Ted Grant: the unbroken thread of Marxism

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Today, 9th July, marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ted Grant, the founder of the International Marxist Tendency. Rob Sewell, editor of the British Marxist paper Socialist Appeal, outlines the important role played by Ted in building the forces of Marxism during his lifetime and discusses the legacy of Ted for Marxists today.

TedGrantCentenary2For those who knew him, Ted Grant was a political giant. He lived and breathed the ideas of Marxism and was, without doubt, the most important Marxist theoretician since the death of Trotsky. This can be gauged by the depth of his writings over some 70 years of political activity, most of which is available at tedgrant.org.

Ted Grant only became known to a broader audience during the 1970s and 1980s, when the Militant Tendency came to prominence in Britain. Ted had established the “Militant” newspaper in 1964, a small 4-page black and white monthly paper, without an office or fulltime staff. However, already by 1972, it had become a four-page weekly and by the mid-1980s, the Militant Tendency had become a household name.

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At its height, “Militant” had thousands of supporters, 200 full-timers, national and regional premises, three members of Parliament, control of the Labour Party Young Socialists, as well as a growing influence in the trade union and labour movement. This represented the most successful work of any Trotskyist group since the days of Trotsky’s Left Opposition. Without Ted Grant’s ideas and guiding influence, none of this would have been possible.

The Fourth International

Ted was originally from South Africa, but spent the majority of his life in Britain. He came over in late 1934 in search of new political horizons, after being involved in setting up the Left Opposition in Johannesburg. On Trotsky’s advice, he joined the ILP and later the Labour Party. However, with the political truce and the demise of the Labour Party during the War, Ted became instrumental in setting up the Workers’ International League and later the Revolutionary Communist Party.

It was in this period that Ted rose to become the key theoretician of the movement. Following Trotsky’s death, the leaders of the Fourth International, such as James Cannon, Pierre Frank and Ernest Mandel, proved incapable of understanding the new situation and made one blunder after another. They merely repeated parrot fashion what Trotsky had said before the war, despite the radically changed situation. While there was a post-war boom, they simply denied it. Instead they talked of immediate slump and revolution.

It was Ted who explained that capitalism had stabilised (temporarily) and was, on the contrary, facing a boom. In fact, the boom turned into a twenty-five year upswing, far longer than anyone could have predicted. The reasons for the upswing were given by Ted in “Will there be a Slump?”, while the leaders of the “Fourth” in effect capitulated to Keynesianism.

Ted was also the first to understand the victory of Stalinism in Eastern Europe and China, where capitalism was overthrown. The Stalinists had introduced a nationalized planned economy, but on the same bureaucratic basis as in the USSR. While Ted correctly identified these regimes as deformed workers’ states or forms of Proletarian Bonapartism, the leaders of the so-called Fourth International could only see capitalism and state capitalism. Eventually, they swung violently in the opposite direction and went as far as recognising Yugoslavia under Tito as a “healthy workers’ state”. They made one blunder after another. In reality, Trotsky had sown dragon’s teeth but reaped fleas.

The only exception was Ted Grant, who was able to understand the new situation and was able to politically reorientate the British organisation. Having been proved wrong on a whole series of key questions, the “leaders” of the “Fourth”, incapable of admitting their mistakes, took their spiteful revenge on Ted by systematically undermining the British section, which eventually led to its destruction. Prestige politics plays the most corrosive of roles.

By the early 1950s, Ted was left with a small group he managed to rescue from the collapse of the RCP. These were especially difficult years, where every painful inch forward was fraught with difficulties. Objectively, capitalism was booming and the post-war Labour government had delivered big reforms and carried out nationalisations. Stalinism had been strengthened in Eastern Europe and China.

As a consequence, the forces of genuine Marxism were reduced to a tiny handful, and forced to swim against the stream. Even if Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky had been alive, it would not have meant a fundamental difference. Nevertheless, Ted held things together and prepared for a future break in the situation. The task was winning the ones and twos and educating them in the fundamental ideas of Marxism.

It was not until 1964, with the establishment of “Militant”, that things begun to change. We had been working in the Young Socialists since its foundation in 1960, but we were very small and there were larger competitors, such as the ultra-left Socialist Labour League and the International Socialists to contend with. This created serious problems for us, especially given the ultra-left antics of the SLL, which succeeded in closing down the YS.

It was the time of the Wilson Labour government and big student protests against the Vietnam War. Soon after the departure of the SLL, the rest of the sects abandoned the Labour Party, declaring it was finished as a workers’ party. We, however, remained and participated in the newly-established youth group, the Labour Party Young Socialists.

Rise of the Militant

Things changed again in 1970 with the election of the Tory government of Ted Heath. By this time, we had built up our support and we had plans to buy a printing press, take on full-timers and turn “Militant” into a fortnightly. We had won a majority in the LPYS, which allowed us to use it to turn outwards to the workers and youth. Within a short period, the industrial situation had changed dramatically, with widespread strikes and demonstrations against the government.

Read also: Ted Grant: A Brief Biography

The trade unions, which had been in the grip of the right wing, had now shifted to the left, especially with the victory of Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon.

We were at the right place at the right time. Ted had always educated us in perspectives and the importance of the mass organizations. When the workers move politically, they always turn towards their mass organisations. In contrast, the sects always look for short cuts, which leads them from one adventure to another. Of course, that did not mean having a fetish for the mass organisations. “The Labour Party over the last 70 years”, explained Ted, “has given enormous stability to capitalism.” This, nevertheless, would change on the basis of events.

Our task was to establish a Marxist tendency within the mass organisations and not to cut ourselves off from the movement of the working class.

An essential complement to this was the development of Marxist cadres and the importance of Marxist theory. Ted was always firm on this and urged us to “cut our teeth” on the Marxist fundamentals. He advised all of us to read and study the writings of the great teachers of Marxism: Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. In addition to this, Ted always added the need to re-read all the material we had produced over the past period, which also served to enrich the ideas of Marxism. “We must give the comrades a grounding in them”, he explained. “Theory has to be deepened, developed, and extended at each stage. Our task is not simply a repetition of ideas.” This approach provided us with the sound theoretical foundations of the tendency.

"He who has the youth has the future"

Ted also stressed the importance of the youth. They, he stressed, would constitute the real driving force of any revolutionary tendency. “He who has the youth”, to quote Lenin, “has the future”. Through the youth, who had been educated in Marxism, we could go on to win the older workers in the Labour and trade union movement. That was our whole experience with the LPYS.

“Ours is an old tendency”, explained Ted, “in the sense that it is the continuation of the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. It is also a young tendency in the sense of its composition.”

By these means we were able to politically conquer other points of support in the working class movement. Our task was simple: “Making conscious the unconscious desires, feelings, moods of the working class for our ideas”, explained Ted.

What we accomplished, under the guidance of Ted Grant, was to connect the genuine ideas of Marxism with the real movement of the class. This was something the “57 Heinz varieties” of sects could never do.

Ted spoke at every Militant Readers’ Meeting that we held at the national conferences of the LPYS. From a meeting of a few dozen, as the YS grew, we eventually held “fringe” meetings of 2,000, as the whole conference attended. Ted would take off his jacket and role up his sleeves, place a wad of notes on the table, and begin to speak for an hour on programme and perspectives.

Read also: Ted Grant: 1913-2006

These speeches would outline the crisis of world and British capitalism, take up the arguments of the bourgeois, then the right wing, and then the left reformists. Using the language of facts, figures and explanation, he would counterpose the Marxist solution facing the working class. They were masterly performances, which, as intended, served to raise the political level of the young audience.

Afterwards, in the bars, Ted would be surrounded by youth, asking all sorts of questions, including philosophy and science, which he ably answered. He was very approachable and relished the discussions with young comrades. He had realized that the older generation had largely been burned out and had become more sceptical about socialist revolution, so it was essential to train up a new generation of future leaders.

Ted was extremely well read, not only in Marxism, but a whole variety of subjects. He devoured the Financial Times and other papers, which, he explained, provided the material for present-day historical materialism.

The collapse of Stalinism

As the key theoretician of our movement, Ted wrote all the perspectives documents, which provided the basis of discussions at the national and international conferences. “The dialectical method of Marxism must be used”, he said. He wrote documents analyzing the Colonial Revolution, the Spanish Revolution, the Portuguese Revolution, the National Question, and other subjects.

The collapse of Stalinism through capitalist counter-revolution was a big setback. Ironically, those who characterized the Soviet Union as “State Capitalism”, such as the SWP in Britain, ended up describing the counter-revolution not as a step backwards, but a “step sideways”!

“The move to restore individual ownership caught these ladies and gentlemen completely by surprise”, wrote Ted. “What alternative could they offer to the de-nationalisation of industry and the abolition of the plan? This is not merely a theoretical question, but a vital one for the interests of the Russian working class.” For Tony Cliff [the founding leader of the SWP], “privatisation was an irrelevant question.”

“If nationalisation is ‘irrelevant’ and what has taken place in Russia is only a ‘step sideways’, then why oppose it? Surely it should be a matter of indifference whether the nicest bourgeoisie takes over from state capitalism?” That is why the SWP ended up supporting the American-backed fundamentalists in Afghanistan and the students demanding capitalist restoration in Hungary. Whatever was fashionable, they supported. More recently, they backed the Islamic forces of black reaction in Egypt as so-called “anti-imperialist” fighters! Ted went on to quote Trotsky: “Those who cannot defend old positions will never conquer new ones.”

A sense of proportion and a sense of humour

Ted Grant explained that we always needed a sense of proportion as well as a sense of humour in our day-to-day work. We must not revert to hysteria, but have a friendly approach, including towards our opponents within the labour movement. It was the power of ideas that was key. The capitalist press, as well as the reformists, always attempted to portray us as being intimidating, which was never Ted’s method. They tried to use this slur because they could not answer us politically.

Our consistent work in the Labour Party had provided us with a whole number of points of support in different parts of the country, but especially in Liverpool. It was here, with the general swing to the left, that we were able to commit the Labour Group to a policy of no cuts and no rate rises, to provide more jobs, social services and affordable homes.
When Labour was elected in Liverpool in 1983, this meant a direct collision with the Thatcher government. In this struggle, we entered into a united front with about 30 other Labour councils, but one by one they peeled away and capitulated, leaving Liverpool isolated.

Our successes in Liverpool and elsewhere gave a further impetus to the witch-hunt against “Militant”. Ted and the rest of the editorial board were expelled from the Labour Party in 1982. Now they stepped up the attack. But “Militant” responded with large public meetings, numbering thousands, up and down the country.

The Militant Tendency grew by leaps and bounds. We became a household name as the “Militant” story was splashed all over the newspapers and TV. From the smallest group on the left, we became the largest. This was down to the ideas and methods of Ted Grant and his accumulated experience. From holding public meetings in the backroom of pubs, we were now holding national “Militant” rallies of thousands at the Royal Albert Hall and Alexandra Palace.

We had developed a significant position within the trade union field with the organization of BLOC (the Broad Left Organizing Committee). This held trade union conferences of thousands in the 1980s. During the miners’ strike of 1984-5, we recruited some 500 miners, again reflecting our growing influence.

The re-election of Thatcher in 1987 was a turning point. In the election, while Kinnock led the Labour Party to defeat, the Marxists Pat Wall had been elected and Terry Fields and Dave Nellist were re-elected with increased majorities. It showed in practice the attraction of bold socialist policies. Nevertheless, after the tragic death of Pat, this did not prevent Terry and Dave being expelled by Kinnock in his bid to rid the party of “Militants”. The same fate was met by the leading Liverpool comrades, who were expelled on trumped up charges.

The Thatcher government proceeded with the Poll Tax in 1989, first in Scotland and then in the rest of the country. As early as 1986, when the tax was first talked about, Ted had raised the idea of a mass campaign of non-payment. Given the situation, we put our forces into developing and leading the campaign. Eventually, with 14 million non-payers, Thatcher was forced to resign and the hated tax was repealed.

Throughout the 1980s, there had been a sharp turn to the right within the Labour Party and also the trade unions, which created difficulties for us. “Good generals know when to retreat”, explained Ted, “bad ones can turn a retreat into a rout.” This is what eventually happened with the majority of the “Militant” leadership, lead by Peter Taaffe, which had allowed our successes go to their heads.

A shortcut over a cliff

Against the opposition of Ted and a group of other comrades, the leadership decided to stand a candidate, following Eric Heffer’s death, against the Labour Party in Walton (Liverpool). This turned out to be a disaster.

This was followed by the launch of a “New Turn” in Scotland, where the tendency would break from the Labour Party and launch itself as a new party. This was supposed to prevent the rise of Scottish nationalism! Ted correctly described this as a “detour over a cliff”.

Events have subsequently proved him correct, especially with the destruction of the Scottish Socialist Party and the demise of “Militant”.

Our efforts to oppose this ultra-leftism led to our expulsion from “Militant”, which soon re-branded itself to become the Socialist Party of England and Wales. They wrote off the Labour Party as a bourgeois party from which the trade unions should disaffiliate – exactly the same policy as Tony Blair! Almost everything Ted had taught was thrown overboard in the search for a short-cut to success, which did not exist.

In other words, they ended up destroying the “Militant”, which Ted predicted would be their fate. Our once powerful bases in Liverpool and Scotland were smashed.
They turned themselves into an organisation of activists, jumping from one campaign to the next. Theory was abandoned and the political level plummeted. This resulted in a revolving-door membership. Their whole approach resulted in a mixture of sectarianism and crass opportunism.

The unbroken thread

Undeterred, Ted went on to found the Socialist Appeal and the International Marxist Tendency, which served to rescue the real traditions, programme and methods of the past. It was important to continue the genuine tradition of Marxism – the unbroken thread.'

Also visit: Ted Grant Internet Archive

Ted Grant helped us prepare for the coming revolutionary events. Clearly, there is no way out on the basis of capitalism. “The ruling class looks forward with pessimism and dread”, explained Ted on many occassions.

“Mandel has now put forward the idea of a Kondratiev cycle!” exclaimed Ted. “Yesterday they said there would be no slump. But what we have is not a cyclical crisis, but an organic crisis of the capitalist system. It is not a crisis of cycles, but the contradiction of the productive forces against the nation state and private ownership.”

Reformists, even the left-reformists, had very short memories. “Marxism is the memory of the working class… The road of reformism means catastrophe.” There is no middle road. Capitalism cannot be rescued but must be overthrown.

“The economic base of society is always decisive. Mental ideas lag behind, but not forever. In the end, politics must come into consonance with economics,” explained Ted. That is why he always stressed that it was “events, events, events”, that were essential in changing the outlook of the working class.

He nevertheless warned that the road ahead was long, given the crisis of leadership. “We are engaged in a long war; there will be inevitable defeats and victories.” However, the perspective was one of a protracted death agony of the system. There would be many opportunities to change society.

Today, the greatest economic crisis in the history of capitalism is a vindication of Marxism and the ideas of Ted Grant. We need to prepare for the future: the epoch of revolution and counter-revolution on a world scale. There has never been such an unstable period in history. However, we must not be sidetracked by incidentals, but “need to look at the fundamentals”, as Ted always stressed.

The objective conditions for revolution are maturing everywhere. However, the crisis facing humanity is the crisis of leadership. The old organisations have become an enormous barrier to the workers. “The subjective factor is the most important factor in history,” explained Ted. The key task is to educate and train the forces of Marxism, so that they can play a decisive role when the time comes.

This month marks the centenary of Ted Grant’s birth. We will mark it in a fashion that Ted would have wanted: in a renewed commitment to build the forces of Marxism in Britain and internationally.
As Alan Woods explained in his recent biography of Ted, “Speaking of the philosopher Anaxagoras, Aristotle likened him to ‘a sober man among a crowd of drunkards’.” One could say the same thing about Ted Grant. There was nobody like him when he was alive, and nobody can replace him now he is gone.

But in the ranks of the International Marxist Tendency there are many experienced cadres who have absorbed his ideas and methods, and are fully equipped to carry them into practice.
On this basis, we will build and consolidate our forces and prepare the ground for the emergence of a mass Marxist tendency that can lead the working class to power and establish socialism in Britain and internationally.

Source: Ted Grant: the unbroken thread of Marxism

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