Ted Grant and Trotskyism: The Unbroken Thread?
Ted Grant, History of British Trotskyism, Wellred Publications, 2002. Paperback, 303pp, £9.99.
Reviewed by Harry Ratner
THE TITLE History of British Trotskyism is misleading. The first part could more accurately be called Ted Grant’s Memoirs in the same way as Bill Hunter’s Lifelong Apprenticeship, Harry Wicks’ Keeping My Head, Alan Thornett’s From Militancy to Marxism and my Reluctant Revolutionary are our versions of, mainly, the parts of Trotskyist history we were involved in.
Ted Grant’s account only goes up to 1949. A postscript by Rob Sewell is a highly partisan defence of Grant’s tendency from 1950 onwards. This does not necessarily mean that they are untrue, merely that one should look at these versions critically and with an open mind and compare them with each other; seeing where they agree and diverge. Grant’s book should also be read in conjunction with Bornstein and Richardson’s very comprehensive accounts of British Trotskyism, Against the Stream and War and the International.
Ted Grant was born Isaac Blank to Jewish immigrant parents in South Africa just before the First World War. He joined a South African Trotskyist group at the age of 15 but sailed to England in 1934 together with another comrade, Max Basch. On arrival in England they changed their names to Ted Grant and Sid Frost. (The biographical notes on Sid Frost at the end of the book state that "it is believed he returned to South Africa where he died". I am told by Al Richardson, editor of Revolutionary History, that in fact he died in Islington.)
In 1934 the British Trotskyists were divided and small in numbers. Some were active in the Independent Labour Party (ILP), some in the Labour Party, and some outside both. Grant and Frost joined the Marxist Group in the ILP, but Grant soon left them and joined the Militant Group in the Labour Party.
Within a couple of years this group suffered a split. It was sparked off by rumours that another comrade, recently arrived from South Africa, Ralph Lee, had misappropriated some funds from an African workers’ trade union. These rumours turned out to be untrue and had originated from the Stalinists. However, the failure of the Harber-Jackson leadership of the Militant Group to properly investigate and prevent the spreading of these rumours exacerbated already existing personal antagonisms. The incident has been well covered in other publications, including Bornstein and Richardson’s War and the International, and Grant’s version does not differ much except in one interesting detail. Bornstein and Richardson wrote: "Ralph Lee knew that he would never get fair treatment from any of them, and walked out, taking with him Ted Grant, Gerry Healy, Jock Haston, Betty Hamilton, Millie Lee, Heaton Lee and Jessie Strachan" (p.3). Grant, in his account, explains that this walk out was not intended as a split. He writes: "in sheer disgust Haston walked out of the meeting in protest and as a gesture of solidarity we all walked out. That is all we intended to do. There was no question of a split. We were absolutely disgusted and that was all. But as soon as we had walked out of the door, Harber moved that we should be expelled and in our absence this was passed" (p.52). Grant continues: "We knew that if we waged a struggle for re-entry into the organisation that we would be allowed back. But we asked ourselves, what would that accomplish.... The social composition of the Militant Group was pretty bad. It was composed to a large degree of bohemians and people of that sort. There were people who wore cloaks and sandals, and grew beards, which, at the time, was a sort of exotic fashion in certain ‘intellectual’ circles.… They were your typical Bloomsbury bohemians" (p.53).
The new group called itself the Workers International League. The founder members, in addition to those listed above, included myself and another comrade, Bert French.
The following year, 1938, in preparation for the founding conference of the Fourth International, an attempt was made to unite the (now four) separate Trotskyist groups into one British section of the International. The emissary of the international organisation, James Cannon, secretary of the American Socialist Workers Party, called a conference of the four groups. The Militant Group and the Workers International League were operating inside the Labour Party, while the Revolutionary Socialist League (formerly the Marxist Group) and the Revolutionary Socialist Party, mainly based in Scotland, were opposed to entering the Labour Party. Cannon proposed unity on the basis of two sections within a united organisation: an "open" section working outside the Labour Party and a Labour Party section, with both controlling their own activity but under the authority of the united organisation and the International.
As Grant explains, the WIL refused to join this united organisation. They argued that leaving the question of entry into the Labour Party versus independent work unresolved was unprincipled, and that the attempt to operate both strategies in the same organisation was not feasible. In fact, a far weightier reason for refusing to join the united organisation was that they could not stomach working again with the people in the Militant Group whom they considered dilettantes incapable of relating to ordinary workers. They wanted to be free of the bickerings and factional intrigues that had so far bedevilled the movement and turn outwards and concentrate on serious work in the broad movement. The subsequent growth of the WIL from thirty members in 1938 to several hundred by 1944, and their establishing important roots in the unions and in industry, while the "united" organisation vegetated and split into warring factions, seemed to justify this stance.
From its foundation till the outbreak of the war, the WIL continued to work as a faction in the Labour Party and particularly the Labour League of Youth. But the war, the entry of the Labour Party into a national coalition government, and the electoral truce whereby the Conservative, Liberal and Labour parties undertook not to contest by-elections, created a new situation, Grant explains:
"Very quickly the WIL had come to the conclusion that entrism did not correspond to the objective situation in Britain. With the Labour Party in a national coalition government, there was no activity in the party at all. The activity of the working class, in so far as it existed, had begun to shift towards the industrial front. Strikes began to break out after 1941, and we intervened in them with as much drive as possible. Towards the end of 1940 and the beginning of 1941, we became convinced that the main area where we could get results was in the trade unions generally, among the members of the CP where we could get a certain response, and also in the ILP, which had gained an audience thanks to its pseudo anti-war activity. As they seemed to be the only anti-war opposition, the ILP began to make gains during the course of the war. So we paid attention to it.... So we soberly came to the conclusion that nothing much could be gained by maintaining the position of entry into the Labour Party at that stage. The question of entry would inevitably arise at a certain stage in the future as events developed. But for the moment our main activity would have to be on an independent basis" (pp.86-87).
Events seemed to justify this approach. By 1944, when the WIL and the RSL fused to form the Revolutionary Communist Party, the WIL membership had grown to several hundred, most of them industrial workers. It had, together with ILP industrial militants and others, established the Militant Workers Federation which was becoming a pole of attraction for workers involved in disputes. After the Communist Party had switched, once the Soviet Union was in the war as an ally of Britain, to a policy of class collaboration, a vacuum was created on the left which the WIL began to fill. The years 1942, 1943 and 1944 saw a rising tide of strikes, surpassing every year except 1926, the year of the General Strike. In 1944 the government reacted to the RCP’s involvement in the Tyneside engineering apprentices’ strike by prosecuting and imprisoning several of the RCP leaders under the 1927 Trades Disputes Act. After a campaign of protest, in which large numbers of trade union organisations, shopstewards’ committees and a number of ILP and Labour MPs, including Aneurin Bevan, participated, their sentences were quashed on a technicality.
The WIL saw in all this the beginning of the revolutionary wave predicted in the perspectives of the foundation conference of the Fourth International. "You can feel revolution in the air", exclaimed Grant at a national conference of the WIL. He added: "When, twelve months ago, we called our thesis ‘Preparing for Power’ this was not a mad gesture. That is the serious problem with which we are faced" (p.101). The resolution on industrial perspectives for the 1943 national conference of the WIL envisaged the imminent development of soviets: "Already the workers are realising the necessity of linking up with, and gaining support of, workers in other parts. The Committees that were established as the directing centres in these disputes are not as yet soviets, but they point to the centres in which the workers, through the efforts of the local leaders, will create fighting committees or soviets on a national scale." (p.102).
These heady expectations did not materialise. The industrial militancy, though having political implications, in so far as it brought the workers into conflict with the state, did not develop into a general struggle for the overthrow of the government. And when the end of the war approached, and with it the prospect of an end to the electoral truce and post-war elections, the leftward move of the population was channelled into support for the election of a Labour government. The hitherto dormant Labour Party local organisations sprang to life and the WIL was marginalised. Workers and trade unionists had faith in the Labour Party carrying out its programme. And, indeed, in its first years it was visibly doing so. It nationalised coal, railways and other industries, established the National Health Service and other features of the Welfare State. The mass redundancies anticipated did not materialise. Instead there was full employment. In this situation the RCP’s talk of "betrayal" and its revolutionary rhetoric fell on deaf ears.
In the spring of 1945 the RCP had put up Jock Haston as their candidate in the Neath by-election, which took place on 15 May 1945, a week after the end of the war in Europe and just two months before the general election. Although the RCP received only 1,781 votes compared with Labour’s 30,847 and the Welsh Nationalists’ 6,290, Grant and the RCP leadership considered the exercise justified and a success in so far as it established a presence for Trotskyism in South Wales. Grant claims that, starting with no members at all, they had by the end of the campaign won about thirty new comrades, including half a dozen miners. Grant concludes: "It was a great step forward for us" (p.123). However, the signs should already have been noted that the time for entry into the Labour Party had arrived. Even those workers sympathetic to the ideas of the RCP felt they should be in the Labour Party. Grant quotes a worker saying: "Well, we agree with you, but you should be in the Labour Party. Your candidate should be our candidate. Haston should be the candidate of the Labour Party. We should have the same socialist ideas. They should be the ideas of the Labour Party" (p.122).
Yet Grant and the majority of the leadership of the RCP rejected the idea of entry right through 1945, 1946, 1947 and 1948, while the RCP stagnated and lost members, including practically all those won as a result of the Neath campaign. The RCP was torn apart by a bitter faction struggle between the Haston-Grant leadership and the Healy Minority which was supported by the leadership of the International. Eventually, in 1947, the International intervened and proposed that the Minority be allowed to secede and enter the Labour Party and work therein under their own control while the rest of the RCP continued as an independent party. Both groups were to be recognised as sections of the International. This was reluctantly accepted at a special conference.
Before further examining what happened in Britain it is necessary to put these events in the context of the perspectives of the Fourth International.
These perspectives predicted that if capitalism survived the war it would immediately enter a period of economic crisis, stagnation and slump and mass unemployment. In these conditions, and with a radicalised working class, it would be impossible for the bourgeoisie to concede any reforms or improvement in working class conditions. Stable bourgeois parliamentary rule would be impossible, since the concessions necessary to allow the reformists and Stalinists to keep the struggle within peaceful and parliamentary boundaries could not be granted. Therefore the perspective was either revolution or the defeat and containment of the revolution by Bonapartist and military dictatorships. In any case, there would be violent revolutionary struggles during which the Trotskyists would develop mass parties. As Grant points out, these perspectives were falsified by events. Instead of economic stagnation the post-war period saw, after the difficult immediate post-war years of 1945-7, an unprecedented boom, full employment, the establishment of Welfare States and rising living standards. These developments reinforced the reformist views of the majority of workers and their support for the reformist policies of the social-democratic and Stalinist parties.
In his book Grant, rightly, gives credit to the leadership of the RCP, including himself, for recognising this and fighting within the International to correct its perspectives: "We discussed the situation within the leadership of the RCP and soon realised that important changes were taking place, which rendered the old perspective obsolete. Arising from these discussions, we amended our analysis and perspectives accordingly. The leaders of the International, however, were blind to the new developments" (p.129). The differences also concerned conflicting appreciations of the relative strengths of the Soviet Union and the Imperialist bloc, and the class nature of the regimes in the countries of Europe occupied by the Red Army. Grant accuses the leaders of the International, Cannon, Mandel, Pablo, Frank etc of underestimating the new strength of the Soviet Union and therefore of Stalinism in all countries, of falsely maintaining that the states of Eastern Europe remained capitalist, and of denying the re-establishment of relatively stable bourgeois democracies in Western Europe. The RCP also accused the International leadership of uncritically supporting the Tito regime in Yugoslavia. It should also be noted that Tony Cliff too had early on questioned the International’s economic perspectives.
Within the RCP a minority faction, led by Gerry Healy, defended the positions of the International. But the two issues of the economic perspectives and entry into the Labour Party took precedence. The Healy Minority advocated dissolving the RCP and entering the Labour Party. And here a farcical situation arose. Because of misplaced factional loyalty, members were expected to defend their faction’s position on both issues. If you were in the Majority faction you were expected to argue for both its perspective of boom and its opposition to entry into the Labour Party. If you were in the Minority you were expected to insist there was an actual or imminent slump and argue for entry into the Labour Party. What if you were in the Minority, rejected their economic perspective, but were in favour of entry into the Labour Party? Too bad! This was my position. Reluctantly and wrongly, I defended Healy’s economic perspectives despite my reservations because I felt the issue of the Labour Party was more important. The only comrade, to my knowledge, who took up a principled position independent of either faction was Charlie van Gelderen. He argued in favour of the Majority’s economic perspectives while supporting entry into the Labour Party.
Despite their correct analysis of the immediate economic prospects, Grant and his party comrades did not really challenge the basic perspectives of the International on the nature of the epoch as one of terminal crisis of capitalism and the revolutionary potential of the working class. The economic upswing would eventually be followed by crisis and the present reformist illusions of the working class would be replaced by revolutionary consciousness. The inevitable revolutionary upheaval and Leninist scenario of soviet power was merely put back to some time in the future. Grant admits, later in his book: "Of course we have to say even we did not foresee the extent of the economic upswing that was to last for some twenty five years. Nobody could predict such a development" (p.137). But once the crisis arose, "the situation would develop on the same lines as outlined by Trotsky before the war. Namely, once the reformists were in power, given their incapacity to deliver real reforms, they would begin to expose themselves in the eyes of the masses" (p.129).
The RCP continued to stagnate while the Minority, now calling itself the "Club", began to develop its work in the Labour Party and started publishing Socialist Outlook in cooperation with various left trade unionists and Labour MPs. By the end of 1948 Jock Haston now came out in favour of dissolving the RCP and entering the Labour Party. Grant, discounting the political arguments, attributes Haston’s change of mind to illness and his being "run down" (p.182). If this was so, then the majority of the Political Bureau, Central Committee, and eventually the whole membership must have all been "run down", as eventually a Special Conference of the party voted by a majority in favour of dissolving the RCP and entering the Labour Party (p.187). On the Political Bureau only Jimmy Deane and Grant were opposed to entry (p.183).
Now started a really traumatic period for Ted Grant, as he explains eloquently: "Jimmy Deane and myself, isolated in the leadership, were in a profound dilemma. It was clear that entry into the Labour Party could not solve our problems. That is why we originally opposed it…. That didn’t mean that the open party was going to produce miracles either. To be honest, given the objective situation, entry or non-entry would not have made any fundamental difference. Outside the Labour Party we wouldn’t gain much under the existing circumstances, but inside the Labour Party we wouldn’t gain much either! Looking back on it we made an opportunist mistake …We believed that we had a fundamental responsibility to maintain the organisation.... We knew that if we conducted a political struggle over this question to maintain the open party, we would undoubtedly have gained the overwhelming majority of the organisation. Haston and the majority of the Political Bureau would certainly have been isolated. But the problem that we faced was that they were the top leaders of the organisation. We had built up this leadership in a period of common work for ten years or so, and we didn’t want to throw it away…. Experienced cadres are precious…. Therefore, Jimmy and I were in a terrible quandary. What were we to do? We agonised over the question and decided, rightly or wrongly, that it was a question of attempting to preserve the leadership. We wanted to preserve the leadership at all costs for the future. And so we decided not to oppose the proposals of the PB majority. This was a bad mistake, and one that had unforeseen consequences" (p.184).
Grant continues: "We understood that inside the Labour Party or outside the Labour Party, it wouldn’t make all that much difference. Under the circumstances we were not prepared to wage a struggle. We said quite openly that our aim was to save the leadership. If we can go into the Labour Party and keep our organisation intact, then, perhaps at a later stage when the classic conditions for entrism existed, which would inevitably arise at a certain stage, we would be able to connect with the mass left wing. The conditions for entrism would inevitably arise in the future, and if we remained outside, we would have then had to enter the Labour Party under those circumstances. So, at this stage, and from that point of view, it wouldn’t matter all that much if we were inside or outside" (p.185).
Alas! All Ted Grant’s good intentions came to naught. Neither the leadership nor the organisation were preserved. By early 1950 Haston had left the movement and rejected the need for building a revolutionary party. As Bornstein and Richardson state in War and the International (p.230), a whole layer of the old RCP leaders left at the same time, including Frank Ward, George Hanson, Alex Riach, Harold Atkinson and Heaton Lee. Nor was the organisation preserved, as an Open Party faction split off, refusing to enter the Labour Party. Those that were left and did enter the Labour Party were obliged to fuse with the Healy "Club". Very soon Ted Grant, Jimmy Deane and Roy Tearse were expelled from it on various pretexts.
This must have been the blackest period in Grant’s life. It is at this point that Grant ends his account. The sequel, from 1950 to the present day, is taken up in a long postscript by Rob Sewell.
Sewell says that after his expulsion from the "Club" Grant admitted he had made a big mistake in not backing the Open Party faction. Now he attempted to regroup and salvage as much as possible from the wreckage of the RCP. Sewell explains: "By the autumn of 1950, Ted’s supporters amounted to a handful of around thirty people mainly in London and Liverpool. Given the difficult objective conditions and the weakness of the organisation, they had no alternative but to work within the Labour Party and prepare the ground for an inevitable change in the situation. With such small forces, under the conditions prevailing in the 1950s – which resembled crossing a barren desert – it would have been madness to contemplate building an independent party outside the Labour Party. In other words, work inside the Labour Party was not based on a previously worked-out strategy or tactic, but simply a matter of necessity" (p.195).
There followed many years of vegetating as a small group and a series of fusions and splits with other small groups, including a period of fusing with the group around Sam Bornstein and some Greek Cypriot émigrés that were the "British section" of Pablo’s International. (According to Al Richardson, Sewell’s version of Pablo placing an advert in the Tribune appealing for help in the founding of a new section of the International in Britain (p.220) is not accurate. It was Sam Bornstein who advertised the magazine Fourth International in Tribune.) It was not till 1964 that the Militant was launched and not till 1970 that significant progress was made.
So one can note the following interesting facts. In 1939-40 the war and the entry of the Labour Party into a coalition forced the WIL to abandon its entrist strategy; and in 1950 force majeure compelled Grant, reluctantly, to work in the Labour Party, although he really believed in open party work at that period. One may ask why he did not join the Open Party faction, even belatedly. Be that as it may, Grant’s choice of a political home for his long hibernation in the Labour Party turned out to be the prelude to the development of the Militant Tendency which by the 1980s had become the biggest and most successful Trotskyist tendency in Britain.
Running through this history is the question of when is the right time for revolutionary Marxists to enter reformist parties. It is now difficult to deny that the RCP missed the boat in 1944-45 by being outside the revived Labour Party. It is also true that by concentrating on open work in the industrial field the WIL/RCP established roots. It can be argued that this industrial and trade union work could have been carried out in parallel with maintaining a continuous presence in the Labour Party. The very fact that during these war years the local Labour Party organisations were skeletons meant that acquiring and maintaining positions of influence – ready for the influx in 1945 – would not have required much time and effort while still carrying out industrial propaganda, agitation and organisation. In fact this was done with some success by members of the "Left Faction" of the RSL, which was still operating in the Labour Party. Bornstein and Richardson report in War and the International: "One of its supporters, Gibbie Russell, a retired miner, was secretary of the Hamilton Labour Party, and had built up a rank and file miners’ committee from his contacts. By February 1943 their paper The Militant Scottish Miner, edited by Tom Mercer and Roddy Hood, was claiming sales of 1000 copies, and was beginning to worry the Labour bureaucracy and the Stalinists alike" (Bornstein and Richardson, p.29). Margaret Johns, another member of the RSL, was able to get her union, the Shop Assistants’ Union, to adopt an anti-war resolution at its 1940 Annual Conference.
Grant and Sewell have different positions on the right conditions for entry at different times. Justifying his opposition to the RCP minority’s arguments for entry in 1945-48, Grant leans on Trotsky: "the classic conditions for entry as laid down by Trotsky did not exist in any shape or form. These conditions were the development of a pre-revolutionary crisis, the capitalist regime in a blind alley, and the radicalisation of the working class. This would in turn reflect itself within the Labour Party as the development of a mass left wing, the growth of centrist tendencies, a weakening of the Labour bureaucracy, and the possibility of the rapid development of a revolutionary tendency" (p.166). When by 1947 the majority on the Political Bureau of the RCP had moved away from this position and argued that "it is now our opinion that it is wrong to wait until the Labour Party milieu is in ferment, then step into a left wing already formed and hope to take over the leadership", Grant still demurred (p.183). Yet Sewell in his postscript writes that, in 1950, "given the difficult objective circumstances and the weakness of the organisation they had no alternative but to work within the Labour Party and prepare the ground for an inevitable change in the situation" (p.195). A 180 degree turn!
By 1970 Healy’s Socialist Labour League had been expelled from the Labour Party. The state capitalist International Socialists (to become the Socialist Workers Party) were also out and Grant’s group was the only sizeable Trotskyist tendency left in the Labour Party.
The 1970s saw the end of the long post-war boom, a marked worsening of the economic situation characterised by inflation and a marked increase in unemployment, and increasing industrial conflict. Industrial militancy and the number of strikes increased as workers sought to keep up with inflation by demanding wage rises increasingly resisted by employers. Following on the Wilson government’s attempt to curb disputes which resulted in mass strikes against its In Place of Strife policies, the Tory government’s Industrial Relations Act unleashed further national strikes. This was reflected in a growth of a left wing current in the Labour Party which continued into the 1980s. This period saw the election of Michael Foot as leader of the Labour Party, Tony Benn’s near success in 1981, and the move to ensure rank and file control over MPs by forcing them to go for reselection at each election.
In this climate Militant, according to Sewell, grew from under 100 comrades in 1966 to over 500 by 1975 and to 1000 active supporters registered in 1980 and some 8000 by 1985. Even if these figures are a bit inflated, this represented tremendous growth. Its influence in local Labour Parties was reflected in the selection and election as MPs of Terry Fields, Dave Nellist and Pat Wall. Sewell claims that "in 1984 at the beginning of the miners’ strike the BLOC [the Broad Left Organising Committee] had become the largest left force in the trade unions and held a successful conference of more than 2,500 representatives from all the main trade unions. For the first time in history, a Trotskyist, John MacCreadie, was elected to the General Council of the Trade Union Congress" (p.220). In addition, Militant won control of the Liverpool City Council and launched it into a confrontation with the Thatcher government. Much has been written on this episode, supportive and critical of Militant, which does not need repeating here. Surprisingly, Sewell devotes only one sentence to the episode.
But this progress could not be allowed to continue. The Labour Party leadership counter-attacked. In 1983 the NEC expelled the Militant Editorial Board, and in the following years came the attack by the state and the Labour Party on the Liverpool City councillors and the expulsion of more Militant supporters throughout the country. But according to Sewell, by the end of the decade they had only succeeded in expelling around 250 comrades out of 8,000.
By 1991 Militant was in serious decline, and by January 1992 it had split and Grant and Sewell had been expelled. The majority left the Labour Party and went on to set up the Socialist Party and the Scottish Socialist Party.
So what went wrong? Sewell’s explanation is superficial and far from satisfactory. Almost seven whole paragraphs are devoted to casting Peter Taaffe as the main villain who organised a faction against Grant. According to Sewell, Taaffe and his group "deliberately sabotaged", "were already pursuing their own agenda". "A very ambitious man with a mortal fear of rivals, actual or potential, Taaffe decided that his talents were not sufficiently appreciated…. He surrounded himself with a group of yes-men … resorted to behind-the-scene manoeuvres to isolate Ted, spreading rumours about his allegedly impossible character, and worse" … etc (pp.221-2). Sewell seems to allot the real political context a minor role.
In fact the collapse of Militant can be attributed to two factors. One was that following Thatcher’s re-election in 1983 and her defeat of the miners in 1985, the labour movement and the left generally had suffered a defeat. The second is that despite its long period of work in the Labour Party and its formally correct demands and policies on many issues, Militant still could not shake off the deeply entrenched sectarianism that bedevilled the Trotskyist movement. They refused to cooperate with any other left current or movement unless they could control it. Hence their rebuff of the lefts, such as the Campaign Group, who wanted to launch a defence of Militant against their expulsions.
It also seems that, although dormant for a time, there had always been a current within Militant that had reservations about being in the Labour Party and hankered for an open party. And as soon as difficulties arose they sought a solution in that direction. An instance was the Walton by-election in 1991. Sewell writes: "In May, with the death of Eric Heffer, the MP for Walton, the group around Taaffe came forward with the idea of standing Leslie Mahmood, who had been narrowly defeated in the selection process, against Peter Kilfoyle, the official Labour candidate and chief witch-hunter on Merseyside…. It represented a fundamental break with our whole past orientation" (p.223). Sewell is not quite accurate here. He implies that Mahmood was a Militant candidate. In fact there was in Liverpool a Broad Left, not identical with Militant, which had arisen as a result of the struggles and splits within the Liverpool Labour Party and City Council. It was this Broad Left that decided to stand Mahmood as the Real Labour candidate. Nevertheless, he has a point: whether to support Mahmood was debatable in the context of Militant’s general orientation.
A deeper reason for the failure of any Trotskyist group working in the Labour Party to progress beyond a certain point lies in the difficulty of working within a reformist organisation and maintaining the purity of basically revolutionary Marxist perspectives which see reformism as an enemy. In order to make progress in a reformist party the entrists have to couch their policy and propaganda in terms that are acceptable to and attractive to their reformist audience. That is they have to couch them in terms of "what the Labour Party should do". They have has to couch them in terms of the Labour Party coming to power via the electoral road and implementing a socialist transformation through parliament. (And when they do this, as the Healy Club did through Socialist Outlook in the 1950s, they are accused of masquerading as reformists.) At the same time the group has to keep its own membership free from the corruption of reformist illusions, and its belief in the necessity of soviets, violent revolution and a revolutionary party intact. This requires rigid doctrinal conformity within the group and a rigidly disciplined organisation. But this conflicts with what members have to do and say daily in the Labour Party and creates an inevitable tension. It also tends to repel a wider layer of potential recruits. Inevitably, when things get difficult, the tension is "resolved" by some or all of the group opting for open work. This problem was not confined to Militant. It also bedevilled the Healy Club in its work in the Labour Party.
Sewell in several passages quotes from my Reluctant Revolutionary to support his arguments. I have just one comment to make. Dealing with the episode when Ted Grant abstained in his local Labour Party on a vote to expel Bill Hunter in 1954, Sewell, in defence of Grant, quotes my account of how the Salford City Labour Party was threatened with disciplinary action and Healy advised us to retreat. The cases were very different. In Salford it was not a question of expelling an individual but of the disbandment of the Salford City Party over the erasion from the record of a minute supporting striking dockers – after, partly thanks to our support, the dockers had won their strike. Sewell continues: "in an attempt to slander Ted Grant, the Healyites, including Ratner and Hunter, were prepared to use Ted’s abstention to cast a slur on his revolutionary character" (pp.198-9). To my knowledge I have never commented on Grant’s abstention. But then I was always one of the more tolerant Healyites!
Another problem, already hinted at, is how far along the reformist road should one go, if the entrist strategy is to be pursued to the end? The Militant Tendency has been accused of succumbing to parliamentarism. The policy of agitating for "Labour to Power" – through a parliamentary majority – and advocating an "Enabling Act" by a Labour government to allow it to take over the main industries, implies that the Labour Party could go a long way towards introducing socialism via the parliamentary road. In fact Ted Grant himself writes of 1945: "Had the Labour leaders wanted it, they could have carried through the socialist transformation of society through parliament. Nothing could have stopped them. But, of course, they had no intention of doing anything of the sort" (p.128). Grant implies that all that is necessary is to replace a reluctant Labour leadership by one committed to a socialist transformation. Grant is right. So long as parliamentary democracy exists, and with it the possibility of a socialist party winning a majority in parliament, it is madness to reject the parliamentary road in advance. The probability of reactionary military coups – as happened in Chile – has to be warned against and prepared for. In the process of defending itself, a socialist government will have to call up popular support and encourage the formation of mass popular institutions. It will in the process have to transform and democratise the state machine.
But to admit this is to admit that the Marxist-Leninist-Trotskyist theory of revolutionary change has to be abandoned or at least modified. Neither Grant nor Sewell can bring themselves to do this. Both still cling to Trotskyism. Grant in his final paragraph insists that "Trotskyism will become a mass force in Britain and internationally". With the Militant’s heyday merely a fond memory, Sewell insists in the final section of his postscript: "We are more convinced than ever in the correctness of our ideas – the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky." He entitles this final section "The Unbroken Thread". Unbroken it may be, but it seems to have got very entangled in many places and we are still not sure where it will lead us.
The more prosaic truth is, as Marx reminded us – and as he would remind us again if he were alive – that no social formation leaves the stage of history until it has exhausted all its potential. This, despite its undoubted problems, is obviously not the case – yet – with capitalism.
And as long as the working class continues to believe (with some justification) that it is still possible to secure improvements, and defend conditions through reformist and parliamentary politics, and until events convince them that that road is closed, they will not turn to revolutionary politics. This has been the case until now. That is the basic reason why no Trotskyist or other revolutionary current, such as Militant and, in their time, the SWP and Healy’s Workers Revolutionary Party, has yet achieved more than limited successes, either in or outside the Labour Party.