We now present part two of John Peterson's introduction to "Ted Grant Selected Works Volume 2: The Work of Marxists in the Mass Organizations." This section discusses the Trotsky's efforts to connect with the masses in the 30s, Ted's "Unbroken Thread," and the need to apply the tactical and organizational lessons of the history of our movement to the work of connecting our ideas with workers and youth in the United States and
Trotsky’s struggle to win the masses
The rise and crimes of the Stalinist bureaucracy have been analyzed in great detail in the writings of Leon Trotsky. Ted Grant also made important contributions toward our understanding of proletarian Bonapartism—the scientific term for Stalinism—as evidenced in Volume One of his Selected Works.
Trotsky fought tooth and nail against the Stalinists and their betrayals of the Russian Revolution. In 1929, he was exiled from the USSR and hounded by the GPU to the end of his days. What attitude did he take to the increasingly Stalinized Communist International? Did he declare it dead simply because he was demonized by the bureaucracy and declared public enemy number one? Did he abandon the Soviet workers and the millions of others fighting under the banner of the Comintern to the Stalinist apparatus? Not at all. Although the Stalinist noose was tightening, Trotsky considered himself and his International Left Opposition as a faction of the Communist International, even if they had been formally expelled from it.
He oriented his forces around the world to the Communist Parties—the mass parties of the most advanced layers of the working class—arguing for genuine proletarian internationalism, working class unity, and for a return to the soviet democracy of the early USSR. He had no illusions that he would convince Stalin and co. to change course. His aim was to win the masses organized in the Communist Parties to genuine Bolshevism. In short, his policy was a continuation of the approach Marxists have taken in relation to the masses and their organizations since the founding of our movement.
Then, a qualitative change came. Hitler’s rise to power signified the political death of the Comintern. Stalin’s policy of the so-called “Third Period” had led directly to the rise of Hitler and the destruction of the flower of the German proletariat, once the mightiest force for revolutionary change on the planet. Millions of workers were doomed to an early grave in the all-but-inevitable conflagration to come. A revolutionary party is first and foremost its program, methods, banner, and traditions. The banner of the Comintern was stained with Stalinist filth and the blood of the Russian and European working class. Such a banner could no longer serve as a clarion call for the world revolution. It was then—and only then—that Trotsky began to lay the foundations for Fourth International.
Trotsky had the ideas, the methods, and was formulating what would become the Transitional Program, the founding document of the Fourth International. He had a handful of followers around the world, most of whom had come out of the ranks of the various Communist Parties, in opposition to the Stalinists. But he did not have the masses. How were the small forces of the International Left Opposition to win them?
Although the Socialist Parties had reached their political “expiration date” in 1914, when nearly every one of the leaders of the Second International throughout Europe rallied to defend “their” bourgeoisie during World War I, many workers still remained organized in their ranks. The growing polarization in Europe, the rise of fascism, and the revulsion many workers felt at the Stalinist CPs, led to a revival of the Socialist Parties. Yet again, the masses gravitated first to their traditional parties, despite the past crimes of the leaders. Here was a fresh layer of increasingly radicalized workers, not stifled by the iron grip of the Stalinist bureaucracy. In 1934, Trotsky urged his followers in France to dissolve their organization, the Communist League, and enter the French Socialists. This became known as the “French Turn,” and the tactic in general became known as “entrism.”
During this period of crisis and polarization, the left reformist leaders of the SPs were being pushed by the pressure from below toward a revolutionary policy. This vacillating “middle ground” between left reformism and revolution is known as “centrism.” However, it is not enough to determine that someone or some political current is centrist in nature. We must also determine whether they are in the “center” and moving to the left, toward revolution, or in the “center” and moving to the right, away from revolution. In the French Socialist Party in 1934, the leadership was being pushed toward a revolutionary policy. It was under these specific conditions that Trotsky urged his forces to “enter” the French SP, in order to argue for a consistent revolutionary policy, and ultimately, to win more members to the forces of Trotskyism, against reformism and Stalinism.
Trotsky envisioned this as a short-term tactic. The conditions were such, he believed, that if the Marxists could gather around them enough critical mass—which would come out of the centrist currents emerging in the traditional mass organizations—it could begin to take on a life of its own and serve as a pole of attraction to the rank and file of both the CPs and the SPs, and those not yet politicized. The tactic succeeded in bolstering the numbers of revolutionary Marxists gathered around Trotsky. With the founding of the Fourth International and the crisis of Stalinism and reformism, the future success of the world proletarian revolution seemed assured. By orienting to the workers’ traditional organizations, Trotsky had succeeded in building up the first cadres of a new international. The task was now to build on this work and win the masses to the banner of the Fourth International, wherever they may be.
Tragically, Trotsky’s assassination, and the complex chaos of World War II, cut across this perspective. As outlined briefly above, the main leaders of the Fourth International were ill-equipped to pick up where Trotsky left off, and drove out all those—such as Ted Grant—who were able to develop correct perspectives.
Unfortunately, many so-called Trotskyists have made a caricature of the entrist tactic. Some developed the idea of “deep entrism” in which one hides one’s political ideas in order not to “rock the boat too soon” in the party one is working in. In other words, no one in the party knows you are a Bolshevik until you suddenly “surprise” them with the news! With such a tactic, no one learns anything from the collective experience of the party, and the “deep entrists” are quite often absorbed into the reformist apparatus of the party in question.
Others have approached it as “head hunters” and splitters, barging in with guns blazing in order to quickly win a handful of people. Or they deliberately work to provoke a conflict with the leadership, in order to hasten expulsions or a split. Never mind patiently explaining your ideas to the rank and file in order to try to win the majority to a revolutionary perspective! When doing such work, we are always striving to be the best party members, exemplified not only by our hard work, but by our principled approach to political and organizational questions, always open about who we are and what ideas we defend. This is how we can win the confidence of the other party members, who will see that we have a genuine interest in strengthening the party in order to fight for genuine socialist policies.
After World War II, a prolonged epoch of relative capitalist stability opened up. The class struggle was dampened for a whole historical period, at least in the advanced capitalist countries. The forces of revolutionary Marxism were isolated, and marginalized, with few immediate prospects for success. The Trotskyist movement was blown off course, battered by the changed objective conditions and poor leadership. But Ted “stuck to his guns.” His political compass pointed unwaveringly toward the “true North” of Marxist theory and the inevitable revival of the class struggle at a certain stage. As he battened down the hatches for more opportune times to come, he could not have known that it would be roughly two decades before the objective situation began to change. Nonetheless, during this period, he continued to develop his analysis of world events and to train the handful of cadres that would eventually give fruit in the form of the Militant. Even in the darkest days of these years in the political “desert,” one question was always foremost in Ted’s mind: how to connect with the masses?
Ted’s “Unbroken Thread”
Marxists do not make a fetish out of organizational forms. While remaining firm on questions of principle, when it comes to organization, strategy, and tactics, we can and must be extremely flexible. The question here is of an overall orientation to the mass organizations. Ted is sometimes misrepresented as having a fixation on the Labour Party. Nothing could be further from the truth. Despite having an overall, long-term orientation to the traditional party of the British working class, the fact is that in practice, Ted was at various times working directly inside the party, and at others, doing independent work from the outside.
The overall perspective that the British workers, when they began to move, would do so through their unions and the Labour Party, never changed. But depending on the needs and possibilities of the given circumstances, Ted was always very flexible with how this general orientation was implemented in practice. Sometimes he was in favor of emphasizing party work, at other times, he argued against it. During some periods, the comrades focused their energies on the internal life and struggles of the Labour Party. During others, they almost exclusively engaged in open work: youth work, trade union work, solidarity work, etc. Ted even said that if we had enough forces, we would try to recruit in the Boy Scouts. Now that’s tactical flexibility!
The unifying aspect of everything Ted did was the need to recruit and train the cadres of revolutionary Marxism, no matter what the objective conditions or difficulties. The aim at all times was to connect with the advanced workers and youth, the “ones and twos,” who would form the backbone of the future mass revolutionary party. As Trotsky explained in the Transitional Program, the crisis of humanity is the crisis of leadership of the world proletariat. Revolutionary situations will arise in every country on earth. Of this there can be no doubt. The real question is whether or not the workers will succeed in replacing capitalism with socialism.
The twentieth century is full of tragic examples of the working class being “so close, and yet so far.” Time after time, the reformist and Stalinist leaders have “snatched defeat from the jaws of victory,” and delivered the workers to the capitalists and their state on a platter. The decisive factor in each and every one of these defeats was the lack of a revolutionary leadership able to win the workers from those who would betray the revolution and condemn them to decades more of capitalist wage slavery. Such a party is not built overnight. It must be steeled in struggle, steeped in the ideas and methods of Marxism, with deep roots in the working class and its organizations, and of sufficient size to be able to play a decisive role to change events in favor of victory for the workers. Ted’s life work—the same as those of us who are working to build on the foundations he helped lay—was to build such a leadership.
How to win the masses from poor leadership?
Ted’s approach to union and Labour Party leaders is also something we can learn from today. Building on what Lenin outlined in “Left Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, Ted understood that the way to win the masses is not to shrilly denounce their leaders from the sidelines. Whether we like it or not, the fact is that the Marxists have not yet won the leadership of the working class. The current leaders are in their position because at least a sizable layer of the workers have illusions in them. In other words, the rank and file has a reasonable expectation that their leaders will represent them, will defend and fight for them. Buying off workers’ leaders to do the dirty work for the bosses is one way the capitalists perpetuate their rule. We know this, and the most class-conscious workers know this. But that does not mean that the majority of the workers know this yet. How to drive a wedge between the two?
The instinct of many advanced workers and young people who have already drawn these conclusions is to vent their rage and frustration at these people directly. They want to denounce and expose their double-talk, vacillations, and betrayals. But for the workers who have not yet come to understand this through their own experience, this seems like an attack on the union or party as a whole. He or she may think: “I’m not entirely satisfied with my leaders, but who do these people think they are, coming here and attacking my leaders and my organization? They sound just like Scott Walker!” A far more effective way of driving a wedge between poor leadership and the illusions of the rank and file is to make positive demands on the leaders, as a loyal, hard-working member of the party or union.
For example, in a contract negotiation where cuts and concessions are being proposed, we might approach our fellow workers along these lines: “Our leadership says we have to accept concessions—we disagree! The company made $1 billion in profits last year, and the CEO makes 400 times what we make. Our leaders should do what they were elected to do, and that is to represent the workers against the bosses. Our leaders should mobilize the membership to fight against concessions and we will help them do it!”
This kind of approach can win broader layers of the workers to a perspective of struggle. And if the leaders do not carry out the reasonable demands of the rank and file, they will “expose” themselves, and the workers will draw their own conclusions as to the need for a militant, class-struggle leadership. The same basic approach applies also to the mass workers’ parties. This is clearly an oversimplification; life is always far more complex. However, the basic approach is a million miles away from that of the hysterical sectarians who swing wildly from opportunism to ultraleftism, and will never in a million years connect with the broader working class.
Ted’s writings from the postwar years are a treasure trove of Marxism as applied to this complex and difficult period. They represent a continuation and a deepening of the work of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky. The majority of the present volume is dedicated to articles and documents from this period, with a focus on the work of Marxists in the unions and the British Labour Party. History of British Trotskyism, Ted’s detailed account of the political and organizational battles in the Fourth International in the years after World War II, is also highly recommended and is also available from Wellred.
But Ted Grant’s name is most closely associated with the Militant Tendency. Ask anyone of a certain age in Britain if they remember the Militant, and most of them will answer in the affirmative, whether or not they were supporters or enemies of the organization. Militant was part of the culture and experience of an entire generation of British youth and workers—in the days before Facebook and Twitter.
The experience of the Militant Tendency is a classic example of how, with the correct program, methods, and ideas, combined with a flexible approach to the traditional workers’ political parties, the unions, elections, and the youth, a small group can grow rapidly in a relatively short period of time. From the work in the Labour Party Young Socialists and at Sussex University in the 1960s, to the 1984–85 miners’ strike, control of Liverpool city council, and the anti-poll tax campaign in the early 1990s, Militant became a household name and helped lead to the downfall of Thatcher. For the first time in Britain since Trotsky’s death, his ideas were capturing the imagination of a new generation of youth, and were being discussed on television and in the press. The future prospects for the socialist revolution in Britain were bright.
However, the success was not to last. A section of Militant’s leadership began to think it could build a mass revolutionary party outside the Labour Party. In a future revolutionary situation, that may well be the case. But that was not the case in 1991. The mass struggle of the workers and youth was ebbing, the collapse of the Soviet Union introduced tremendous confusion into the ranks of the movement, and the right wing of the Labour Party had succeeded in reasserting control through a series of repressive measures and expulsions.
The leadership of the Militant began a series of disastrous turns that in short order transformed it into a sterile sect. Following on Ted’s expulsion from the Labour Party in 1983, he and his supporters were now unceremoniously expelled from the Militant— the organization he himself had founded. Incorrect policies, a watering down of the membership’s theoretical level, inflated egos, and a search for shortcuts are a recipe for disaster in a revolutionary party. Decades of painstaking preparatory work was destroyed in just a few years. The dramatic rise and fall of the Militant Tendency is outlined in Rob Sewell’s article “How the Militant Was Built; And How it Was Destroyed,” included as an appendix to this volume. It gives an overview of the “good, the bad, and the ugly” of the experience of the Militant, and contains important lessons for the movement today.
For a mass party of labor!
Which brings us to the United States. Why should we bother reading Ted Grant’s writings on the mass organizations in a country where we do not even have a labor party? The answer is simple: we can and must learn from the collective experience of our class. As someone once said, “I am interested in history, because I am interested in the future.”
The perspective for the coming period is for tremendous economic, social, and political turmoil. The mass movement in Wisconsin, the Occupy movement, and labor’s mobilization in Ohio to defeat governor Kasich’s anti-union legislation are just the beginning of the beginning. A renewed explosion of the class struggle is firmly on the agenda. In the storm and stress of the historical period we have entered, the American workers will move to change their destinies. The unions will be shaken from top to bottom. The need for a class-independent political expression for the workers will become increasingly clear.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2010, the percentage of wage and salary workers who were members of a union was 11.9 percent overall, down from 12.3 percent in 2009, a decline of 612,000 to 14.7 million. In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent, or 17.7 million union workers. But as we know the rate is vastly different in the private and public sectors. After decades of being hammered by layoffs and off-shoring, private sector unionization is at just 6.9 percent, whereas it is 36.2 percent in the public sector. This explains the mad drive by the capitalists in going after and demonizing the public sector.
New York has the highest unionization rate, at 24.2 percent, and North Carolina has the lowest at just 3.2 percent. However, we understand that these numbers do not tell the whole story. Over the last few years, there has been a form of “off-shoring” to the South, as big manufacturers move production to the low-wage, non-union South instead of the East coast, Midwest, or foreign countries. This has produced a volatile mix of conditions; the South is a veritable powder keg of the class struggle, just waiting to explode.
In 2009, strikes reached their lowest level since 1947, the year the Department of Labor began tracking this data. In 2009, there were just five major work stoppages in the entire country. Between 2001 and 2010, there were just 17 such strikes per year on average, compared with 34 per year from 1991–2000, 69 from 1981–1990, and 269 from 1971–1980. However, similar conditions lead to similar results. We are entering a period far more like the 1930s or the 1970s than the 2000s, and we can be sure the class will begin to move accordingly. The capitalists have another thing coming if they think the sleeping giant of labor will take these kicks lying down!
At a certain stage, there will be waves of strikes, millions more workers joining existing unions or forming new ones, class struggle opposition currents forming in the unions, with leaders pushed out or pushed to the left, and eventually even general strikes. Already in Wisconsin and then in Oakland, the question of the general strike has been posed more directly than it has in many decades. And with fewer industrial workers in the country, this means fewer workers have more power in their hands. The dockworkers, for example, hold enormous power in their hands. As do transport and transit workers, communications workers, utilities workers, and so on. We should never lose sight of the fact that although greatly reduced numerically and as a percentage of the workforce, unionized workers have an enormous amount of potential power if mobilized. Add to that the millions of workers who would like to be in a union, and you have a powerful force to change society.
The labor leaders will be compelled to do something to at least appear to be fighting in the interests of the workers. Otherwise, they stand to lose their positions. This can snowball into something bigger than they wanted. Reformism has no base without reforms. With only counter-reforms on the table, they will have no alternative but to fight.
In the cynical political calculus of the two main parties, labor is no longer a “must have” constituency. In exchange for guaranteeing class peace and getting union voters to the polls, the union bureaucracy carved out a nice niche for itself. But they are now on the verge of being tossed out like an old, used-up rag. In order to preserve their “seat at the table” they may be forced to go further than they themselves would ever imagine. For example, they may demagogically threaten a labor party to try to get back some clout and leverage from the Democrats. This could also unleash forces in that direction that could get out of their control.
Ted Grant understood the need for the American workers to build a mass party of their own. He was keenly aware of the need for a labor party in the U.S., and wrote about it in an article about Henry Wallace’s visit to the UK, way back in 1947. He also followed the development of the Labor Party in the U.S. in the 1990s with great interest. The Workers International League (WIL), which bases itself on the ideas of the International Marxist Tendency, founded by Ted Grant, has picked up where Ted left off, and has further developed this perspective. As explained in the 2010 U.S. Perspectives document of the WIL:
This is why our demand for a mass party of labor based on the unions is a key and defining demand. Why do we repeat it so often? Because this demand flows from the objective situation. The working class has no mass political representation. This is one of the most glaring contradictions in the situation in the U.S. No one else is raising this demand in a serious and consistent way. It is a clear point of differentiation between ourselves and the sects.
Those who limit themselves to a critique of capitalism and then advocate either a “lesser evil” vote for the Democrats, or present themselves as the party of revolution, are in practice impotent or worse. We must be clear that only mass forces—not an organization of 60 or even of 6,000—but of millions of workers, with all the resources and capabilities of organized labor, can offer a serious challenge to the two parties of capital. This is why this demand, in the tradition of the International Marxist Tendency’s orientation to the traditional mass organizations and parties, is so important. We even changed the banner of Socialist Appeal [The official publication of the WIL] to reflect this general orientation—even when such a party does not yet exist.
The idea of orienting to the mass organizations is seen by many on the Left as a “new” or innovative approach to politics. Others, who do not have a dialectical view of how the class moves, see it as opportunism or reformism of the worst sort. However, while on the surface it may seem mundane or even “boring,” it is in fact the most revolutionary lever there is. After all, the aim of such work is to win the masses to the perspective of socialist revolution. There is no perspective more revolutionary than that! And as we have seen, this approach is nothing more nor less than a continuation of the policy adopted and applied by all the great Marxists; by Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky, and further developed in the post-war period by Ted Grant.
In order to orient the reader and provide historical context, this volume opens with two British Perspectives documents, one from 1946, and another from 1968. Articles on the Independent Labour Party (a split from the Labour Party) and the Labour Party itself follow. We then reprint three articles on the Militant Tendency, followed by two important articles on the broader question of work in the mass organizations. One of Ted’s only articles on the U.S. is also included, which takes up the question of Henry Wallace’s presidential campaign and his visit to Britain in 1947. Then there are several articles on the trade unions, the general strike, and workers’ control of industry. Throughout these articles, we can see “unbroken thread” that unifies Ted’s work: absolute confidence in the working class, the urgent need to build the cadres of revolutionary Marxism, and a consistent approach to the mass organizations.
By the time I met Ted Grant, he was already quite old and not as involved in the day-to-day work of Socialist Appeal in the UK. I was perhaps one of the last comrades directly trained by Ted Grant, albeit only for a few short months. But the political and personal impact he made on me is undeniable. The power of the ideas of Marxism, as explained so clearly and concisely by him in our weekly conversations, convinced me to dedicate myself to the cause of the world proletariat. We started with just one person based in Fargo, North Dakota in 1998. Since then, the Workers International League—named after Ted’s first group in Britain—has grown into a modestly-sized organization with a growing presence around the country.
Ted Grant understood that the ultimate success of the world socialist revolution depended on the success of the revolution in the world’s most powerful capitalist country. By combining theory with action, political clarity with sacrifice and perseverance, those of us in the WIL are working hard to make Ted’s perspectives a reality. We invite you to join us! You can learn more by visiting www.socialistappeal.org.
Just one decade ago, the ground in the U.S. may have seemed a barren wasteland for these ideas. But Ted’s ideas have indeed taken root in the United States. There can be no doubt that the conditions are ripe for a revival of revolutionary Marxism. This is reflected in the hundreds of thousands of U.S. visitors to the In Defence of Marxism website at www.marxist.com. We are therefore pleased to present this new volume of Ted’s writings as a further contribution toward the theoretical arming of a new generation of Bolsheviks.
Minneapolis, December 19, 2011