Obituary: Ted Grant (1913-2006)
10 August 2006
The recent death of Ted Grant, a few days after his 93rd birthday, marks the passing of one of the few surviving pioneers of the Trotskyist movement of the 1930s and 1940s, and the last of the three individuals – along with Tony Cliff and Gerry Healy – who dominated post-war British Trotskyism. Grant was best known as the founder and long-time theoretical guru of the Militant tendency, the main residue of which today is the Socialist Party. The Militant majority dispensed with Grant’s services some 13 years ago and have not been keen to acknowledge his influence – the petty and spiteful obituary by SP leader Peter Taaffe says more about Taaffe than it does about Grant. Grant’s unique political experience, dating back nearly 80 years, and his enduring ideological influence over a major section of the far left, make his life well worth studying.
Little is known for certain about Grant’s personal life. He rather enjoyed being a man of mystery, and kept it that way for his whole adult life. Even his real name was unknown for decades – in recent years he owned up to the name Isaac Blank, which may even have been his real name. He also claimed to have been a Trotskyist since 1928, which is also quite plausible. While he did have interests outside politics, except for his late sisters he seems to have had few close relationships outside his organisation. Grant’s life story is the history of the groups he built, and that is as he would have wanted it.
What we do know, from his own account, is that young Isaac grew up in Germiston outside Johannesburg. His mother took in lodgers, one of whom was the young, charismatic and extremely able communist Ralph Lee (Raphael Levy). At some point around 1928 Lee had got a hold of the Trotskyist newspaper The Militant from the United States, and decided for the Left Opposition against Stalinism. Isaac was certainly one of the first people he recruited to Trotskyism, possibly the first. What Isaac then did is obscure – he was quite isolated from the main Trotskyist group in Cape Town, and seems to have spent most of his time reading the Marxist classics. Eventually he did move to Cape Town, but did not stay there long before boarding a boat to England in 1934 along with his friend Max Bosch. They changed their names on the voyage, with Max Bosch becoming Sid Frost and Isaac Blank becoming Ted Grant. These two would be outriders for a larger group of South Africans who arrived in Britain over the next several years.
If Grant expected the British Trotskyist movement to be big and impressive after his experience of the small South African group, he was to be sorely disappointed. British Trotskyism was also small and, like Gaul under Caesar, divided into three parts. Many of those who had founded the movement five years earlier, like Reg Groves and Harry Wicks, had grown tired and demoralised. Not only that, but the movement had a very pronounced dogmatic sectarian streak. Grant joined the Militant Group, led by the clever but doctrinaire Denzil Harber, and marked time while waiting for his compatriots to join him.
The WIL and the RCP
Between 1934 and 1937 more South African Trotskyists arrived in London, most notably Ralph Lee and his wife Millie. On joining the Militant Group, their collective talents and dynamism quickly propelled them into the leadership. By Grant’s account, the South Africans were selling nearly all of the Group’s papers and were responsible for most of its public activity. They would probably have taken over had not Charlie van Gelderen, another recent arrival from South Africa, repeated a rumour about Ralph Lee having misappropriated strike funds. Lee and his supporters walked out of a Group meeting in protest at Harber’s handling of the matter, and Harber moved their expulsion in their absence. The rumour was later discovered to be a slander emanating from the South African Communist Party, and was repudiated by the Fourth International and disavowed by van Gelderen himself. Nevertheless, having made the split, Lee and his supporters had no intention of reuniting with Harber.
The Lee group, calling themselves the Workers International League (WIL), began with a mere nine members – mostly South Africans, but also including the energetic and capable Scot Jock Haston, the group’s main leader in later years, and the Irishman Gerry Healy, who turned out to be something of a mixed blessing. Although the Harber group was larger and more experienced, the nine founders of the WIL were young, vigorous and imaginative, and quickly began to build a cadre in the Labour League of Youth. Millie Lee’s personal funds allowed herself and Ralph to work full-time for the organisation, and they began to publish Youth for Socialism and Workers International News. It was at this time that Grant began to come into his own, gaining experience as a stump speaker – the Grant speech, delivered in a strong South African accent and enlivened by violent hand gestures, took shape in this period – and as a party journalist. This second role was perhaps his strongest suit, although his work habits often caused frustration, with Millie Lee having to stand at his shoulder to make sure articles were completed. The story recounted in Grant’s Guardian obituary, that the comrades locked Ted in the office to finish an article only to find that he had climbed out the window to go to the cinema, has the ring of truth about it.
That aside, the WIL showed a good deal of dynamism, in sharp contrast to its rival. Although all the Trotskyist groups except for the WIL had united in 1938 to form the Revolutionary Socialist League – the official section of the newly formed Fourth International – the RSL almost immediately started to stagnate and splinter. The WIL managed to survive the departure of Ralph Lee back to South Africa in 1940, with Haston taking the central leadership role (Lee would die young shortly after the war; Millie Lee, the group’s iron backbone, subsequently married Haston). During the war the group grew rapidly and established a base of support amongst engineering shop stewards in London. Because the Labour Party branches were virtually moribund due to the wartime electoral truce the WIL moved pragmatically to industrial agitation, where they were further assisted from 1941 by the Communist Party’s no-strike pledge. A mixture of sheer energy, a lack of competition and a wildly optimistic perspective of imminent revolution helped to establish the WIL as by far the main force to the left of the CP, and eventually in 1944 the residue of the RSL united with it to establish the Revolutionary Communist Party, some 400 strong with high hopes for the future.
It should also be remarked that the WIL/RCP were by no means activists pure and simple. They were capable of serious thought, and had a commendable openness. At a time when most of the Trotskyist movement still clung to Trotsky’s prediction that the war would inevitably be followed by proletarian revolution and that Social Democracy and Stalinism were historically outmoded tendencies doomed to rapid collapse, the RCP’s analysis of “counter-revolution in a democratic form” turned out to be nearer the mark than most of what the movement was producing at the time. Most of the theoretical work originated in Haston’s insights, which Grant then worked up into coherent theories. A lot of these old articles repay reading today, even if Grant was not as consistently correct as he liked to claim in later years. Members of the Socialist Workers Party may be interested to know that it was Haston who in 1947 mooted the state capitalist analysis of Russia and that Tony Cliff, arriving in Britain from Palestine, argued the “orthodox” position of the degenerated workers’ state. In the course of this debate something remarkable happened – Grant and Cliff changed each other’s minds. This unprecedented event would never be repeated.
This is not to say that the WIL/RCP had no negative sides. Having broken with Harber on personal rather than political grounds, the WIL leadership tended to club together and defend their own in a way that sometimes crossed over into cliquism. (One notable example of this is the fact that Healy either resigned or was expelled on multiple occasions, but was always brought back. When Haston and Grant broke personally with him, they swung to the other extreme and became quite vindictive. Another example, at least by Harry Ratner’s account, is the WIL’s subjective hostility to the French Trotskyist refugees, and those in Britain who were aiding them.) Tied to this was the question of relations with the international Trotskyist movement. As mentioned above, the WIL refused to join the fusion brokered by American Trotskyist leader Jim Cannon in 1938, but gave as its reason not any difference of programme – there was none – but an assertion of its much superior working methods. Over the years a mutual hostility developed between the Fourth International, which sharply criticised the WIL at its founding congress, and the WIL/RCP, which tended to see itself as so superior to the other sections, particularly the Americans, that it had no need to listen to their advice. The failure to develop loyal collaboration, for which both Haston and Cannon must be held responsible, would later prove disastrous.
But for the meantime, the RCP made a promising debut – having made contact with engineering apprentices on Tyneside in the summer of 1944, the party strongly supported and agitated around their unofficial strike. As a result, RCP leaders Jock Haston, Roy Tearse, Heaton Lee and Ann Keen were prosecuted and convicted under the Trades Disputes Act 1927, receiving sentences of 12 months (Tearse and Lee), 6 months (Haston) and 13 days (Keen), though these sentences were later quashed on a technicality. The subsequent defence campaign made a big impact in the radical public. Then Haston stood in the Neath by-election in May 1945, polling 1,781 votes compared to 30,847 for the victorious Labour candidate. While this was a very credible result for a group that prior to the campaign had no organisation in the area and was facing a vicious smear campaign from the Stalinists, nonetheless it should have caused the RCP to reconsider their view that they were on course to sweep aside reformism and become a mass party – the WIL’s 1942 perspectives document, co-authored by Grant, bore the striking title “Preparing for Power”.
In fact Neath was the Indian summer of the Haston group. The end of the war was closely followed by the Labour landslide, with most workers believing that Clement Attlee would build socialism. By the time the shine came off Attlee, some years later, the Communist Party’s left turn would block the road to the Trotskyists. Thus objective circumstances changed very quickly from favourable to extremely unfavourable. As if that was not bad enough, matters were complicated by the thuggish charlatan Gerry Healy, who had fallen out with Haston and Grant a while back and ran an opposition faction whenever he could think of an excuse. The Healy problem was compounded by the fusion with the RSL, whereby Healy had hooked up with John Lawrence, leader of that group’s malcontents. Healy now began to agitate for immediate entry into the Labour Party, which in retrospect seems quite sensible – unfortunately, he coupled that position with a completely lunatic economic perspective. Due to the RCP’s peculiar factional discipline, one could not support Healy on Labour entry while accepting Haston’s more realistic line on the economy – one had to uphold the faction’s position on both disputed issues. Only Charlie van Gelderen maintained an independent stance.
This situation was made positively malignant by the intervention of the Fourth International. Healy had cunningly courted the International and in particular the Americans in order to become their man in Britain. The International’s inexperienced leaders, Michel Pablo and Ernest Mandel, took the opportunity to play silly buggers with the British section, while Cannon, whose relationship with Haston was one of glowering hostility, was at the very least culpably indulgent of Healy. Eventually the atmosphere got so bad that the International Secretariat, on Haston’s motion, split the British section and allowed Healy to take his 20% into the Labour Party while the Haston-Grant majority remained on the outside. Though Haston and Grant imagined they would then flourish minus the Healyite thorn in their side, in practice things did not work out like that.
By 1949 the RCP majority was in a sorry state. Membership was haemorrhaging and a whole layer of national leaders – significant people like Roy Tearse and Heaton Lee, two of the Tyneside defendants – were simply dropping out. Things obviously could not continue as they had, and the RCP divided several ways. There were those, like Bill Hunter, who noted that Healy was making some progress in the Labour Party and argued the best course of action would be to get in there and join him. Haston also argued for entry, though he was privately developing the theory that the Attlee government was introducing socialism through parliament and that the Trotskyist movement should be liquidated into social democracy. An Open Party Faction around Sam Levy and Sam Bornstein, along with Jimmy Deane in Liverpool, argued for maintaining an openly Trotskyist propaganda group outside Labour. Tony Cliff, miserably exiled in Dublin at the time, was already recruiting people to his state capitalist analysis of Russia. And Grant? Grant privately sympathised with the Open Party Faction, which after all was only expressing the Haston-Grant line of a few months earlier, but publicly supported Haston’s entrist position on the grounds that it was necessary to maintain the unity of the leadership “team”. In later years, Grant would correctly say that this was a terrible opportunist mistake. Certainly, it did him little good – when Haston later bolted from the movement, Grant had so thoroughly discredited himself that he could not lead a serious fight against Healy.
The result of this collapse was that the remnants of the RCP dissolved the party and joined Healy’s Club inside Labour. As part of this process, the RCP negotiators – Jock Haston, Millie Lee and Bill Hunter – agreed to accept Healy’s leadership on the basis that Healy had been leading the entrist group up to that point. This would, however, have been overturned had Healy been prepared to allow a democratic conference. While Healy’s regime had not yet assumed the Caligula-like proportions it would take on in the 1970s and 1980s, nonetheless it was not much fun, particularly when Healy had scores to settle. The fusion was quickly followed by a wave of expulsions. First Haston, whose politics were in a state of disintegration, openly abandoned Trotskyism and resigned from the Club. This was followed by a purge of Haston’s close associates who refused to break with him. Cliff’s state capitalists were thrown out following a dispute on Birmingham Trades Council about the Korean War. Finally, Grant found himself expelled.
The making of Militant
After the collapse and purge, those remnants of Trotskyism outside Healy’s Club were in dire circumstances. Cliff, despite having fewer followers than Grant at the outset, was better situated in that he was building a group around a distinct ideological position. Grant was not, and, apart from a nucleus in Liverpool around the Deane family, he had only a handful of supporters held together by personal allegiances and two negative positions – a well-founded dislike of Healy and an orthodox rejection of Cliff’s line on Russia. The 1950s were a hard time for revolutionaries, and, although Grant and Jimmy Deane failed to build anything substantial – when the Communist Party split in 1956 it was Healy who gained, while Grant recruited nobody – they at least deserve credit for maintaining the continuity of the movement. It was also during this period that what became Militant would acquire its distinctive shape.
In 1953 Grant and Deane regrouped their small number of supporters in the Revolutionary Socialist League. They began very low-level propaganda work and building up a small cadre virtually from scratch. A couple of years later, as Healy’s Club had split from the Fourth International, Grant contacted Pablo and Mandel and secured the official franchise, which he retained for a full decade, although he did not like to talk about that in later years. Grant also developed his distinctive, not to say idiosyncratic, politics into their finished form during these hard years.
Chief among Grant’s innovations was his approach to entrism. Ironically for a tendency which would later become famous for its fanatical loyalty to the Labour Party, Grant and his supporters were initially lukewarm about entry – rather, they drifted into the Labour Party because they had nowhere else to go. As already noted, Grant rejected Healy’s catastrophist economic perspectives – the corollary of that was that he also rejected Healy’s logic for entry. Healy essentially applied Trotsky’s pre-war perspectives, which foresaw an imminent economic collapse combined with a massive working-class radicalisation. Part of that perspective involved the development of a mass left wing within the existing reformist parties, therefore entry was mandated as a way of uniting with this developing left wing and steering it towards revolutionary politics.
Grant correctly saw that, while this might be a correct strategy in revolutionary times, in a period of economic boom and with a relatively quiescent working class, it didn’t make much sense. In his important 1959 essay “Problems of Entrism”, Grant explicitly declared, “the conditions for entry, as Trotsky outlined them, are still not present.” But then Grant deduced an argument for entrism precisely from the difficult period and his tendency’s weakness: “The conditions for independent work are not favourable either. Whatever may have been gained by remaining independent in the past, tremendous gains cannot be expected in the immediate future, for any such gains would be disproportionate to the future possibilities in the Labour Party.” What this meant was that a tiny group of a few dozen, working in a profoundly unrevolutionary environment, could best advance their cause by a patient, long-term orientation to the already existing mass party of the working class.
There was nothing wrong with this perspective – far from it, it was the only sensible perspective given the circumstances. But a rigid and dogmatic interpretation thereof would deform Militant’s politics in the longer term. Grant expected the future working-class upsurge to express itself through the structures of the Labour Party. Therefore there was an imperative to stay in the Labour Party at all costs. Any activity that might provoke disciplinary action from the bureaucracy was to be strenuously avoided. The projection was that a future Labour government would fail to meet the expectations of the rank and file and a mass left wing would develop – what was necessary was to have a cadre of Marxists in place who could lead the left wing. The Marxist alternative leadership would grow up in the pores of official Labourism, if only Militant could stay there long enough. Although Militant operated in a conspiratorial way it did not, as was often charged, conspire to take over the Labour Party – rather, it expected to become the Labour Party through a process of osmosis. This was of course a possible potential outcome, but over time it fossilised into a dogmatic schema which had the force of historical inevitability behind it.
Militant’s long period of being comfortably ensconced in the Labour Party also led to molecular changes in the tendency’s culture and politics, somewhat like a dog coming to resemble its owner. In Militant’s case the outcome of this process was quite singular. Although the tendency retained the language and formulas of Trotskyism, at least for internal discourse, its politics came to closely resemble nothing so much as pre-First World War Social Democracy, the politics of Karl Kautsky and the Russian Mensheviks. Buried in the Labour Party, pretending not to exist, Militant’s private perspective of revolution in the sweet by and by was coupled with a rightwing reformist practice. Trotsky’s idea of transitional demands, which would link everyday agitation with the goal of socialism, was bowdlerised into the notion that reformist demands became “transitional” when put forward by those with a (secret) revolutionary ideology. So revolutionary politics was recast as turbo-charged reformism and the timeless list of demands in the “What we stand for” column of each week’s Militant was privately held to have a revolutionary content, while in public the demand was for these measures to be legislated by a future Militant-led Labour government. These public positions filtered through into Militant’s internal politics, with the expectation of a peaceful revolution carried out by a parliamentary majority.
Grant also attempted to come to terms with the post-war expansion of Stalinism, a problem which had beset the Trotskyist movement since 1945. The problem has never been satisfactorily solved, and even Tim Wohlforth’s “Structural Assimilation”, in many ways the most serious attempt, has very noticeable holes in it. Grant’s answer was “Proletarian Bonapartism”, which was not so much a theory as a conventionalist stratagem, and a substitutionist one at that. Basically, Grant postulated that all sorts of agencies other than the working class could create a workers’ state, simply by nationalising the basic means of production. The main agencies involved were of course Stalinism and (in Britain) Social Democracy, but in later years all sorts of Mickey Mouse dictatorships in the Third World came to be proclaimed workers’ states, such as Ne Win’s Burma (!), Sékou Touré’s Guinea (!!) and, best of all, the Khmer Rouge’s agrarian slave state in Cambodia. The attractions of Proletarian Bonapartism were several. The theory flowed from Grant’s conviction that total nationalisation equalled a workers’ state. It got around the small size of Grant’s tendency and the lack of revolutionary uprisings from the working class with the notion that other, stronger, forces were driving the historical process forward – “unconsciously” of course. It allowed Grant to denounce Stalinism while hailing its achievements. Most importantly perhaps, the element of historical inevitability perfectly fitted Militant’s passive, contemplative brand of Marxism. It is telling that Peter Taaffe considers “Proletarian Bonapartism” to be Grant’s greatest intellectual achievement.
At the beginning of the 1960s, primitive accumulation of recruits began to raise the membership figures to the point where Grant had an organisation that could actually put some of these ideas into practice. Although it was not until the mid-1970s that growth really began to take off, there were some signs of progress. An energetic young recruit, Peter Taaffe, was brought from Birkenhead to London in 1963 to be appointed the tendency’s first full-time worker, with the grandiose title of General Secretary – a position he still holds 43 years later. Since Grant was never an organiser, Taaffe would prove an invaluable right-hand man. The following year, the Militant newspaper was launched, and, though its contents would remain largely unchanged over the next three decades, it provided an important tool for building the tendency. Indeed, it became the tendency’s cover story – the line sold to Labour Party officialdom was that there was no organisation but only the paper. The RSL Executive Committee was publicly known as the Militant Editorial Board, full-time organisers were sales representatives, members could claim they were just readers and the annual congress was billed as a sellers’ rally.
Already at this early stage, the familiar Militant type could be discerned. Many of the new recruits were social security clerks, and many more had Liverpool accents than could feasibly have been from Liverpool. Due to Militant’s clandestine existence, contacts were sounded out over a period of time, then initiated into the knowledge of the organisation, then they had to meet Grant before their membership could be approved. Following that, they would be put through Militant’s basic educational programme, which was basic indeed – Grant’s own writings supplemented by a narrow selection of Lenin and Trotsky – but extremely thorough, and supplied the new recruit with everything he would ever need to know. The group came to be remarkably homogeneous, hence the familiar experience at labour movement meetings of hearing several Militant members, one after the other, delivering identical speeches with identical turns of phrase and identical intonations, accompanied by identical elaborate hand gestures. This homogeneity began to break down in later years as the tendency attempted mass recruitment, something that would come to have serious consequences for Militant.
From growth to split
In the 1960 Militant’s growth had been painfully slow, but in the following decade it really took off. The crucial point was the tendency gaining control of the Labour Party Young Socialists in 1970. This was more through luck than design – Gerry Healy’s supporters had been expelled in 1965, and Tony Cliff’s group had left some time later, so Militant were effectively the last leftists standing. Having taken control, however, they retained control for the next 17 years and, by converting the LPYS into a subsidiary of the tendency, were able to use it as a vehicle for recruitment – and also, by sending fraternal delegates to conferences of social democratic youth abroad, for building the Committee for a Workers International. From a bare hundred members in the mid-60s, by the mid-70s Militant were claiming a thousand members – after that membership rose rapidly, peaking at a claimed 10,000 in the mid-80s. At that point, Militant was one of the largest Trotskyist organisations in the world, and had begun to sink real roots into the working class. This growth would however draw the hostile attention of the Labour Party leadership, which had hitherto been remarkably tolerant of Militant. The dash for growth would also lead to a relaxation of recruitment and a notable lowering of new recruits’ political level.
Nowhere were these problems more sharply posed than in Liverpool, where Militant’s early stronghold in the Walton constituency, combined with the sclerotic nature of the local Labour Party, saw the tendency take over the party and then, in 1983, the council. The Militant council, under the flamboyant leadership of Derek Hatton, followed a mix of personalist boss politics (an old Liverpool tradition) combined with populist local reformism. Although the Hatton regime’s achievements in areas such as housing were real, Hatton showed a weakness for headline-grabbing stunts, a genius for alienating Militant’s natural allies (most notably the council unions) and a fatal incapacity for strategic thinking. This greatly exercised Grant, who was determined to stay in the Labour Party at all costs – Hatton’s open threat to lead a split in the Merseyside district party was particularly hair-raising for Militant traditionalists. In the end, the witch-hunt launched by Neil Kinnock at the 1985 Labour conference may not have mattered much had Militant managed to turn Liverpool into a firm revolutionary base. But they didn’t.
The defeat of Liverpool council in the rate-capping battle and the onslaught from the Labour bureaucracy put Militant on the back foot – outside of Liverpool, where the expelled councillors retained a significant base, the tendency reacted defensively. Their response was also deeply sectarian, refusing to allow other tendencies on the left to defend them. But within a couple of years, Militant would be thrown a lifeline in their biggest political intervention yet, the movement against Thatcher’s poll tax. Militant got a head start by the activism of their Scottish members, in particular Tommy Sheridan, who gained a folk hero status in Glasgow due to his imprisonment for resisting the poll tax. Militant cadres also took the lead in forming local Anti-Poll Tax Federations across the country. The mass movement was of course vastly broader than Militant, and their leadership rested more on control of the federations than popular acclamation, but the catalytic role of Militant cannot be denied.
So how was it that, at the end of the poll tax campaign, flushed with success, Militant then plunged into a bitter faction fight which saw the expulsion of its founder and a complete political reversal from the majority? By the end of 1992, Grant and his closest supporters were outside Militant and the majority, led by Peter Taaffe, had left the Labour Party en masse and were now denouncing Labour with the zeal of a reformed drunk. Crucial was the fact that, although Labour members were involved in the poll tax rebellion in a mass way, the party’s formal structures were not involved – on the contrary, the Labour bureaucracy did its utmost to stifle the movement. Militant members for the first time found themselves working outside the Labour Party, and in a mass movement at that. All of a sudden the possibilities of an independent existence began to impress themselves on Militant members, including most of the leadership. Lesley Mahmood’s credible performance in the 1991 Walton by-election, followed by large votes for Dave Nellist, Terry Fields and Tommy Sheridan in the 1992 general election, seemed to confirm that you could go against Labour and survive. This evolving position was bitterly opposed by Grant, who saw it, not unreasonably, as a light-minded abandoning of his long-term project. But Grant was unable to change the tendency’s course – rather, he and his supporters were isolated, anathematised and expelled.
The split had a number of causes. Grant and his supporters normally point to Taaffe’s personal ambition as the main cause, and there is likely a good deal of truth in that. (Taaffe, it was well known, was frustrated by Grant’s refusal to quietly shuffle off into retirement. Grant for his part frequently joked that he would outlive Taaffe, who was some 30 years his junior.) Yet Taaffe had faithfully served Grant for three decades. Likewise the Grantites correctly point out that Militant’s monolithic structure was used to isolate the Opposition and prevent a democratic debate, but the united Grant-Taaffe leadership had done that to several previous oppositions. But the determining factor seems to have been that, on the back of the poll tax rebellion, the Taaffe wing grew “dizzy with success”, and managed to convince the members that the grass was greener outside Labour. Certainly the Taaffeites, rechristened Militant Labour and later the Socialist Party, for some years held out hopes of becoming a “small mass party” that could challenge Labour directly. They were to be cruelly disappointed, as their organisation shrank dramatically in size and influence, with their 4000 members at the time of the split soon being reduced to a few hundred.
Grant himself could be excused some schadenfreude at Taaffe’s failure to achieve his vaulting ambitions. He had been left after the split with only a small and somewhat elderly rump devoted to old-time Militant entrism. But Grant, and his primary collaborator Alan Woods, managed to hold together their cadre and, setting themselves a deliberately modest perspective of producing Marxist propaganda within the labour movement, went ahead and did so. The main outcome of this work has been a number of interesting books and the useful In Defence Of Marxism website, not a bad return for a tendency that most observers had assumed would simply wither and die after the Militant split. The indefatigable Grant was actively involved in this work until suffering a stroke three years ago, and retained a keen interest in his tendency’s progress until the end.
Apart from the organisations deriving from the old Militant, Grant’s legacy is to be found in his copious writings, many of which are now being made available online. An obvious place to start would be his History of British Trotskyism, published in 2002 based on taped interviews from the 1970s and giving an overview of his political career up to 1950. Unfortunately, this work shows him in a deeply unflattering light. At two points Grant remarks that spite is a terrible thing in politics, once attributing the quote to Lenin and once to Trotsky. Wherever the quote comes from, he should have heeded it, because Grant in axe-grinding mode is not an attractive proposition. The only people who come out of the book well are Ralph Lee, Jock Haston and Grant himself. The pioneers of British Trotskyism – Groves, Wicks, Dewar among others – are written off as worse than useless, their only possible merit having been to prepare the way for the South Africans, John the Baptist style. CLR James, who Grant not inaccurately regarded as a bit of a fancy dan, is merely dismissed in passing. Later on we get treated to lengthy denunciations of the boundless villainies of Jim Cannon, Sam Gordon, Michel Pablo, Ernest Mandel, Sherry Mangan, Pierre Frank and Gerry Healy, not necessarily in that order. This is what Bill Hunter has neatly characterised as the “Bad Man” theory of history and, although Healy was indisputably a bad man, it explains little. Grant is also in the rather irritating habit of mentioning that somebody wrote a document, which was invariably “crazy”, and quoting his reply at length without quoting what he was replying to. This isn’t so bad with Cliff’s state capitalism document, which is readily available, but is a stumbling block when it comes to other arguments. One comes away with the overwhelming sense that a little humility and generosity would not have gone amiss.
Worse, much worse, is the extremely lengthy postscript from Grant disciple Rob Sewell, intended as a historical defence of the Grant tendency from 1950 to date. As an example of its basic dishonesty, I will mention only how Sewell treats Ireland. Sewell points out that the International Socialists (now the SWP) failed to oppose the deployment of British troops in 1969, which Militant did at least formally; he tells us that the International Marxist Group had a rather uncritical attitude to the Provos, while Militant criticised the tactic of individual terrorism. All this is true, as far as it goes, but Sewell fails to even acknowledge the left unionist politics developed by Militant and followed to this day by the Socialist Party of Northern Ireland (P. Hadden prop.). This is because the Grantites have quietly abandoned the old Militant position on Ireland without admitting any mistakes or engaging in any self-criticism. If you ask them point blank, they will stare at their shoes and mumble that Peter Hadden wrote all the documents and they took his word for what was going on. Maybe so, but Hadden was not acting alone, but within a framework and methodology established by Grant – Labourism in Northern Ireland inevitably becoming left unionism, and gelling with the reformism, constitutionalism and British patriotism of Militant.
For a more positive look at Grant, it would be better to bypass this sort of Byzantine court history and take a look at his journalism, particularly his articles from the 1940s. Grant was a good Marxist journalist, and, despite his tendency to make dogmatic prophecies, he produced a lot of commentaries that stand the test of time. He was also a talented populariser of Marxist ideas, and had a broad knowledge of classical Marxism that he could easily apply to current events. I mean no disrespect to Grant when I say that he was not the most creative thinker – indeed, he usually cast himself as a guardian of doctrinal orthodoxy – but it is noticeable, when looking at the partnerships he forged through his career, that he produced his best work when he had more mercurial characters, like Ralph Lee and Jock Haston, to bounce off.
How then should we characterise Ted Grant’s contribution to the Marxist movement? This article has at various points been sharply critical of the old Militant tendency and its ideology, for which Grant bore primary responsibility. But to say that Grant had weaknesses is merely to say that he was human; moreover, many of those weaknesses stemmed not from Grant’s character but from difficulties of the historical period and the limited material he had to work with. Rereading Grant’s work today, and contrasting his work of the 1940s to that of the 1980s, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that his own weaknesses were to a large extent determined by his working environment. Had the British Trotskyist movement been a healthier movement, operating in a more promising situation, there can be little doubt that Grant would have found a leadership role that made full use of his undoubted talents. And we should also recognise his lifelong commitment to the working class, his patient and dogged struggle to maintain some kind of Marxist tradition in the labour movement and his development of genuine insights, particularly in orienting to workers’ mass organisations, that can be of value to socialists in the future.