can never really raise one’s own prestige by undermining others. Reading this kind of thing always brings to one’s mind the celebrated verses of Jonathan Swift:
So nat’ralists observe, a flea
Hath smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller fleas to bite ‘em.
And so proceeds Ad infinitum. (Swift, Poetry, a Rhapsody.)
In preparing the present book, I read both War and the International and also some unpublished material the authors wrote in preparation for it. What is interesting is not what they put in, but what they left out. Among the material that is largely omitted or ignored is the contents of an interview with Ted Grant dated 22 August, 1982. In this interview, Sam Bornstein tried (unsuccessfully) to push Ted into a corner on the question of his role in the leadership of the WIL and RCP. He asked:
Then who would you say were the theoreticians in the movement? You dealt with all the organisers.
Ted: Well, apart from myself, we didn’t have any. That is the truth of the matter. Who did we have?
Sam: I’m not arguing, I only want your point of view.
Ted: Well, we didn’t have any. That is the truth of the matter. We had good writers, good speakers, good organisers, and in any case you didn’t need so many theoreticians. (Sam Bornstein, Interview with Ted Grant)
Bornstein pretended to have a very scientific and objective approach to history. But long experience has taught me to distrust such pretended objectivity. Every author approaches history with some bias or other, and it is far better to declare one’s interest in advance, rather than try to hoodwink the reader into accepting a spurious objectivity when what they have before them is a clearly biased account. As Hegel once said, the facts do not select themselves. In reality, Bornstein selected the facts in such a way as to seriously distort the truth, and ignore or belittle Ted’s role.
What we have here is a misguided attempt to establish a kind of “historical fair play”, whereby each and every individual is posthumously awarded a medal for his or her part in the revolutionary movement, no matter how insignificant that role happened to be. But this in itself represents a most serious distortion of the facts. It is like those old paintings from the period before the science of perspective was introduced into art, in which all objects are depicted as if they were of the same height and dimensions, whether they are one metre away from the observer or twenty kilometres, a castle or a hut, a giant or a baby, a mountain or a molehill, an elephant or a gnat.
When the late Spike Milligan, one of Britain’s most noted comedians, wrote his autobiography, he entitled it Adolph Hitler, My Part in His Downfall. The third volume was entitled Monty—His Part in My Victory. The Monty in the title refers to Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, who led the British army in the Battle of El Alamein in North Africa. Since Mr Milligan’s role was that of a private soldier in the British army, I doubt whether either Hitler or “Monty” had ever heard of him. He laughs while shouting: “I was there too, you know!” But this, of course, was an intentional part of the joke.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of those who, having played a minor or even insignificant role in the prehistory of the Trotskyist movement, are constantly tugging at the shirt sleeves of history, shouting: “I was there too, you know!” Spike Milligan was always ready to laugh at himself and that was part of his charm. But retired Trotskyists all take themselves terribly seriously. Their attempts at “historical objectivity” consist in boosting their own petty role and reducing everyone else to the same Lilliputian level. When Spike Milligan does the same thing it is very funny. When people who have neither a sense of proportion nor of humour follow his example, it is merely ridiculous.
I once had an interesting discussion with Ted about the theoreticians in the Bolshevik Party, he said:
If we look at the Bolshevik Party, who was there apart from Lenin and Trotsky? Bukharin perhaps. He wrote some interesting books: Historical Materialism, Imperialism, and The ABC of Communism. They are worth reading. But when you read them, you can see what Lenin was driving at when he wrote in his Testament that Bukharin had never properly understood dialectics.
As a political tendency Bukharinism has long since disappeared. Ted pointed out that in the early 1930s, the supporters of the Right Opposition were much stronger than us:
The Bukharinites had a strong base in several countries, including the USA (the Lovestone group) and Germany (the Brandlerites). They were much bigger than us. But where are they today? They have been completely liquidated by history. As for Zinoviev and Kamenev, who reads their books nowadays?
In saying that there were only two great theoreticians in the Bolshevik Party, does that imply that there were no other leading figures in the party? It does not. People have different capabilities, and the revolutionary party would be unthinkable without a whole series of different individuals whose personal qualities enable them to play different roles. Zinoviev was a talented agitator, but the agitator’s art, depending as it does on the spoken word, dies with the man. Kamenev was an able propagandist; Sverdlov a brilliant organiser. All of them played an important role, yet none of them can be considered a theoretician. Trotsky made the same point on more than one occasion:
Moreover, one makes the revolution with relatively few Marxists, even within the party. Here the collective substitutes for what the individual cannot achieve. The individual can hardly master each separate area—it is necessary to have experts who supplement one another. Such experts are often quite passive “Marxists” without being complete Marxists, because they work under the control of genuine Marxists. The whole Bolshevik Party is a marvelous example of this. Under Lenin’s and Trotsky’s supervision, Bukharin, Molotov, Tomsky, and a hundred others were good Marxists, capable of great accomplishments. As soon as this supervision was gone, even they collapsed disgracefully. This was not because Marxism is a secret science, it is just very difficult to escape the colossal pressures of the bourgeois environment with all its influences. (Trotsky, Writings, Supplement 1934-40, pp. 592-3)
In my own case, I have no problem in nailing my colours firmly to the mast. I have always been a follower of Ted Grant, who I regard as the man who defended and developed the ideas of Trotsky after the Old Man was murdered. I do not see anyone else who has any genuine claim to this role, least of all in Britain. That there were many other admirable comrades who made great sacrifices to build the movement there can be no doubt. But Ted was quite justified when he challenged Sam Bornstein to name another theoretician in the leadership of the WIL or RCP.
I note that Bornstein was unable to reply. This silence speaks volumes. Let us speak for him. The undeniable fact is that Ted Grant wrote all the main documents of the WIL and the RCP, and a great many of the editorials and theoretical articles in the journals. The publications of this period, including Youth for Socialism, Workers’ International News and Socialist Appeal, contain a wealth of valuable political material that is well worth reading today.
The Stalinists and the war
At the start of the war, blindly following the Moscow Line after the Hitler-Stalin Pact, the British CP was pursuing an ultra-left policy, a caricature of Lenin’s policy of revolutionary defeatism, demanding, in effect, peace on Hitler’s terms. Ignoring the concrete conditions, they fomented strikes at the slightest pretext, at a time when the British workers were working round-the-clock for the war effort.
However, the abandonment of the policy of popular frontism, and the adoption of an ultra-left policy in the first days of the war did not shake the confidence of the working class Communists, though many middle-class fellow-travellers immediately jumped ship. What really caused dismay in the ranks was the next change of line. When, in the summer of 1941, Hitler cynically broke his pact with Stalin and attacked the Soviet Union, Moscow required a totally different policy.
In their bid to secure the “Second Front” to help the Soviet Union, the CP leaders became the most fervent supporters of Churchill and the government on the shop floor. Overnight, without any explanation, the imperialist war became a “progressive war against fascism”. At the drop of a hat, the Party performed a 180 degree somersault, and called a halt to all strikes. Instead, they now demanded the workers step up war production.
The CP had convened an industrial conference to discuss the development of the strike movement, which they hastily transformed into a conference to discuss how to increase productivity! Naturally, this sudden change of line provoked sharp differences in their ranks. This was too much for many Communist workers to swallow. How could such a policy be justified? What did it all mean? The only people who gave explanations were the Trotskyists of the WIL and later the Revolutionary Communist Party.
While consistently calling for the defence of the USSR, the WIL advocated a policy of class independence, calling on the Labour Party to break the coalition with the Tories and Liberals and take power on the basis of a socialist policy of nationalising the banks and monopolies under workers’ control and management.
The Stalinists were particularly rabid in their hostility to strikes, denouncing the Trotskyists and worker militants as “agents of Hitler”, allegedly betraying “our” soldiers. However, the soldiers did not share this view. A petition signed by 82 soldiers was sent to Labour leader Ernest Bevin in protest against the 1AA regulation that was used to arrest four leading RCP members—Jock Haston, Ann Keen, Heaton Lee and Roy Tearse. Bevin was responsible for the introduction of this anti-strike regulation as Minister of Labour in the wartime government. The petition was in reply to the attack the state waged against the RCP during the apprentices’ strike, and was published by the Eighth Army News, and republished by the Socialist Appeal in May 1944.
Unfortunately for the Stalinists, the mood among sections of the working class was starting to swing towards a rising militancy. All the traditional strongholds the CP had within the working class were affected sooner or later by this mood (especially in the mining areas), and the WIL propaganda began to get an echo among them. Unrest in the coal fields intensified during the summer of 1942. At a time when the Stalinists were acting as the worst strike breakers, the WIL and then the RCP were attracting a layer of militant workers and trade unionists, organised around the Militant Workers’ Federation, and led some important strikes. The Socialist Appeal was avidly read by militant workers throughout the country, many of whom regarded themselves as communists.
A vociferous campaign was launched by the right-wing Tories through the mouthpiece of the coal owners, the Daily Telegraph, and the former pro-Nazi Daily Mail. The campaign was joined by the Communist Party of Great Britain. The Stalinists were hysterical. They even called on Herbert Morrison, the Home Minister (and Labour Party member) to suppress the Socialist Appeal—which he refused to do. Incidentally, Morrison was responsible in January 1941 for enforcing the 18-months long ban on the Daily Worker (the CPGB’s main paper), a ban the WIL publicly opposed. During their ultra-left Third Period, the Stalinists had hounded Morrison mercilessly, so it is quite possible that by acting in this way, he was quietly taking revenge on them.
The CP leaders had identified the threat posed by the WIL, and had earlier published a pamphlet called Clear out Hitler’s Agents, penned by William Wainwright, and mainly aimed at labelling the ILP and the WIL as Hitler’s agents. The pamphlet urged workers to treat a Trotskyist “as you would treat an open Nazi” and to “clear them out of every working class organisation and position”. But these attempts at slandering the Trotskyists backfired against the Stalinists.
The WIL’s reply was a 4-page leaflet called Factory Workers: Be on your Guard: Clear out Bosses’ Agents. A lead article in the Socialist Appeal signed by Ted exposed mercilessly the lies the campaign was based on and ran a witty challenge:
To any member of the Communist Party who can prove that the so-called quotations from Trotskyist publication in their pamphlet Clear Out Hitler’s Agents are not forgeries.
– Or –
To any member of the CP who can show one page of this pamphlet which does not contain a minimum of five lies. (Ted Grant, New Allies of the Communist Party, Socialist Appeal, September 1942)
The challenge was also reproduced on leaflets and widely publicised in many work places. Ten pounds was a lot of money in those days. The workers’ curiosity was aroused. With their characteristic sense of humour, they besieged the Stalinists, challenging them to collect the £10! Needless to say, they never did.
The apprentices’ strike
The most outstanding action of the new-born RCP was its participation in the Tyneside Apprentices’ strike in the spring of 1944. This was a very significant event, because it took place during the war, when all the Labour and trade union leaders were opposed to any strike action.
Leading members of the Newcastle RCP, most notably Heaton Lee, Jack Rawlings and Ann Keen, intervened in the strike from the word go, and recruited the apprentices’ leader, Bill Davy. Roy Tearse, the Party’s industrial organizer, got involved and made a big impact on the strike.
The government and the Special Branch were quickly drawn in to take action against these “subversives”. They soon raided the RCP headquarters in London and branches, and then arrested Heaton, Ann, Roy, and later Jock Haston, who was the general secretary at that time. They were charged with evading the provisions of the Trades Dispute Acts of 1927, brought in after the defeat of the General Strike of 1926, and in particular with breaking the even harsher anti-strike regulation 1AA introduced by Labour minister Ernest Bevin.
Very quickly, the RCP organized a broad Anti-Labour Laws’ Victims Defence Committee, which involved Labour left MPs such as Nye Bevan, Sydney Silverman, S.O. Davies, W. G. Groves, and the main leaders of the Independent Labour Party such as John McGovern, James Maxton, Walter Padley and Fenner Brockway. Ted was also on the committee for the RCP as editor of Socialist Appeal. They waged a marvellous campaign, with help from trade unions and Labour Parties, agitating throughout the labour movement. And as we have seen, they also got an echo in the armed forces, with the petition signed by soldiers that was sent to Bevin in protest against the arrest of the “Four”.
The leaders of the strike and the RCP were put on trial. Our comrade Bill Landles, then a young apprentice, was called as a defence witness. The comrades received jail sentences of between six months and a year. They appealed, and with Haston’s knowledge of the law, managed to get the verdicts squashed. The party had managed to win not only Bill Davy, but also a group of apprentices. This victory set the scene for the battles ahead.
The successes of the RCP attracted the attention of Britain’s intelligence service, MI5, which attempted to infiltrate the party. The seriousness with which the authorities took the work of the organization is shown from the MI5 report, which was made public a few years ago, and published in Ted Grant’s History of British Trotskyism.
Ted remembers there was one agent, I think he was called Inspector Jones, who applied for membership. He humorously said: “We were suspicious of him from the start: we thought he must be a cop because of the size of his feet.” So they played several tricks on him. They gave him a hard probationary period involving paying a lot of money “to prove he was serious”. With this money they were able to print Trotsky’s Transitional Programme.
As a member, Jones showed an unusual interest in acquiring a copy of each and every paper, document and leaflet the Party produced. So as a joke they deliberately “skipped” an issue of the paper by printing the wrong number. The poor man nearly went mad asking everyone where he could get the “missing number”. Probably he thought it contained the plans for the insurrection!
Later, the RCP’s headquarters was raided by the police. Ted says they had some guns hidden, in case they ever needed them in the future, but the police never found them, which was just as well. When I asked him where they were hidden, he replied: “Up the chimney!” When the comrades were pulled in for questioning, they recognised this same Inspector Jones at the police station, and he (rather naively) asked them to keep quiet about his identity. When they were asked where they got the money from to publish the Transitional Programme they said: “Ask Inspector Jones!”
Several years later, Jock Haston took out all the guns which had been stored in his flat after the dissolution of the RCP and put them into a big sack. Not knowing exactly what to do with them, he called Scotland Yard and arranged for them to be quietly handed in at a local police station, no questions asked. Jock Haston recalls:
Some months later Superintendent Jones (he was by this time a Superintendent) (…) came round to see me with a list of all guns and ammunition that I had turned in, the serial numbers, where they had been manufactured, and all the rest of it, and told me that they knew, that they had had a whisper that we had guns stored away (…). (Al Richardson, Interview with Jock Haston, April 30, 1978, unpublished, Ted Grant Archive)
Unfortunately, we don’t know the identity of the informer the police apparently had within the RCP.
The Neath by-election
Ted explained why it was necessary to modify our tactics during the war: “Since the Labour Party was largely an electoral machine, its inner life dwindled almost to nothing during the war. The Party branches ceased to meet. Most importantly, the Labour Youth, which had been our main field of work before the war, virtually ceased to exist, as the youth had been conscripted into the armed forces.”
This made a change of tactics necessary. At first, the comrades turned to the ILP, where they made some gains. But after 1941, new opportunities presented themselves in the Communist Party. The strike-breaking, class-collaborationist policies of the Party’s leadership provoked growing discontent. The WIL and then the RCP therefore paid increased attention to the CPGB.
Throughout the war, the Labour Party agreed to an electoral truce with the Tories. They were all in the wartime coalition, so there were hardly any elections. An exception was the by-election in working-class Neath in 1945. Given the peculiar conditions in this election, the RCP fielded a candidate in this safe Labour seat, as a way of raising the ideas of Marxism and winning new members. South Wales had a revolutionary tradition, especially in the mining areas, which at that time covered most of South Wales. When the Communist International was formed in 1919, the only trade union bodies in Britain to join it were the South Wales miners and the Clydeside Shop Stewards in Scotland.
South Wales has a long tradition of bitter class struggle and its people have long memories. In my own family I remember as a child listening to talk about “the strike” as if it were something that had happened yesterday. But they were talking about the 1926 general strike. After the defeat of the general strike, the miners remained doggedly out for months until they were literally starved back to work. Winston Churchill commented that “the rats have gone back to their holes”. That was remembered and bitterly resented.
Even during the war, when Churchill’s popularity was at its height, people in the South Wales Valleys would boo when he appeared on the cinema newsreels. It was therefore an excellent place to put forward revolutionary ideas. The Revolutionary Communist Party’s candidate was Jock Haston, its general secretary. This was the first time any Trotskyist organisation had stood a candidate in a British Parliamentary election. The RCP had only been established one year earlier, and had not previously had a base in South Wales. Nevertheless, the Neath election was a considerable success for the RCP.
Ted played an active role in the campaign. There is a photograph of him together with Jimmy Deane and Jock Haston outside the campaign headquarters in Neath. Typically, while other comrades are smiling at the camera, Ted is not even looking into the lens. He has his face buried in the pages of the Socialist Appeal. He was never particularly photogenic, nor was he at all public relations-conscious, but the sub-text here is clear: never mind the personalities; it is our ideas and programme that count.
The RCP stood on the platform of revolutionary internationalism. It proudly declared: “Our candidate will fight on a platform of uncompromising hostility to the imperialist war, for the breaking of the Coalition, for the overthrow of the Churchill Government and for Labour to take power on a Socialist platform”. Their main slogan was “Break the Coalition, Labour to Power.” Of course, the RCP did not expect to win the seat. That was never a realistic outcome. But it got a significant vote, and more importantly, it got its ideas across to a far wider public than ever before. The ideas of Trotskyism were very well received by the workers at a time when nobody else was putting forward a revolutionary programme.
The Stalinists, who regarded South Wales as one of their strongholds, were beside themselves with rage. They did everything possible to disrupt the RCP’s campaign, including fist fights, but without success. The RCP made a big impact with its programme and ideas—not least among sections of the CP workers. The Communist Party offered its full support to the Labour candidate and campaigned against the RCP, using the elegant slogan: “A Vote for Haston is a Vote for Hitler”.
The RCP repeatedly challenged the CP to a public debate. At first they refused, but were in the end forced to agree to hold a debate in Neath. They put up Alun Thomas, leader of the Communist Party in West Wales, to speak against Haston. His speech was full of venom. During the meeting, which attracted about 1,500 people, among other priceless pearls proffered by comrade Thomas was the following:
In Russia they defeated fascism because they shot all the Trotskyists and the Fifth column scum, and if we had our way, these people on this platform would be shot.
As Marx would have said: “Every word a piss-pot, and not an empty one.” But despite all the abuse, the RCP’s case was beginning to get an echo in the ranks of both the CP and the Labour Party. The local ILP also split over support for Haston and some of them joined the RCP.
The Labour candidate, D. J. Williams, repudiated the Stalinist’s support, opposing its policy of a popular front with the Conservatives and Labour after the war. He seems to have been a decent man. Haston remained on good terms with him, and when the RCP fell apart in 1949, Williams helped him to find a job with the National Council of Labour Colleges.
The outcome for the RCP was that it won 1,781 votes, compared to 30,847 for the Labour candidate. Paradoxically, by arousing such great interest, the RCP campaign served to boost the vote for Labour. A highly significant fact, as Ted told me, was that many workers would come up to them after an enthusiastic RCP election meeting and say: “I agree with everything you say. Why are you not running as the candidate of the Labour Party?” The success in Neath caused a lot of problems with the CP.
A few miles away from Neath, along a desolate, wind-swept valley, lies the small mining town of Gwaun-cae-Gurwen, popularly known as G-C-G, or “the Waun”. Here the RCP established an active branch, mainly of miners who had come over from the Communist Party.
The leading spirit was one Johnny Jones “Crown”, a self-educated man, like many Welsh workers at that time who took the trouble to raise themselves above the terrible conditions of life to conquer for themselves the world of culture and ideas. Johnny used to write marvellous articles for the Socialist Appeal, from which you could get a clear idea of the lives, thoughts and aspirations of working people.
A young miner called Olwyn Hughes joined this group. He never really left it till the moment of his death in 1998. It took some guts to be an active Trotskyist militant in a CP stronghold like that. The Stalinists looked on them as traitors or worse, and on more than one occasion, criticism was not limited to verbal exchanges. Olwyn, who was a member of the RCP in G-C-G at that time, gave me the following example.
One of the RCP members (I don’t remember his name) was quite a tough man, although quietly spoken. He and Olwyn were chatting over a pint in the local miners’ club, when a particularly fanatical Stalinist came up behind them and began making loud comments about the alleged “Trotsky-fascists”.
Olwyn’s companion turned round and addressed the provocateur: “Are you talking about me?” The man had scarcely had time to reply in the affirmative, when the fists started to fly. The aggressor ended up on the carpet, whereupon the victor looked challengingly round the room: “Now then. Anyone else got anything to say?” They did not.
Olwyn described to me the impression Ted made on him when, still a young miner, he came to London to meet the leading comrades: “He struck me as a bit of an egg-head [intellectual]”, he said, laughing. He described to me how Ted and the other full timers would invite them to a Lyon’s Corner House and treat them to a cup of coffee, while giving them a long lecture on the class nature of Eastern Europe and the errors of the theory of state capitalism. But when it was time for lunch, they would go to a café where the young Welshmen would have to put their hands in their pockets to pay! It was a lesson Olwyn never forgot and he would never allow me, a full timer, to pay for a pint of bitter, which was usually in the Miners’ Welfare Club. Incidentally, there was a room in the Welfare in which there was a bust of Lenin, again a reference to Amman valley’s revolutionary heritage.
Olwyn also gave a description of Harrow Road, the RCP headquarters, which seemed a hive of activity. There were people coming and going all the time. He recalled: “there were a lot of Yanks, many of them sailors, members of the SWP, coming straight off the ships to deliver books and materials and have discussions. There were mattresses on the floor where full-timers and others would sleep.”
Years later (I think it was in 1971), when I was a Militant full timer in South Wales, Rob Sewell and I went to sell the paper at a demonstration against the Industrial Relations Bill in Ammanford, not far from G-C-G. That town became known in the area as Little Moscow and the Communist Party was once very strong there. We sold the paper on the demonstration and then went to a public meeting in the Miners’ Hall. The main speaker was Trevor James, the regional head of the NUM. He made a very fiery speech, denouncing the Tories in the language of the class struggle, and he finished by saying: “The working class will never succeed until we gain our ultimate objective: workers’ state power!” We later found out he had been close to the RCP.
3 Young Brendan Behan had taken part in a failed bombing campaign at the Liverpool docks and was sent down to Borstal jail for youth offenders for three years. In 1942, he returned to Dublin an IRA political hero but developed a serious drinking problem and often landed in jail for being drunk and disorderly. After one such episode he was court-martialled by the IRA for “bringing the movement into disrepute”. He was sentenced to death and told to show up for his execution. Apparently he was notified of the sentence in a pub, to which Behan replied, “You tried me in my absence. You can shoot me in my absence”. He later became a famous writer.
4 See Ted Grant’s Writings, Vol. 1 for all documents of this dispute.
5 See, Reply to comrades Cooper and Stuart, in Ted Grant, Writings, Vol. 2, pp. 396-412.
6 Commonwealth was founded in July 1942, by the alliance of two left wing groups, the 1941 Committee – a think tank brought together by writers J.B. Priestley and Tom Wintringham – and the neo-Christian Forward March movement led by Liberal MP Richard Acland, along with independents and former Liberals.