The Party and its leadership
On the question of organisation, leadership and the method of constructing a viable Marxist organisation they are also completely out of touch. Yet few organisations have adopted such a boastful pose or such a nauseating idolisation of its leading figures as this one. Lenin was always hesitant to write about himself and his ideas in the first person and used the synonym of ‘Bolshevism’ as an expression of what these ideas represented. Similarly, the term ‘Trotskyism’, was invoked first by the Stalinists, Trotsky initially rejected this, stating that those who used this term wished to give a personal name to a body of ideas which represented the continuation of Bolshevism. He also pointed out that his famous 1938 Transitional Programme, The Death of Agony of Capitalism, was "not the product of one man" but the combined and collective thoughts and experiences of a movement, the International Left Opposition.
‘Trotskyism’, through usage over decades, is now synonymous with a distinct trend within the workers’ movement. But any hesitation about personalisation, the cult of personality to give it its right name, is foreign to this group. This is underlined by Sewell when he describes "Ted Grant’s Militant Tendency" (page 211). This term was never used by us before the split of 1992. It has only been used by them since then. They now call themselves officially "The Grant Tendency". Moreover, they have a special website, "The Ted Grant Website", the purpose of which is the deification of the leader.
Their approach to the issue of ‘leadership’ goes to the heart of the very profound differences which exist between them and us on the concept of leadership in a revolutionary or would-be revolutionary organisation, which is fighting to become a significant and, ultimately, a mass force. It is axiomatic for Trotskyists that leadership of a party is vital at those turning points in history in which a revolution is possible. Without the presence of Lenin and Trotsky in Russia in October 1917, the Russian Revolution would not have taken place.
In his Diary in Exile – written primarily for his own personal use but which was published after his death – Trotsky, commenting on his own role, wrote: "Had I not been present in 1917 in Petersburg, the October Revolution would still have taken place – on the condition that Lenin was present and in command. If neither Lenin nor I had been present in Petersburg, there would have been no October Revolution: the leadership of the Bolshevik party would have prevented it from occurring – of this I have not the slightest doubt! If Lenin had not been in Petersburg, I doubt whether I could have managed to conquer the resistance of the Bolshevik leaders. The struggle with ‘Trotskyism’ (that is, with the proletarian revolution) would have commenced in May 1917, and the outcome of the revolution would have been in question. But I repeat, granted the presence of Lenin the October Revolution would have been victorious anyway."
There is nothing "personal" in these remarks, as a study of the successful October Revolution demonstrates. Conversely, the failure of revolutions – where the conditions were much more favourable – on numerous occasions during the 20th century also demonstrates the terrible price the working class pays for the lack of a revolutionary party and a tested and farsighted leadership. Can we therefore deduce from this that, everywhere and on all occasions, it is just one or two outstanding leaders who will make the difference between success and failure in a revolution? It is possible for such a situation to occur but the aim must be to try to ensure that we avoid this situation by trying to widen the numbers and the base of the leadership, by raising the level of all to the tasks of history.
The murder of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg in 1919 – particularly the latter, who was the theoretical ‘brain’ of the German working class at that stage – shows the terrible price which is paid when the fate of a revolution depends upon one or two individuals and, when they are removed, how the revolution can be defeated. Sometimes, this can be the result but not always under all circumstances is it inevitable. Moreover, it is the responsibility of a farsighted leadership to renew and widen its base by making room and encouraging the development of the next generation. At the same time it is necessary to develop the second, third and other layers of leadership. This is no easy task. There is no easy recipe, but it must be undertaken and be to the forefront of any leadership worthy of the name.
The opposite of Trotsky
Despite lip service to "teamwork", Grant and Woods epitomised the very opposite of this idea. A continual stress on their own "unique" and "special" role was emphasised. This was done in order to demonstrate that they were indispensable for the future of the organisation, and even of the working class. The leaders of the myriad groups on the ‘revolutionary left’ have used the words of Trotsky quoted above to underline that leadership is vital in a revolution: they are the leadership, ergo they are indispensable.
Although not expressed in as crude a fashion as this, at bottom these are the sentiments of Grant and Woods. And they adduce as evidence the "correctness" of their ideas, particularly of Grant’s, over 70 years! Leave aside, as we have demonstrated, that he has been far from correct in the last historical period. It is ridiculous for Marxists still leading small forces to claim that they are the leadership, that they embody all the experience required to carry through a revolution, when they have never been tested in such a situation.
Moreover, it is one thing to be correct in the period of assembling a force, to even engage in skirmishes – strikes, big campaigns, etc. – which are an absolutely vital task for a real revolutionary leadership. But the real test comes in those periods of abrupt turns in the situation and, above all, in a revolutionary situation. As we have shown, Grant and Woods were found wanting – not in a revolution – but in important preparatory battles which Militant was involved in.
Grant claims justification for his role in the documents he wrote for the WIL and the RCP. We do not want to devalue the contribution that Grant made in the development of these ideas but the final formulations in documents do not tell the whole story of how ideas on perspectives, programme, tactics and strategy evolve within the leadership of a serious revolutionary organisation. In a viable organisation there is a constant process of dialogue and discussion. Who contributes what, where the ideas of one begin, and another end, is sometimes difficult to work out.
Trotsky highlights this when commenting on the role of Plekhanov, ‘the father of Russian Marxism’, Axelrod and Zasulich, in the early Russian Marxist movement. He wrote the following: "Plekhanov and Zasulich lived generally in Geneva, Axelrod in Zurich. Axelrod concentrated on questions of tactics. He has not written a single theoretical or historical book, as is well known. He wrote very little, and what he wrote almost always concerned tactical questions of socialism. In this sphere Axelrod showed independence and acuteness. In numerous conversations with him – I was very friendly with him and Zasulich for some time – I had the clear impression that much of what Plekhanov has written on questions of tactics is a fruit of collective work, and that Axelrod’s part in it is considerably more important than one can prove from the printed document alone. Axelrod said more than once to Plekhanov, the undisputed and beloved leader of the ‘group’ (before the break in 1903): ‘George, you have a long snout, and take from everywhere what you need’." [On Lenin, by Leon Trotsky.]
Of course, there can be outstanding contributions from outstanding individuals who receive due merit for the contribution that they make. But if this is done at the expense of tapping the galaxy of talent that is assembled in the ranks of a party, of extracting for the benefit of the whole organisation, the contributions of all including at a leadership level, then we will fail. More than at the time of the Russian Revolution, the tasks of building a mass party, never mind the taking of power, will be more difficult and much more complex. It will be a task that will be beyond just one or two people in an ‘International Centre’ or in ‘one centre’ on a national level. This in no way devalues the need to develop a leadership and to make room for the full blossoming of outstanding individuals. But this must be done in the context of continually extending the leadership and renewing it with the most promising and outstanding representatives of the new generation.
Marxism is a science. But scientists, particularly in the modern era, learn from one another and share information in order to advance knowledge. This does not mean that amongst modern scientists there are not outstanding individuals. But the idea of teamwork, of the outstanding scientists building on the work of others, is accepted almost automatically. This kind of approach, however, is foreign to Grant – as evidenced by his book – and by his supporters, Woods and Sewell.
Not an honest history
As others have commented, this is not a ‘history of British Trotskyism’ but a personal memoir – and a slanted and self-serving one at that – which seeks to enhance his own role at the expense of others. His book centres around himself and contrasts his virtuous role to the various ‘devils’, especially Gerry Healy and to a lesser extent James Cannon, Pierre Frank, Michel Pablo and Ernest Mandel. All of these are now dead and therefore cannot answer the charges levelled against them by Grant or Sewell. Unfortunately for Ted Grant and Sewell, we are able to answer their distortions.
We do not hold any brief for other British and international Trotskyist leaders attacked by Grant – many of whom made errors as well as contributions to the development of the Trotskyist movement – but it is wrong to wait until they are all dead and therefore cannot answer back.
Ted Grant always insisted that he was the ‘only’ individual in the Trotskyist movement who understood what was going on during the Second World War and afterwards. This claim was subjected to searching criticism, from a number of quarters, which has now compelled Grant and his acolytes to slightly modify his line of political infallibility.
Even Sewell in his introduction, now concedes that Grant was "not the only one" to understand what was taking place during the Second World War. The American Trotskyist Felix Morrow and the French Trotskyist Rousset, it now seems, added something (see Tony Aitman’s appendix). Moreover, Grant now concedes, through Sewell, that he made an "opportunist" error in not supporting the ‘Open Party’ faction in the Revolutionary Communist Party in 1949. However, this admission has only been extracted from him by the criticisms in Richardson and Bornstein’s book, War and the International: A History of the Trotskyist Movement in Britain, 1937-49. The ‘Open Party’ faction accused Grant of "betrayal" at this time for his complete capitulation to Healy, who was then a stooge of the International Secretariat of the Fourth International.
We made the same charges against him in the History of the CWI. His opportunist errors derailed what could have been important forces who could have continued the tradition of the Revolutionary Communist Party in the period between 1949 and 1956. This was a period when Healy and, to some extent, those around Tony Cliff, the theoretician of ‘state capitalism’, completely outstripped Grant and the group around him in terms of numbers, influence, regular production of material, etc. Grant also gave the ideas of "state capitalism" to Cliff and then rejected them. He, therefore, bears some responsibility for the modern SWP and their international organisation the International Socialist Tendency.
Grant’s attorney Sewell seeks to argue that when the split in the Communist Party of Great Britain came with the events in Hungary in 1956 none of the prominent ex-CP members moved in Grant’s direction. Grant, through Sewell, mentions that this was allegedly because of their "low level". In reality, it was because of the complete ineptitude, the disorganisation of Grant and his ‘forces’, which bordered on anarchy. Healy, with an incorrect method and wrong policies, as well as an internally repressive regime, nevertheless made important inroads in winning workers, a number of ex-CP members and young people to his organisation. This was something which Grant was patently incapable of doing, then and subsequently.
Indeed, despite the efforts of young members like Keith Dickinson and Reg Lewis, the state of Grant’s group in 1960 when a trickle of new young recruits came into its orbit was no different to the chaotic state it had been in 1956. Both Healy and Cliff had regular papers – the former with a certain influence amongst trade unionists and workers, and the latter amongst a layer of middle class students and intellectuals in the London area. Grant, on the other hand, produced a newspaper called Socialist Fight, dubbed by its opponents ‘Socialist Flight’, "here today and gone tomorrow", because it was produced on average every six months.
Why then, did people like me and a layer of youth join the Grant group? Certainly not because of Ted Grant. It was because of the excellent rank and file members on Merseyside, particularly workers like John McDonald, the impressive young Pat Wall, Ted Mooney and Don Hughes, that young people from a working class background joined the organisation. They were approached by Healy’s Socialist Labour League (which later became the Workers Revolutionary Party) through their Merseyside organiser Bill Hunter and had discussions with him. If it was just a question of organisation, where the SLL completely outstripped the Grant group, then like some other young workers they would have joined the SLL. They hesitated because of disagreements with their policies and an innate suspicion of the messianic tone and structure of the SLL. They also leaned towards the method of analysis and the programmatic points which were explained to them by the Merseyside group, more than towards the SLL.
Within a matter of three months of joining the organisation I was made the Merseyside secretary of what was admittedly a very small organisation. Together with other young comrades – it has to be said in opposition to the older generation who wished to pursue a more conservative, cosy existence within the Labour Party – the new layer re-organised the Merseyside branch, rented their own premises, revived old Trotskyists and attracted a whole layer of new, young people. I, together with Ted Mooney, Tony Mulhearn, Terry Harrison (who had not been on Merseyside when I joined the party because of his National Service in Hong Kong), Marie Harrison, Linda Taaffe, Dave Galashan and others, they fought the ‘Healyites’ within the Merseyside Young Socialists Federation.
They received support from the national leadership of the organisation, particularly Jimmy Deane, who as well as being politically capable was also extremely welcoming, gave an impression of a dynamic approach to ideas and organisation, and looked towards the next generation. Ted Grant was not an impressive individual or speaker when you first met him. A better acquaintance with him led to a greater appreciation of his abilities at that stage.
Recognition of Ted Grant’s role – spiteful insults the response
One has to contrast the generosity – some people would say the exaggerated generosity given his vilification of us at the time – with which we treat his role in our book on the history of Militant and the abusive, non-political diatribe which he has sanctioned for use by his acolyte Sewell against his former comrades. When he separated from Militant in 1991, we wrote the following: "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 allegations 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." [Militant, 1072, 24 January 1992.]
In The Rise of Militant we wrote: "Differences in approach towards 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.
Explaining this split we also gave due recognition to the role that he had played 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 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." [The Rise of Militant by Peter Taaffe, p445.]
Contrast this to the comments he and his supporters made about people he collaborated with over a period of 30 years. Sewell writes the following about me: "A very ambitious man with a morbid fear of rivals, actual or potential, Taaffe decided that his talents were not sufficiently appreciated. Actually, despite a certain flair for organisation, Taaffe was never a theoretician and was deeply jealous of people whom he saw as on a higher level than himself… Although Taaffe was a talented speaker and a capable organiser, all his ideas were taken from Ted [Grant]."
Moreover: "In reality, Taaffe felt particularly threatened by Alan Woods who was certainly on a higher theoretical level and was regarded by everyone as an excellent public speaker and writer. Since Taaffe was always looking over his shoulder for rivals, he imagined (wrongly) that here was a threat to his own position."
By elevating, in this way, the role of Woods it allows Sewell to bask in the reflected glory of the towering talent of his half-brother. What a comment on Woods himself that he could allow these words to be written about himself! He has certainly not lost anything of the haughty, patronising manner, which succeeded in alienating him from so many leaders and rank and file members of Militant in its heyday.
As to any resentment at the superior ‘theoretician’ Woods, such sentiments could never occur to any of the leaders of Militant at the time. I, Lynn Walsh, Keith Dickinson, Clare Doyle and many other leaders of Militant wrote literally dozens, even hundreds, of articles in Militant and the Militant International Review on the theoretical aspects and processes within the trade unions, the General Strike, the Cultural Revolution in China, on Stalinism, the Portuguese Revolution, above all on the strategy and tactics of the mass movements around Liverpool and the poll tax.
These were not just individual contributions but the product of our democratic discussion and debate, and the result of the analysis of the collective leadership and the actions and campaigns that flowed from this. This is how we were able to successfully intervene, for instance, in the poll tax battle and in Liverpool.
‘Correction’ from Grant?
"Ah, but this was when Ted Grant was able to correct Peter Taaffe and others." Ted Grant was not to the fore in either the analysis of the poll tax or the Liverpool battles, or in the implementation of the ideas which flowed from this analysis. Sewell’s extreme personality cult, as well as his lies and distortions, compel us to tell the truth. Sad to say, Grant never checked a line of many, if not most of these articles; my book on the French Revolution, for instance. Nevertheless, this is a constant theme in Grant’s book and is applied not just to me. His first major collaborator, Ralph Lee, was a good bloke but "the theory" was down to Grant himself. The same applied to Jock Haston and the whole leadership of the RCP, not just Healy but also Jimmy Deane, Pat Wall and everybody else except Ted Grant. The truth is that Grant’s ideas were, originally, often totally unintelligible, incapable of being grasped unless rewritten for publication by his collaborators who invariably added to, not just the presentation, but the formulation of ideas as well.
The denunciations of others accompanied by the assertions of theoretical supremacy of Grant and Woods cut absolutely no ice in 1991 and even less so now given their theoretical incapacity during the difficult and complex period of history since then. They are now embarrassed to deal with the political issues under dispute in 1991. They resort to the pathetic excuse that they lost out in a factional struggle within our ranks because of an alleged "clique" around Peter Taaffe. Sewell admits that the split started with a "violent row", caused by Woods and Grant with their "clique allegations". But then, because the evidence is so threadbare, he immediately drops the question instead of attempting to prove it. He also claims that they took "the main theoreticians with them", without naming a single one of them. We have answered that charge many times and it was rejected by a crushing majority of the ranks of Militant.
However, by a curious coincidence, Grant in his book gives proof of his own tendency towards supporting a ‘clique’. In the discussion in the RCP over entry into the Labour Party or independent work in the late 1940s, he took a ‘neutral’ position, although he really favoured the continuation of open work. The reasons for this, again admitted in his book, were because he wanted to "preserve the leadership. We wanted to maintain the leadership at all costs for the future". What is this if not a clear definition of clique politics? A correct tactic was not supported by Grant because it was necessary to "preserve the leadership".
Of course, the leadership of a revolutionary organisation, particularly one that has been built up over a period of time, is priceless capital for the building of a powerful movement. It should not be thrown away or divided lightly. This, incidentally, is one of the reasons why – despite the increasing divergence between ourselves and Grant on a number of issues – we nevertheless strove to preserve the unity of Militant. But if you want to "preserve" the cadres or the leadership at all costs, all you end up with is "preserves".
The question of entry into the Labour Party or an open party was not an incidental or secondary question but vital for the future of the RCP in Britain. It was the divisions on this issue which helped to completely derail the RCP and led to its disintegration. The interests of the "clique", in this case the leadership, of the RCP, meant that Grant abandoned a principled position. Compare this to the "evidence" for the charges that he, Sewell and Woods levelled at the majority on the issue of organising a "clique" around me in 1991.
The fairy tales, to the effect that I suppressed Woods’s book on Bolshevism, and personally prevented him from speaking at meetings, are beneath contempt. Suffice to say, no evidence is furnished by Sewell, no minutes of meetings or sub-committees, let alone an Executive Committee meeting, where decisions to "suppress" the literary pearls of Woods would have been made. It is also a lie that I withheld "funds" from the theoretical journal. I was not the National Treasurer; financial decisions were taken through the Executive Committee, of which Sewell himself was a prominent member. He never raised this charge then and it is clearly an attempt ex post facto, to invent the legend that there were manœuvres against his brother.
Woods and Grant organised the 1991 split
Another typical fairy tale of Sewell’s is the statement that "Alan’s [Woods] main sin was that he was always close to Ted and consequently would never have countenanced any manoeuvres against him – or anybody else. Taaffe knew that it would be impossible to remove Ted without a battle with Alan Woods – something he feared because of the consequences, above all in the International."
Every word of Sewell on this and other issues dealing with Militant’s history is a mistake and some are two! There was no "plot" to remove Ted Grant. In reality the real "plotters" – ham-fisted and amateurish though they were – were Woods, Grant and their cohorts. Indeed, the leaders of what became subsequently the majority within Militant were extremely naïve about what was going on behind the scenes.
Unbeknown to us, Woods and Grant had been canvassing within the CWI – but not widely in Britain, because their base was so weak here – for a "regime change" in the leadership of the British organisation and internationally. Francois Bliki in Belgium revealed to us after the split of 1991 that he had been canvassed by Woods about such an eventuality. Such approaches were usually made at international conferences.
It was not ourselves but Grant and Woods who themselves tried to organise a "coup" against the leadership. The trigger for this attempt was the objections of Grant – this time accompanied by Woods who had opposed him on some issues such as this in the past – to ‘younger’ comrades, such as the 32-year old Laurence Coates(!), from giving a lead-off at an upcoming international event! Tony Saunois, Bob Labi and I refused to accept this. This was sufficient to trigger charges, for the first time, of a "clique" inside the leadership of Militant and the CWI.
Woods then went outside of the International Secretariat to canvass support. The demand for a change was accompanied with an ultimatum that Tony Saunois, then acting International Secretary, should be removed because of his opposition to Woods and Grant. They generously conceded that he would not be sacked as a full-timer but would be sent to the equivalent of a Siberian power station, to work in Chile! Laurence Coates was to be removed. I would be permitted to remain in my position so long as I "kept my place", recognised the theoretical superiority of Grant and Woods, and confined myself to organisational tasks.
Weakness of method
This incident highlighted the dilemma which Militant had confronted in the 1980s, particularly in the latter part of the decade. While Grant was respected by the supporters and leaders of Militant, it had been evident for some time that his best days, particularly on a public platform, were behind him. This was not the first time in the history of the Marxist movement that a leader could play a key pioneering role at one stage but prove to be lacking – in fact, become an obstacle – 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 changed.
Entirely fresh layers had been drawn to the banner of Militant particularly to the mass public meetings that took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It is not possible to take a horse on the Grand National course first time out. It was necessary to present Militant’s ideas in the most popular and accessible form, without watering down or hiding what we stood for. Other younger speakers and leaders of Militant were more able to fulfil this task than someone who was already in his late seventies and is now in his late eighties.
Ted Grant failed to recognise the limitations age places on everyone. Experience and continuity of ideas in an 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 must inevitably carry the main burden of the day-to-day work of building a viable Marxist organisation.
Grant operated with outmoded formulas, which no longer applied to the changed situation. In the post-Second World War period, processes were more drawn out, more ‘predictable’. After 1950, the working out of perspectives, although by no means ever a simple task, was easier than it was at the beginning of the 1990s or today. A certain world equilibrium existed then, with the existence of powerful Stalinist states.
The boom of the 1980s, the emptying out of many of the workers’ parties, for an historical period and above all the collapse of the Stalinist regimes, ushered in an entirely new, unstable period. New tasks theoretically, new problems in the field of strategy, tactics and organisation were posed. It became necessary to be more conditional. This did not mean that we should seek a cowardly position of false neutrality on issues. What was required, and still is, is that we discuss all contingencies and then decide on the most likely variant in any given situation. This sometimes requires the amending of a previous position, when new factors, including previously unknown ones, enter into the political equation.
This has nothing in common with ‘empiricism’, ‘eclecticism’, and ‘impressionism’, the sins attributed to us by Grant and Co. The approach of him, Woods and Co. increasingly took the form of astrological predictions. They took an absolutely dogmatic, black and white, undialectical approach towards political phenomena, both in Britain and internationally. Combined with Grant’s attempt to exercise a political veto over the leadership, this would have had disastrous effects for our development unless countered.
Grant’s spear carriers have incredibly sought to argue that we were "saved" from the blunders by timely interventions by Grant. On the contrary, as we have shown, the real history of the 1980s, up to the split of 1991, was characterised by the increasingly dogmatic and intolerant approach of Grant, usually toned down, amended, and sometimes opposed within the Executive Committee of Militant and within the CWI by other comrades. Grant and Woods in the complex new world and national situation, demonstrated an atrophy of thought processes, which relied on old formulae trotted out, which flew blatantly in the face of current developments.
The same is true on organisation and on the history of Militant as well. Sewell makes the ludicrous claims that it was himself and his brother, through their base in Swansea and Brighton, in tandem with Ted Grant, which ensured the rebirth of our organisation, which subsequently became Militant in the early 1960s. This is clearly an attempt to establish Woods’s reputation as an ‘Old Bolshevik’, that he was a pioneer at the beginning of the rebirth of the organisation. He played some role, in Wales for a short time and, more importantly, in Spain later but he was not present as the organisation began to develop again in 1960.
Contrast this with what Sewell writes about me. Sewell suggests that I had just a walk-on part at the time of the "launching of Militant". He writes: "A new young recruit from Birkenhead, was chosen to come to London on a full-time basis and help produce the paper and assist with the national work". This "new young recruit" had been active in the organisation for a period of four years before this. I had, moreover, participated in numerous battles with our opponents in the Young Socialists, on a local and a national level, spoken at YS conferences, led an apprentices’ strike in Liverpool and Manchester in 1964 and been involved closely in the discussions around unification with the International Group (IG), which later became the International Marxist Group (IMG), the British section of the USFI.
I had confronted Joe Hansen, who had been Trotsky’s secretary at one stage, and Ernest Mandel, the theoretical leader of the USFI, at a conference we had organised to debate important political differences at Wortley Hall near Sheffield in 1963. At the so-called Unity Conference between ourselves and the IG in 1964, I led a walk-out of the Liverpool delegation, with the majority in Liverpool in support, against the decision to railroad us into a premature unification with the IG. Therefore I was not the "young recruit" in 1964, as Sewell suggests, but somebody who, despite my age, had a certain history behind me.
The same could not be said of Sewell and Woods, who had not even appeared within our movement at that stage. I was elected to become the General Secretary and the official public editor of the paper, as well as the first full-timer, on the motion of Jimmy Deane. The latter’s mistake in relation to support for unification with the IG – in which we opposed him much more forcefully than Grant – was in part motivated by the frustration of working with Grant over a period of time and in reality a complete lack of confidence that anything could be achieved by this man in building a viable Trotskyist organisation.
Where was the Sewell-Woods combo while all this was going on? One of them, Sewell was a youngster and Woods was not yet a member of our organisation but a member of the Labour Party Young Socialists. The same ‘airbrushing’ technique is deployed by Sewell in relation to the 1965 USFI World Congress held in the Taunas Mountains in West Germany. Grant’s presence at the conference is mentioned but not my own. I was a delegate from the British organisation to this conference and spoke, both at the formal sessions and informal discussions.
Re-writing history – the inventions of Sewell
These are not just ‘omissions’ by Sewell. They are a deliberate and farcical attempt to completely falsify the history of our organisation during its rebirth, especially in the early 1960s. What is incredible is that Sewell can speak in the first person plural, "our"; again, by his own admission he was not even a member when these events transpired. Ted Grant was and he has sanctioned this falsification, in order to downplay the role of others who came into collision with him in 1991, and what is even more "unforgivable", for him, actually convinced a majority of what he considered up to then as ‘his’ organisation. In fact this book, Sewell ‘s Postscript and the continual sniping at the Socialist Party and the CWI since then is a very severe case of quite ‘sour grapes’ on the part of this ‘tendency’. By deciding to oppose, in a most unprincipled fashion, the majority in 1991 and subsequently, they have been sidelined by history.
By his own account, Sewell did not join our organisation until 1966, and did not play a national role for a long time after that. Apart from the false account which has been fed to him by his brother, he is in no position to know the facts. Alan Woods was not party to any decisions taken on a national level in relation to the Young Socialists, in relation to the split with the USFI in 1965, in relation to the formation of Militant, in relation to the apprentices’ strikes of the early 1960s and many other issues.
When I first became a member in 1960, Swansea branch was very small and largely ineffective, with a few individuals around Dave Matthews and Colin Tindley, as well as Muriel Browning. Alan Woods attempted on a few occasions, when we discussed our history, to interpret his membership of the Labour Party Young Socialists as membership of our group in Swansea at that stage. This was not the case and, in fact, the first time we came into contact with him and Roger Silverman was at the 1964 YS conference in Brighton.
If Woods had been a member from 1960, why is it that during the conflicts with the Cliff Group in the YS and the SLL, or the fusion with the USFI, the numerous battles at YS conferences between 1960 and 1964, he was unknown to those who were at the fore of the struggles which were taking place? We only became aware of him when he went to Brighton and managed to have an effect, together with Grant, on a number of students. Before this time, I, together with Ted Mooney, Tony Mulhearn and others, had visited Scotland and Nottingham, built a viable YS branch in Merseyside, won over the majority of the YS branches – totalling 25 in all – split the SLL and won some of their better types to our ranks, led the national apprentices’ strike of 1964, participated in the ‘Unity’ conference with the International Marxist Group in 1963 and many other events both locally and nationally.
Woods did play a role in Brighton in introducing some very able young students to Marxism. It is no accident; however, that most of these became subsequently his sternest critics. He subsequently left the area and travelled to Russia and Bulgaria, and after his return found a changed organisation not entirely to his liking. In his usual manner, he demanded automatic acceptance as the ‘leader’ of the group but suffered a sharp rebuff from those such as Lynn Walsh, who (like others such as Clare Doyle, Roger Silverman, Peter Hadden and Roger Keyse who were won in Brighton) have played an important role in the development of the Trotskyist movement in Britain, and Militant stalwarts such as the worker Ray Apps. None of this, of course, is given a mention in the account of Sewell, which passes as objective ‘history’. Later, Woods did play an important role in Spain, fully recognised in our book on Militant’s history.
Another fairy story is the importance accredited by Sewell to the fact that Woods, in the building of Militant, became our "first regional full-timer". In fact, Clare Doyle became a full-timer before him, in the North-East, as did Lynn Walsh in the Manchester and Lancashire area, and Terry Harrison in Merseyside.
If there were any resentments or jealousies it was not from the side of others but from Woods himself. Because of his alleged "theoretical" talents he thought this was sufficient to guarantee his political authority. However, his incapacity to shape up to the new situation that was developing, which was reinforced by his reliance on Grant, meant that he was more and more out of kilter with the approach and the attitude of the majority of Militant members and of the more thinking elements in the CWI.
Ironically, it was this self-proclaimed partisan of ‘dialectics’ who demonstrated the most undialectical approach towards the political phenomena which were unfolding in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Dialectics is essentially the theory of change. However, everything in this world since 1990, particularly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, has changed except the views of Woods and Grant! The Labour Party remains the same, Russia, in the first stages, was unchanged as a workers’ state, demands pertaining to another era were trotted out, as with conscription during the Gulf War, irrespective of the objective situation which existed.
During the ten years to 1991, Militant was decisive in the mighty battle in Liverpool as well as in the poll tax struggle. It was in this period that we made a magnificent contribution to the miners’ strike as well. It was also in this 10 to 12 year period that we were able to assemble the youth cadre which in turn managed to have an effect on ever wider layers of young people in the working class in Britain.
This intervention would not have been possible without combating the circle mentality which afflicted many comrades in the period preceding the late 1970s and early 1980s. We had many who were quite comfortable to sit in Labour parties, debating and passing resolutions. They were, in every sense of the term, ‘resolutionaries’ rather than revolutionaries. The prospect of mass work, of ‘dirtying their hands’ in reaching new layers of the working class outside of the ‘traditional organisations’, undoubtedly frightened many of these ‘Marxists’ who gradually distanced themselves from the organisation. Their loss was more than compensated for by the new, combative elements who were drawn into the ranks of our organisation.
Initiatives of ranks
In their heart of hearts Ted Grant and Alan Woods did not like the new political complexion of the organisation. They did not, of course, object to the larger organisation and therefore bigger audiences for their speeches and articles. But the need to present Marxist ideas in a new and quite different fashion from the preceding period in order to attract and hold these layers was a difficult and increasingly irksome task for them.
We have heard much from them about the need for ‘theory’. The present leadership of the Socialist Party and of the CWI have made not a little contribution to the development of the ideas and theoretical explanations of the organisation from 1960 onwards. For instance, in Liverpool I and others independently came to the conclusion that Cuba was a workers’ state, although bureaucratically deformed, in advance of Grant and the national leadership of the tiny organisation that we were at that stage. Grant subsequently came to the same conclusion as us after he visited the Cuban Embassy, got some material, read it and subsequently pronounced on the issue. We based ourselves on a reading of the literature available, and in particular the articles by Ortiz in the journal of the then ISFI, Fourth International, which supplied a wealth of empirical material, to draw a conclusion on this key issue well in advance of the national leadership.
Other important tactical improvisations arose from the ranks in advance of the national leadership and that is the way it should be in a healthy Trotskyist organisation with a thinking combative membership. It was not the national leadership but comrades in Glasgow who led and organised the school students’ strike in 1985 in Britain. This was taken up by our young comrades and developed into a national strike shortly after. Basing themselves upon this experience, our Spanish organisation led a strike in 1986-87, which subsequently led to the formation of the Spanish school students’ union.
The perception of theory and the role of ‘theorists’ of Woods and Grant is one of ‘master and pupil’, of patrician and plebs. Other comrades, even leading comrades, were empty vessels into which these theoreticians could pour their ‘ideas’. This approach, of course, cut no ice with us particularly when set against the increasing incapacity of these ‘theoreticians’ to answer the pressing questions of contemporary politics in Britain and internationally. It was left to others to rearm the organisation in a complex new situation confronting Trotskyism in the late 1980s and in the 1990s, as well as the period we are entering.
We have made mistakes, on tempo, on the estimation of various strike movements and on events internationally. It is not possible for a serious leadership not to make these kinds of mistakes. But in the discussion on all the big events of the 1990s, nine times out of ten right was on the side of what became the leadership of the Socialist Party and the CWI rather than Grant and Woods. The failure – the complete avoidance of political issues – to explain the theoretical and practical differences which led to the Grant group splitting away, is transparent in Sewell’s account.
No serious socialist or Marxist can accept that a split in the largest and most effective Trotskyist organisation which Britain has seen could be put down to the issue of a so-called ‘clique’ around Me. This charge was answered in full and rejected by the membership of the British organisation and by the CWI as a whole. The open division which manifested itself in 1991 was preceded, as we have seen, by a series of political clashes of a theoretical and organisational character.
The Liverpool struggle
The few scant words that Sewell mentions in relation to the Liverpool struggle, and as far as the poll tax is concerned, is evidence itself of the shamefaced approach adopted by the ‘holy trinity’. Grant did not play a decisive role in the Liverpool events. In fact, at a famous meeting of the National Committee in 1982, attended by Tony Mulhearn and Derek Hatton, Grant came into collision with me and these two leaders of our organisation in Liverpool, and the majority of the Liverpool membership.
The Liverpool comrades expected that the Labour group would declare in favour of an illegal budget, despite the fact that the left were in a minority amongst the councillors. It was their contention – subsequently proved correct – that as a result of the mass pressure that would be exerted on Labour councillors, even sections of the right would be persuaded to come along with the illegal budget. Grant, in his usual dogmatic fashion, asserted the opposite, and tried to reprimand me afterwards for siding with the Liverpool comrades. I therefore brought Tony Mulhearn and Derek Hatton into the discussion with Grant. These comrades gave him a severe drubbing for his lack of tactical awareness, of his tendency to make grandiose pronouncements about a situation without understanding what was happening on the ground.
Derek Hatton is no longer a Trotskyist but he played a vital role in the Liverpool struggle. Both he and Militant earned a fighting reputation in the eyes of the masses. He was empirical in his behaviour and undoubtedly sinned against the credo of Sewell, Woods and Grant of "activism". The same could not be said of them, either then or subsequently!
Derek Hatton judged people on the basis of how he saw them performing in action. He was withering in his dismissal of Grant. I had to convince him to write a few complimentary words about Grant’s overall position in the book he wrote at the end of the Liverpool struggle. Mistakes were made in this battle, which we honestly dealt with at the time and in public material since. But the scale of this movement, which was on a higher plane than even the poll tax struggle, terrified the British bourgeois and the right-wing of the labour movement in equal measure. When Sewell’s speaks about this event, he talks about "our" involvement. He played little part in Liverpool, despite his designation as a ‘national’ organiser and was hardly known to the Liverpool membership. The same was true of the poll tax.
The Poll Tax
I visited Scotland to speak at a meeting of members of Militant, which discussed the campaign to defeat this tax. At each stage of the battle in Scotland it was myself, and other members of the British EC – and only rarely Grant – who were in discussions with the Scottish comrades. People like Tommy Sheridan and Alan McCombes – no longer members of the CWI – and Philip Stott and Ronnie Stevenson – who are – as well as many other comrades too numerous to mention, played important roles. But Sewell’s role was virtually non-existent. Most of the participants in this battle would be flabbergasted, if they ever read Sewell’s account, to discover that because he was ‘national organiser’ he played a key role in the poll tax struggle. Moreover, the only time when he took a position different to the overwhelming majority of Militant was at the time of the split, when he proposed that – alongside Grant and Woods – that we adopt a disastrous tactic of allowing the ‘Militant’ MPs – Dave Nellist and Terry Fields – to secretly pay their poll tax in order to maintain their positions. Hundreds had been jailed for refusing to pay the poll tax and 34 of them were members of our organisation. The most prominent were Tommy Sheridan in Scotland and Terry Fields in England. To then allow leaders of the campaign to slide out of the responsibility of doing what they advocated ordinary working class people should do was completely unprincipled, and the height of irresponsibility. Indeed, if the leadership of Militant had advocated this course, it is doubtful if even the MPs would have acceded to this. It would certainly have been an issue that would have tested the unity of our organisation and would probably have provoked, for instance, a revolt in Scotland and other parts of the country.
We defeated this proposal in the Executive Committee and the MPs stuck to their guns. This led to the jailing of Terry Fields, whose role is forever enshrined in the hearts of working class people in Liverpool and elsewhere. Dave Nellist’s stand on an issue of principle was used to carry through his expulsion from the Labour Party. At the same time, it enormously enhanced his standing amongst working class people in general, which will come more fully into its own in the period we are entering. Once it had been revealed that Sewell, Grant and Co were advocating this course in the poll tax struggle, there was widespread disenchantment with Grant, and disgust as far as the brothers Sewell and Woods were concerned.
The Rise of Militant, by Peter Taaffe, the official history of 30 years of Militant, the forerunner of the Socialist Party, serialised on this site