History of British Trotskyism Postcript

By Rob Sewell

[Section 7]

The poll tax

After Thatcher's third election victory in 1987, the Tory government moved to introduce a retrogressive Poll Tax in Scotland, and a year later in England and Wales. We saw this as a great opportunity to engage in mass work and lead a battle against the Tory government. In the end, our tactic of mass non-payment connected with the mood of millions of people up and down the country. At its height, around 18 million people refused to pay the hated tax. This was the biggest movement of civil disobedience in British history, led by the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Union, which we had established and led. 250,000 people demonstrated in London and a further 50,000 took to the streets of Glasgow. Without doubt, this mass movement, which terrified the strategists of capital, contributed to the repeal of the Poll Tax and the resignation of Thatcher in 1990.

Despite these enormous successes, there were serious problems in the tendency. The most serious was that the political level of the cadres was declining, and the leadership was doing nothing to counter this trend. In the end the reason for this became clear. Ted Grant continually stressed at editorial board meetings the need to thoroughly educate and train the new comrades who entered our ranks. Unfortunately, these calls went largely unheard. Alan Woods attempted to reverse the trend by building up the theoretical journal, but these attempts were deliberately sabotaged by the leading group around Peter Taaffe, who were already pursuing their own agenda at this time.

The Taaffe group favoured activism over theory, which they privately regarded with contempt. Given the changed objective conditions, which had become much more difficult, we had to run fast to stand still. Of course, the building of the tendency was very important, but activism began increasingly to overwhelm the tendency. The stress on growth alone served to politically dilute the tendency, weaken the cadres and open it up to all kinds of alien pressures and influences. As long as Ted's political authority in the leadership was strong, this served to hold things together. However, behind the scenes Peter Taaffe, the editor of the paper, had other ideas.

With the wisdom of hindsight it is clear that Taaffe was getting big ideas about the real significance of the tendency and his role in it. Ted had always stressed the need for "a sense of proportion and a sense of humour". But a sense of proportion was just what was missing in the leading group in Militant. They were intoxicated with the successes of the tendency. These were real enough, but one has to keep things in their proper context. A tendency of 8,000 was a significant force, yes. But in comparison with the multi-millioned British labour movement it was still very small. Taaffe and his supporters did not grasp this fact. They were rapidly losing contact with reality. In the immortal phrase of Stalin, they were "dizzy with success."

A very ambitious man with a morbid fear of rivals, actual or potential, Taaffe decided that his talents were not sufficiently appreciated. Actually, despite a certain flair for organisation, Taaffe was never a theoretician and was deeply jealous of people whom he saw as on a higher level than himself. He surrounded himself with a group of yes-men and yes-women, who encouraged him in his delusions of grandeur and egged him on to confront Ted. But this he could not do openly. Instead, he resorted to behind-the-scenes manoeuvres to isolate Ted, spreading rumours about his allegedly impossible character, and worse.

Slowly but surely, a clique was forming around the person of Taaffe. He took personal responsibility for the tendency in Liverpool and West of Scotland, where he assiduously cultivated certain individuals at the expense of others. Although Taaffe was a talented speaker and a capable organiser, all his ideas were taken from Ted.

As long as he worked with Ted, his abilities were put to good use in developing the tendency. However, by this time, Taaffe was clearly attempting to boost his own stature by privately undermining those around him. Taaffe worked systematically to isolate Ted in the leadership. Within the space of two years, Ted was accused of "senile dementia" or, less elegantly, of "losing his marbles". He was denounced as "another Plekhanov" (the founder of Russian Marxism who eventually ended up a Menshevik). Alan Woods, meanwhile, was described as a "mere theoretician". Yet, this phrase reveals better than anything else does the narrow organisational mentality of Taaffe and his group and their contempt for theory. They did not understand the elementary fact that our tendency was built on the solid foundation of Marxist theory. Once that foundation was removed the entire edifice would inevitably collapse - which was just what happened.

In reality, Taaffe felt particularly threatened by Alan Woods, who was certainly on a higher theoretical level and was regarded by everyone as an excellent public speaker and writer. Since Taaffe was always looking over his shoulders for rivals, he imagined (wrongly) that here was a threat to his own position. He therefore did everything in his power to isolate Alan at every step, using different means of preventing from speaking at public meetings, withholding funds from the theoretical journal and even blocking the publication of his book on the history of Bolshevism. Alan's main sin was that he was always close to Ted and consequently would never have countenanced any manoeuvres against him - or anybody else. Taaffe knew that it would be impossible to remove Ted without a battle with Alan Woods - something he feared because of the consequences, above all in the International. He therefore proceeded with great caution, concealing his intrigues as much as possible.

With the end of the Poll Tax campaign, things were coming to a head inside the tendency. Although our intervention in the Poll Tax movement was an outstanding success, because of the policy of "activism" promoted by the leadership - which at times meant that our most active people were running around aimlessly - there was a clear disproportion between the amount of effort put in and the concrete results in terms of growth. As a result, moods of frustration and impatience began to emerge within the organisation.

This even affected some of the leadership, particularly in the West of Scotland and Liverpool. They had been engaged in mass struggles and this seemed to have gone to their heads. They began to look for a short cut to success. Tommy Sheridan in Scotland in particular was keen to break from the Labour Party. Lacking a firm grounding in Marxism, and a clear perspective, they were affected by ephemeral moods in society, and the pressures of the moment. In practice, they abandoned the Marxist method in favour of eclecticism and impressionism. They had clearly lost all sense of proportion and were completely disoriented.

In April 1991, they convinced Taaffe to launch a "new turn" in Scotland. This was sold to the leadership as a temporary local "detour", allegedly intended to combat the threat from Scottish nationalism. Shortly afterwards, a violent row broke out within the international leadership with Ted and Alan accusing Taaffe of organising a clique. This led to a sharp deterioration in relations within the leadership. Then in May, with the death of Eric Heffer, the MP for Walton, the group around Taaffe came forward with the idea of standing Leslie Mahmood, who had been narrowly defeated in the selection process, against Peter Kilfoyle, the official Labour candidate and chief witch-hunter on Merseyside. The electoral challenge was depicted ridiculously as a principled question and the tendency was demagogically stampeded into fighting the by-election. It represented a fundamental break with our whole past orientation. Within the leadership, with Alan abroad, only Ted and myself spoke and voted against the proposal. Dave Nellist remarked later in private that "it was turkeys voting for Christmas."

All of our resources were mobilised to fight the by-election. Wildly exaggerated reports were given at national meetings to the effect that victory was within our grasp. In the end, Leslie, standing as the "Real Labour" candidate came third with a derisory 2,613 votes, while Kilfoyle won the seat with 21,317 votes. It was a humiliating defeat - bearing in mind that the Militant had recently led a mass movement in the city and effectively controlled the council. But Taaffe and his supporters could not admit this. Instead they resorted to blatant demagogy. 2,613 votes for Socialism! proclaimed the Militant in banner headlines, in an attempt to gloss over the humiliation and to raise the demoralised spirits of the rank and file comrades.

The majority leadership proclaimed the result as a "success", which should be followed in other parts of the country! In this way, what might have been a small mistake, which could easily have been corrected, was magnified into a colossal blunder that destroyed the Militant tendency. The idea that a small organisation could compete with the Labour Party was ridiculous in the extreme. As we explained many times, history has shown it is not possible for small revolutionary groups to reach the mass of the working class by a direct route. But by this time, rational argument played no role in the Militant leadership. They were hell-bent on pushing the tendency into what Ted aptly described as "a short cut over a cliff."

The group around Taaffe was not interested in listening to anybody. The only thing that mattered now was the prestige of the leading group and the infallibility of its Leader. The conclusions they drew were quite farcical. The Merseyside organiser, Dave Cotterill, subsequently wrote: "The Labour Party would wither on the vine." This shows the absurd delusions of grandeur that characterised the mentality of these people at the time. Of course, as we predicted at the time, it was the Taaffites who would wither away to nothing.

The Walton episode merely served to intensify the Labour bureaucracy's witch-hunt against the tendency. "On the basis of photographic, and other verifiable evidence of Labour members campaigning for Mahmood in the by-election, the NEC Organisation Committee ordered 147 suspected Militant sympathisers to be suspended - the biggest ever crack-down against the organisation", wrote George Drower. "Proceedings were begun to expel allegedly Militant-supporting Labour MPs, Dave Nellist and Terry Fields."[17] The Taaffe leadership had deliberately placed their heads on a plate.

Within the leadership, Ted, Alan Woods and I firmly opposed this ultra-left "turn", which Ted characterised as "a threat to forty years work." As we explained in an Opposition bulletin, "After decades of successful work in the mass organisations, which have permitted us to make unprecedented gains, an attempt is being made to launch the tendency on an adventure which threatens to undermine the entire basis of the tendency."[18]

One of the things that always set us apart from the pseudo-Trotskyist sects was the extremely democratic and tolerant internal life within the tendency. Expulsions were extremely rare and dissenting views were always given a fair hearing. This was no accident. It was based on the colossal political and moral authority of the leadership, which in turn reflected that of Ted Grant, a man who was never afraid of political debate, but whom even his enemies would have to admit was always fair-minded, tolerant and loyal. But these clean traditions were trampled underfoot. Taaffe and his supporters did not possess the necessary political armoury to take on the Opposition in a fair fight. Instead they used the weight of the apparatus, the full timers, the weapon of slander, gossip and character assassination, to attempt to wear down and crush us.

In the heated faction fight, Ted and the Opposition were treated abysmally. We were presented not as comrades with arguments to be answered, but as enemies to be crushed. They resorted to the pettiest methods of harassment to undermine our morale. When we went to the centre, nobody spoke to us, not even good morning. Later, our bags were searched before we were allowed to leave the building, and so on. As Ted remarked about Taaffe: "He's got more tricks than a monkey in a box. He must think that this is what politics is all about! He has the mentality of a provincial politician."

The methods of the ruling clique in the faction fight were pure Stalinism. In one national meeting, which was an organised "hate session" against myself in particular, Ted made what must have been the shortest speech of his life. "I have seen these methods before. This is Healyism! This is Cannonism! This is Stalinism!" And he sat down, to a stunned silence. The fact is that the Taaffites could not tolerate opposition. They found they could not break us - as they had broken others - and so, after a farcical pretence at a "debate", we were unceremoniously expelled in January 1992.

The expulsion of the Opposition inevitably led to a split in the tendency in Britain and internationally. In Britain the Opposition had the support of several hundred mainly experienced cadres and trade union activists. The situation was far more favourable in the international. At the time of the split, the Opposition had the majority in the CWI. The Spanish, Italian, Belgian, Danish, Cypriot, Mexican, Argentinean and Pakistani organisations supported us. The Greeks were evenly divided, but all the worker comrades supported us. We had significant minorities in Sweden and Germany. In Ireland, the USA and Sri Lanka there was no debate and we were effectively prevented from putting our case. The French section had already been split by Taaffe's manoeuvres - as had the Irish, as we discovered later - the expelled comrades joined the Opposition. If we exclude Britain, this means that we almost certainly had the majority of the international tendency on our side.

In Britain, however, we were once again reduced to a relatively small group with no resources. Our apparatus was reduced to one battered old typewriter. We managed to raise enough to rent a small room and launch a monthly magazine - the Socialist Appeal. Nevertheless, although small in numbers, we had sizeable international support. Despite the setback, we managed to take with us the main theoreticians of the tendency, including its founder, and win over a layer of important trade union comrades. We had retained comrades who had experience in building the tendency, even in the most difficult circumstances. These qualities were, and are, a sufficient guarantee for our success.

At the time of the split, Taaffe took the big majority of the members, including the youth, almost all of whom he soon lost, the press, the money and the apparatus. He had apparently everything in his favour. By the end of the decade, the results of his stewardship were clear to all. He has almost single-handedly managed to wreck the organisation. The huge centre in Hepscott Road has had to be sold off as a result of a financial crisis. They are now living off the proceeds, but this money will not last forever. In the meantime, they have lost the whole of the Scottish organisation. Just as we thought, Tommy Sheridan split away on a nationalist binge fusing with the Cliff group on the way.

Most of the former leaders of the majority faction have dropped out in demoralisation. The entire leadership of the Liverpool region was booted out. Taaffe has thus succeeded in destroying the Liverpool organisation that he was in charge of for so many years, and which used to be regarded as the jewel in the crown of Militant. The membership has been decimated, and probably stands at no more than a couple of hundred activists (at the time of the split in 1992 they claimed 5,000). Even the name of Militant - which was well known in Britain and internationally - has been unceremoniously ditched and replaced with a name that nobody has ever heard of. In short, they have succeeded in destroying all that was built up through decades of work.

They light-mindedly threw away the MPs - deliberately provoking their expulsion - as well as other important points of support built up over decades of patient work. On the international front, they have lost entire sections and experienced a series of splits - which still continue. Where they retain some support, it is largely down to the political capital developed by Ted in the past. In their continuing search for a magic formula, they set up an umbrella grouping called the Socialist Alliance. When this was recently taken over by the Cliff group, the Taaffites walked out in a huff. In short, they have shown that they are only good at destroying what others have built. Ten year later, it is all quite clear. It was not the Labour Party, but the Taaffites who have "withered on the vine."

The Unbroken Thread

Over the past decade, our tendency has been rebuilt from scratch. In Britain we have built upon the important points of support we had in the trade unions and are now engaged in rebuilding our base in the youth. On an international scale we have had a number of serious successes - especially in Spain, Italy, Mexico and Pakistan, where we are now becoming a mass force.

In 1992 we launched the Socialist Appeal magazine, which has gained 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 are translated into Spanish, Italian, Greek, Russian, Turkish and Urdu. Reason in Revolt is currently being translated into German and Dutch. Our articles and pamphlets have also been translated into French, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Portuguese, Rumanian, Serbian, Macedonian, Polish, Indonesian, Hebrew and 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 website 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. In the last year alone we had over one million successful page visits, and the number of visits is constantly increasing. We deal with a voluminous correspondence from all over the world, and there is a growing number of international collaborators - many of them with sister websites - the latest being in Turkey, Serbia, Poland, Ireland, South Africa and Indonesia.

The key to our success has been our firm defence of the ideas of Marxism, which has permitted us to gain an important following in a whole series of countries where we had nothing previously. We base ourselves on the classics of Marxism, and the contribution that Ted in particular has made over the last 60 years. Thus, although we are formally a young tendency, in practice we represent an unbroken thread that can trace its past back to the days of Trotsky's International Left Opposition.

The contribution of Ted Grant, in close collaboration with Alan Woods, has been of the utmost importance. Ted's political experience has been the bedrock of the tendency. In the past, his method and orientation, which are rooted in Trotsky's approach, served to make the tendency a major factor in British politics. This process was unfortunately cut across by a combination of unfavourable objective conditions and the political weaknesses of a leadership that lost its head and was blown off course by events that it did not understand.

Some people imagined that after the crisis in Militant, everything was lost. For our part, the setback ten years ago did not dent our confidence in the slightest degree. On the contrary, in many ways we have been greatly strengthened. We are more convinced than ever in the correctness of our ideas - the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky - which can be modified in this or that detail, but which remain fundamentally the same as they were 150 years ago.

Engels once said that the party becomes strong by purging itself. The split in the Militant was part of the crisis of the Left internationally. We have learned valuable lessons from the experience. True, in Britain above all we lost a lot of people and were thrown back. But this is not the first time such things have occurred. We have been in a small minority before, as were the great teachers of Marxism. That does not worry us. We are convinced that in the stormy period that opens up before us on a world scale, great events will propel the working class into action in one country after another. Sooner or later the new generation will begin to look for an alternative to the blind alley of capitalism and the bankrupt policies of reformism.

The collapse of Stalinism, has produced a crisis within the Stalinist or former Stalinist parties, and opened up greater possibilities for the ideas of Trotskyism than ever before. Equipped with the correct ideas, methods and approach, we can build a genuine mass Marxist tendency at home and abroad. Ten years ago, the fall of the USSR plunged the Left - and especially the Communist Parties - into a deep crisis. But now the process has turned full circle.

The introduction of the market in Russia and Eastern Europe has spelt disaster for the masses. Gradually, the workers' movement in Russia is beginning to recover, and inside the Communist Parties, there is a growing interest in the ideas of Trotsky. As we go to print, our Russian comrades will have published the book Lenin and Trotsky - What they really stood for, which Alan and Ted wrote in 1969, in the Russian language. In the coming period, the ideas of the Trotskyist tendency represented by the paper Rabochaya Demokratiya will get a mass audience in Russia, where a new edition of the October Revolution will be on the order of the day.

Events in Latin America, where the revolution in Argentina has begun, show that the so-called globalisation is expressing itself as a global crisis of capitalism. This is the epoch of the beginning of the world revolution. Given the weakness of the subjective factor, this process will unfold over a protracted period of time. This will provide us with a certain breathing space in which to build up our forces. We have long ago turned our back upon the myriad of sectarian groups, to whom we say: Let the dead bury the dead! We will face towards the fresh layers of the youth and the working class and its mass organisations, to find the new fighters for the revolutionary movement.

Ted Grant's great contribution was to preserve the unbroken thread of genuine Trotskyism. On this unshakeable foundation we will prepare the cadres, theoretically, politically and organisationally, for the great tasks that lie ahead. This book will undoubtedly serve to assist in this historic goal.

We draw our inspiration from that great leader, thinker and martyr of our movement, Leon Trotsky, who, at the height of the Stalinist Purge Trials, wrote the following: "whoever seeks physical repose and spiritual comfort - let him step aside. During times of reaction it is easier to lean on the bureaucracy than on the truth. But for all those for whom socialism is not an empty phrase but the content of their moral life - forward! Neither threats, nor persecution, nor violence will stop us. Perhaps it will be on our bones, but the truth will triumph. We are paving the way for it, and the truth will be victorious. Under the terrible blows of fate, I will feel as happy as during the best days of my youth if I can join you in facilitating its victory. For, my friends, the highest happiness lies not in the exploitation of the present, but in the preparation of the future."

Rob Sewell,
March 18, 2002

[To be continued]

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[17] George Drower, Kinnock, London 1994, p.279.

[18] The New Turn, dated 16 August 1991, p.1.