Militant’s Real History
In Reply to Ted Grant and Rob Sewell
This is a reply to Rob Sewell’s Postscript to Ted Grant’s History of British Trotskyism. This reply is written by Peter Taaffe, General Secretary of the Socialist Party. It has the full support of the Socialist Party Executive Committee.
Ted Grant is a longstanding Trotskyist who was part of the leadership of Militant (forerunner of the Socialist Party) and the Committee for a Workers International (CWI) until he left with Rob Sewell and Alan Woods in 1991. This was after they and a small number of others were decisively defeated in the political discussions within the ranks of Militant and the CWI over the period of a year. They received seven per cent of the vote at a special conference of Militant convened to discuss the outstanding political differences between the two trends, the majority in Britain and the CWI, and the Grant-Woods-Sewell minority. Since then, they have largely disappeared as a significant tendency within the labour movement in Britain and internationally.
Now, however, they have ‘resurfaced’ and have published a book by Ted Grant, which claims to be a “history of British Trotskyism”. It is not, as others like the ex-Trotskyist Harry Ratner have commented (in an article on the What Next? website). It is the memoir of Grant, and a slanted one at that, which seeks to enhance his role at the expense of others. Apart from commenting on one or two points, where Grant has changed his position on his own history since leaving the CWI, we do not deal with his book. We leave that to others like Tony Aitman in his informative and telling piece, which we carry as an appendix.
Most of our comments are directed towards the Postscript of Rob Sewell, which pretends to deal with the ‘history’ of the Trotskyist movement from 1950 to the present day. It does nothing of the kind. It is virtually denuded of political arguments. (It does not even deserve to be described as ‘Trotskyist’ in character, having more in common with the Stalinist school of falsification of other people’s, and particularly our, ideas and actions.)
“Why reply to a tiny grouping and at such length?” will no doubt be the reaction of many, given the character of Sewell’s Postscript. After all, we are used to a campaign of almost continuous distortion of our ideas from every conceivable sectarian organisation. This has had as much effect on us as a drop of water on a hot stove. We have not even deigned to answer what appeared at some times to be an avalanche of personal attacks directed against the leadership of the Socialist Party and the CWI. Moreover, since he left our ranks, Grant has periodically issued an ‘Open Letter’ to our members predicting our imminent demise, which we have not even bothered to reply to.
For some reason the Grant group still consider themselves important. They are a perfect example of the peculiar law which seems to operate with tiny ‘revolutionary’ groups; their awareness of their importance is in inverse proportion to what they actually represent.
Rather than deal with them, we would much prefer to deal more extensively than we have with the tumultuous worldwide events and the role of Marxism in shaping the socialist future. But as the journal of bourgeois finance capital, The Economist, once put it: “Who controls the past greatly influences the present”.
It is necessary, as we have consistently done, to defend from a Marxist standpoint those historically progressive and working class movements in history, in order to pass on the lessons of these events to the new generation. This is even more important when what is involved is the real history of the Marxist and Trotskyist movement. In the 1980s, Militant was the biggest and most influential Trotskyist organisation in Britain, and one of the largest Trotskyist organisations in Europe since the International Left Opposition in the 1930s.
In our book The Rise of Militant we sought to chart out how this was achieved and the role which individuals played in this. We gave due merit to those who made a contribution to the building of our organisation, including those like Ted Grant and Alan Woods who had parted company with us. No serious challenge was made to this history. Sewell’s account – clearly with the approval of Grant and Woods – now seeks belatedly to undermine our interpretation of this history. He seeks to bolster not just Grant’s but his own role, as well as his brother’s, in the building of Militant to the detriment of others.
We have decided to answer this. Our reply seeks to explain the political roots of our differences with this group but we are also compelled to reply to their organisational ‘criticisms’. This, of necessity, means going into some detail. Even this can serve to illustrate how honest socialists and Marxists should approach history, and the difference between a genuine Marxist organisation capable of attracting the best of the working class, and those condemned to forever remain on the margins of the labour movement.
Peter Taaffe, October 2002
Insults in place of Politics
Even Harry Ratner, a British ex-Trotskyist, in his article on the website What Next? is scathing about the method employed by Sewell in his truly awful Postscript. Ratner writes: “By 1991, Militant was in serious decline, and by January 1992 it had split and Grant and Sewell had been expelled. A 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 me 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 scenes manoeuvres to isolate Ted, spread rumours about his allegedly impossible character, and worse’… etcetera. Sewell seems to allot the real political context to a minor role.” (Ratner’s criticisms are significant in view of the fact that Sewell himself quotes him to justify some of his criticisms of others.)
However, Ratner, if anything, understates the complete avoidance of any attempts to explain the political context of why the split of 1991 took place. He is also wrong to argue that Militant was in “serious decline” at this stage. Yet he at least tries to explain the political and objective basis of the split, something Sewell fails to do. There were objective difficulties which made it harder for us to make the progress that we had made in the previous decade. The post-miners’ strike effects, with the shift towards the right at the top of the Labour Party and the trade unions, the continuation of the 1980s boom, and the collapse of Stalinism, which allowed the capitalists to pursue an ideological campaign against ‘socialism’, complicated the position for us. However, these difficulties were enormously compounded by a failure of the leadership of Militant – above all Grant – to react early enough to the change in the objective situation. Militant had a considerable history behind it and a reputation earned in the successful struggles in Liverpool and against the poll tax.
But the Labour Party had become a barren and futile arena of activity for any serious socialist organisation which sought to actively intervene in the worker’s struggles. The strongholds of Militant within the Labour Party had either been purged or closed down by the right wing. The Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS) – the most vibrant and active section of the Labour Party in the 1980s, because of the influence of Militant within it – had been closed down. The Liverpool Labour Party was a shadow of the powerful force for working class action which it had been in the 1980s.
People were being expelled for advocating ‘non-payment’ of the poll tax. Some – a lot earlier than 1991 – were striving to break out of the ideological and organisational prison which the Labour Party meant for us at that stage. In 1987, we had even raised the possibility of launching an independent organisation in Liverpool following the expulsion of the Liverpool Militants just previously. This was vehemently opposed by Ted Grant above all, and even by some of the leading Liverpool comrades themselves. By 1991, however, the situation had become untenable, particularly in key areas of the country where we had led successful mass struggles, such as in Scotland on the poll tax.
For a Marxist, serious divisions within an organisation do not drop from the sky. Personal factors can play a role but where it involves substantial forces these are of a secondary character. Sewell, Grant and Woods elevate the personal and other incidental factors to the main causes of the split of 1991. We on the other hand, from the beginning sought to explain the political roots of the divergent tendencies within Militant.
A widening political gulf developed between an ossified conservative grouping around Grant and those who were prepared to face up to the new political situation which took shape in the run-up to 1991. We have dealt with these differences in our book The Rise of Militant, on issues such as South Africa, Namibia, the Gulf War, the Labour Party and perspectives for the mass organisations, and the perspectives for Stalinism. The reader can acquaint themselves with the in-depth criticisms we make of Grant in this book, which is in contrast to the approach of Sewell. Here, we will give a brief summary.
‘Catastrophist’ perspective of Grant on the world economy
Important political differences occurred over the world financial crisis in 1987. As soon as the 1987 share crash took place, Grant was predicting a world economic slump, “within six months”, along the lines of 1929-32. 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”. His co-thinker, Michael Roberts, 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”.
This approach was vigorously opposed by me and Lynn Walsh in the British Executive and National Committees, and by me, Tony Saunois and Bob Labi in the International Executive Committee of the CWI. As usual, Woods slavishly supported Grant. It was not possible to have a dialogue with Grant on this issue. Instead, there were bitter denunciations of Bob Labi, for instance, for daring to question this analysis, earning Bob the reprimand from Grant that “he did not understand the ABC of Marxism”. We argued that the huge reserves of Japan and West Germany could allow the bourgeois, at the cost of storing up difficulties for later, to temporarily bale out the economy and thereby world capitalism. Grant’s approach would completely disorientate our members in Britain and internationally. If his astronomical, not to say astrological, prediction did not come to pass it would set in a mood of disappointment, if not dejection, amongst our members.
It was necessary to approach this issue in a balanced way, something foreign to Grant, Woods and Sewell. World capitalism still possessed huge layers of fat, which it could eat into, in order to stave off an immediate crisis. We argued that short-term measures could be taken, which would only have the effect of piling up problems and aggravating the crisis at a later stage. Contrary to the analysis of 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 the period prior to the crash. This ended with the recession of the early 1990s.
But timing in politics and, it should be added, in the art of political economy, is important. Grant had made a habit of criticising Gerry Healy – which he repeats in his book – for continually predicting a new 1929 over a period of decades, but he made the same ‘catastrophist’ error in 1987. No doubt, if a new 1929-type crisis should occur, he will declare he was right all along! Even a permanently stopped clock is right twice a day. This approach allows the capitalist ideologists a field day in picturing the Marxists as incapable of analysing real processes in a balanced fashion.
These theoretical blunders of Grant have to be taken against the background of his assertion that he was “the only one” who was capable of interpreting Marx’s economic ideas and applying them to the modern era. It is a matter of public record that he completely failed the test on this occasion. Of course, he denounced those who were correct on this issue for having an “eclectic” approach because we did not support his one-dimensional approach. We, on the other hand, contrasted his approach to that of Trotsky who, in the Third Period of the Comintern’s Errors written in December 1929, advanced the prognosis that there were at that time four possibilities in the economic sphere: a slow-down in the rate of growth; a recession with a small drop in production; a severe slump; or a combination of these three!
Trotsky did not come down for any one of these variants. In the eyes of Grant and Woods he was an “empiricist” and “eclectic”! Marxism is a science, but science is based on the analysis of real processes, not a priori predictions made with the false confidence of an astrologer. Yet it was approached in precisely this fashion by Grant and Woods. Not satisfied with a broad analysis of major trends, they attempted to impose a ridiculous timescale of six months for the coming slump. This was even carried over into the written material of Grant, both in Britain and internationally. When the long-predicted slump failed to materialise, this undoubtedly disorientated a whole layer of comrades in Britain and internationally.
Grant made a similar mistake on Namibia, arguing that the South African forces present in the country would not withdraw, and on South Africa itself where, similarly, Grant argued that it was impossible for an agreement to take place between de Klerk’s National Party and Mandela’s ANC, which would lead to the dismantling of the apartheid regime and the introduction of a form of bourgeois democracy.
At sea on Stalinism
An even worse blunder centred on perspectives for Stalinism in the USSR and the possibility of capitalist restoration. Militant and the CWI had underestimated the possibility of capitalist restoration in the USSR and Eastern Europe. This was partly explained by our lack of a base within the Stalinist states and, thereby, the absence of a gauge with which to measure fully the degeneration of the Stalinist regimes. However, it was those –who subsequently became the majority of Militant – who first raised the possibility of capitalist restoration. This was fervently denied by Grant and Woods, who operated, and still do, with an outmoded perception of the real situation which existed.
Following Thatcher’s visit to Poland in 1988 and the tumultuous support that she received in Gdansk, we began to pose the possibility of bourgeois restoration. In fact, pro-capitalist features were strongly represented in the movement of 1980-81 around Solidarity and, going further back, even in the events in Czechoslovakia in 1968. At that stage, however, the possibility of ‘reform’, of Dubcek’s “Socialism with a human face”, was still quite strong. The boom of the 1980s and the further collapse of the Stalinist states contributed, particularly in Poland after the suppression of the movement of 1980-81, to a pronounced pro-capitalist mood, reflected in the support Thatcher and George Bush senior received in visits to Poland. The 1980s boom helped to reinforce this mood in all the Stalinist states.
We therefore posed tentatively, too tentatively as it turned out, at the CWI’s World Congress of 1988, the possibility of capitalist restoration in Poland and the rest of the Stalinist world. This was before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, but it was quite evident that there was growing opposition to the Stalinist regimes then. Such a possibility was vehemently denied by Grant. In a lead-off on Stalinism in 1988, I ‘set a hare running’ by posing the issue of bourgeois restoration. This caused a certain amount of controversy at the congress but Grant as the so-called “leading theoretician”, refused to speak. He confided privately that it was because he disagreed with my lead-off but was not prepared to take the floor to answer it.
This was not the case later when an increasing divergence developed between the two trends on the issue of Stalinism. We sent delegations to Eastern Europe – particularly to Poland – who reported back on the mass sentiment for a return to capitalism. Grant refused to recognise this and condemned those who gave the report as “being out of touch”. The same thing happened when comrades spent a period in Russia and reported on a growing pro-capitalist mood.
The differences on this issue came to the fore over the August 1991 coup in the Soviet Union. On 19th and 20th August, the old guard ‘conservative’ wing of the bureaucracy organised a coup against Gorbachev. Grant and Co 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.” [The Truth about the Coup.]
Woods and Grant clung to their outmoded position until the late 1990s. In Ted Grant’s book, Russia – from Revolution to Counter-Revolution, Alan Woods, in his introduction, writes: “It is worth recalling that twenty-five years ago Ted Grant had correctly analysed the reasons for the crisis of Stalinism, and predicted its collapse. Moreover, he was the only one to do so.”
This is a breathtaking re-writing of history as all Militant supporters, including the leadership, which included ourselves, had this position, based upon our readings of the works of Trotsky. Moreover, Ted Grant was not the only one to analyse the reasons why we expected the collapse of Stalinism to take place. But then Woods writes: “The only correction that has to be introduced concerns the perspective for a return to capitalism in Russia. For a long time, the author considered that such a development was ruled out. That has been shown to be incorrect.”
We in common with Ted Grant also expected that Russia would not return to capitalism, for the reasons that we have explained more fully elsewhere (see The Rise of Militant pp321-414). But when faced with the reality of what was taking place in Poland and elsewhere in the Stalinist world we did alter our perspective, anticipating a return back to capitalism beginning in Poland and, following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, in Eastern Europe and in Russia itself.
Ted Grant, unfortunately, stubbornly resisted drawing this conclusion, refusing to face up to facts and believing that the attempts to return back to capitalism were of purely a temporary character. He persisted with this method right up to 1997 and beyond, as Woods admits: “It is the contention of the author [Grant] that the movement towards capitalism in Russia has not yet been carried to a definitive conclusion, and may yet be reversed.”
Now, in their current Prospects for the World Revolution, they confess: “We have to admit that things have not turned out as we expected a few years ago. We did not expect that the crisis of world capitalism would be postponed for as long as it has been. This has given Russian capitalism sufficient time to establish itself. The movement towards capitalism has lasted for ten years. The new productive system and its property relations have had time to penetrate the consciousness of the masses. This process has lasted much longer than we expected. The main responsibility lies with the Stalinists who have capitulated on everything…
“Ten years is sufficient time to judge. We have to say that the Rubicon has now been passed. The movement towards capitalism has been contradictory, with many cross-currents, but after every crisis the process has continued with renewed force.”
Compare Grant’s method today as indicated by these lines in relation to the ex-Stalinist states and the position he took in relation to China and Eastern Europe in the 1940s. Along with the rest of the leadership of the Revolutionary Communist Party, he recognised what was taking place, a virtually unstoppable process – given the relationship of world forces –towards the establishment of Stalinist states. Belatedly, the International Secretariat of the Fourth International (ISFI – forerunners of the United Secretariat) recognised this in 1953! Grant was not hesitant in using this to show the false method of the ISFI leadership. Yet now he made the same kind of mistake only in an opposite sense, of this time failing to understand the process of capitalist restoration in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Given the national and international background against which these processes were developing, there was no possibility of a short-term ‘reversal’ of the process of capitalist restoration, a social counter-revolution, which was taking place in Russia in the 1990s.
Today in Eastern Europe (and tomorrow in Russia as well) the beginning of an opposition to this is under way. But that does not cancel out the fact that in the early 1990s, faced with the reality of capitalist restoration, Woods and Grant buried their heads in the sand, in the same way as the leadership of the ISFI did in the late 1940s. This is illustrated by what Grant wrote in the latter part of his book: “As a matter of fact, even now the class nature of the Russian state has not been decisively determined… It is a question of what property form will ultimately prevail – nationalisation or private property. This struggle is still unfolding, but the result is not yet decided.” [Page 38.] This shows just how out of touch Grant and Woods were, and are, in relation to a serious analysis of processes in the former Stalinist states. At the time that the above was written, 1997, a social counter-revolution was in full swing, a ‘fast track’ route to capitalism.
Re-establishment of Stalinist regime
Their perspective in 1991 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, 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 would be neutral in that situation, even if you had a situation where sections of workers were supporting the other wing.” He continued: “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” [Woods addressing an international meeting of Militant, quoted in The Collapse of Stalinism, part 2]. And as we have seen, they clung to this false perspective for years afterwards.
We, 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 the way forward. There was no significant wing of the bureaucracy, in the period leading up to 1991, which still adhered to the planned economy. 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 and Woods failed to grasp that even if the coup had succeeded this would not have led to a restoration of the Stalinist regimes. The ‘old guard’ regimes would have been re-established but not the planned economy. Jaruselski had tried this in Poland in 1981 but subsequently admitted: “Our greatest mistake was to keep the party’s monopoly on power, defend nationalised industry and the class struggle”. He accordingly moved towards an openly pro-capitalist position, paving the way for the coming to power of Solidarity and Walesa. And yet, Woods and Grant, in their document The Truth about the Coup, argued: “What would have happened for example if Yanayaev and Co [the main organisers of the coup] had seized power? Is it a foregone conclusion that they would have carried out their stated aim of moving towards a ‘market economy’ albeit at a more gradual pace? For the majority of the International Secretariat, this is a simple question to answer: in today’s situation, ‘objectively… Yes. ’ But that does not exhaust the question.”
They then advanced the idea that the coup organisers would have been compelled to re-establish the elements of the planned economy, completely ignoring the experience of Jaruselski and the evolution of the Chinese Stalinists in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square. They, of course, attempted to cover their tracks by accusing us of tail-ending Yeltsin in the August coup. This was despite the fact that we publicly distanced ourselves from the pro-capitalist Yeltsinites, some of whom flooded towards the defence of their hero at the White House in Moscow.
The mass of the 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 (see pp. 449-451 in The Rise of Militant for a fuller explanation).