Militant: Roots and early years

Chapter One


MILITANT AND its supporters were instrumental in humbling Thatcher in Liverpool in 1984. Militant supplied the political and organisational backbone to the mighty anti-poll tax movement which buried this tax and consigned Thatcher to political oblivion. 

Militant supporters played a decisive role in the construction of Youth against Racism in Europe (YRE) which helped to stop the fascist BNP in its tracks. This body also organised 40,000 youth to march through Brussels in October 1994, the biggest all-European antifascist march ever.

First Edition of Militant

Militant’s involvement in these and many other important struggles of the working class in Britain and internationally have earned it the scorn and hatred of the capitalists, their representatives in the media and their echoes within the labour movement, the rightwing Labour and trade union leaders.

A virtual cottage industry has sprung up, dissecting, commenting on and seeking to explain the “Militant phenomenon”. Literally thousands of items have appeared in the capitalist press, acres of newsprint have been used up, numerous television and radio programmes have been produced in a vain attempt to explain away the reasons for Militant’s success. At least five books, dealing with Militant’s role, its history and future have appeared (including one in German).

In Britain also, academia has taken a keen interest in MilitantProfessors have produced learned treatises. Various departments have organised special seminars (needless to say, without a single Militant supporter invited). “Papers” and theses galore have appeared.

And yet in all of this no scientific explanation can be found which even begins to explain why Militant became an important factor and, on sonic occasions, a decisive factor in the battles of the labour movement, particularly in the 1980s and early 1990s. Most commentators scarcely venture beyond a “conspiratorial” view of Militant’s success. This superficial, not to say childish, view is incapable of providing even a clue to how Militant rose from seeming obscurity to become a durable and important force within the British working-class movement. What were its origins, policies, views on future developments in Britain and the labour movement which allowed it to capture the imagination of important groups of workers while others failed? The answer to these questions can only be found in an investigation of the objective conditions and the subjective role of Militant which at each stage led to its formation and growth. Such an approach will also be able to tell us whether Militant can repeat its successes in the future.

Militant was launched as a monthly publication in October 1964. It was not, of course, the first Marxist journal to appear in Britain. The history of the labour movement, and of the Marxist movement in particular, is littered with ill-fated attempts to form newspapers and organisations. Indeed, some of the founders of Militanthad themselves been involved with such attempts in the post 1945 period. Militant, however, not only endured but has now became a household name.

The 1950s and 1960s were a period when the right-wing of the Labour Party and trade unions exercised almost an iron grip on the movement. A long economic upswing from 1950 to 1974 strengthened capitalism and, at least in the advanced industrial countries, the idea that working-class people could win some improvements that would build up over time into a substantial change in their lives. 

Those who advocated these ideas were described by Marxists as “reformists”. They argued that by piecemeal reforms the wealth and power of the minority in society, the capitalist, could be gradually transferred to the majority, the working class and its allies the middle class etc. The possessing classes, however, will not voluntarily relinquish their wealth and power. 

Even a well known right wing Labour reformist, George Brown, deputy prime minister in the Wilson government of 1964-70 admitted: “No privileged group disappears from history without a struggle.” In the Post-war period, a few crumbs from the very rich table of the capitalists were allowed to fall into the lap of the working class. 

The real living standards of the working class advanced, and the idea of fundamental change – the possibility of a new socialist society – was regarded as a distant ideal, for some, very distant. The historical task of Marxism in the 1950s and even at the time of the launch of Militant was to defend the basic ideas of Marxism against those who claimed that Marxism was no longer relevant. 

That task, which was admirably fulfilled by the older generation which founded Militant, was absolutely essential as a means of maintaining the continuity of ideas and organisation which led back to Trotsky and his followers in the 1930s. Our journal has had a big effect on the labour movement. It gathered support on a greater scale than any other comparable organisation, in Britain or internationally.

Count down to Militant

The early pioneers of Militant were joined by a new generation brought into political activity in the late 1950s and the early 1960s as a result of the radicalisation of a layer of youth. The growth of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and the apprentices’ strikes of 1960 and 1964 were symptoms of this. It would be amongst youth that Militant would make its most rapid progress.

A number of attempts were made to produce a journal before October 1964. Socialist Fight, edited by Ted Grant, appeared very irregularly.

A section of the youth in Liverpool produced a journal called Youth for Socialism. This followed the abandonment in 1963 of a futile attempt to work together with fellow Labour Party members, the International Socialists (subsequently the Socialist Workers’ Party), in a joint youth paper called Young Guard. 

The Young Socialists (YS), Labour’s youth wing, which had been re-established in 1960, was at this stage under the control of the youth supporters of the Socialist Labour League (SLL – subsequently the Workers’ Revolutionary Party). They had an overwhelming majority on the YS National Committee, which they used ruthlessly to enhance their position and undermine, usually by denigration, their opponents on the left. This was an organisation using methods more akin to Stalinism, with verbal and even physical intimidation, rather than the open, democratic approach of genuine Trotskyism.

The youthful adherents of Socialist Fight were in a very small minority even in what subsequently became a bastion for its ideas. In the Merseyside Federation of Young Socialists, between 1960 and 1963, SLL supporters controlled 23 out of 25 Young Socialist branches, the exceptions being the Bootle branch, in which Ted ,Mooney, a key supporter of Militantheld sway, and the Birkenhead branch. But because we patiently argued for genuine Marxist ideas, the support for the SLL gradually withered. Seeing the writing on the wall, they decided to split from the Labour Party in 1964, sometimes deliberately confronting the ‘bureaucracy’ as a means of provoking expulsions.

Despite the odds, which could be compared to the task of a climber confronting a sheer cliff face, the adherents of what was to become Militant waged a campaign throughout 1964 for the funds to launch a journal.

After much discussion, and without complete unanimity, the prevailing view was that the name of the paper should be MilitantIts founders did not want a colourless banner, but something that was going to stand out, which would stand for a radical socialist programme and fighting policies.

Militant Launched

The first issue appeared in October 1964 and to begin with was eight pages. Colour was even added on the second edition of the paper but within two issues the editors were forced to retreat to a four-page monthly. Its supporters managed to sustain the journal through sales and the collection of donations in that first, very difficult year.

Militant recognised that at that stage the Labour Party was the mass party of the working class. Not only did it have the electoral support of millions, it was backed by the trade unions and had thousands of members. It had a political life, with debates and a democracy that the party leadership would often attempt to restrict. It also had a youth section – the Young Socialists.

So Militant was for Labour, but with socialist policies. At the same time, it looked to the youth, because young people were naturally more receptive to the ideas of change. So the masthead of the paper read ‘Militant: For Labour and Youth’.

The progress of Militant from 1964 onwards justified that approach. In the first instance, however, the number of adherents to Militant was very small, no more than 40 nationally, and some of these were not really active. The main base of Militant at this stage was in Merseyside, with small forces in London and in South Wales.

In 1963-64 a group of students at Sussex University, Clare Doyle, Bob Edwards, Roger Silverman, Lynn Walsh, Alan Woods and others, many of whom were to play a key role in the history of Militantalso supported the ideas and programme of Militant.

Issue Number One

Despite its small numbers, the paper struck an optimistic note right from the beginning. The first editorial commented:

We need to educate and be educated. In the beginningours can only be a monthly voice, but within that confine we will endeavour to deal with the main problems that face the movement… The most important thing is that we wish to tell the truth to the working class against the lies and the exaggerations of the capitalist class and the half-truths of Labour’s officialdom.(1)

The first issue came out at the same time as the election of the first Labour government for 13 years. It devoted space to an analysis of the problems that would confront that government. Militant commented:

When the long post-war economic upswing falters and the boom gives way to recession, then the employers will try to unload the burden onto the shoulders of the workers… Capitalism is still a treadmill with only short periods of uneasy solace for the workers. It can only offer, in the long run, war or slump, annihilation or penury, to the people of Britain and all other countries.(2)

And then in a warning to the Labour right, we commented:

The Labour leaders’ policy of ‘playing it cool’, of not launching an offensive against the Tories, has had the opposite effect to that which they expected They are showing themselves as ‘safe’ and ‘responsible’ leaders. Not fundamentally different from the Tories, the Labour leaders have played into [Tory Prime Minister] Home and company’s hands.(3)

As it happened, Wilson managed to scrape into power with a tiny majority. Warning of the pitfalls that confronted the Labour government, we wrote: “It is impossible to organise and control the resources of Britain while the octopus of private ownership of the major resources remains.”

Militant called for a

detailed plan of production for the next five years, on the basis of state ownership of all industry employing more than 20 workers, drawing on shop stewards, technicians and even small shopkeepers who despite their conservatism are the next to be axed by the monopolies…

This is the only ‘practical’ plan which could guarantee victory for Labour at the polls and ensure a change in society and make a return to Tory reaction impossible. Labour may well win [electorally] without such a programme, but [in the end] it will surely go down to bitter defeat, crushed by big business.'(4)

The print run was a modest 2,000 but in the second edition it was reported that:

Within a fortnight of the first issue rolling off the presses, it was completely sold out, with demands for fresh orders coming in which were unable to be met… Because of this success, we are upping the print order from 2,000 to 3000.(5)

Issue Two: The Apprentice Strikes

A strike of apprentices broke out on 2 November, 1964, over pay and conditions. This illustrated what was to be an enduring feature of the paper, a serious attitude towards the trade unions and industrial struggle. Militant and its supporters were determined to find a base amongst working-class youth in particular.

Other left organisations were larger at this stage, some claiming to be ‘Trotskyist’, but none was able to capture the imagination of Youth or organise it in action. Indeed, some of them, like the International Socialists (subsequently the SWP), were a pole of attraction mainly to students. They had little or no base amongst workers.

The 1964 strike was not the first time that the Marxists, who later launched Militant had intervened in such a movement. In 1960, after the apprentices in Clydeside had walked out on strike over their conditions, their example spread to Merseyside and other parts of the country. Upwards of 100,000 youth were involved in action. On Merseyside the chair of the apprentices’ strike committee was Ted Mooney, the secretary was Terry Harrison. The latter was already a Marxist and a committed supporter of Socialist Fight, while Ted Mooney, through his experiences in the apprentices’ committee, joined forces with Socialist Fight, subsequently becoming a key Militant supporter on Merseyside.

The youth supporters of Militant drew on this experience in seeking to organise and mobilise the apprentices. Ted Mooney and I played leading roles, together with Harry Dowling and Dave Galashan, in organising an apprentices’ strike in one factory, English Electric, on the East Lancashire Road. It was clear that there was massive dissatisfaction with the rates of pay and conditions of the apprentices, and there was widespread support for a reduction in the five-year term of apprenticeship.

At packed meetings in Liverpool and elsewhere a decision was taken to call out the apprentices in November. In Merseyside, Manchester, Dundee and London, as well as many other centres, apprentices struck. They faced big obstacles. Outright intimidation was resorted to by the employers. There was also a complete refusal from officials of the Amalgamated Engineering Union to give them the slightest help. Bert Rule, the Merseyside district officer, publicly threatened apprentices in the Liverpool Echo with serious consequences if they downed tools.

They calculated that inexperienced apprentices would cringe at their threats. Cammell Laird apprentices were told in no uncertain terms what lay in store for them if they walked out. A poster was displayed throughout Merseyside’s largest shipyard showing a large boot and the words ‘Don’t strike’. This had some effect amongst inexperienced apprentices. Even where the apprentices came out on strike, as in Manchester, police dogs were used on the picket lines.

The electricians trade union, which was the ETU (subsequently EETPU and now merged in the AEEU) under right-wing control, as it still is today, played a particularly pernicious role, circulating a letter warning apprentices of the dire consequences if they should come out on strike.

The strike of apprentices was only partially successful, with about 20,000 out of 70,000 engineering apprentices downing tools. Nevertheless, a partial victory was gained when the union leaders subsequently agreed to take up the most important demand: ‘Full negotiation rights for apprentices’. Many of the other demands on pay and conditions were subsequently pressed in negotiations.

The apprentices’ strike was significant from a number of points of view. It demonstrated in action the mood amongst engineering apprentices. It also steeled a new generation of Marxists in how to organise workers for struggle, above all, how to relate the general ideas of Marxism to the real movement of the working class.

Keeping the Show on the Road

The first years of Militant existence underlined the paucity of resources, both in terms of numbers and finance.

At the first all-London public meeting, then called Militant Readers Meetings held on 15 August, 1965, with myself in the chair, Ted Grant, the political editor, spoke to 50 people. The collection realised the princely sum of £4 12s 6d (£4.63).

In March of that year the paper proudly announced: “the editorial board have been forced to rent a room to work from.” This ‘headquarters’ was at 197 Kings Cross Road, near Kings Cross Station, in a building owned by the Independent Labour Party. So poor was Militant that it announced:

we are also able to let the room for meetings, and any Labour, trade union or Co-operative organisation interested in booking the room, especially during the week, will be welcome to make enquiries. There is seating for up to 30 and the charge will be purely nominal, but will help us pay our rent.(6)

In reality, Militant did not have even the first month’s rent for this room. But its adherents were confident that they would find the resources that would match the boldness of their ideas.

In the first year, Militant set its sights on a collection of £500 for the fighting fund. Subsequently, the capitalist press were to scream in horror that Militant was generating £1 million income a year. And yet it was only able to do this by a combination of clear perspectives, a well-thought out programme of demands and a meticulous attitude towards collecting the resources needed to produce a newspaper and the growing band of full-timers (the term soon adopted to describe those who worked full-time for Militant) that went with it.

Although Keith Dickinson was not a full-timer, he did part-time work, making enormous sacrifices and playing all indispensable role in assisting me in the first period after my move from Liverpool in 1964.

Throughout the Labour government of 1964-66 and following its re-election until 1970, Militant argued for a socialist policy for the government and the labour movement. We pointed out that if the government remained within the confines of capitalism, it would be forced to do the bidding of big business. The Wilson government actually went from reforms, very small ones in the first period, to counter-reforms, i.e. cuts in living standards, as Militant predicted.

Our ideas found their most receptive audience amongst youth. At the time of the launch of the paper, the Young Socialists, after the departure of Keep Left, was relaunched as the Labour Party Young Socialists. Because of the disastrous experience of the SLL control of the YS, the LPYS was heavily policed in the first period by the conservative Labour Party officialdom. It was not allowed to formulate its own policy and documents and resolutions were submitted to its conference by the National Executive Committee. 

Members of the LPYS National Committee were selected and appointed by the right wing. Nevertheless, at rank-and-file level Marxist ideas began to find an echo. John Ewers, YS representative from the South West, was won over to Militant’s ideas. Davy Dick, who represented Scotland, was a committed Marxist before he entered the LPYS National Committee. They formed a two-pronged Marxist attack on right-wing ideas on the LPYS National Committee.