“Of course, anyone can make a mistake, but if you make a mistake you must be honest about it: admit you have made a mistake and learn from it. That was always the method of Lenin and Trotsky."
A few months after writing to Rae and Raymond, Ted’s personal circumstances took a serious turn for the worse. The financial crisis of the group did not allow for them to sustain a professional any more, so Ted had to leave full-time political work. He worked for a time as a door-to-door salesman for a firm called Kleen-e-ze Brush. From what I know, he must have been quite a competent salesman. Anyway, he said: “They were very good brushes.” But a letter from his employers shows that Ted had been spending so much time on political work that he was seriously neglecting his duties. On January 12, 1961, Ted received a letter of dismissal from Kleen-e-ze Brush Co. Ltd. It reads as follows:
Dear Mr Grant,
I wrote to you before Xmas to ring me regarding going out with you on the Thursday after the Xmas holiday but when you did not ring I called about a week after Xmas at your house and was told you were away and that you were in the habit of spending long periods away from your address, although I left a note for you to ring me which you evidently ignored.
It is apparent you are no longer working for this Company and as you have not ordered for 4 weeks and when you do order they are so small it is evident you are only using the Company for the purpose of stamping your cards.
I have, therefore, been instructed by Head Office to withdraw your Outfit forthwith and it will be necessary for you to ring me this weekend on Saturday evening or noon Sunday so that the necessary arrangements can be made for me to collect your outfit. Also the goods I loaned you or their value will have to be taken out before the case is returned to Bristol.
Also I have checked up on the customers I asked you to contact and not one of them has seen you and this is evidence enough for me and I wholeheartedly agree with HO decision.
Awaiting your phone call,
Yours sincerely, [Signature illegible]
To make matters worse, on February 16, 1961 Ted received a postcard from the Ministry of Labour rejecting his claim for unemployment benefit. He was now without employment and without any income. But by the autumn of the following year he got a job with the Postal, Telegraph and Telephone Service as a telephone operator. This was for the international service, so he was obliged to brush up on his French. He was still on a probationary course on September 12, 1962, when he wrote to his sister Rae and her husband:
(...) For the last fortnight I have been on trial on the “Board” of the telephone exchange, taking French calls only, with an instructor listening in. I have passed the test and now require only an oral test, which the other pupils who have passed state is only a “formality”. If I do not “muck-up” the final test I will then be, officially at least, a fully fledged “linguist”. Anyway I think I will then be able to learn French. Mind you I can now understand both the wireless and when people speak to me in French. The difficulty is to speak French correctly and grammatically. My teacher says that will come with practice. At any rate I hope so.
My health is as usual. My ideas the same! Events I think over a period perhaps the next decade or so, will demonstrate their correctness. (...)
This job was a stroke of good luck. Since Ted was on permanent night shift, he could virtually work as a full-timer during most of the day. This was important because, after a period of extreme difficulty, the situation in Britain was slowly beginning to change. In the same letter he writes:
Last weekend I was in South Wales, in Cardiff, where I was supposed to have a debate with the Labour Shadow Chancellor James Callaghan. At the last moment he squeezed out of it. He failed to turn up in the morning and only arrived for the afternoon session of a Youth School that had been organised for the South Wales area. He refused to debate, saying that he knew nothing of the arrangements, after he and I had answered only one question! It did not matter as I answered question for two hours after he had gone and the contrast between our line and that of the Right Wing in the Labour Party was clear to everyone. Everybody there understood that he had “funked” the discussion. So we came out of it quite well.
I was at that school, although I confess I cannot remember much about it, except that I was impressed by the depth of Ted’s knowledge and eloquence. I had first met Ted sometime before, in 1960, when he came to speak to the Swansea Young Socialists, of which I was a member. By a stroke of good luck, I joined the Swansea YS in 1960, which was one of the few in Britain that the Tendency controlled, and I was soon won over, although when I joined I was a convinced Stalinist (my family had strong CP connections). I was sixteen years old and was bowled over by Ted’s grasp of Marxism, the clear way he had of expressing even the most complicated ideas in simple language.
The Swansea group had some very fine comrades, all of them working class and first-rate Marxist cadres. Outstanding among them was Muriel Browning, a shop steward at the British Leyland car factory in Llanelli, and Phil Lloyd, a post office engineer who later became the secretary of the Swansea branch of the POEU. But the leader of the group was undoubtedly Dave Matthews, a close collaborator of Ted Grant, and a man with a very high political level. It was Dave who won me over to Trotskyism and encouraged me to study Marxism, which I did with tremendous enthusiasm.
The Young Guard episode
The Labour Party relaunched the Young Socialists in 1960, after being closed for years, following Stalinist infiltration. It was quite a promising time for youth work, and the Young Socialists got off to a flying start, aided by a mass movement of youth in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and two national apprentices’ strikes in 1960 and 1964, in which our comrades in Merseyside played a significant role.
Our main field of work was still the Young Socialists. The context was very different from today. The Tory Party had been in power for 13 years, and was completely discredited, mired in a swamp of scandal around the Profumo affair. The old right-wing Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell had died. The new leader Harold Wilson had a fairly “left” image and the YS were quite a big force.
At the beginning, the YS attracted a large number of young people, but unfortunately, this promising start was negatively affected by the ultra-left activities of the Healyite Socialist Labour League. Although Healy had denied the possibility of work in the YS, he opportunistically made a turn to the new youth movement and, thanks to his strong apparatus and youth paper Keep Left, succeeded in taking control of the YS nationally by various dubious means. The Healyites used their majority on the YS national committee to engineer a break with the Labour Party. It was a criminal policy just when the Labour Party was about to win its first election for 13 years.
I should point out that all the left groups (except for the CPGB and the SPGB) were in the Labour Party at that time. The Cliff group, known then as the International Socialists or IS (now the SWP), had a paper called Labour Worker. The Cliff group was based almost entirely on students and was overwhelmingly petty-bourgeois in composition. That was clearly reflected in their political line. They were mainly active in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), the pacifist movement, and at that time they did not even regard themselves as Trotskyists (I imagine Tony Cliff himself would have been an exception to the rule but I cannot be sure). Their material was heavily biased towards a confused anarco-syndicalism. But then, this tendency has never distinguished itself by its theoretical clarity or consistency.
As we have seen, at that time, we were extremely weak organizationally. We had no money, no office, no real newspaper, and no full timers. Ted was working as a telephone operator. In order to combat the Healyites who had a weekly paper and a big apparatus, the comrades decided to collaborate with the Cliff group in setting up a new youth paper called Young Guard, with an agreed editorial line and signed articles. This was a big mistake.
The mistake was to look for shortcuts where none existed. I believe Jimmy Deane was largely responsible for the mistake. He was overly optimistic. In my opinion, this was a reflection of frustration and impatience, particularly on his part. Probably there was an element of demoralisation as a result of years in the wilderness with very few results. But as Trotsky said, the search for shortcuts inevitably leads to mistakes either of an ultra-left or opportunist character.
I remember being present in a discussion about the Young Guard. To the objections of some of the young comrades in London, Jimmy argued that the Cliff people were nothing, they had no level, and we could easily defeat them through the superiority of our arguments. The problem was that the Cliffites did not fight with arguments, but by manoeuvres and intrigues. The superiority of our arguments did not count for much in that milieu.
There was supposed to be a joint unsigned editorial, and then signed articles. Keith Dickinson from Liverpool, in whose name Rally had been published, was supposed to be Business Manager. But in practice, the Cliff group, who were stronger in London, packed the meetings and took it over. Immediately, disputes arose over defending Cuba in the 1962 missile crisis, the attitude to the USSR, etc. As a result the whole thing broke down. We made a serious mistake entering the Young Guard. After the Young Guard episode we faced a very serious situation. We were worse off than before. Rally was a dead duck and we were effectively without a paper. This underlines the point: there are no shortcuts in revolutionary politics.
The Healyites were on an ultra-left binge, trying to provoke a split in order to establish the mass “Workers’ Revolutionary Party”. Healy’s Socialist Labour League (SLL) was hell-bent on breaking the YS from the Labour Party. To this end they deliberately provoked expulsions. They used hooligan tactics, including physical violence against political rivals. These were methods copied directly from Third Period Stalinism.
The SLL would recruit declassed youth off the street on a non-political basis (inviting them to a social, dance, etc.). Then they would incite them to attack YS branches and break up meetings by force. The Party officials would then call the police and the SLL would take photos which appeared in their paper with titles such as “Pabloites and bureaucrats use police against working class youth”.
I remember one discussion in a pub, when comrades from the Clapham YS were asking Jimmy Deane how they should react to such provocations. He replied: “Naturally, if you are attacked you have to defend yourselves.” In some areas, the YS organized self-defence against these hooligan tactics, as in Glasgow, where the SLL provocateurs were “introduced to the pavement”. In Brighton, we decided that we would do the same and appealed to the students to go to the YS branch to defend it in case of trouble. We would not call the police, but would defend ourselves with all the necessary means. Fortunately, in our case, this was not necessary.
There was a particularly bad provocation in Wandsworth YS, where a comrade of ours, a Ceylonese (Sri Lankan) called Mani, was in the chair. A group of “Rockers” entered the meeting with milk bottles in their pockets. The kids were terrified, but Mani kept his nerve and asked them what they wanted. They replied that they had been told “there was a black man here who hates the Rockers”. Mani managed to get them to leave, but there were scuffles provoked by the SLLers in which a filing cabinet was broken.
This provocation gave an excuse for the Labour Party bureaucracy to intervene and demand expulsions. At the meeting of the GMC that followed, Mani counter-proposed the expulsion of those who were personally involved in violence. As a consequence, the Healyites persecuted Mani viciously. They raised a big scandal about our alleged collaboration with the bureaucracy in “expelling working class youth”.
Typically, these slanders were taken as good coin by the leaders of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI) led by Mandel. They were prepared to use any stick to beat us, even when it was provided by the enemies of the movement. Ted replied indignantly: “violence is not a political question!” Of course! There is not a single decent trade union branch that would tolerate such hooligan behaviour. Anybody who deliberately and systematically uses violence against members of the labour movement must be driven out.
The sectarian madness of the SLL actually led them to act as strike-breakers during the 1964 apprentices’ strike. As usual, their slogan was “rule or ruin”. Our tendency played an important role in the strike, together with the YCL (Young Communist League). This was unacceptable to the Healyites who denounced the official apprentices’ committee because it was led by “Pabloites” and “Stalinists”.
They deliberately split the apprentices’ committee, in order set up one under their control. They attempted to sabotage the strike in November, setting another date for their own apprentices’ strike three or four months later. During the November strike they distributed leaflets telling apprentices not to strike and to wait for the “real” strike. The resulting confusion naturally had a damaging effect on the strike, which ended in failure. Needless to say the “real” strike called by the SLL never materialised.
The Healyites organized a “YS Conference” at Morecambe in 1965, which represented a de facto rupture with the Labour Party. Anybody who went to this conference would be open to expulsion. The SLL therefore pulled out all the stops to get as many YS members as possible to go to Morecambe. We exerted every effort to prevent it. In Sussex, the Healyites called a conference to vote on a report back from their Morecambe Conference. This was a deliberate provocation. Since that Conference was illegal under the Labour Party Rules, anybody who attended it was liable to be expelled.
We mobilised all the YS branches in Sussex under our influence and went along to the meeting. Right at the start, we moved a vote of no confidence in the chair. This threw the Healyites into disarray. They did not know whether to vote against the motion or to refuse to recognise it. In the end, they decided to ignore it and commenced the report back from the Conference. We then called for a vote, which took place in the midst of uproar. Having passed the vote, we elected a new committee, the members of which stood, one by one, in front of the table while the speaker, by now completely invisible, continued to read a report that nobody was listening to. The vote having been concluded, we declared the meeting closed and walked out, leaving them with the rump. In this way we scotched the provocation and saved the YS, at least in Sussex. In other parts of the country, the YS was completely wrecked.
We had a number of unpleasant experiences with provocative elements who joined the organization at this point, mostly ex-SLLers who played a disruptive role. But by this time we were rallying our forces, and they realised that their provocations could not succeed in wrecking the organization. Gradually, painfully, we were beginning the process of ascent. It was still tough, and our progress was slower than what we would have liked, but we were definitely on the way up. However, there was still one more obstacle to overcome.
The “International Group”
I have the impression that Jimmy had already decided to throw in the towel, and as a last act of desperation, he threw all his weight behind what he hoped would be a successful unification with the International Group (IG). This was in line with the general position “for the unity of all Trotskyists” of the so-called Fourth International (of which our group was still the official British section). In 1963, the majorities of the two factions that had split the Fourth in 1953 came together and established the United Secretariat of the Fourth International. Ernest Mandel, Pierre Frank, Livio Maitan and Joseph Hansen were part of the new international leadership. With all his experience, Jimmy could not have had any illusions in the so-called leaders of the Fourth, but he deluded himself into adopting a kind of false optimism. It was Mr. Micawber all over again. Against all previous experience, he was confidently expecting that something would turn up. Naturally, all these illusions were in vain. It unravelled almost immediately.
The IG—led by our old friends Pat Jordan and Ken Coates—were a minuscule outfit based mainly in Nottingham. They called themselves the International Group. However, they were really not much of a group, and they were only international in the sense that they said amen to anything that came from Paris. Under the pressure of the United Secretariat we were once again dragged into a shotgun marriage with these hopeless people.
In the summer of 1964, a decision was taken to launch a new publication, and after much debate, the name of Militant was chosen. With the support of the leaders of the supposedly united Fourth International, however, once again we had the usual manoeuvres and intrigues. A unity conference was held in Sevenoaks in Kent on September 19–20, 1964. I was invited to attend, but was unable to make it.
With the excuse of helping the new section, the men in Paris sent us a full timer. This was the Canadian Alan Harris, a yes-man of Hansen and the American SWP (he was later known as Ernie Tate, which I guess was his real name).
He was so colourless that he was virtually invisible. I believe he had missed his vocation. He would have made a wholly admirable filing clerk in an accountants’ office. However, Harris had one outstanding virtue: he was loyal, that is, he was loyal to his bosses in Paris, and to nobody else. He installed himself in what was supposed to be the organization’s bookshop in a tiny room in Bow Lane in the City, near to St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Bank of England. This location was no doubt highly convenient for any Bishop desirous of acquiring a copy of Marx On Religion, or for a passing banker wishing to refresh his memory as to the contents of Capital, but quite useless from the standpoint of building in the labour movement. It was also extremely expensive.
From the beginning, he began intriguing behind the backs of the leadership to build the Jordan-Coates group as “loyal Internationalists” and undermine the position of Ted and Jimmy. Their tactic was to approach the students to strengthen the petty-bourgeois tendency. So when they heard that there was a young student comrade in Sussex University, they immediately invited me to a discussion in London. They did not inform Ted, but he found out about it and turned up anyway. However, Harris miscalculated badly. He tried to play the “studentist” card, following the revisionist line of the American SWP. But I was implacably opposed to this and petty-bourgeois politics in general. They made an even bigger mistake by praising the New Left and Ralph Milliband, all of whom I detested. I told them so in no uncertain terms and Ted was mightily pleased. He told me later: “I was going to intervene but I didn’t have to say anything.”
Alan Harris asked me what I thought of the Healyites and Keep Left. I replied that they were ultra-left adventurists and hooligans and we could have nothing to do with them. His opinion was that Keep Left was not a bad paper, “although it had a certain sectarian streak running through it.” Not long afterwards he had completely changed his tune. “The SLL is a sick organization”, he declared. Obviously he had received new orders from his bosses in Paris. He had absolutely no ideas of his own.
As a postscript, in a recent trip to Canada I was informed that Alan Harris/Ernie Tate was still around, and that he “hated Ted Grant with a passion”. I was very sorry to hear this because, as far as I remember, Ted never hated anybody, and least of all the man we knew as Alan Harris. What we have here, then, is a very sad case of unrequited hate, which must be considerably more painful than unrequited love. Poor Harris could never have given rise to any passion as powerful as hate. At the very most he might arouse a feeling of utter boredom.
The brief fusion with the IG soon broke down. In reality there was no political basis for the fusion. The rupture took place at a stormy meeting of the National Committee in London, which was attended by Pierre Frank and Joe Hansen from the International Secretariat. Pierre Frank created a very disagreeable impression. Of short stature, he had angry eyes, as if he was at war with the rest of the world. He called to mind one of Arthur Rackham’s cartoons of the dwarfish inhabitants of Niebelheim. He spoke stridently with a thick French accent.
By contrast, Joe Hansen was taller, with horn-rimmed glasses and a permanently benign expression on his face. He spoke quietly in measured tones and could have passed for a retired headmaster from an old-fashioned school for boys. They were working secretly together with Alan Harris, who organized a clandestine factional meeting before the NC. We found out about this and the matter was raised before the meeting proper had opened.
Jimmy Deane was in the chair, and Hansen and Frank were sitting opposite him on the other side of the table. The room, which as usual was upstairs in a London pub, was very small and there was not much space, so the IS representatives almost had their bellies against the edge of the table.
Jimmy immediately addressed his remarks to them, speaking with his thick Liverpool accent: “Before we start this meeting I demand an explanation from the representatives of the IS for their participation in a factional meeting before this NC.” Pierre Frank started to bluster something about how the minority was behaving in a “factional manner” in his barely incomprehensible English: “We consider that ze comrades of ze majority ‘ave also treated ze minority in a factional mannaire...”
Before he could finish the sentence, Jimmy sprang to his feet and slammed the table with his fist. The table seemed to jump several inches with the blow and so did Hansen and Frank. Seething with indignation, Jimmy bellowed out: “Factional! Factional! You dare to lecture us about factionalism! You were only in the movement for two minutes and you formed a faction against Trotsky!”
This caused quite a stir in the meeting, with Frank blustering incoherently, the IGers jumping up and down demanding “respect” for the leaders of the International, and Joe Hansen pleading for calm. It was quite a scene. When finally some semblance of order was restored, Ken Coates, in what was clearly a carefully prepared move, insisted on reading a “statement” from the IG. I cannot remember much about what it said, but it consisted of a long list of grouses about the organization. Their main complaint was that we had allegedly “supported the expulsion of left-wingers” from the Labour Party. This was a scandalous reference to the Wandsworth episode that I have already mentioned.
Immediately after reading it, and without giving us a chance to answer, they all walked out. Jimmy demanded that the representatives of the IS clarify their position on “this monstrous behaviour”. Naturally, they refused to condemn what was a very clear provocation. Thereafter, things moved rapidly.
The split-off group began to publish a duplicated 12-page “news service for socialists” with the exciting title The Week (we used to call them the “Weak People”). The editors were Ken Coates and the New Leftist Robin Blackburn, and it published a long list of MPs and other “celebrities” as its sponsors. In fact, it was not difficult for anybody to sponsor this publication, which was entirely devoid of anything resembling a revolutionary position. It was a carbon-copy repetition of Healy’s “Club” all over again.
To describe its line as reformism would be to do it a considerable disservice. I mean, it did not even reach the level of the palest of pink left-reformism. They refused to call for nationalisation, instead talking in general terms about workers’ control. They even set up an “Institute for Workers’ Control” run by Ken Coates—as if workers’ control was something one required to get a diploma in, instead of conquering it through the class struggle! Coates ended up as a Labour MEP, and no doubt got a very nice pension. We were well rid of him.
The IG continued with this opportunist line until the end of the 1960s. Then all of a sudden, they made an about-face and charged off in an ultra-left direction. I suspect that the events of May 1968 in France had gone to their heads. They became extreme studentists. They changed their name to the IMG (International Marxist Group) and walked out of the Labour Party. In the general election of 1970, they not only called on workers to abstain, but even recommended that they go along to Labour Party election meetings and break them up! Needless to say, they never tried to put this brilliant plan into action themselves.
Their most prominent figure was a student called Tariq Ali, who gained a certain (completely undeserved) notoriety as a “revolutionary”. As one could safely predict, he has ended up, like so many of the “generation of ‘68” with a very comfortable job in the media, where he very occasionally reminisces about his “revolutionary days”, while drawing a very fat salary for his services.
Expelled from the International
Up to 1965, we were still formally the British section of the “Fourth International” of Mandel and co., which was in the process (allegedly) of unifying all the Trotskyist tendencies in the world into the “United Secretariat”. Ted was always sceptical about the so-called unification of the Fourth. Pablo and Mandel had split with Cannon, Hansen and the American SWP in 1953 on an unprincipled basis, and the so-called re-unification ten years later was also completely unprincipled. Ted predicted that they would succeed in uniting two groups into ten. This judgement proved to be quite correct.
The discussions in the International were largely a waste of time, except for one thing. We were able to “cut our teeth” on the debates on questions like the class nature of the USSR, China, Cuba, Eastern Europe, etc. In addition, we had to answer the arguments of the Cliff Group, who defended the theory of state capitalism.
Even before the re-unification congress there were splits: Posadas led a split of the Latin American Bureau, while the British Healyites and the French Lambertists refused to have anything to do with the whole thing. They had their own “International Committee”. On the other hand, Pablo, who had been the leader in the past, clashed with Mandel and Hansen on the question of Russia and was promptly kicked out by his old friends. Both sides had an incorrect position. Pablo in effect had a position of supporting the Russian bureaucracy on the grounds that Khrushchev was de-bureaucratising the bureaucracy. On the other hand, Mandel, Hansen, Maitan and co. had the position of uncritical support for Mao (an “unconscious Trotskyist”) and the Chinese bureaucracy.
In typically opportunist fashion, Mandel and co. capitulated to Maoism. This capitulation assumed extreme, almost farcical proportions at times. In Italy it led to a disaster. In the early sixties, the Maoists were an insignificant force in Italy. But the USFI soon changed all that. Since there was no Chinese embassy in Italy at that time, Livio Maitan, the main leader of the Italian Mandelites, went to Switzerland to obtain large quantities of Maoist literature from the embassy there, which his followers distributed massively in Italy. The result was the creation of a sizeable Maoist organization in Italy. The USFI gained nothing whatsoever from this. In fact, they lost many of their members to the Maoists. That was only natural. If Mao was an “unconscious Trotskyist”, and there was really no difference between Maoism and Trotskyism, what reason was there for the Fourth International to exist?
There was a small Irish group at the time led by a man called Gerry Lawless (he died recently). I met him at the time and found him a personally likeable character but also an adventurer—what we call “a bit of a chancer”. He was a great talker and had a strong Dublin accent. The first time we met he informed me that “the trouble with the Irish is that they are obsessed with debt”. At least I thought that was what he said. Later I realised that the problem was his accent. What he meant was “the Irish are obsessed with death”. Nowadays, though, I think the first variant might be more correct.
In their revisionist stupidity, the International pushed the Irish group into a hasty unification with the Irish Communist Organization, a Maoist outfit led by Brendan Clifford. Gerry must have thought this was a good idea. So they agreed to unite on the basis that neither side would talk about Trotsky or Stalin, an agreement that was loyally kept by the “Trotskyists” but immediately broken by Clifford, who launched an all-out attack on Trotskyism and all its works. Since the leaders of the Irish group had no idea how to answer these attacks they asked Ted Grant to do it for them. The result was an excellent document entitled The Reply to Clifford. It was a devastating and comprehensive refutation of Stalinism. The Irish comrades presented it in their own name, but it was entirely Ted’s work. Needless to say this unification ended in tears, just like all the others.
The conflict with the International came to a head at the 1965 World Congress. Ted wrote a long document called The Sino-Soviet Dispute and the Colonial Revolution, in which he comprehensively answered the arguments of the International leadership. Above all, as Ted explained,
Trotsky once warned of the possibility of the disappearance of the Fourth International if it did not find a road to the masses. This can be reinforced with a further warning. Unless the basic ideas of Trotskyism, enriched and developed but in fundamentals the same, are not emphasised and drummed into the consciousness of the cadres, the International can degenerate impressionistically and tail behind the left reformists, Chinese Stalinists or Russian Stalinists. There must be no empirical bowing down to events, the basic issues must be brought forward again and again, especially in the theoretical works and journals of the International.
The problem has to be posed sharply: either the colonial revolutions have taken the particular form they have because of the delay in the revolution in the advanced countries... or there is no role for the Fourth International except as self-appointed and benevolent advisors to Castro, Mao and Ben Bella.
Here it should be made clear that from a Marxist point of view the arguments of Plekhanov and the theoreticians of Menshevism—that Russia was not ripe for socialism in 1917 are and were perfectly correct... if Russia is taken in isolation from the world and the internationalist perspectives of Bolshevism. All other tendencies, cliques and groupings in the labour movement are doomed to sterility and collapse for lack of the internationalist perspective as the basis for their work. The colonial revolutions mark a gigantic step forward for all mankind. But their very success poses new contradictions and convulsions for all of them. The solution of the problem can only be found in the international arena and in the victory of the working class in the advanced countries.
The conditions in which the revolution has taken place, and is developing in these countries, dooms them to new political revolutions, for the purpose of creating workers’ democracy. The task of Marxism consists in arming at least the vanguard in understanding these developments and the problems they pose.
Above all, the advanced elements in the CP can be won on a firm basis, only if they understand this basic approach. An eclectic approach that the Chinese are right in this argument or the Russians right on that, will convince hardly anybody. It can only confuse the cadres of Trotskyism themselves by hair-splitting and scholasticism.
The real reason for the conflict between Russia and China must be brought out sharply. For Marxists this can only be the Great Power National Interests of both Bureaucracies, i.e. the power, privileges, income and prestige of the ruling stratum in both countries. This is not incidental to the argument but must be the central theme. It is impossible to explain this phenomenon, like that of the policy of the Labour Bureaucracy, in any other way and still claim to stand on the principles of Marxism. It is not merely the ideological ghosts and rationalisations that we must be concerned with, but the real and corporeal interests of the bureaucracy.
Today, as always, Marxism remains the science of perspectives. Without a clear perspective, the international movement will be doomed to degeneration and collapse.
Although we had very few resources, the comrades decided to print the whole document and send it to the IS because they did not trust them to distribute our ideas. However, when the comrades arrived they found that the document had not been sent out. Ted remarked indignantly: “Lenin said the Second International was not an International but a post office. These people are not even a post office.”
Although the document of the British section was the only opposition text before the Congress, Ted told me he was given just fifteen minutes (including translation) to present it. I do not know if these times were correct, but they must have been very limited, since the leadership was in a hurry to get the business in Britain over and done with.
In theory, the British section was not expelled but only reduced to sympathiser status, on the same level as the International Group. They did not want us as the official section but at the same time they were not too sure that the IG would be viable. Typically, the International leadership wanted to keep their options open. They would continue to intrigue and manoeuvre, playing one group against another.
This was a dishonest expulsion, and Ted was having none of it. He told the Congress: “You have expelled us three times. If you expel us now, we will not be back for a very long time. We have been part of this International for thirty years, and that is enough to draw some conclusions. Anyone can make a mistake. But if you make the same mistake repeatedly and fail to recognize it or draw the conclusions, it is no longer a mistake but a tendency.”
This outcome was not really a surprise. We were always in opposition in the Pablo-Mandel International. Pablo and Mandel held openly revisionist positions on everything. They had illusions in China, Yugoslavia, North Vietnam and later Cuba, where they described Castro as yet another unconscious Trotskyist. Summing up his verdict on the leaders of the Fourth, Ted said: “Between them, Pablo, Frank, Mandel, Cannon, Hansen, Lambert, Healy, and Maitan succeeded in completely disorienting the movement, leading it from one crisis to another. In the end, they destroyed it”.
“Of course, anyone can make a mistake,” he added. “But if you make a mistake you must be honest about it: admit you have made a mistake and learn from it. That was always the method of Lenin and Trotsky. But these people made one mistake after another and were never prepared to admit it. That is why they hated the RCP leadership—because they knew we had been right and they could not accept it. It hurt their prestige, which they put before the interests of the movement. What we have here is a petty-bourgeois tendency, if we are to call things by their right name.”
After this, we were isolated internationally, with no supporters outside the UK. We did not even have anyone in Ireland. Despite this, at every meeting of the National Committee (as the leading body was then called), the first session was always on International Perspectives, and only then British Perspectives. We considered ourselves first and foremost as internationalists. It was Ted who insisted on this.
However, he was equally adamant that we must break once and for all with the so-called Fourth International: “We must turn our backs on the sects and face to the mass organizations of the working class,” he insisted. Whenever we would receive a letter from one or another of the sects asking for a “united front” on this or that, Ted always said: “Put it straight in the waste paper basket.” The only united front he was interested in was the united front with the working class. That was quite correct, and it paid off in the end.
One of the main mistakes of all the tendencies that claimed to be Trotskyist was their complete failure to understand the complex processes of the colonial revolution after 1945. Their whole approach to the question was characterised by formalism and a lack of dialectical thinking. They saw the permanent revolution as an abstract norm that was to be applied mechanically to every situation in a clinically pure form, without taking into consideration the concrete conditions of each case. But the truth, as Hegel pointed out, is always concrete.
Lenin said: “Whoever expects a ‘pure’ social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.” (The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up, LCW, vol. 22, pp. 320-360). The mistake of every other tendency was to expect it to conform to the classical model of the Russian Revolution. Whenever the concrete facts diverged from the norm, they refused to accept them.
Such a method has nothing in common with Marxism. This formalistic thinking has more in common with idealism than with dialectical materialism. It is the reason why some so-called Trotskyists fell into the trap of “state capitalism” and “bureaucratic collectivism”. It is no accident that Trotsky in In Defence of Marxism, accused Burnham and Shachtman of abandoning dialectics. As with the revolutions in Eastern Europe and also with the Chinese and Cuban Revolutions, they tried to mechanically apply an abstract norm of revolution to processes that were substantially different.
Ted’s development of Trotsky’s theory of proletarian Bonapartism proved invaluable. The permanent revolution was being carried out, but in a distorted way that Trotsky could never have foreseen. In his remarkable document, The Marxist Theory of the State (Reply to Cliff), he comprehensively demolished the revisionist theory of “state capitalism” and showed how Trotsky’s analysis of the USSR as a bureaucratically deformed workers’ state was correct. The subsequent developments in Eastern Europe, China, and also the peculiar forms assumed by the colonial revolution, given the delay of the socialist revolution in the West, were explained by Ted in his analysis of the phenomenon of proletarian Bonapartism.
The first stage of the colonial revolution was the conquest of national liberation. But the mere conquest of national sovereignty, under modern conditions, solved nothing. The ex-colonial countries found themselves enslaved once more. The only difference was that instead of being enslaved by one colonial master, they were exploited jointly by the imperialist countries. In place of direct military-bureaucratic rule from London or Paris, they were oppressed and robbed through the mechanism of the world market and international trade.
Formal independence solved none of the fundamental problems. As the theory of the permanent revolution explains, there was no way out on the basis of capitalism. Therefore, the national liberation struggle tended to go beyond the limits of capitalist private property. In Cuba, a guerrilla war led to the expropriation of landlordism and capitalism. Having used the guerrilla army to smash the old state, Fidel Castro leaned on the support of the working class to expropriate the imperialists and their local agents, the landlords and capitalists. This was an enormous step forward, which Ted welcomed with enthusiasm.
The comrades regarded it as an international duty to defend the Cuban Revolution. This is an appeal circular from Socialist Fight, signed by Ted on November 20, 1960:
The American government, aided by other imperialist powers, is actively seeking a pretext to launch a war against the peoples of Cuba and Central America, who have carried through measures to emancipate themselves from poverty, misery and imperialist bondage. Already the American imperialists have attempted to force the Cuban people to retreat by boycotting her goods and closing the normal outlets for her products.
This organisation calls upon the TUC and the NEC of the Labour Party to declare its opposition to any measures against the peoples of Cuba and its determination to support by all means the heroic struggle of these peoples against imperialism.
However, there was another side to the question. The Cuban Revolution did not take the classical form of a proletarian revolution, and the working class never held power as they did through soviets, as in Russia in 1917. New contradictions flowed inevitably from this fact.
The peculiar forms taken by the colonial revolution since 1945 can only be explained by the delay of the proletarian revolution in the West, and the absence of genuine Leninist parties. The masses in Africa, Asia and Latin America could not afford to wait until the working class came to power in Europe and the USA. Their problems were too pressing. In the absence of the working class and its party, the leadership of the colonial revolution fell into other hands.
The rotten colonial bourgeoisie, as Trotsky had predicted, was organically incapable of fighting imperialism. The leadership of the revolution therefore fell to petty-bourgeois elements, who put themselves at the head of the peasant masses to effect a revolutionary transformation. However, socialism must be based on the democratic rule of the working class. In the absence of a Leninist Party, and with the existence of powerful deformed workers’ states in Russia and China, it was inevitable that the Cuban Revolution would suffer a process of bureaucratic deformation from the start.
An even more peculiar variant of the permanent revolution occurred in Syria, where a section of the military officer caste carried out a coup and proceeded to nationalise more and more sections of the economy, eventually setting up a system modelled on that of the Soviet Union.
After the Second World War, the French were pushed out of Syria, but the country remained under the domination of imperialism. The local bourgeoisie was weak and unable to create a truly modern, independent bourgeois state. It was a corrupt comprador bourgeoisie at the service of imperialism.
In these conditions, Syria could not emerge from its historical backwardness. The peasants could play no independent role, and therefore, the task of modernising the country, which could only be achieved through the socialist transformation of the country, fell to the working class. Unfortunately, the workers were led by parties such as the Syrian Communist Party, which had no perspective of overthrowing the bourgeoisie through socialist revolution. On the contrary, its leaders were constantly seeking alliances with the so-called “progressive” bourgeoisie, which did not exist.
The inability of the Syrian bourgeoisie to develop the country, and the failure of the working class to take power as a result of the treacherous policies of the Stalinists, created a situation of crisis and instability in which the army constantly intervened in politics. However, we must bear in mind that the Syrian army, as in many other Middle Eastern and ex-colonial countries, is not the same as the armies of most developed capitalist nations.
Whereas the officer castes of Europe and the USA are the product of a long historical selection, and more directly represent the interests of the ruling class from which they are drawn, the situation here is more complicated. Whereas the upper echelons of the Syrian army were drawn from the feudal strata, the middle and lower ranks were drawn from the petty-bourgeoisie and reflected the pressures of the latter. Ted wrote on this in 1978:
In bourgeois countries in the past, where the bourgeoisie has a role to play and looks forward confidently to the future—i.e. when it is genuinely progressive in developing the productive forces—it has decades and generations to perfect the state as an instrument of its own class rule. The army, police, civil service, middle layers and especially all key positions at the top; heads of civil service, heads of departments, police chiefs, the officer corps and especially the colonels and generals are carefully selected to serve the needs and interests of the ruling class. With a developing economy and a mission and a role they eagerly serve the “national interest” i.e. the interest of the possessing class—the ruling class.
In Syria, as in all the ex-colonial countries, the imperialists, in this case the French, partly under the pressure of their rivals, especially American imperialism, were compelled to relinquish their direct military domination. The state which emerged is not fixed and static. The weakness and incapacity of the bourgeoisie gave a certain independence to the military caste. Hence the perpetual coups and counter-coups of the military. But in the last analysis they reflect the class interests of the ruling class. They cannot play an independent role.
The struggle between the cliques in the army reflects the instability and contradictions in the given society. The personal aims of the generals reflect the differing interests of social classes or fractions of classes of society, the petit-bourgeois in its various fractions, the bourgeoisie, or even under certain conditions the proletariat in so far as they are successful in gaining power. The officer caste must reflect the interest of some class or grouping in society. They do not represent themselves though of course they can plunder the society and elevate their own ruling caste. Nevertheless they must have a class basis in a given society.
Bonapartist regimes do not rest on air but balance between the classes. In the final analysis they represent whichever is the dominant class in society. The economy of that class determines its class character. Some of these countries, as in Latin America, a semi-colonial continent which was under the domination of British then especially American imperialism for the last century, nevertheless, have been nominally independent for more than a century. In consequence, despite a period of turbulence the ruling class of landowners and capitalists has had sufficient period to perfect their state. Sometimes the armed forces of different fractions or factions of armed forces, can reflect different fractions of the ruling class and even the pressures of imperialism, primarily American imperialism.
But, up to now, they have always reflected the interest of the ruling class in the defence of private ownership (...)
Marxism finds in the development of the productive forces the key to the development of society. On a capitalist basis there is no longer a way forward, particularly for backward countries. That is why army officers, intellectuals and others, affected by the decay of their societies can under certain conditions switch their allegiance. A change to proletarian Bonapartism actually enlarges their power, prestige, privileges and income. They become the sole commanding and directing stratum of the society, raising themselves even higher over the masses than in the past. Instead of being subservient to the weak, craven and ineffectual bourgeoisie they become the masters of society.
The tendency towards statification of the productive forces, which have grown beyond the limits of private ownership, is manifest in the most highly developed economies and even in the most reactionary colonial countries.
There is no possibility of a consistent, uninterrupted and continuous increase in productive forces in the countries of the so-called third world on a capitalist basis. Production stagnates or falls. In the world recessions, particularly in the smaller countries, living standards fall. There is no way out on the basis of the capitalist system. That explains the terror regimes of bourgeois Bonapartism like that of Pakistan, Indonesia, Argentina, Chile and Zaire. But with bayonets and bullets, on the basis of an out-dated and antiquated system, only very temporary respite is given. Discontent multiplies and is reflected in the officer caste of the armed forces and throughout the society. This in turn leads to conspiracies of individuals and groups of officers.
The army is a mirror of society and reflects its contradictions. That and not the mere whims of the officers concerned, is the cause of the upheavals as in Syria. It is an indication of the agonised crisis of society, which cannot be solved in the old way. These strata of society can espouse “socialism” of the Stalinist variety—proletarian Bonapartism—all the more enthusiastically because of their contempt for the masses of workers and peasants.
The horrible caricature of workers’ rule in Russia, China, and the other countries of deformed workers’ states attracts them precisely because of the position of the “intellectual” educated cadres of that society. What is repulsive to Marxism is what attracts the Stalinists.
All that these states have in common with healthy workers’ states or with the Russia of 1917-23 is state ownership of the means of production. On that basis they can plan and develop the productive resources with forced marches at a pace absolutely impossible on their former landlord-capitalist basis. This is possible of course for only a limited period of time. At some point the Stalinist regimes become an absolute hindrance and a fetter to production. Russia and Eastern Europe are reaching these limits. In common with a healthy workers’ state on the accepted Marxist norm is the fact that they are transitional economies between capitalism and socialism. (Ted Grant, The Colonial Revolution and the Deformed Workers’ States, July 1978)
In the case of Syria, there were a series of coups that reflected the impasse of society under capitalism. But the 1963 coup, however, was very different from the ones that had preceded it. This time, the regime that was created by the coup proceeded to carry out measures of land redistribution and the nationalisation of the private banks, going much further than even Nasser had done in Egypt. This was later followed by the nationalisation of the oil companies and other the major industries.
This provoked the reaction of the mullahs, the small shopkeepers and the “business community”, that is, the bourgeoisie, leading to civil war on the streets. For the left-wing army officers it was now a life and death issue. Power was seized by radical young officers who leaned on the masses to carry out a complete social transformation. To carry out the struggle successfully, the Ba’ath government had to appeal to the workers and peasants of Syria for support. Thousands of peasants flocked into Damascus to demonstrate their fervent support for these measures.
The Ba’athist officers set up a militia and a peasant army to smash the reaction and break the power of the old rotten, pro-imperialist, semi-feudal, semi-capitalist regime. In the process, a new state machine was created, with almost the whole of industry in state hands, and a large part of the land as well. To break the possible resistance of the capitalists, special courts were organised, with powers up to the death penalty for anyone trying to obstruct these new measures.
By 1966, the bulk of the economy was in the hands of the state, which now controlled the development of natural resources, electricity generation, water supplies, most industrial plants, banking, insurance, sections of the transport system, most of foreign trade and the domestic wholesale trade. The government also controlled most of the investments, credit and pricing of many commodities.
Ted Grant greeted this development with enthusiasm, just as he had welcomed the Chinese and Cuban Revolutions. The abolition of landlordism and capitalism represented a huge step forward. However, the revolution had been carried out in a Bonapartist manner, which distorted it from the outset.
We supported the nationalisations. At the same time we had no illusions about the nature of the regime. Although nationalisations and other measures were progressive, the lack of workers’ democracy, of workers’ control and management of industry, meant that what had come into being in Syria was a system like that in the Soviet Union, that is, a totalitarian one-party dictatorship, with power concentrated in the hands of a privileged bureaucracy. This was not “socialism”. As in the USSR, for such a system to move towards genuine socialism would have required a second, political, revolution.
Initially, the nationalization of the productive forces gave good results, providing Syria with a privileged position in comparison to other Arab nations. But subsequent history has shown the limitations and contradictions of proletarian Bonapartism. Even before the fall of the USSR, there was a tendency to swing back in the direction of capitalism. In the case of Syria, capitalist restoration has had the most catastrophic effects. The regime is now in a complete impasse, which has dragged the country into a bloody civil war that threatens to reduce it to barbarism.
The same process was seen later in Ethiopia and Somalia. But the clearest example was in Afghanistan, where the Saur Revolution of 1978–79 followed a similar process to that in Syria. On this I can speak to some extent from personal experience.
About fifteen years ago I met some of the leaders of the Afghan Revolution, who were at that time in exile in Pakistan. One of them was a tank commander who had led an assault on the Kabul prison where the leaders of the Communist Party were awaiting execution. They blasted a hole in the prison walls and released the prisoners. The other was an air force general who, at the same time as the attack on the prison, led a squadron of MiG fighters that bombed the presidential palace, killing the entire government.
This was no ordinary military coup. It placed power in the hands of the most radical faction of the Afghan Communist Party. Yet Moscow knew nothing about it, and would have opposed it if they had. Since 1947, Afghanistan had been under the influence of the Russian government and received large amounts of aid, economic assistance, military equipment, training and military hardware from the Soviet Union. The Moscow bureaucracy had excellent relations with the Daoud government and monarchy and had no wish to see them overthrown. In addition, a revolution in Afghanistan would upset the delicate balance of forces in the region, and the Soviets’ agreement with US imperialism over “spheres of influence”.
I had a long discussion with them in Russian, which they all spoke fluently, since they had received their military instruction in the Soviet Union. It is one thing to understand a phenomenon theoretically, in the abstract. It is quite another to see it in concrete terms. Speaking to these men, I could see clearly their psychology and understand the whole process concretely. Given the extreme backwardness of Afghanistan, it was easy to see how they would have been impressed by what they saw just a few hundred miles over the border in Soviet Uzbekistan.
In 1970, while studying in Moscow, I visited Soviet Central Asia and was struck by Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, which was a modern city comparable to any in Europe. Everywhere there were clean streets, blocks of apartments, hospitals, schools and universities. Just imagine the impression this would have made on young Afghan army officers who would have compared these marvels with the dirt, ignorance and poverty of their native land.
The Saur Revolution carried out a whole series of progressive measures. The government passed decrees abolishing the selling of brides and giving equality to women. It announced a land reform and the cancellation of farmers’ debts. These measures met with the ferocious opposition of the powerful land owners and moneylenders, whose interests were hit by the abolition of usury. The mullahs joined forces with the moneylenders, although usury is supposed to be prohibited by Islam.
In 1978, Ted wrote a brilliant article about the events in Afghanistan. I showed them a copy that had been translated into Urdu, which they could read. They were astonished by what they read. “That is exactly how it was!” they exclaimed. They found it hard to believe that such an article could have been written by somebody who was not an Afghan and lived thousands of miles away in London.
The position that Ted took in relation to Afghanistan was a very good example of the Marxist dialectical method. By contrast, all the other tendencies on the Left adopted positions that ranged from the incorrect to the criminal. The Stalinists naturally supported the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan uncritically. But the majority of the Afghan Communists, including the men I spoke to, were opposed to it.
They had a point. With their crude bureaucratic mentality, the men in Moscow imagined they could solve everything with guns and tanks. They did not take into account the complex realities of Afghan society and the traditions and psychology of the Afghan people. The Afghans do not like foreign intruders. This truth was made clear to every foreign invader from Alexander the Great onwards.
By blundering onto the scene, murdering the leader of the Afghan Communist Party, and imposing a puppet, the Russians provided invaluable ammunition to the forces of reaction both inside and outside Afghanistan. The result in the end was a disastrous defeat, not only for the Afghan Revolution but for the USSR itself.
The Stalinists to this day argue that the Soviet army did not invade Afghanistan but was “invited in by the Afghan government”.
Even worse was the position taken by so-called Marxists like the British SWP, who openly sided with the forces of reaction in Afghanistan. Following their false theory of state capitalism to its logical conclusion, they branded the Soviet invasion as “imperialist” and backed the counter-revolutionary mujahedeen, who they described as “freedom fighters”—the same language that was used by Washington and the prostitute media in the West.
That was a blatant lie. There was absolutely nothing progressive about this gang of reactionary cut-throats. They were mainly composed of bandits, drug dealers, and other criminal elements that fused with religious fanatics to form the shock troops of the counter-revolution. They represented the interests of the landlords, the mullahs and the moneylenders, not the Afghan people.
The so-called freedom fighters were supported, financed and armed by US imperialism. On July 3, 1979, US President Jimmy Carter signed the first directive for covert financial aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul.
Those groups on the Left that supported these monsters committed a crime. Ted said: “If one could take Afghanistan in isolation, it would be correct to support the Soviet invasion. But it is not possible to take Afghanistan in isolation. One has to take into account the effects of this internationally, on consciousness, and this will be entirely reactionary.” That is why we opposed it.
As on every other question, our attitude to Afghanistan was determined by the effects on the consciousness of the working class internationally. The truth is that the Moscow bureaucracy was never in favour of a socialist revolution in Afghanistan. The Saur Revolution was carried out without their knowledge and against their wishes. What they wanted was a relatively stable and friendly buffer state on their south-eastern border. Lacking a revolutionary policy, the masters of the Kremlin based themselves on brute force and an overwhelming display of military might. But this did not work in the concrete conditions of Afghanistan. In fact, it was counterproductive.
The Soviet intervention provided the excuse for US imperialism (“the most counter-revolutionary force on the planet”, to quote Ted’s words) to intervene, using its Pakistani ally Zia ul-Haq. It enabled the reactionary opposition, which was initially little more than a bunch of bandits, to mobilize the mass of backward Afghan peasants and tribesmen against the foreign invaders. Resentment against foreigners was mixed with religious fanaticism in an explosive cocktail.
Worse still were the negative international repercussions. The American imperialists, together with their Saudi and Pakistani stooges, took advantage of the situation to launch a so-called jihad against the “foreigners and infidels”, which ultimately led to the creation of reactionary movements like al Qaeda and the Taliban.
I know from my personal discussions with these prominent figures in the Afghan Revolution that many, if not most, Afghan communists were opposed to the entry of the Russian army into Afghanistan, or at any rate had serious doubts about it. At the time, I think not many even of our own comrades understood just how unerring Ted’s grasp of the situation was. But how true his words come across today!
The Russian invasion did not save the Afghan Revolution, but fatally undermined it. It created the conditions for Islamic fundamentalist reaction in Pakistan and all over the Muslim world. It spawned monsters like the Taliban, al-Qaeda and Bin Laden. It prepared the way for the events of 9/11 and the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. And we are living with the consequences to this very today.