Chapter Seven: The Tide Turns
Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise. (Victor Hugo, Les Misérables)
The most important turning-point was when we launched the Militant in October 1964. But we got off to quite a difficult start. As I recall, Ted was initially not in favour of the name. He favoured Forward, which he argued had a tradition in the British Labour Movement. The first issue was a well-produced eight-page paper. The name of the editor was stated as Roger Protz. This caused a major row. Protz had been a prominent Healyite, but his innate egotism led to a split with Healy. He had only recently joined us (I think Jimmy Deane recruited him). Unfortunately, he brought his ego with him.
Jimmy Deane once asked me: do you know what the difference between a petty-bourgeois and a worker is? He said: “When a worker joins an organization—whether it is a trade union or the Labour Party or our tendency—he says: here is a great organization that has been built by the sacrifices of many people over the years. Where can I find my niche where I can serve the movement? But when a petty-bourgeois joins the organization he says: Here am I. What have you got for me?”
Roger Protz was just such an element. I have seen many more like him over the years and they always cause serious problems. As we had no journalists in our ranks, his professional skills were obviously welcome. But his role in the paper was supposed to be purely technical. Nobody would have dreamed of giving him an editorial position.
Naturally, Protz had other ideas. He wanted to be the editor and nothing less. This was unacceptable. A clash was inevitable and Protz left soon after. He joined the SWP and became editor of Socialist Worker before moving on yet again. Such politically unstable petty-bourgeois elements cannot remain long in any one place. I believe he ended up in a leading position in CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, a most worthy cause where his talents were no doubt put to far better use.
I can say we breathed a sigh of relief when he left us. The cosmetic appearance of the paper lost out, but the political line was now free of the kind of confused mishmash that was present in some pages of the first issue. On Ted’s insistence, the masthead was changed from “For Youth and Labour” to “For Labour and Youth”. This small detail was no accident.
We held our first Militant meeting in Brighton in a small room in a pub. As I recall, there were maybe thirty people present. At the time, I doubt if many people even noticed. But within fifteen years, the Militant Tendency was an important element in British politics and was a household name. But to begin with, our apparatus was modest in the extreme.
We managed to rent three small rooms in an office in 197 King’s Cross Road, belonging to the ILP, which shared it with us. Opposite the office was a little Italian café called the A1, where Ted was always to be found at lunchtime, ordering a steak (which he liked to be cremated). Here he also held discussions with comrades and contacts over a cup of tea.
About this time (in 1964), Jimmy Deane gave up being National Secretary and went to work in India to pay off his debts (he was a qualified electrician). After that, in effect, he dropped out of the movement, although Ted always kept in contact. This was yet another blow.
The National Committee, which met every two or three months, elected the Secretariat. The NC meetings normally took place in the upstairs room of the Lucas Arms in King’s Cross. As explained earlier, the first session was almost always world perspectives, followed by British perspectives. Even though we had no International (we did not even have a group in Scotland, let alone Ireland) we were imbued with the spirit of internationalism.
In Tyneside, we had a small group of loyal old comrades who had been in the RCP during the war. I remember there was Jack and Daisy Rawlings who had a small transport café. They were marvellous old stalwarts. But the most remarkable of them all was old Herbie Bell, a man well-known in the local Labour Movement. Herbie was tireless. He would get up early on Sunday morning and go to the surrounding pit villages to sell the Militant door to door. And nobody ever refused to buy a paper from Herbie Bell!
Breakthrough in Sussex
We were gradually developing a base in the YS, not just in Liverpool (where we had had a base for many years), but in London, Tyneside, Swansea and then, in an important development, in Brighton. I went to Sussex University in September 1963. At that time I was the only comrade in the whole of the South of England. I was 18 years old and had no experience of building among students or of building at all on my own. However, thanks to the work of the group in Swansea, and the many political discussions with Dave Matthews, I had a very good grounding in Marxist theory, which was an important, not to say key, element in our remarkable success.
Ted attached a lot of importance to our work in Sussex and came down to speak to us many times. At first I was completely on my own, but that was not for long. I joined the Socialist Society, went to meetings and put the Marxist case very forcefully. At the first meeting I contacted two other first-year students (Bob Edwards and Roger Silverman) who, like me, were in the YS. We began to collaborate on a more or less formal basis.
After some time, they both joined, so then there were three of us. It was a visit from Ted that convinced Roger to join the Tendency. We worked in the Labour Party (mainly the YS), and encouraged the students to do the same. We took a very hard line against the petty-bourgeois pacifist and liberal tendencies. Probably we were too hard. But it paid off in the end. It is necessary to stand out, to stand against the stream, and we did just that. This was quite important at that time, as a means of combating petty-bourgeois prejudices and getting students out of the narrow circle of university politics.
We were very strict on finance. The first day of term every comrade was asked for ten percent of his or her grant. And that was just the start. All comrades were expected to contribute to regular financial appeals from the national centre. This was very important. For some years, the Militant was dependent on the financial contribution from the Sussex comrades. We also got the national centre its first colour duplicator (a donation form a wealthy sympathizer in the CP). We paid the wages of Peter Taaffe, who had recently come from Liverpool to take over the running of the national centre after Jimmy Deane had left to work abroad.
It is no exaggeration to say that our successful work among students in Sussex played a great part in turning the situation around. It was an important breakthrough. The work in Sussex University is important because it was the first time our tendency had carried out systematic student work. It also played a crucial role in building the forces of Militant.
The fight against revisionism
Ted was the only one who originally predicted the post-war economic upswing, although he never thought it would last as long as it did. But he also explained that sooner or later, the laws of capitalism elucidated by Marx would reassert themselves in a crisis of overproduction. In the 1960s, Ted’s arguments were rejected by almost everybody, from the bourgeois economists, passing through the Right and Left reformists, to the revisionist sects, who ridiculed his position as “primitive slumpism”.
The supporters of Tony Cliff in Britain (now the SWP) completely capitulated to bourgeois economic theory in the form of Keynesianism. They argued that Britain and the USA had established a “permanent arms economy” in which military expenditure had eliminated slumps, and that the working class would revolt against capitalism, not because of economic crises, but because of alienation (!). This implicit acceptance of the arguments of the bourgeoisie and reformism led to a questioning of the central role of the proletariat in the class struggle.
It is a central tenet of Marxism that only the working class can carry through the socialist revolution. This position was later confirmed by the events in France in May 1968. But to the so-called leaders of the Fourth, this was a book sealed with seven seals. The long period of economic upswing in the advanced capitalist countries seemed to give the lie to the idea of the revolutionary role of the proletariat. In many countries, the class struggle was blunted, though not abolished. In conditions of boom, where big profits could be made, the mere threat of a strike was often sufficient to win wage increases. The capitalists could afford to make concessions and did not want to lose money through interruptions in production. Reformism was in the ascendant and the Marxists were isolated.
The Cliffites were not the only ones to abandon the Marxist standpoint. Under these circumstances, almost all the sects in practice abandoned the working class and the labour movement in favour of “other forces”—the students, the peasants, the lumpenproletariat etc. They effectively wrote off the proletariat of the advanced capitalist countries. Ideas such as those of Herbert Marcuse, who wrote off the working class as a revolutionary agent, became fashionable in university circles and the “New Left”. Our tendency conducted a pitiless struggle against these poisonous ideas, but the leaders of the USFI completely capitulated to them.
They were politically disoriented and had lost all faith in the working class. Instead, they were looking for saviours outside the working class. Following the line of petty-bourgeois intellectuals of the Marcuse type, they looked to the students, the peasantry, the lumpenproletariat, the guerrillas, anything and anybody except the working class. This at bottom was an expression of profound pessimism and scepticism in the future of socialism and the Fourth International. It had the most harmful results in Latin America where an entire generation of revolutionary youth was sacrificed uselessly in terrorist adventures, thinly disguised as “urban guerrilla war” or “armed struggle”.
As Ted wrote in The Programme of the International (1970) in criticising the USFI:
It is in this whole milieu and with the even greater discrediting of the Communist Party and the Reformists in Latin America, that the programme of guerrilla war in the countryside and even worse, of “urban guerrillas” has been developed. Young, weak forces of Trotskyism, disorientated by the zigzags of the past 25 years, have been flung into this mess. In Latin America they should be teaching all the advanced elements among the intellectuals, students and above all, the working class, the fundamental and elementary ideas of Marxism. The movement for national and social liberation in Latin America, in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Guatemala and the other countries in Latin America can only come from a mass movement of the working class and peasants. Desperate duels and kidnappings, bank raids etc., will only result in the extermination of young brave and sincere forces without avail.
A representative of the American SWP was in London and asked to meet us. I cannot remember the exact date but it was in the late sixties. The comrades agreed and we went to a meeting in the usual venue—upstairs in a pub, to hear what he had to say. I had my notebook and pen ready to take notes, but after a while I let my pen drop and just sat there aghast. He was a student and was supposed to be one of their “cadres”. But all he talked about was Black Nationalism, Women’s Lib, Gay Lib, Vietnam and Cuba. I thought to myself: all that is missing is Flower Power and the joys of marijuana and the picture would be complete. Once again, not a single word about the working class or the class struggle.
This was a sorry epitaph on the party that had shown so much promise in the 1930s, the party of people like Farrell Dobbs who helped lead an exemplary struggle during the Minneapolis strikes in 1934 and wrote marvellous books such as Teamster Rebellion. And J.P. Cannon, for all his faults, had a good feel for the workers’ movement. Now this party had effectively disappeared. In its place was a monstrous petty-bourgeois sect that ended up expelling the Trotskyists from its ranks.
Yet this was not altogether unforeseen. Trotsky already detected certain indications of petty-bourgeois degeneration even before the war. He warned the SWP that there were too many middle class girls and boys in its ranks. His position on this was quite clear when he advised the SWP to be very careful when recruiting non-proletarian elements. He advised them to put them through a number of tests on all the questions of programme, “wet them under the rain, dry them in the sun, and then after a new careful examination accept one or two”. In effect, they had to break from the petty-bourgeois background and put themselves on the standpoint of the working class.
The American SWP was by no means an isolated case. The long period of boom in the post war period meant that the pressure of alien ideas—bourgeois and petty-bourgeois ideas—on the revolutionary movement was intensified. Early in 1968 (before May), Ernest Mandel, the chief theoretician of the USFI spoke at a meeting in London. Our comrades went along to see what he had to say.
He spoke at length about all kinds of things: Vietnam, Cuba, Che Guevara, but without saying a single word about the French working class. When one of our people pointed this out, Mandel replied: “The working class is bourgeosiefied. It is Americanised, and you can forget about the French working class for the next twenty years.”
The revolutionary events in France in May 1968 were completely unexpected by these ladies and gentlemen. They had written off the French working class and concentrated all their attentions on the students. Less than four million workers were organised in the unions in France, yet 10 million workers occupied the factories in a magnificent movement. In reality power was in the hands of the working class.
President de Gaulle understood this very well. He told the US ambassador: “It’s all up; everything is lost. In a few days the Communists will be in power.” This was perfectly possible, but the leaders of the French Communist Party had no interest in taking power. They refused to take power and the opportunity was lost. But the French events demonstrated the utter falsity of the arguments of the sects.
I was sent to Paris to establish contacts with the French Trotskyists of the JCR, for which we had prepared a leaflet stating our position. Basically we were calling for the linking up of the action committees on a local, regional and national basis, to provide an alternative workers’ government. There was something electric in the air, something intoxicating. It was the spirit of revolution. I was staying in an apartment in the Latin Quarter, with a Mexican comrade, an intellectual who sympathised with the Mandelites, but was not a member.
He showed me round the streets and on every corner there were signs of a great social upheaval. Trotsky explains in The History of the Russian Revolution that the essence of a revolution is the direct intervention of the masses in politics. This was a laboratory example. In every street the walls of houses, metro stations and offices were plastered with posters. But more interesting was the fact that large numbers of people crowded round these wall newspapers, struggling to get a look, reading every line, almost drinking in the information. Animated discussions would take place in the street, at the bus stops, in the markets and bars. This is what a revolution is! Some years later I saw exactly the same things in the streets of Lisbon and Oporto after the Portuguese Revolution of April 25, 1974.
The first thing I did on arriving in Paris was to contact Ted Grant, who was already there, staying with his sister. We had been expelled from the so-called United Secretariat of the Fourth International a few years before, when we opposed the capitulationist line of Mandel, Frank, Hansen and the other so-called leaders of the Fourth. But we still had some hope that we might find an echo in the ranks of the French Trotskyists, and as mentioned above, even produced a leaflet in solidarity with their youth organization, the JCR (Revolutionary Communist Youth).
However, our attempts to locate the leaders of the USFI had proved fruitless. We had the address of their office and we went together to see if we could find somebody to speak with. But the office was closed and there was no sign of anybody. They seemed to have gone underground. With his usual sense of humour, Ted joked: “The only people in Paris who know where Pierre Frank is are the police.” The next day we read that he had been arrested.
We soon discovered that it was practically impossible to establish direct contact with the workers. The occupied factories were securely locked and bolted, theoretically against the police and agents provocateurs. That was partly true, but it was also a useful device of the union leaders to keep the workers away from the “harmful” influences of “left-wing agitators”. One could sometimes approach the factories and speak to the pickets through the railings, but it was extremely difficult.
In the absence of any other lead, I decided to go to the Sorbonne to try to make contact with the students, although this time Ted was not with me. The university was occupied by the students. In the great central courtyard surrounded with ancient buildings, I saw an incongruous scene. Columns that were dedicated to Cardinal Richelieu were draped with red flags and portraits of Mao, Trotsky, Castro and Che Guevara overlooked the square. However, at that moment there was hardly anybody there. Probably they were on some demonstration (they took place all the time).
On all sides of the courtyard there were a lot of stalls on which one could see the papers of all the left groups. They were all monthlies at that time, and had not had time to publish a new edition after the strike had begun. They all dedicated the front page to Vietnam, Bolivia, Cuba, Che Guevara, Mao Zedong—in fact, everything and anything except the French working class! The only exception was the Voix Ouvrière (now Lutte Ouvrière), which had a semi-syndicalist line.
With these facts before one, it is impossible to come to any other conclusion than that May 1968 was indeed a “bolt from the blue”, to every other tendency. The other trends did not expect it. How could they, when they had, in effect, turned their backs on the working class in the advanced capitalist countries as “corrupt”, “bourgeoisified” and “Americanised”? In other words, they had abandoned the ideas of Trotsky in favour of those of Marcuse.
May 1968 was a complete vindication of the idea that Ted Grant had always defended: that when the workers begin to move, they always express themselves first of all through the existing mass organizations of the class. That was certainly the case in France. Millions of unorganised workers were getting organized. But they did not set up new unions or look for new political parties, much less anarchist movements or tiny sects. They immediately looked to the existing mass organizations.
The unions grew with lightning speed. Whole factories that had been non-union became organized overnight. The huge Citroen factory, whose workforce consisted overwhelmingly of immigrants from Spain, Portugal, North Africa and Yugoslavia, was specialised in producing luxury cars like the Citroen DS. It had a regime of terror in which unions were banned and the workers were constantly harassed by security guards, spot checks, identification cards, etc. But once the movement began, it became organised practically overnight as the workers occupied the plant.
But it was not only the unions that were experiencing an explosive growth. I remember reading a copy of the CP daily paper L’Humanité, in which there was a small article stating that the CPF had set up over 80 new branches in the Paris region alone. Such was the influx of new members that the Party had run out of membership cards. However, with no sizeable Trotskyist current present within the CPF and the unions to combat the reformist leadership, thousands of these newly awakened communists sank into demoralisation and out of politics altogether after the movement was sold out by the so-called Communist leaders themselves.
Our first theoretical collaboration
Ted was not the easiest man to work with. His profound grasp of Marxism, and his insistence on 100 percent correctness, made him a hard taskmaster, especially where writing was concerned. He would go over a manuscript a dozen times, pen in hand (for some reason he always used a green pen), crossing out, underlining and scribbling indecipherable comments in the margin, while the unfortunate author looked on aghast.
I remember one comrade who was subjected to this experience. When Ted had finished he sat in silence, with a pained expression on his face. “What is wrong?” the comrade asked, to which Ted replied: “It’s just... It’s just... everything!” This direct manner of speaking upset some sensitive souls, but personally I regarded it as a useful training. After all, the important thing is the ideas, and not the personal ego of aspiring authors. Those who put the ideas first learned a lot.
My first experience of working with Ted in the theoretical plane was in 1969. Monty Johnstone of the CPGB had produced a lengthy document attacking Trotskyism for the benefit of the Young Communist League. However, unlike the old stuff about “Trotsky fascism” this was an attempt to answer with political arguments. This was a very good opportunity for us and we seized it with both hands.
We had had some very good results winning over YCLers in Sussex, so I took the initiative to start writing. Very soon I was asked to go to London and speak to Ted about it. He looked at my draft and then the hard work began. Ted dictated and dictated. I went away and added much more material, and what had begun in my mind as a pamphlet turned into a book.
Ted was a very hard man to please. He was a perfectionist, at least in matters of theory. This was both good and bad. It was very good because it kept us on our toes and was a safeguard against sloppiness. But taken to extremes (and sometimes Ted did this) it can lead to paralysis. I believe that partly explains why Ted had never written a book. In fact, Lenin and Trotsky—what they really stand for was the first book he ever wrote.
Despite his toughness, I enjoyed working with him immensely. I did not mind his rigorous approach because I knew that I was learning all the time. I had proposed what I thought was a good title: “In Defence of Bolshevism”. But Ted didn’t like it. He proposed In Defence of Lenin and Trotsky but I didn’t like that. Finally we settled on Lenin and Trotsky, what they really stood for. The book was a great success and still sells well today.
This was the beginning of a long political collaboration, which lasted as long as Ted lived. He felt at ease working with me and gave me carte blanche to change or rewrite his articles and documents. He even said on one occasion: “We can sign each other’s articles and books, as Marx and Engels used to do.” That is how close our working relationship became.
One of the things that most attracted me to our tendency was its clean and democratic internal regime. It goes without saying that Ted Grant stood for democratic centralism. But what does that mean? Neither Lenin nor Trotsky ever wrote a book about democratic centralism, although there are many references scattered through their writings. This is no accident. It is not that they underestimated the role of organization. Rather, it is that their conception of organization was dynamic, not static, and the basic principles of democratic centralism had to be adapted to changing conditions.
The same Lenin who insisted on a very firm line in defining the status of a member against Martov’s “soft” line in 1903, said in 1912 that any worker who bought and gave money to Pravda ought to be considered a Party member. Had Lenin changed his mind? Not at all. But the changed situation (a mass party as opposed to a small group of cadres) demanded a change in the Party’s methods.
Ted Grant was firmly in the Leninist line. As we have seen, when Mandel and Co. tried to wave the big stick to get the British comrades to fall into line, he warned them that the only authority they could have over us was a political and a moral authority. That was the only authority that Lenin and Trotsky ever asked for in the Communist International, which was a mass International leading millions.
Throughout the entire history of the Bolshevik Party, internal debates were carried on in a scrupulously fair and democratic manner. It is true that the tone became heated at times, as was natural among men and women who cared passionately about ideas.
Even in polite scientific circles, people who are deeply attached to a particular idea will sometimes express themselves in rather extreme language about ideas held by their critics. However, the final result of such scientific debates will never be determined by the sharpness of the tone but always by the content of the ideas.
The one criticism I remember Ted had of the Bolsheviks was precisely that their tone was too sharp. “The Bolshevik Party was the school of hard knocks,” he used to say. But those hard knocks were never delivered below the belt. They were never intended to destroy somebody’s reputation or to undermine his political ideas. Such methods have nothing in common with Marxism.
In his famous polemic with Dühring, Engels did not spare the feelings of his opponent but made use of the art of irony. But in the first place, Dühring was not a Party member and Engels rightly saw him as a political enemy. Moreover, Engels never at any time tried to distort Dühring’s ideas. On the contrary, he went out of his way to allow Dühring to speak for himself, quoting at length from his writings. If they come across as incoherent, confused and ridiculous, that is not the fault of Engels, but of Dühring himself.
It is immoral to deliberately distort the ideas of an opponent, not for any abstract reasons or sentimentality, but because it is impossible to learn anything from such a “debate”. And in the Bolshevik Party, the most important function of a debate was not to crush the enemy or “score points”, but to use it to raise the collective political level of the organization.
When Lenin accused Stalin of being rude and disloyal he was accusing him of breaking Party morality. That was a cardinal sin in the Bolshevik Party, which, contrary to the vicious caricature of Bolshevism that has been cultivated by its enemies, was based on very strict principles of honesty and revolutionary morality.
In the early days of the Communist International there were many debates. The majority of the Communist Parties were of recent origin, mostly arising out of splits in the old Social Democratic parties in Europe. The leaders were young and inexperienced and mostly inclined towards ultra-leftism.
Lenin and Trotsky had a lot of problems with the British, Dutch and Italian comrades in particular. But it never occurred to them to resort to manoeuvres or intrigues against their opponents. That was introduced later by Zinoviev and perfected by Stalin. Lenin and Trotsky confined themselves to political argument because they wished to educate people, not destroy them.
Without Marxist theory, democratic centralism is merely the lifeless bones of a skeleton, as Hegel accurately defined formal logic. What in the hands of a Lenin was a perfectly rational and democratic method, becomes transformed into a desiccated husk from which all nourishment has been removed, a senseless formula and a cover for bureaucratic crimes. Formalism is the hallmark of bureaucratic thinking. It is quite alien to Marxism, and above all to the creative dialectics of Leninism. It is the reformist bureaucrat who, instead of dealing with things dialectically and concretely, constantly appeals to the Rule Book—not the revolutionary Bolshevik.
Lenin was always implacable on questions of theory and principle, but he was extremely flexible in organizational and tactical matters. That was his supreme wisdom and a big part of the success of the Bolshevik Party. It was Zinoviev who began to use organizational methods against political opponents in the Communist International, removing leaders who did not blindly accept the “Line”. That was not the method of Lenin and Trotsky, who always tried to convince by argument and to correct political mistakes with patience and tact.
The most disastrous consequences of this policy were to be seen in Germany. It is true that the German leaders made many serious mistakes in the early days, but it never occurred to Lenin or Trotsky to solve this by removing them and installing others. Zinoviev did this, however. He replaced Paul Levi, Rosa Luxemburg’s successor, with the ultra-lefts Fischer and Maslow.
This was to jump from the frying pan into the fire. Lenin was against this. He said of Paul Levi: “he lost his head, but he had a head to lose.” The implication was that the German “Lefts” did not even have that. This was shown by the disastrous March Events, when they launched a premature uprising, which led to many deaths and threw the Communist Party right back.
The Coxhead affair
The extremely democratic nature of the Tendency at that time was clearly demonstrated by the Ted Coxhead affair in 1973. We found out that a small group of comrades had formed a faction without informing anybody and had produced a very long document (more than one hundred pages!) that attacked every one of the most basic positions of the Tendency.
It was very clear from a reading of this document that they were putting forward a Mandelite line, and we were in no doubt that they were conducting factional work on behalf of the Mandelites to foment a split in the organization. They actually had a member who was on our Central Committee, Ted Coxhead, who was effectively the leader of this undeclared faction.
This was a pre-congress period and to add insult to injury, Coxhead had never put forward a single amendment to the congress documents submitted by the EC, nor had he expressed the slightest difference in the debates. Yet when the voting took place he voted against. This was contrary to all the norms of internal democracy and comrades were scandalized. It indicated a cynical and frivolous attitude, which is precisely what we had come to expect from the Mandelites.
When Coxhead was challenged about the secret document, he had nothing to say. This irresponsible conduct placed us in a difficult position. There was only a little time before the congress. The EC had no time to produce a written reply to a hundred page document. What should be done? From a formal point of view we would have been justified in refusing to distribute the document until we had written a reply.
Instead, we took the opposition document, printed it (that was a big job and cost a lot of money and resources when we had very little of either), and we distributed it, without a reply, to all comrades. We changed the congress timetable to allow a whole session for the debate, and the opposition was given exactly the same time as the EC to speak, despite representing only a fraction of the membership.
At the congress, the Coxhead faction was politically defeated and their arguments comprehensively demolished. It was a sharp debate, but there were no personal attacks or attempts to blacken characters. We had plenty of information that we could have used, including proof that one of the main members of this group had scabbed on a strike. But none of this was ever used. The reason was that we wanted to bring out the political differences and not muddy the waters.
That was always Ted’s method—the Bolshevik method of Lenin and Trotsky. The purpose of an internal debate is not to smash one’s opponents (the method of Stalin and Zinoviev) but to raise the political level of the cadres. And that was what we achieved. The opposition got no support, and even the few comrades they had succeeded in influencing were won over in the course of the debate.
However, the matter did not end there. After the debate had ended, Ted Grant took the floor. He pointed out that the opposition had broken every rule and had “driven a coach and horses through democratic centralism”. He insisted that this method was completely wrong and must never be repeated. Now he issued a challenge. The EC would produce a detailed written reply to the opposition document and we would open a twelve month period of discussion, branch by branch, in which the opposition would be given the same speaking time as the EC. The two documents would then be put to the next congress, which would finally close the debate.
There was a problem at the end of the congress when the slate for the new Central Committee was read out. Coxhead’s name was on it, proposed by the EC and CC. This was too much for some of the delegates who protested and tried to get his name removed. Again Ted intervened to defend the proposal. We wanted Coxhead to be present on the CC to defend his ideas.
In the end Coxhead got re-elected, but to no purpose. Once they saw that they stood no chance of winning anybody over to their Mandelite ideas, they resigned from the organization immediately after the congress. By this action they completely revealed their cowardly petty-bourgeois character and lost all credibility. As a result, only a handful left and the level of the whole organization was raised, as was the moral and political authority of the leadership.
A change in the situation
At that time the Labour government was passing from reforms to counter-reforms. The culmination was when Barbara Castle attempted to push anti-trade union laws with her notorious document In Place of Strife, in 1969. The bitterness of the workers boiled over. For the first time, miners’ lodges were discussing disaffiliation from the Labour Party.
The Young Socialists had suffered grievously from the Healyite split. The LPYS (as the labour youth organization had been renamed after the Healyites had set up their own Young Socialists) was not closed down, as had happened so often in the past, but it had been completely neutered. We were not allowed to elect the leadership, which was appointed by the Labour bureaucracy. They also controlled the LPYS paper, Left.
At the annual conference, the bureaucracy would not allow any political discussion or any discussion on international issues. All that was allowed were questions specifically related to youth or organizational matters. This sometimes led to farcical situations. At one conference one wit moved a resolution: “that this Conference expresses solidarity with all members of the Vietcong under 25 years of age.” It was ruled out of order, of course.
The situation in the Labour Party itself was even worse. The internal life of the LP was at a very low ebb. One by one, the Left groups abandoned the LP. Only we were left. They all had a good laugh at our expense, of course. A joke was doing the rounds that in the Labour Party wards—as the branches were then known—there were only two kinds of person: old ladies knitting, and young men selling the Militant. It was an exaggeration, of course, but there was a grain of truth in it.
Nevertheless, our tactics were correct. They were based on an accurate assessment of how the class would move in the next period. In the end we were in the right place at the right time. Those who laughed at us were left with their mouths open. The 1970s were a political watershed nationally and internationally. The defeat of the Wilson government and the coming to power of Heath ushered in a period of heightened radicalisation in the working class. The fact that the Tendency had won a majority on the national leadership of the Labour Party Young Socialists in 1970 allowed us to start a campaign to build up the youth organisation. Our decision to remain in the LP had been vindicated.
The objective conditions in Britain began to change rapidly after 1970. The Heath government immediately attempted to introduce draconian anti-trade union laws. This provoked a furious reaction and a massive mobilisation of the working class. A decisive turning point was the arrest of the five dockers in July 1972. The decision of the TUC to call a one-day general strike led to their release in a matter of days.
By early 1974, there was a second national miners’ strike which succeeded in bringing down the Heath government. It was the first time in British history that an elected government was brought down by industrial action. A Labour government was elected, which imposed an incomes policy known as the “Social Contract”, which had the full backing of the left Trade Union leaders, including Jones and Scanlon. Both later admitted that they had looked into the abyss during the massive class battles of the early 1970s and recoiled from what they saw.
The Labour government went from reforms to counter-reforms and ended up rushing to the IMF for a loan in 1976. This led to disappointment and opposition, starting in the trade unions. The dam broke in 1977, with the national fire fighters dispute, which was quickly followed the next year by a bitter strike at the Ford Motor company. This was the prelude to a mass movement of low-paid workers known as the “winter of discontent”, and contributed to the fall of the Labour government.
The defeat of the Callaghan government in 1979 resulted in a sharp radicalisation in the mass organisations. The shift to the left was a reflection of the disgust with Labour’s pro-capitalist policies, and took the form of the rise of Bennism within the Labour Party. Up until the mass radicalisation of the 1970s, the trade unions had been totally dominated by the extreme right wing. A roll-call of the general secretaries of the main unions reads like a real rogues’ gallery of the Labour lieutenants of Capital: Lord Carron of the AEU (engineering workers), Lord Cooper of the GMWU (local government manual workers etc.), Sir Sidney Green of the NUR (railway workers) and so on.
Year after year at the Labour Party Conference, the local Parties (CLPs) would vote for left-wing resolutions such as unilateral nuclear disarmament. Then up would get the right-wing union bosses with their block votes of millions and the left resolutions would be defeated. This led many on the Left to demand the abolition of the trade union block vote. Ted was adamantly opposed to this demand. He explained that in future the unions would swing to the Left, and that is just what occurred. In the early seventies, the unions experienced a transformation—something we had confidently predicted for years. One by one, the old right-wing general secretaries were replaced by new, more left-wing people like Laurence Daly of the mineworkers, Hugh Scanlon of the AUEW and Jack Jones of the T&GWU.
The sects had been calling at every opportunity for workers to leave the right-wing unions and set up new ones. In the 1950s, the Healyites supported the splitting of the Transport and General Workers’ Union (today’s UNITE union), and the setting up of the National Amalgamated Stevedores and Dockers (the “blue union”). The result was that the unions were split, and for the first time in history, there were non-union workers on the docks of Liverpool. Moreover, contrary to the perspectives of the ultra-lefts, the Transport and General Workers’ Union became radicalised and ended up to the left of the “blue union”, which later disappeared.
Later on, in the early 1970s, the Cliff group supported the splitting of the GMWU at Pilkington, and the establishment of the glass workers’ union; another disaster. Then there was the fiasco in splitting the electricians’ union in the same period, with the same result. All the sects wrote off the perspective that the unions would be changed on the basis of events, just as they ruled out any change in the Labour Party. Events proved otherwise.
The general mood of radicalisation in the unions spread to the Labour Party, which swung to the Left in opposition. Under the leadership of the Lefts (Tony Benn and Eric Heffer), the Party was wide open to socialist ideas. By the early 1980s, the right wing had split away from Labour to form the SDP, which further reinforced the leftward shift within the party. The hold of the bureaucracy was weakened.
The list of proscribed organisations had been scrapped. The Constituency Labour Parties gained new life, reflecting the upturn of the class struggle. We were now in the right place at the right time. Thanks to the work of the Militant, the ideas of Marxism gained widespread support in the Labour Party and the unions. This was a concrete expression of the correctness of the ideas, tactics and methods worked out by Ted Grant.
From fewer than 80 comrades in 1966, the Tendency grew to more than 600 by 1975. We had acquired our own printing press and the Militant newspaper had gone weekly in January 1972. The Tendency gradually built up its position in the Labour movement. This was only possible because we did not succumb to the pressure of ultra-leftism, but remained within the Labour Party while others left. This was one of the secrets of the later success of the Marxist Tendency in Britain—a breakthrough with no parallel elsewhere.
At the 1973 YS conference in Skegness, Ted Grant had a brief conversation with Tony Benn. Benn recalls in his Diary that Ted asserted that “there is no one else in the world who follows Trotsky correctly”. Ted struck Benn as being “really a theological leader, a teacher by instinct.” These lines betray an honest perplexity. It was probably the same incomprehension with which Cromwell had viewed Gerrard Winstanley and the True Levellers, who became known as the Diggers. Undoubtedly the best and most intelligent of the Lefts, Tony Benn was limited by his left-reformist ideology. He could not understand Ted or his ideas. Nonetheless, he had a sincere regard and respect for Ted, who he correctly saw as an honest man and a fighter.