[Book] Ted Grant - The permanent revolutionary

Chapter Ten: A New Beginning

I was ever a fighter, so—one fight more,
The best and the last!
I would hate that death bandaged my eyes, and forebore,
And bade me creep past
. (Robert Browning, Prospice)

Alien methods

The last days of Militant present an unedifying spectacle from which most people will turn aside with distaste. Is this the way they behave in Trotskyist organizations? The answer to this perfectly reasonable question is an emphatic “no”! These methods were entirely alien to our movement and contradictory to everything Trotsky ever said or wrote.

Sometime in the 1980s, when Ted was in Paris visiting his sister, he had a conversation with Raoul, an old friend of his who was a veteran Trotskyist and a member of the Lambertist organization. He asked Ted if he would meet its political leader, Lambert. Ted was not very keen, but out of friendship he finally agreed. Then he found out that Lambert had recently expelled one of their leaders, Stephane Just. Not only did they expel him, but anyone who defended him was also expelled. When Ted found this out he was indignant. He told Raoul that he would not meet Lambert. He said: “Anyone who behaves in this way will never build a revolutionary party in a thousand years.”

The poison of Stalinism has been carried over into the many sects that pretend to stand for Trotskyism, although usually in its milder form, which we know as Zinovievism. This pernicious disease comes from the fact that the leaders of these groups do not possess the political level to answer criticisms, and are therefore obliged to use other methods: insults, distortions, intrigues and administrative measures.

These methods are sometimes interpreted as a sign of Bolshevik “toughness”. But in reality, they are proof, not of strength, but of extreme weakness. The appearance of a monolithic unity is merely a screen to disguise a leadership that has no confidence in itself, its ideas or in the membership. Such organizations are inherently unstable and prone to splits and crises.

With such methods it is impossible to build a genuine Bolshevik organization. The history of the Fourth International is clear proof of this. Ted Grant was always implacably opposed to those methods. He was always confident in his ability to answer any criticisms whatsoever. In the last analysis, it was this colossal political and moral authority that guaranteed a healthy internal regime.

Ted Grant always had his eyes firmly fixed on the high ground. Like Trotsky, his actions were dictated, not by petty manoeuvres and intrigues, but on political principles and Marxist perspectives, and these are what are decisive in the long run. Ted lost the vote but won the argument, as the history of the last twenty years has amply demonstrated.

Ted’s “mistakes”

Now that the old lion is dead every ass thinks he may kick at him. (James Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson)

The political differences that were present during the factional fight did not emerge as clearly as they should have, in great measure because the Majority deliberately concealed its real objectives, which have since become manifest. The mistakes of the Majority have deepened and become organic. They stumble from one blunder to another and constantly lose members.

In order to conceal their mistakes and hide the genuine causes for the split, the leaders of the Majority faction constantly harp on Ted’s alleged “mistakes”. This whole approach is completely dishonest. Taaffe later wrote:

Important political differences occurred over the world financial crisis in 1987. As soon as the 1987 share crash took place, Grant was predicting a world economic slump, “within six months”, along the lines of 1929-32. His thinking was unfortunately, reflected in the pages of Militant. In its initial comments on these developments it stated: “A major slump in production and trade is assured, perhaps even before the summer of 1988”. His co-thinker, Michael Roberts, stated that the October crash “is a barometer predicting the impending storm that will exceed anything experienced by capitalism in the post-war period, possibly matching the great slump of the 1930s”.

This approach was vigorously opposed by me and Lynn Walsh in the British Executive and National Committees, and by me, Tony Saunois and Bob Labi in the International Secretariat of the CWI. As usual, Woods slavishly supported Grant. (Peter Taaffe, Militant’s Real History: In Reply to Ted Grant and Rob Sewell)

This is false from start to finish. If it is true that Peter Taaffe and the others “vigorously opposed” Ted’s position in 1987, then this “vigorous opposition” must be available in written form, either in an alternative document, or at the very least in an amendment. Yet our “vigorous opponents” never quote a single line from their documents and amendments, for the simple reason that they do not exist.

Even more astonishing is what he writes about the paper. The EC was supposed to be in charge of the political line of the paper. The majority of the EC were loyal supporters of Peter Taaffe. If the line of the paper was so bad, why did they allow these bad articles to be published? Or if they did not agree with an article in the paper, what was to stop them from publishing a reply? You can be sure that Ted would have been delighted to have a written debate, either in the paper or in the internal bulletin. I do not think that Peter Taaffe or any of the other people mentioned were shrinking violets. So why did they not write a reply?

The truth of the matter is that never, at any time, did they “vigorously oppose” anything. What they did do—and they did this systematically and over a long period—was to make smarmy comments in the corners about Ted and his ideas. If later—as was normally the case—what Ted said turned out to be correct, they kept quiet. But if by chance some things did not turn out exactly as he had predicted, then they were jubilant: “You see! I told you so! He is losing his grip! He is out of touch! etc., etc.”

Was Ted mistaken in predicting a slump in 1987? Let us see. The stock exchange crash did in fact lead to a recession in 1990, but it was a relatively mild recession, not a deep slump. The main reason for this was the emergence of new markets in China and elsewhere in Asia, which temporarily gave capitalism a breathing space. There was a boom, followed by another recession in the early 2000s, expressed as a decline in economic activity, mainly in developed countries. The recession affected the European Union during 2000 and 2001, and the United States in 2002 and 2003. Britain, Canada and Australia avoided the recession for the most part.

Ted explained that the boom was kept going by a massive expansion of credit, which, as Marx explains, can temporarily take capitalism beyond its limits, before bouncing back like an elastic band stretched almost to breaking-point. A further element in the situation was the colossal increase in the public deficit of the USA and other capitalist countries, which fuelled the boom for a while, but which could not be sustained indefinitely.

Precisely these factors, which served to prolong the boom of the last twenty years, have now turned into their opposite. The reason the Western world is finding it so hard to drag itself out of recession now is because during the boom they used up the mechanisms which capitalism typically uses to try to get out of a slump. The uncontrolled expansion of credit has left the West (and Japan) with a painful hangover in the form of huge consumer and state indebtedness.

What we have now is precisely what Ted predicted over 20 years ago: this is the worst slump in the entire history of capitalism. It has indeed “exceeded anything experienced by capitalism in the post-war period, possibly matching the great slump of the 1930s.” So what was Ted’s mistake? It was a mistake of fact, but not of method; it was a mistake of timing, but not of theory. That is all. Taaffe and his friends, who were incapable of predicting anything, make a big song and dance over this. Yet Ted Grant was not alone in making such “terrible mistakes”.

After the defeat of the revolutions of 1848, Marx and Engels believed that a new revolutionary wave was imminent, and said so on more than one occasion. Yet no such thing occurred. Indeed, Engels later wrote of the “forty years winter sleep” of the English proletariat. The reason for their error was that capitalism was entering into a phase of expansion on a world scale, the extent of which was not immediately clear to them. Once the facts asserted themselves more clearly, they changed their perspectives accordingly.

Let us take another example, which we have mentioned previously. In 1938, Trotsky said that in ten years, not one stone upon another would be left of the old organizations of the Stalinists and Social Democrats. What would comrade Taaffe and his friends have said about that? Would they have “vigorously opposed” Trotsky, Marx and Engels? Sadly, we will never know.

Trotsky’s prognosis was falsified by history, just as happened with Marx and Engels after 1848. They were mistaken. But their mistakes were of a factual, not a methodological character. What do we mean by this? Marxism is a science, but it is not an exact science, like mathematics or astronomy. An astronomer can establish the position of a galaxy millions of light years away, often with absolute certainty. But there are sciences and sciences.

Geology is a science. It can tell us precisely in what places on the earth’s surface an earthquake is likely to take place. But it cannot tell us exactly when such an event will occur. Predictions in this area are merely educated guesses.

Medicine is also a science, but not an exact one. Basing himself, on the one hand on his knowledge of medical science, and, on the other, on all the available symptoms, a doctor arrives at a diagnosis. There are always various possibilities: for example, a stomach pain may signify an ulcer, colic or stomach cancer. But, at the end of the day, the doctor must decide which is the most likely, because he must pass from theory to action, in order to cure the disease.

However, even the best doctor can make a mistaken diagnosis, usually because some of the relevant facts were unknown to him or her. This does not necessarily disqualify the doctor. Nor does it invalidate medicine as a science. It most certainly does not mean that a doctor must never give a diagnosis because it may be mistaken. That would render all of medicine completely useless.

“Conditional perspectives”

It is quite wrong to ask more of a perspective than it is able to give. To do so would be to discredit the very idea of perspectives. Perspectives are not a blueprint for precisely what will happen, but only a working hypothesis, dealing with general processes. They must be constantly revised, fleshed out, and checked against the facts and actual developments. We must modify the perspectives accordingly, or, if necessary, discard them altogether. If the gap between perspectives and reality is too great, then we must change our perspectives, since we cannot change reality.

Those who demand that perspectives must accurately foretell every detail are not looking for Marxist perspectives, but a crystal ball. Unfortunately, such an instrument is not yet available to us, so we must manage as best we can without it. In reality, this demand for infallible perspectives is closely related to a bureaucratic and formalistic mentality. It is closely connected to the idea that the Leaders cannot be wrong.

Paradoxically, this leads to the complete abandonment of perspectives and their replacement by vulgar empiricism. That is what happened to Taaffe and his supporters after the breakup of Militant. Taaffe was so afraid of making a mistake, and thereby revealing himself as a mere mortal, that he developed the idea of “conditional perspectives”, which is really a kind of theoretical double book-keeping.

TG-speaking copyWe were already well-accustomed to this phenomenon when we were part of the Mandelite International. Whenever Mandel would write a perspectives document, he would, to use a vulgar expression, write it in a way to cover his backside. When writing about economic perspectives, he would present various scenarios: there could be a slump; on the other hand, there might be a boom; on the other hand, there might be something else altogether. As the man in the fairground would say: you pays your money and you takes your choice.

The problem with such a “perspective” is that it is completely useless. The only purpose of such “conditional perspectives” is to demonstrate the Papal Infallibility of the Leader. It tells us nothing, and therefore makes it impossible to arrive at a correct orientation. It would be like a doctor who tells his patient that he might have an ulcer, colic, or stomach cancer and then cheerfully pockets his fee and says goodbye.

Actually, all perspectives are by definition of a conditional character. Of necessity, perspectives have an algebraic, not arithmetic, character. The unknown quantities must be filled in on the basis of actual experience. Perspectives can be added to, modified, or even rejected if they are falsified by events. Mistakes are inevitable in working out perspectives.

For a Marxist, even a mistake can be turned to good account, on condition that it is identified, explained and corrected. In the same way, in the history of science, an experiment can be of great utility even when it does not yield the desired result, since it serves to point the way to a more fruitful avenue of investigation and increases the sum total of our knowledge, albeit in a negative sense.

The problem arises when a leadership is not prepared to admit its mistakes and learn from them. Twenty years ago, comrade Taaffe and his friends confidently predicted that the Labour Party would “wither on the vine”, and their organization would “grow by leaps and bounds”. In the mid-1990s they even had the perspective that they would soon become a “small, mass party of tens of thousands”. These were mistakes that flowed from a fundamentally flawed method. But twenty years later, there is not the slightest attempt at self-criticism. That means that the mistake will be repeated and magnified until what is left of their organization is destroyed altogether.

“He’s just a lightweight”

The image of Militant in the Labour Movement was seriously damaged by these developments. After Ted’s expulsion from Militant, Tony Benn publicly berated the leaders of Militant at a Labour Party Conference fringe meeting in Brighton in 1992 for what they had done. He said they had expelled Ted Grant for forming a “party within a party”. With a strong dose of irony, he said that this was exactly the reason the Labour leaders had given for the expulsion of supporters of Militant from the Labour Party. This gave rise to general hilarity, save for the handful of Militant comrades present who sat stony-faced and completely isolated.

When Jimmy Deane found out about the split, he was scandalized by the way Ted and the Minority had been treated. His first comment was: “Taaffe? He’s just a lightweight!” The rest of his comments were unprintable. Some might be tempted to reply: But after all, you might say, this lightweight knocked out his heavyweight opponent. That argument is superficial and utterly false. For many years it has become almost a platitude to interpret the struggle between Stalin and Trotsky as a clash between two individuals, in which Stalin defeated Trotsky because he was a more skilful tactical manoeuverer. Such superficial observations are explanations that explain nothing.

Ted pointed out that under the given circumstances, the defeat of the Left Opposition in Russia was virtually a foregone conclusion. He explained that Trotsky knew that he could not win from the beginning. Why then did he continue to fight on? Ted answered:

Trotsky was fighting to preserve the real traditions of Bolshevism and the October Revolution for the future generations. Zinoviev, Kamenev and the others capitulated to Stalin and thought that they were great realists. But they lost everything. Today nobody looks to them or takes their ideas seriously. Trotsky left us a clean banner.

The Majority faction “won” the factional struggle twenty years ago. Does that prove they were right? Does it prove they were cleverer or more far-sighted than the Minority? They did not win on the strength of their arguments, but on the basis of manoeuvres, lies and the force of the apparatus. The Majority faction deliberately deceived the membership, not only about the ideas of the Minority, which they systematically distorted, but about their own ideas and intentions, which they concealed from start to finish. They said that Ted and Alan wished to bury themselves deep in the Labour Party and wait passively upon events. They could never find a single sentence that Ted or I ever said or wrote that could be interpreted in this way, for the simple reason that such a thing never existed, except in their fevered factional imagination.

On the other hand, they deceived the members concerning their own position. Ted warned that the Scottish turn was not really a Scottish turn, not a small tactical adjustment, but a radical change in our whole orientation and strategy: “Tomorrow the Scottish turn will be the British turn, and the day after tomorrow the international turn.” With what furious indignation did they deny these statements! But that is precisely what happened.

What was the end result? It ended in the complete destruction of the organization we had built through many years of patient work. The former Majority faction thought they had solved their problems by getting rid of the Minority. They were wrong. Ted’s prediction that the “turn” was a “shortcut over a cliff” proved to be all too true. It is very difficult to build, but only too easy to destroy.

We urge these “clever” manoeuverers to republish now what they wrote then. The Majority argued that all that was necessary was to break the link with the Labour Party, and the Tendency would “grow by leaps and bounds”. Was that what happened? Ted warned that, on the contrary, they would “sink like a stone”. And that was exactly what occurred.

Their mistake is to exaggerate their forces, displaying a complete lack of proportion. The idea that a small organisation can compete with the Labour Party is ludicrous in the extreme. In reality, the workers do not even notice these people. All their attempts to construct a “new workers’ party” outside the Labour Party have ended in ignominious failure. The facts speak for themselves. At its peak, the Militant had 8,000 members. We had a big headquarters and a printing press capable of producing a daily paper. They lost everything we built. They immediately lost the MPs who stood against official Labour candidates and were annihilated. They had to sell the big centre in Hackney Wick because of debts. They lost the printing press and had to lay off full-timers. Many comrades dropped out of politics altogether, including members of the Executive. Within a relatively short period, they had expelled the leadership of the Merseyside organisation, resulting in the collapse of the Tendency in what had been our stronghold, and the whole of the Scottish organisation split away on an opportunist and nationalist basis. These were the strongest areas of Militant, but were reduced to rubble.

Today, nothing is left of the Militant but a vague memory, and even that is fading fast. Militant had three members of parliament and many local councillors. We were literally a household name. It took the best part of forty years of patient work to conquer this position. But all this was thrown away in an instant in the most light-minded way imaginable. What lessons can be learned from all this? What we did once we can do again. But that will only be possible through a complete rejection of sectarianism and a return to the real traditions of our Tendency, the authentic traditions of Trotskyism—the traditions of Ted Grant.

Regrouping the forces of Marxism

Victor Hugo once wrote: “I represent a party which does not yet exist: the party Revolution-Civilization. This party will make the twentieth century. There will issue from it first the United States of Europe, then the United States of the World”. Of course, for the author of Les Misérables, this aim necessarily had a purely abstract and utopian character, since he was unable to conceive of human civilization outside the limited horizons of bourgeois society.

For Marxists, however, the building of the revolutionary party and International is not a dream, but an urgent necessity. With the passing of time, that necessity becomes more, not less, urgent. Once one grasps this fact, no setback or defeat can dishearten or make one digress one millimetre from this goal.

At the time of the split in Militant, Ted was already a “young man” of 78. While many comrades were demoralized by the split, he just shrugged his shoulders as if nothing had happened. For him, the building of the revolutionary tendency, to which he dedicated his entire life, could never be interrupted. He was undaunted by all setbacks and absolutely irrepressible.

In a speech to the British CC, in September 1994, Ted said: “We have made very few serious mistakes. But if we make a mistake it must be corrected not only at the IS level but in all the sections and used to raise the level. If this is done correctly, it does no harm and can be useful. But we must maintain a sense of balance and proportion.”

Reflecting on the split, Ted drew the following conclusion: “For some years we have been part of a tendency that had a correct Trotskyist political line and a Zinovievist organizational apparatus.” That accurately summed up the real situation. But such a position could not be maintained. Either the Trotskyist trend would correct the Zinovievist deviation, or the latter would end up by eliminating the Trotskyists. In the end the latter variant triumphed. But the price they paid for this “victory”, as Ted predicted, was the destruction of Militant.

I remember those meetings of a small group of comrades in my flat in Bermondsey. I remember, as if it were yesterday, Ted’s remarkable good humour. After we were expelled from the Militant, he joked: “Well, that is the best split I’ve ever been through!” But in truth, we found ourselves (in Britain at least) facing a lot of difficulties.

At the time of the split, the Taaffe faction had a big apparatus, lots of money and a team of about 200 full timers. We did not even have a typewriter. Not only had we lost a very important organization, but we had to reorganize our forces in an unfavourable objective situation.

The collapse of Stalinism produced an unprecedented ideological counter-offensive against the ideas of Marxism and Communism, and the prolonged boom in capitalism reinforced the right wing of the Labour Movement and further isolated the small forces of Marxism. But neither Ted nor I were worried in the slightest. We had the ideas of Marxism, and that was all that mattered.

In Britain, the Opposition had the support of a significant number, mainly experienced cadres and trade union activists. The situation was far more favourable in the International. In fact, if we exclude Britain, we had the majority of the international Tendency on our side. The IMT was formed by those comrades who remained loyal to the ideas of Ted Grant, and wished to preserve the genuine traditions of our movement.

Ted played a leading role in refounding the International, which we renamed the Committee for a Marxist International, and later, the International Marxist Tendency (IMT). He was active in it until his death in 2006. Despite his age (he always said he was 21), he just carried on as before, travelling to other countries, delivering speeches of an hour or more. He seemed determined to carry on forever. At times it seemed that he had convinced himself that he would do just this. It was a truly formidable performance.

In 1992, we launched the Socialist Appeal magazine, which has earned a solid reputation for serious analysis, comment, and militant policies in the Labour Movement in Britain and internationally. Our output of high-quality Marxist theoretical material is second-to-none. In 1995, we began the publication of books, which have made quite a spectacular impact internationally, starting with Reason in Revolt, (by Alan Woods and Ted Grant). This was the first attempt since Engels’ Dialectics of Nature to apply the method of dialectical materialism to the results of modern science.

This was followed by Russia—From Revolution to Counter-revolution, Bolshevism—the Road to Revolution, and a new expanded edition of Lenin and Trotsky—What they really stood for. Our books have been translated into Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Greek, German, Dutch, Russian, Turkish and Urdu. Our articles and pamphlets have also been translated into these languages, and also into French, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Rumanian, Serbian, Macedonian, Polish, Indonesian, Arabic, Hebrew and many other languages.

We can say without fear of contradiction that the political authority of our Tendency, both nationally and internationally, has never been greater than it is now. In 1997, we launched the extremely successful web site In Defence of Marxism (www.marxist.com), which has had far-reaching international appeal, and has been visited by hundreds of thousands of people worldwide.

Some well-meaning people ask why we do not combine with other groups to advance the cause of unity. Such a proposal, despite its apparently reasonable character, would be a recipe for disaster. The attempt to unify tendencies that stand for different ideas, principles and methods is counter-productive. In simple mathematics one plus one equals two. But if there are two people in a boat rowing in opposite directions, one plus one equals zero.

In the Correspondence of Marx and Engels, there is a very interesting letter from Engels to Bebel, dated June 20, 1875, in which he answers those followers of Marx who wished to unite with the Lassalleans, who had a bigger following among the German workers.

(...) Our view, which we have found confirmed by long practice, is that the correct tactic in propaganda is not to draw away a few individuals and members here and there from one’s opponent, but to work on the great mass which still remains apathetic. The primitive force of a single individual whom we have ourselves attracted from the crude mass is worth more than ten Lassallean renegades, who always bring the seeds of their false tendencies into the Party with them. And if one could only get the masses without their local leaders it would still be all right. But one always has to take a whole crowd of these leaders into the bargain, and they are bound by their previous public utterances, if not by their previous views, and have above all things to prove that they have not deserted their principles but that on the contrary the Social-Democratic Workers’ Party preaches true Lassalleanism. This was the unfortunate thing at Eisenach, not to be avoided at that time, perhaps, but there is no doubt at all that these elements have done harm to the Party, and I am not sure that the Party would not have been at least as strong to-day without that addition. In any case, however, I should regard it as a misfortune if these elements were reinforced. (Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 44, pp. 511-12)

The message is quite clear: although there may be some good elements among the followers of Lassalle, it would be a mistake to recruit them because a) they will bring with them all the confusion they have learned in the old organization; and b) they are organically inclined to factionalism and will disorganise the proletarian tendency. In the time that would be required to straighten out one of these elements, it would be possible to win ten or twenty ordinary, fresh German workers whose brains have not been addled by sectarian nonsense. Therefore, the “primitive force of a single individual whom we have ourselves attracted from the crude mass is worth more than ten Lassallean renegades”. That is very good advice! But what about “unity”? Engels answers that too:

One must not allow oneself to be misled by the cry for “unity”. Those who have this word most often on their lips are those who sow the most dissension, just as at present the Jura Bakuninists in Switzerland, who have provoked all the splits, scream for nothing so much as for unity. Those unity fanatics are either the people of limited intelligence who want to stir everything up together into one nondescript brew, which, the moment it is left to settle, throws up the differences again in much more acute opposition because they are now all together in one pot (you have a fine example of this in Germany with the people who preach the reconciliation of the workers and the petty bourgeoisie)—or else they are people who consciously or unconsciously (...) want to adulterate the movement. For this reason the greatest sectarians and the biggest brawlers and rogues are at certain moments the loudest shouters for unity. Nobody in our lifetime has given us more trouble and been more treacherous than the unity shouters. (Op. Cit., p. 513)

And he concludes thus:

For the rest, old Hegel has already said: a party proves itself a victorious party by the fact that it splits and can stand the split. The movement of the proletariat necessarily passes through different stages of development; at every stage one section of people lags behind and does not join in the further advance; and this alone explains why it is that actually the “solidarity of the proletariat” is everywhere realised in different party groupings which carry on life and death feuds with one another, as the Christian sects in the Roman Empire did amidst the worst persecutions. (Op. Cit., p. 514)

Exactly the same point was made by Lenin many times, starting with What Is to be Done?, “Before we can unite, and in order that we may unite, we must first of all draw firm and definite lines of demarcation.” (Lenin, What Is to Be Done?—Dogmatism and Freedom of Criticism)

In Defence of Marxism

In the last two decades we have witnessed an unprecedented offensive against the ideas of socialism on a world scale. The collapse of the bureaucratically controlled planned economies of the East was held up as the definitive proof of the failure of “communism,” and, of course, of the ideas of Marx.

Lenin pointed out that “the role of vanguard fighter can be fulfilled only by a party that is guided by the most advanced theory”. Serious workers and youth are seeking the ideas of revolutionary socialism, that is to say, Marxism. They are looking for serious explanations, not empty “agitation”. That is why, in addition to the day-to-day struggle for socialism, we pay serious attention to the production of theoretical work.

It is ironic that precisely at this time, when the crisis of capitalism has completely vindicated Marxism, there is a veritable race on the Left to throw Marxist theory overboard, as if it were so much useless ballast. The former Communists no longer even speak of socialism and have consigned the writings of Marx and Engels to the dustbin. Matters are no better with the ultra-left sects who exist on the margins of the Labour Movement. Though they invoke Marx, Lenin and Trotsky in every other sentence, they do not even bother to reprint their works, preferring more “modern” (or “post-modern”) ideas that they have taken over uncritically from the bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie.

We deplore the attempts to ditch Marxist theory, to water down ideas and drag the level of the movement down to the lowest common denominator of mindless activism. This represents a fundamental departure from Marxism. The abandonment or neglect of theory, the search for a shortcut to the masses, leads inevitably either to the swamp of opportunism or the dead end of ultra-leftism.

Without the struggle for theory it is impossible to build a revolutionary tendency. Lenin pointed this out long ago. Already in What Is to Be Done? he explained: “Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement. This idea cannot be insisted upon too strongly at a time when the fashionable preaching of opportunism goes hand in hand with an infatuation for the narrowest forms of practical activity.”

That is a fundamental truth that all the great Marxists have insisted on. Lenin’s words ring particularly true in the present epoch of the ideological offensive of the bourgeoisie, of scepticism, capitulation and apostasy. The struggle for Marxist theory has played a fundamental role in the building of the IMT, and Ted’s role on this vital front was absolutely crucial.

In analysing the debacle of Militant, we concluded that one of the main reasons for the degeneration of the old organization was the low political level and the neglect of theory and cadre-building. Ted said: “Under Taaffe and Saunois, the world congresses became mere ‘rah-rah’ rallies. The political level was very low. We must educate all our comrades on the basis of Trotsky’s writings—which the so-called Trotskyists of the Fourth never did.”

After the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a general mood of pessimism on the left. Marxism was under attack from all sides. What was our duty in such circumstances? Our response to this general backsliding was to defend the fundamental ideas of Marxism. As explained above, we produced a series of books, beginning with Reason in Revolt, which played a big role in rearming the cadres and attracting the attention of many people who wished to continue the fight for socialism.

The struggle for Marxist theory has always been at the centre of this Tendency and has played the main role in its development. Ted had a profound grasp of Marxist economics, a subject on which he frequently lectured. His pamphlet Will There Be a Slump? is a little masterpiece, while The Marxist Theory of the State is one of the very few works of modern Marxism that can be said to have added to and developed the theories of Marx and Engels. He continued to make a substantial contribution to Marxist economic theory almost to the end of his life.

He was very sceptical about the prospects for the euro, at a time when most people—including some Marxists—had big illusions in it. Initially he did not even believe that the European bourgeois would be able to launch a single currency. He pointed out that it was impossible to unify economies that were moving in different directions. Economies as different as Germany and Italy could not have the same rate of interest, without causing serious problems.

The euro was finally introduced, and at first appeared to be a success. Ted explained that they could maintain the single currency as long as the boom lasted but he warned: “Let there be a deep slump and the euro will collapse amidst mutual recriminations.” Those were his exact words, ten years before the collapse of 2008. They proved to be uncannily accurate.

The fall of Stalinism

The fall of Stalinism came as no surprise to Ted, who had predicted it in advance, following in the footsteps of Leon Trotsky, who had already analysed the bureaucratic regime in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and, using the Marxist method, explained the inevitability of its collapse. We should point out that Ted Grant actually predicted the collapse of the Stalinist regime in Russia as early as 1972, and explained why it was inevitable. Up until about 1965, the Russian bureaucracy was still able to play a relatively progressive role in developing the productive forces under the nationalised planned economy of the USSR, although at a very high cost in terms of bureaucratic mismanagement, corruption, swindling and chaos.

But bureaucratic totalitarianism is ultimately incompatible with a nationalised planned economy. In the end, the bureaucracy undermined and destroyed the last remaining conquests of the October revolution. In his book Russia—from Revolution to Counter-revolution Ted traces the whole process, from 1917 to the fall of the Soviet Union, and explains exactly what happened.

In the 1970s Ted concluded that the bureaucratic regime in the USSR was doomed. He saw that the Soviet economy was not capable of getting the same results as capitalism. The rate of growth, which had reached 20 percent annually in the 1930s, fell to 10 percent after 1945 (still an impressive figure), and to about 6.5 percent under Khrushchev in the mid-1960s. But by the 1970s, under Brezhnev, it was virtually at a standstill.

In 1974, Ted explained that, “The bureaucracy cannot even get the same economic results as the bourgeois in the West. The Soviet Union has more scientists than Britain, the USA, Germany and Japan together, yet they cannot get the same results. On that basis, they are doomed.”

However, in one important respect, Ted was mistaken. He thought that the collapse of Stalinism would lead to the workers taking power in Russia. But Stalin had succeeded in wiping out the Bolshevik Party, physically exterminating its cadres in a one-sided war against “Trotskyists”. Decades of bureaucratic, totalitarian rule had erased the memory of the real programme and policies of Bolshevism and October.

The so-called Communist Party of the Soviet Union had degenerated so far that it was incapable of fighting capitalist restoration. Its members left in droves, and many of the old “Communist” leaders became capitalists, as Ted put it, “like a man moving from one carriage of a train to another.” He was genuinely shocked by this. Even he did not appreciate just how far the degeneration had gone. He thought that something of the old traditions of Lenin and the Bolshevik Party would remain. But there was virtually nothing.

Ted emphasized that Trotsky’s original analysis in The Revolution Betrayed had been strikingly confirmed—even in detail. By contrast, the so-called theory of “state capitalism” has proved to be false in theory and disastrous in practice. History has shown that Bruno Rizzi, Shachtman and Cliff, with their theories of “bureaucratic collectivism” and “state capitalism” were wrong, and that Trotsky was right.

What could the supporters of the theory of state capitalism say about capitalist restoration in the USSR? Were we supposed to be for or against? If one accepts that the USSR was state capitalist, then it follows that we ought to be indifferent to capitalist restoration. Unless, that is, state capitalism is progressive in relation to “ordinary” capitalism! But it is frankly monstrous to propose that the working class should accept the privatization of the means of production in Russia.

As explained in an earlier chapter, the theoretical explanation for all this is to be found in Ted’s remarkable work The Marxist Theory of the State—Reply to Tony Cliff, written in 1949. In fact, Ted’s most important contribution to Marxist theory has perhaps been on the question of the state and his writings on Stalinism in Russia, Eastern Europe and China after the Second World War.

Naturally, the bourgeoisie and its apologists were euphoric at the collapse of the USSR. But what was the position after capitalist restoration? It was a catastrophe of unprecedented dimensions. In the first three years of capitalist restoration, there was a decline of industrial production in Russia of about 40-45%. This was a staggering collapse—far worse than the slump of 1929-32 in the West. Investment fell by 45% in 1992, and an additional 12% in 1993, and continued to fall. Inflation topped 20% every month in mid-1993. The rouble collapsed, and the rate of exchange reached 1,250 to the dollar and higher.

Ted observed that this situation could only be compared to the effect of defeat in a devastating war. The effects on the population, which was rapidly reduced to absolute misery, can best be shown in the sudden deterioration of life expectancy. Under the planned economy, the people of the Soviet Union enjoyed a level of life expectancy, healthcare and education on a level with the most developed capitalist countries, or in advance of them.

The Financial Times of February 14, 1994 carried a front-page article with the title Russia faces population crisis as death rate soars. The article pointed out that: “In the past year alone, the death rate jumped 20 percent, or 360,000 deaths more than in 1992. Researchers now believe that the average age for male mortality in Russia has sunk to 59—far below the average in the industrialised world and the lowest in Russia since the early 1960s.”

These figures merely confirm what is self-evident: That the attempt to impose a “market economy” on the peoples of the former Soviet Union has been a finished recipe for destroying all the gains of seventy years, driving down living standards and plunging society as a whole into an abyss.

The fall of the Soviet Union led to widespread pessimism and disorientation in the workers’ movement. But Ted did not draw pessimistic conclusions. His faith in the socialist future remained as firm as ever. He pointed out that capitalism could offer no future to the Russian people, and made the following remarkable prediction: that the fall of Stalinism would only be the first act of a worldwide drama which would be followed by an even more dramatic second act—the global crisis of capitalism.

Only two decades later, that prediction has come true, although Ted did not live to see it. Ted said that we were entering the most turbulent period in the whole of human history. Even some of his own supporters thought that was an exaggeration. But it was not.

TG-picture070Ted with Georgos Skiniotis at the Old Street office of Socialist Appeal

The capitalist strategists promised us a world of peace and prosperity, thanks to the wonders of the Free Market Economy. Now all these dreams have become reduced to ashes. Instead of peace there is war after war. The “peace dividend” that was supposed to come with the end of the Cold War never materialised. The USA alone spends over $800 billion a year on arms. Terrorism is spreading like an uncontrollable epidemic. From a Marxist perspective, terrorism is a reflection of insoluble contradictions in society. The strategists of Capital have no solution to the present crisis. They are seized with moods of black despair. In the Middle Ages, the Church had a saying: all roads lead to Rome. Now the capitalists must be thinking: all roads lead to ruin.

Today, when the fall of Stalinism in the USSR has produced widespread perplexity in the workers’ movement internationally, Ted’s writings on this subject retain their full force and validity. In contrast, one would seek in vain in all the journals and books of the former Communist Parties of the world for any serious Marxist analysis. They prefer to ignore the question altogether, or else confine themselves to empty, mechanical generalisations that explain nothing.

The movement has been thrown back

Here we must state a self-evident contradiction. Lenin was always honest. His slogan was: always say what is. Sometimes the truth is unpalatable, but we need to state the truth always. The truth is that, for a variety of circumstances, both objective and subjective, the revolutionary movement has been thrown back, and the forces of genuine Marxism reduced to a small minority. That is the truth, and whoever denies it is merely deceiving himself and deceiving others.

Decades of economic growth in the advanced capitalist countries have given rise to an unprecedented degeneration of the mass organizations of the working class. It has isolated the revolutionary current, which everywhere has been reduced to a small minority. The collapse of the Soviet Union has served to sow confusion and disorientation in the movement, and set the final seal on the degeneration of the former Stalinist leaders, many of whom have passed over to the camp of capitalist reaction.

Many have drawn pessimistic conclusions from this. To those people we say: it is not the first time we have faced difficulties, and we are not in the least frightened by such difficulties. We retain unshakable confidence in the correctness of Marxism, in the revolutionary potential of the working class and in the final victory of socialism. The present crisis exposes the reactionary role of capitalism, and places on the order of the day the revival of international socialism. There are the beginnings of a regroupment of forces internationally. What is required is to give that regroupment an organized expression and a clear programme, perspective and policy.

Here we come to the central contradiction. If the capitalist system is in the deepest crisis in history, why are the forces of Marxism so weak? The movement has been thrown back, undoubtedly. But this does not apply only to the Trotskyist movement. It applies a thousand times more to the Communist Parties, which only a few decades ago were a mighty force, and have now been reduced to a shadow of their former selves.

The crimes of Stalinism over more than half a century have had to be paid for. The collapse of the USSR caused terrible disorientation and demoralization in the workers’ movement internationally, which went far beyond the limits of the Communist Parties. I remember the words of an Argentine worker twenty years ago: “When I heard about the collapse of the Soviet Union, I felt sad. I cannot really explain this because I have been a Peronist all my life. But I felt we had lost something important.” This was a very widespread phenomenon.

The collapse of Stalinism gave the bourgeoisie and its agents in the Labour Movement an opportunity not to be missed. They launched an unprecedented ideological offensive against socialism. In this they were assisted by a large number of defectors: ex-communists, ex-Trotskyists, ex-Maoists, ex-intellectuals—the world has never seen such an avalanche of apostasy since the fall of the Roman Empire.

The central contradiction remains the same as Trotsky pointed out in 1938: the conditions for socialist revolution have matured on a world scale, but the leaders of the mass organizations are not reflecting the real situation. They are the product of the past—of a long period of capitalist boom—not the present.

It is a dialectical contradiction that precisely at a time when the capitalist system is sinking, all the leaders—both of the trade unions and the workers’ parties—are clinging to it even more determinedly than in the past. This is as true for the former Communist parties as it is for the Social Democracy, and as true for the left reformists as the right reformists. In the words of Trotsky, the crisis of humanity can be reduced to the crisis of leadership of the proletariat.

More and more, the willingness of the workers and youth to struggle is becoming manifest. But this will to fight has not yet found a reflection in the traditional mass organizations, which have become monstrous obstacles in the path of socialist revolution.

This has led among the radicalised youth to the growth of a kind of semi-anarchist tendency to reject all organizations in general. It finds its expression in the Occupy movement and its variants worldwide. But this has its limits. The occupation of squares in and of itself can solve nothing. It turns out to be yet another dead end, although it serves notice on the bourgeoisie that the patience of the youth is being exhausted. While it is not the revolution of which its participants dream, it is a clear symptom of the growth of revolutionary tendencies in the youth and in society at large, with colossal implications for the future.

Failure of the sects

Glendower: I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
Hotspur: Why, so can I, or so can any man
But will they come when you do call for them?
(Shakespeare, Henry IV, part 1, Act 3, Scene 1)

What is striking about the present situation is the failure of the sects to win significant support, despite the crisis of capitalism, and the fact that a large number of young people are alienated from the reformist mass organizations. All the attempts of the sects to construct an alternative to the mass organizations of the workers have ended in ignominious failure everywhere.

The bankruptcy of the leadership of the mass organizations, and the growth of radicalisation outside them that flows from it, has served to further convince the sects that it is possible to build a revolutionary party outside the mass organizations. But this is just as illusory as it was before. It is an ABC proposition for Marxists that the advanced elements must not separate themselves from the class or go too far in front of them. Jimmy Deane once said to me: “If you are in a factory, before you make a step forward you must first look over your shoulder to see if the others are following.”

One of the greatest crimes of the sectarians is precisely that they try to separate the vanguard from the rest of the class, instead of finding a road to the masses. In Trotsky’s words, every sectarian seeks to build his own “mass movement”—outside the masses. In so doing, all that is achieved is to reduce these workers to sterility, to miseducate them and demoralize them.

The older generation understood very well the need for a sense of proportion, and the need for the small forces of revolutionary Marxism to establish firm links with the working class and to sink roots in the Labour Movement. As Trotsky warned: “You cannot shout louder than the strength of your own throat; if you try to do so, you will only lose your voice.” That was just what wrecked the Militant.

In France the New Anti-Capitalist Party made a lot of noise for a while, mainly because it suited Sarkozy to build up its profile to take votes away from the Communist Party. But it is now in crisis, split and declining. The votes of the Left have been channelled into the Left Front of Mélenchon, of which the main organized force is the Communist Party. The majority of the workers voted for the Socialist Party. We see the process still more clearly in Greece. In a pre-revolutionary situation, the radicalisation of the masses has been reflected in the rise of Syriza, the result of a split in the Communist Party in the past. Not long ago, the party on which it is based struggled to get four percent of the votes. Now it has around 30 percent in the polls and is set to win the next elections.

In Britain, the sects have failed completely to build an alternative to the Labour Party during the past twenty years. Yet in theory, this was the most favourable situation for such a move to succeed. Over the last decade, the Labour Party was in power under a right-wing leadership. Tony Blair was deeply unpopular. The sects first launched the Socialist Alliance. It soon split and fell to pieces. Then some of them set up Respect. Exactly the same thing happened.

The complete failure of the sects is reflected in the constant fall of their votes in local and parliamentary elections. Despite the last 25 years of right-wing domination, and more than 10 years of right-wing Labour government, the sects have not been able to displace Labour. As a national organisation, Respect has collapsed. The Scottish Socialist Party in Scotland has been reduced to complete insignificance.

It is true that at this stage, the Labour Party remains under the control of the right wing, and the most militant layers of the workers and youth are repelled by the policies and conduct of the Labour leaders. But they do not look to the sects or their electoral fronts. This is shown by the results in every local and national election.

TUSC (Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, an electoral front including the Socialist Party led by Taaffe), the latest attempt to supplant the Labour Party on the electoral front, has been a complete damp squib. In the 2010 general election, TUSC achieved 12,000 votes in total and the SSP got 3,150 in the whole of Scotland, while the Labour Party got 8,600,000 votes nationally. It was the worst collapse ever for those standing to the left of Labour. This was followed by the Socialist Party’s councillor, Dave Nellist, the former Labour MP, losing his council seat in Coventry. The SP, who previously boasted of their three councillors in Coventry, now has nothing.

The same dismal performance was replicated in the by-elections they contested. In the Rotherham by-election, TUSC came in ninth position with 1.22% of the vote. In Manchester Central, TUSC came in tenth, with 220 votes (1.32%), behind even the Pirate Party. In the Eastleigh by-election in February 2013, they did even worse. The TUSC candidate came 13th out of 14 candidates, with 62 votes (0.15%), behind the Beer Party, the Christian Party, the Monster Raving Loony Party, the Peace Party, as well as the Elvis Party!

Despite all the crimes of the leaders of the unions, the working class needs these organizations now, in conditions of crisis, falling living standards and mass unemployment, even more than before. Yet, the leaders of these unions constitute a very conservative force. Instead of mobilizing the workers at the very least for defensive actions, they are constantly striving to reach deals with the bosses. How is this contradiction to be solved?

Some ultra-lefts call for the setting up of new unions. That is a false and reactionary position. The workers cannot do without the unions. And all the attempts to create new unions by splitting the old ones have ended in disaster. In every case, the new unions ended up to the right of the old unions, and the latter, under the pressure of the masses, have tended to become more radical. To advocate splitting the unions is therefore a crime.

At the moment, the movement of the workers is being channelled through the unions. It takes the form of strikes and demonstrations. We have also seen big movements of the students, riots of the unemployed youth and occupations by #Occupy and related movements. And still the government continues with its policy of cuts. Nothing seems able to stop it.

There are moments in history when strikes and demonstrations can force a government to change course. But this is not such a moment, as we can see in the example of Greece, where there have been over 24 general strikes since 2010, but the austerity still continues. The crisis is too deep and the bourgeois see no alternative but to cut living standards and take back all the concessions that were won through struggle over the past half century.

At a certain point, the workers will draw the conclusion: “We must get rid of this government.” Defeated on the industrial plane, they will swing back to the political front. And where will they go? Not to the sects, whose existence they are not even aware of, but to the Labour Party, and for one simple reason: there is no alternative.

In the next period, all the old mass organizations will be shaken from top to bottom. The old right-wing leaders will be vomited out. Either they will place themselves at the head of the struggles of the workers, or else they will be removed and replaced with others who are more responsive to the will of the workers. Our task as Marxists is to be in the forefront of the struggle to transform the unions and turn them into fighting organizations of the class.

The complete disorientation of our former comrades, who have been reduced to just another sect, is shown by their demand for the unions to disaffiliate from the Labour Party. This has long been a central demand of the British bourgeoisie, which has always protested about the “undue influence” of the trade unions on the Labour Party. It does not even occur to them that the demand to separate the unions from the Labour Party was the main demand of the Labour right under Tony Blair, and was aimed to turn the Labour Party into a bourgeois party like the US Democrats.

Their argument that the Labour Party is now a bourgeois party, indistinguishable from the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, completely ignores the fact that the main trade unions in Britain are organically linked to the Labour Party. This means that a radicalisation of the trade unions must find an expression in the Labour Party at a certain stage. The sectarians argue that the Labour Party will never change and shift to the left because the right wing has changed the rules. As if the rulebook stands mystically above the class struggle! At root it shows they have no confidence in the capacity of the working class to change their organisations, let alone to change society. We believe, as history has demonstrated, that as the class moves politically, it will inevitably transform its traditional organisations in the process. The movement of the working class does not take place in a vacuum, but in real existing society, warts and all.

To think that the working class, when it moves, will simply bypass its traditional organisations, is to completely ignore the past, and is contrary to all we ever stood for or explained. Len McCluskey, the leader of the UNITE the union, has called on union members to join the Labour Party and take it over. This position was overwhelmingly endorsed by the UNITE Conference in 2012. That is the correct way to pose the question. That the way forward has to be pointed out by a reformist trade union leader is a measure of the utter disorientation and complete lack of perspectives of the sects.

The ideas of Ted Grant are therefore more relevant and necessary than ever before. He explained what is, or ought to be, obvious: the working class does not understand small organizations, even if their ideas are one hundred percent correct. On the other hand, the mass organizations, despite the crimes of the leadership, exercise an irresistible force of attraction for the masses, akin to the force of gravity between large bodies.