Two trends in Militant

Chapter Forty-Five


DIFFERENCES IN approach toward strategy and tactics are common in the Marxist movement. Everybody puts forward erroneous points at some time, particularly when not all the facts are known. 

But Ted Grant’s approach was distinguished by a dogmatic and stubborn adherence to a point of view when it was clear that he did not have the necessary feel of how a struggle was developing on the ground. Moreover, he attempted to exercise a political veto over differing views and more accurate assessments of a situation.

In the past he had made a big contribution in terms of Marxist theory, particularly in defending the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, both against opportunism and ultra-leftism. But a correct theory in itself is not enough. 

It is necessary to translate this into programme, strategy and tactics, and relate these to the real movement of the working class. It is this which distinguished Militant from all other “Marxist” groups, during the course of the Liverpool struggle and also in the poll tax battle. 

Despite his past achievements, Ted Grant was sometimes found wanting, particularly in the rapidly changing situation of the 1980s. His lack of tactical awareness and flair was a source of irritation and conflict with some of the main figures in the Liverpool drama.

While Ted Grant was respected by the supporters and leadership of Militant it had been evident for some time that his best days, particularly on the public platform, were behind him. 

It was not the first time in the history of the Marxist movement that a leader can play a key pioneering role at one stage but prove to be lacking once the situation changes. The tragic example of Plekhanov, “Father of Russian Marxism” comes to mind. 

His role was decisive in the period when the task was to put down roots, to stubbornly defend Marxism against opportunism and ultra-leftism. But the same Plekhanov proved to be utterly helpless in the face of great events, when the rhythm of the class struggle and history changed. 

Entirely fresh layers had been drawn to the banner of Militant, particularly to the mass public meetings that took place in early 1986. It is not possible to take a horse, particularly a young one, out over the Grand National course first time out. It was necessary to present Militant’s ideas in the most popular and accessible form, without watering them down or hiding what we stand for. 

Other, younger speakers and leaders of Militant were more able to fulfil this task than someone who was already in his late 70’s. This in no way devalued his past contribution nor the continued role he could make. 

Ted Grant failed to recognise the limitations age placed on everyone. Experience and continuity of ideas and organisation is essential in any Marxist organisation. But it must never become a barrier to a new generation of leaders who are the inheritors of the future and who must inevitably carry the main burden of the day to day work of building a viable Marxist organisation.

Unfortunately, Ted Grant did not recognise this and in 1986 stirred up a fuss within the leadership of Militant by accusing others of not putting him up to speak at the mass meetings that were being organised. Most requests were for other national leaders of Militant to speak at these meetings. 

At the same time there was a differing approach increasingly evident between Ted Grant and the majority of the Editorial Board. To begin with this was largely one of approach, emphasis and sometimes on tactics. But in the changed situation which had been brought about by the 1980s a series of important differences arose.

Black Monday

Just weeks after the 1987 Labour Party conference, where the Labour leaders strained to adapt ideologically to “booming capitalism”, came the worldwide and unprecedented fall in share prices. 

21 October, “Black Monday” as it came to be known, was triggered by the collapse on Wall Street on the previous Friday. This was the biggest drop in share prices in one day; more than ten per cent of share values were wiped out. 

In London, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Paris and Frankfurt share prices nose-dived. The prices of stocks and shares can become almost divorced from the real values of profits and production in industry, particularly during a frantic boom. In Japan, share prices in 1987 had reached levels equivalent to 150 years’ annual profits. 

However, like a piece of elastic that is stretched to breaking point, at a certain stage the real economy asserts itself and yanks financial markets back in, causing a collapse in share prices. This crisis had been triggered by the attack of James Baker, US Treasury Secretary, on the policies of German capitalism and its central bank, the Bundesbank. 

But the underlying reason for the crisis was the big disproportion between share prices and the real state of capitalism on a world scale. Ultimately shares, particularly when they collapse, are an indicator of problems to come.

What did the October share crash signify? The answer to this question was hotly disputed within the ranks of Militant. On the very day of the collapse Ted Grant argued that this was a precursor to a new 1929-type slump. His thinking was unfortunately reflected in the pages of Militant. In its initial comments on these developments it stated: “A major slump in production and trade is assured, perhaps even before the summer of 1988.” (1)

Bob McKee, who shared his view, stated that the October crash

is a barometer predicting the impending storm that will exceed anything experienced by capitalism in the post-war period, possibly matching the great slump of the 1930s. (2)

The morning after the crash, capitalist journals, like The Economist, for instance, were predicting that an economic slump would follow in the wake of “Black Monday”. However, it soon became evident that the central banks of Europe, Japan and the US would use their resources to bail out world capitalism. 

Yet Ted Grant continued with his crude interpretation of the 1987 crash and dogmatically asserted his views at every turn.

He was supported by Bob McKee and Woods but was opposed by myself, Lynn Walsh, Bob Labi and others. The discussion around this issue within the Militant National Editorial Board and the working Editorial Board was searching and at times very sharp. 

The opponents of Ted Grant rejected the perspective of an immediate slump. This, unbelievably, was pictured by Grant as taking place within a year. Such an approach could completely disorientate supporters. If it should not come to pass, as was likely, we argued, a mood of disappointment, if not dejection, could set in amongst Militant supporters. 

It was necessary to approach these events in a balanced way. The collapse in share prices did indicate growing difficulties for world capitalism. At a certain stage the 1980s boom would give way to a recession, but it was very unlikely that it would be along the lines of 1929-33. World capitalism still possessed huge layers of fat which it could eat into in order to stave off an immediate crisis. 

There would of course be limits to this; short-term measures could be taken which would only have the effect of piling up problems and aggravating the crisis at a later stage. The Taaffe, Walsh and Labi grouping on the NEB argued that it was possible for Japanese and German capitalism, with their enormous surpluses, to step in to underwrite the dollar and support financial markets, thereby temporarily staving off an industrial crisis.

Contrary to the analysis of Ted Grant this is exactly what happened. A revival of world capitalism took place in the aftermath of the October 1987 crisis. Indeed, the huge injection of credit fuelled a growth of world capitalism at a greater rate than in the period prior to the crash. 

It was agreed that the underlying crisis of world capitalism would assert itself at a certain stage. This it did in the recession of the early 1990s. But timing in politics, and it should be added in the art of political economy, is important. Ultra-left sects, like a clock permanently stuck at one minute to midnight, have predicted a 1929 type slump for four or five decades. 

They play into the hands of the capitalist ideologists, who picture Marxists as being incapable of analysing real processes in a balanced fashion.

We have already referred to international developments – Namibia, South Africa and the Gulf War where differences emerged. Just at the time of the debate about the future of Militant a bigger drama began to unfold in Russia.

Coup in Russia

On 19 and 20 August the old guard “conservative” wing of the bureaucracy organised a coup against Gorbachev. This development, in itself of world importance, precipitated an even greater ideological breach than over Walton or the formation of SML between the majority and the minority within Militant’s ranks.

The minority leaned towards “critical support” for the organisers of the coup! They subsequently denied this because of the embarrassment of seeming to side with the pro-Stalinist wing of the bureaucracy. But in a document they put forward as part of the internal discussion within Militant, they stated:

If, as was entirely possible, the regime had been compelled to carry out a policy based on recentralisation and the planned economy, accompanied by terror, this would also give a certain impetus to the productive forces for a period of time. (3)

Their perspective was for the re-establishment of a Stalinist regime, resting on the planned economy, if the coup organisers had succeeded. Moreover, they had argued that this was the most likely outcome of the coup. The previous December, Alan Woods had argued in a discussion on Stalinism:

Let us be clear, even if there is a struggle between rival wings of the bureaucracy, one wing openly pro-capitalist and another wing – for their own purposes – trying to defend the basis of the nationalised economy, it would be a fundamental mistake to think that we’d be neutral in that situation, even if you had a situation where sections of workers were supporting the other wing.

He went on:

Trotsky said that in principle you couldn’t rule out in advance the possibility of a united front, a temporary and partial united front, between the Trotskyists and the Stalinist bureaucracy, if it came to an open civil war and an attempt to restore capitalism in the USSR. (4)

The majority, on the other hand, argued that there was a fundamental difference between the situation in the Soviet Union in 1991 and the period when Trotsky had envisaged a position of “critical support” for a section of the bureaucracy. 

The bureaucracy had completely degenerated, with the great majority abandoning support for central planning and the old system. They had embraced capitalism as a way forward. There was no significant wing of the bureaucracy in the period leading up to 1991 which still adhered to the planned economy.

Ted Grant was so convinced that the coup would succeed that as the TV reports came through on the collapse of the coup on Wednesday 21 August he denounced them as “lies” and “bourgeois propaganda”. 

He, Alan Woods and the rest of the minority, had failed to grasp that even if the coup had succeeded this would not have led to a complete restoration of the Stalinist regime.

Jarulzelski in Poland in 1981 had carried through a Stalinist counter-revolution to establish on Polish soil precisely the old regime. But faced with a complete economic, social and political impasse Jarulzelski himself abandoned this task admitting later: “our greatest mistake was to keep the party’s monopoly on power, defend nationalised industry and the class struggle.” (5)

He accordingly moved towards an openly pro-capitalist position, paving the way for the coming to power of Solidarity and Walesa. And yet the minority, in their document The Truth about the Coup argued:

What would have happened for example if Yanayev and co had seized power? Is it a foregone conclusion that they would have carried out their stated aims of moving towards a ‘market economy’ albeit at a more gradual pace? For the majority this is a simple question to answer: ‘In today’s situation, “objectively”… yes.’ But does that exhaust the question? (6)

They then postulate the idea that the coup organisers would have been compelled to re-establish the elements of the planned economy, completely ignoring the experience of Jarulzelski and the evolution of the Chinese Stalinists in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square.

Attempting to cover their tracks the minority accused the majority of tail-ending Yeltsin in the August days. This was despite the fact that Militant publicly distanced itself from the pro-capitalist Yeltsinites, some of whom flooded towards the defence of their hero at the White House in Moscow.

Russian workers oppose the coup

What was true, however, was that the mass of population in the Soviet Union was opposed to the coup. Some had illusions in Yeltsin, the majority were opposed because of a fear that the elementary democratic rights they had gained since 1989 would be snuffed out if the coup succeeded. 

That is why a series of strikes took place in Moscow, the Ukraine and elsewhere. More important than this was the immanent mass support of the working class, more important than those who manned the barricades in opposition to the coup. In the beginning, because of the disillusionment with Gorbachev, there was a certain hesitation in openly expressing opposition to the coup. We summed up this mood on 30 August as follows:

When the Soviet workers awoke to find the hardliners in power and Gorbachev under house arrest there was a hesitant response. But as the youth began to protest, the working class stirred. The call for a general strike began to get a response. (7)

Even bourgeois journalists remarked on this process. The Times reported:

So far, there has been a mixed response from Russian factories. This is partly a matter of organisational delays; strike committees are being formed and meetings held. (8)

There was a marked difference between the general opposition to the coup in August 1991 and the position taken by the mass of the workers later in 1993. In 1993 the struggle was perceived by the mass of the population, now thoroughly disillusioned with Yeltsin’s capitalist “reforms”, as between two mafias struggling for control over the heads of the mass of the population. 

Following the defeat of the coup, our co-thinkers in Russia organised around their newspaper, Workers’ Democracy, held a public meeting in defence of the ideas of Lenin and Trotsky. This was commented on by Russian television. Over 100 people attended the meeting, the majority industrial workers. Sixty expressed a desire to co-operate in forming a genuine mass workers’ party and five agreed to join and participate fully in the activity of Workers’ Democracy.

The position taken by the minority on the August events in Russia alienated them from the great majority of our supporters. The breach became wider as the practical consequences of Militant’s decision to launch an independent organisation in Scotland became even clearer.

After our special national conference in October 1991, the national leadership of Militant had pledged that the discussion on perspectives for the Labour Party in particular, and on the strategy and tactics required in the new situation in Britain and internationally, would continue. Ted Grant and his supporters refused to accept this. Militant explained in a statement, on 24 January, that the minority had decided to split away:

Instead of continuing the debate within our ranks, as they had claimed they would, they took steps to set up their own rival publication. They have plans to launch a monthly magazine, moving, as soon as possible, to a fortnightly and a weekly. They now have their own small premises and their own staff and are raising their own funds. (9)

This was clearly a pre-determined decision to split from Militant.

For the record

There was no denunciation of former comrades but a sober assessment of Ted Grant’s previous role. At the same time, Militant made a forceful criticism of his current mistaken policies:

We regret that Ted Grant has split in this way. He made a vital contribution in upholding the genuine ideas of Marxism and developing the theoretical legacy of Leon Trotsky in the hostile political climate of the post-war period. 

He played a key role in formulating the ideas and policies on which Militant was built from 1964. Those especially who worked closely with him for over three decades regret that he has now turned his back on Militant, on our great achievements in struggle and on the powerful following we have built up in Britain and internationally. 

It is lamentable that he has allowed his political authority to be used by people whose main concern is not to clarify ideas but to cause the maximum damage to Militant. 

One unfortunate feature of political life is the spiteful urge of former activists to justify their defection by hurling allegation of heinous political crimes at their former comrades. They are wasting their time. This mini-exodus will not deflect us in the slightest from the course we have mapped out. (10)