Interview with Ted Grant on the Militant

On the 40th anniversary of the publication of the first edition of the Militant (October 1964) Fred Weston interviewed Ted Grant, the key theoretician behind the whole project.

On the 40th anniversary of the publication of the first edition of the Militant (October 1964) Fred Weston interviewed Ted Grant. Ted comments on the perspectives the comrades had at that time. The Militant later became a powerful Marxist current in the British Labour Movement, but unfortunately almost thirty years after the paper was first published the majority of its leadership went on an ultra-left adventure and destroyed almost everything that had been built. In spite of this, Ted is confident that with correct methods and perspectives we can rebuild what we had and move forward.

Fred Weston: Forty years ago you and a small group of comrades launched a new Marxist newspaper called Militant, which was to have quite a spectacular history. Would you like to comment on the significance of this anniversary?

Ted Grant: With the Militant we built a tradition in the Labour Movement in Britain and internationally. We established Marxism as a tendency of the Labour Movement. We succeeded in re-establishing Trotskyism as an accepted part of the movement. And we built the most powerful and influential tendency since the days of Trotsky’s Russian Left Opposition. It was a very great achievement.

FW: Who was behind this initiative?

TG: I was one of the main movers, together with Jimmy Dean, a marvellous comrade, a veteran of the Trotskyist movement, who unfortunately died a couple of years ago. Jimmy and I had a small group inside the Labour Party that published a paper called Socialist Fight. That was in the 1950s – a very difficult period for Marxism in Britain and internationally.

We had to fight against the stream and it was hard going. The Labour Party and the trade unions were fully in the grip of right wing Neanderthal men and women. In Liverpool, where we had our main base, the Labour Party was controlled by the Braddocks, who told people wanting to join the Party: “Sorry, we’re full up!”

Nevertheless, we saw the necessity of winning over the rank and file Labour workers to Marxism. In spite of everything, we had the perspective of the inevitable development of a left wing at a certain stage. The Marxists had the duty to participate in it and try to influence it, while building our own forces.

This perspective was shown to be correct by future developments. But many did not understand it. They could not understand the real way in which the working class develops – which can only be through the mass organisations. In Britain this means the Labour party and the trade unions.

FW: We were pretty much the only ones who understood this.

TG: The working class can never express itself through small organizations outside the Labour movement. The whole of history shows this fact, which Lenin and Trotsky understood very well. All those ultra-left groups who opposed us ended up with nothing. They all swung from ultra-leftism to opportunism and back again. Usually their policies were a combination of both. That is a law!

Healy’s tendency controlled the Young Socialists, but instead of working patiently to win over the rank and file of the Labour Party and the unions, they split away and destroyed the Young Socialists in the process. They had a purely ultra-left policy and used hooligan tactics. It was monstrous, really. They did a lot of damage, and then destroyed themselves.

As always with such groups, they merely hived off a section of the youth and some left wing workers who had gone a bit too far ahead of the rest of the class. This played right into the hands of the right wing and the bureaucracy of the Labour Party, who were rubbing their hands. Their ultra-left adventure led nowhere. They destroyed the youth they had won and were left with nothing. They split in pieces and disappeared.

All the other groups who called themselves Marxists split from the Labour Party and went into the wilderness, where they busied themselves creating “mass revolutionary parties” in the clouds – mass revolutionary parties of three men and a dog! Some of them crept back later on an opportunist basis, of course.

FW: There are still many today who say it is impossible to work in the Labour Party. What would you say to them?

TG: That is all nonsense. We have heard the same thing many times in the past! But the ultra-lefts have learned nothing. They are not capable of learning. These people, though they call themselves Marxists, have not got the foggiest idea of how the masses move. They will always move through the traditional mass organisations – the Labour Party and the unions. That is a law. Outside the unions and the Labour Party there is nothing.

Lenin and Trotsky answered the ultra-lefts and sectarians a thousand times. But these people are incapable of learning. I sometimes ask myself why Lenin and Trotsky wrote so much, because it seems that nobody reads what they wrote, and if they have read it, they have not understood a single line! Marxism is a closed book for sectarian ignoramuses.

FW: But the Labour party is controlled by the Blairites, by the extreme right wing.

TG: So what? It is not the first time! In the past it was controlled by people like Ramsay MacDonald and Gaitskell. That changes nothing. When the masses first begin to move, they always turn to the traditional mass organisations. They will turn to the Labour Party time and time again because there is no alternative – no mass revolutionary party.

FW: It is ironical that some of the former leaders of Militant now say that the Labour Party is a bourgeois Party that cannot be changed.

TG: Well, that is just stupid. It means they have forgotten everything we taught them. The Labour Party is no more a bourgeois party than it was when we launched the Militant forty years ago.

FW: But Blair is a bourgeois politician.

TG: Yes, Blair is really a Tory. He is only in the Labour Party by accident. He would be equally at home (perhaps more at home) with the Tories or Liberals. As a matter of fact he has said that the Labour Party ought never to have been formed, that it was all a mistake!

FW: Does this make the Labour Party a bourgeois party?

TG: Of course not! How could it? The Labour Party is still linked to the trade unions. They pay the levy and have fifty percent of the votes at the Conference – although Blair has largely neutered the Conference now. Nevertheless, the basis of the Party is still the working class.

It is true that Blair has taken the Party very far to the right. But that will change. At a certain point there will be a massive swing back to the left. Blair and his middle class friends will be vomited out, preparing the way for the emergence of a left wing. That is inevitable.

Actually, the real base of the Blairites in the Party is very weak. The middle class carpetbaggers are leaving in droves. They only have a firm grip on the apparatus and the Parliamentary Labour Party (although that can change). But in the Constituencies they have little support and Blair is very unpopular with the activists.

FW: What would you say to those who say it is not possible or correct to work in the Labour Party?

TG: I would say they have understood nothing. They pose the question in an unmarxist and undialectical way. They see the Labour Party in a static way. They do not see the internal contradictions or how the class moves and develops. We have seen this process many times in the past.

FW: But at this stage the Labour Party is empty.

TG: It is not entirely empty. The sects are even more empty! They do not have the masses and nor do they have the ideas of Marxism. What do they have? As Hegel said: “from Nothing, through Nothing, to Nothing!”

The Labour Party has enormous reserves of support in the masses. We must understand this or we will make many mistakes. We have already explained this many times: when the masses enter into struggle they will turn to the Labour Party and the unions. They cannot do anything else. Why? Because they like Tony Blair? On the contrary, they vote Labour not because of Blair but in spite of him!

The Labour Party is empty, you say. The workers are not active in it. Very well. Where are the workers active? With the SWP or the other sects outside the Labour Party. Of course, not! They are all declining and in crisis, and splitting in pieces of course – like the Socialist Alliance. They said that this was going to be the great alternative to Labour, and look what happened.

Well, we wish them the best of luck with their phantom “revolutionary parties” and their splits (they are always very lucky with splits, but not so lucky with fusions!). We should ignore them and get on with the work.

We must see how the process has developed historically. The fact is that when the workers are disillusioned with the Labour Party because of the leadership, they do not look for an alternative outside the Labour Party but they fall into inactivity. They just stay at home. But this cannot last. They will revive and turn back to the Labour Party – because there is no alternative. That will particularly be the case when they see the emergence of a serious left opposition inside the Party.

FW: Some people are calling on the unions to disaffiliate from the Labour Party. What would you say to that?

TG: That is simply madness. I could understand that many activists in the unions are fed up with Blair and want to oppose him. They might be led by impatience and frustration to vote for this. But it is a mistake. It actually helps the right wing increase its stranglehold on the Labour Party. Why do you think that Blair has always been in favour of Labour severing its links with the unions? It would enormously increase the pressure of big business on the Party and lessen the influence of the workers.

I could understand the anger and impatience of the rank and file. But for people who call themselves Marxists to advocate this is just crazy. It is extreme ultra-left childishness. And it miseducates and disorients the advanced workers in the unions. We never had such a policy! It reminds me of the line of the Stalinists in the Third Period, which Trotsky always condemned.

It is always criminal to separate the advanced workers from the mass. Instead of splitting away from the Labour Party the unions should organize a serious fight against Blair inside the Party. That would transform the whole situation immediately. That is what we should be advocating. We should explain this to the rank and file in a friendly manner. The so-called alternative of splitting away leads nowhere.

FW: The sects imagine that the unions will support them in the future .

TG: Do you seriously imagine the unions will affiliate to the SWP or any of the other loonies? That is really insane. It shows that they really have no perspective for the unions – or anything else!

It took many years to get the unions to affiliate to Labour. That was a big step forward. Now these people want to undo it. What have they achieved? Those unions that have disaffiliated now have no political voice at all. What a wonderful achievement! How does this advance political consciousness in the unions? It will “educate” people backwards! It will only lead to apolitical or anti-political moods in the unions. It will benefit the Tories and Liberals, not the left wing.

In any case, only a handful of unions have disaffiliated. Most remain, including all the big unions. Those who have disaffiliated will re-affiliate later, when they see that the situation is changing.

FW: How do you think the Marxist tendency will be built in Britain?

TG: The Marxist tendency will be built as we built the Militant Tendency in the past. Using correct methods, and with the correct programme, policies and ideas, we built the biggest and most successful Marxist (Trotskyist, if you prefer: it is the same thing) tendency in history.

For forty years we worked patiently in the Labour Party, the Young Socialists and the trade unions. We put forward our ideas and won over the best of the activists, at first the ones and twos, and later quite sizeable groups. That is the only way.

Remember that the objective conditions at that time were very difficult. There was a long period of capitalist upswing and full employment. The unions were all in the hands of extreme right-wingers: Lord Carron of the AEU (now Amicus), Lord Cooper of the G&B, Sir Sydney Green of the NUR (now RMT) and so on. They in turn controlled the Labour Party with an iron hand, through the union bloc vote at Conference.

That was the position when we launched the Militant in October 1964. We were a tiny group, and very isolated. Nobody would have given much for our chances. But all this changed, as we predicted. In the end our policies and methods succeeded and all the others failed miserably.

FW: What forces did you have to start with?

TG: Truth to tell, we were very weak in numbers – but strong in ideas and morale! We had a few comrades in South Wales, a bigger group in Liverpool, and a handful in London. Alan Woods had just moved to Brighton, where we later established a very strong base. But we had nothing in Scotland and only a few isolated sympathisers nationally.

But with the correct methods and ideas, we built a powerful tendency nationally and internationally. We won the majority of the Young Socialists and later established a strong base in the Labour Party and the unions. We had a weekly paper that was very well known. We had three Labour members of parliament who supported us and many councillors and trade union officials. We had a big office and many full-time workers both in London and the provinces.

But the basis of all this was our correct perspectives and orientation – and also all the patient work we had done in the previous forty years.

FW: The Militant became a household name.

TG: That’s right. Everybody knew the Militant, not just in Britain but internationally. We had many co-thinkers in other countries. It got to the stage where the bourgeoisie and the CIA were seriously worried. They began to attack us in the press and on television. But this backfired. It only made us more popular with the workers! We led a number of important battles, like the struggle of Liverpool Council and the Poll Tax. In fact, there never was such a successful Marxist tendency in Britain. The Communist Party even in its best period never achieved anything like this.

FW: But it was all thrown away. How did this happen? Was it the result of the objective situation?

TG: No, it was the result of mistakes on the part of a section of the leadership.

FW: But there was a witch-hunt in the Labour party against us.

TG: There was a witch-hunt, of course. That was inevitable. The bourgeois were seriously worried about us. They could not allow the Labour Party to slip out of their control without a struggle. They wanted to attack the Left, and they saw that we were playing an important role in stiffening the resolve of the Lefts. So they began an attack on us. Kinnock began this witch-hunt. It did enormous damage to the Labour Party that led to defeat after defeat. That is the main reason why the Tories were in power for so long. But Kinnock did not care as long as we were expelled.

FW: How many were expelled?

TG: Not very many – maybe a couple of hundred up and down the country. I was expelled, of course, along with the rest of the editorial board, although my local Labour Party branch in Islington refused to accept my expulsion and kept giving me a membership card for a long time.

But it did not really make a lot of difference. The big majority of our supporters were not expelled. The witch-hunt made us more popular than ever with the left-wing workers and we had the sympathy of most Party members. That is because we never behaved in the hooligan fashion of the sects. And the Labour Party has a strong democratic tradition. People do not like expulsions and kangaroo trials.

FW: So it is not true that the expulsions made it impossible to continue the work in the Labour Party?

TG: Absolutely not! The witch-hunt was a nuisance, of course, an irritant, but nothing more. Don’t forget we had thousands of supporters and tens of thousands of sympathisers. The witch-hunt really failed in its objective, which was to separate the Marxists from the Labour Party. Nothing can separate us from the Labour Party: we are part and parcel of the Labour Movement!

FW: So what destroyed the Militant?

TG: The Militant was destroyed by the impatience and ultra-leftism of a section of the leadership. Our successes had gone to their heads, and they were looking for short-cuts. They said that if we broke from the Labour Party we would grow by leaps and bounds. Apparently there were thousands just queuing up to join us, if only we were outside the Labour Party!

We said that this was madness. It would be a short cut – over a cliff. We attempted to convince them with arguments, but they were deaf to all arguments. They had made their mind up to go down the well-worn path that had been trodden by Healy, Cliff and all the other sectarians.

There was a so-called “debate”, which was a farce. Then they expelled us. They abandoned all the ideas and launched on a sectarian adventure. As usual they combined ultra-leftism with opportunism. As a result, they lost everything. The fantastic gains they had predicted failed to materialise. All their predictions were shown to be false. Their supporters were soon demoralised and left them. They even dropped the name of the Militant, which was known by millions. They light-mindedly threw away all that was built over forty years. We predict that, just as Healy’s adventurism has left nothing behind, so they will leave nothing behind.

FW: And what is your perspective now?

TG: The tendency of genuine Marxism represented by Socialist Appeal and will continue to develop, taking as its starting point our past successes. We are the only inheritors of the great traditions of the Militant in its best period. We will continue with our patient work in the mass organisations of the working class. We will win over the best elements in the Labour Party and the unions – and also outside!

We are winning over the most advanced elements of the youth and educating them in the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, which we have defended – and also developed – over decades. Our methods remain the same as before. We were always flexible on organisational and tactical questions, as the Bolsheviks were. We have no organisational fetish!

We will conduct revolutionary work wherever the possibilities present themselves. That includes work outside the Labour Party. That should go without saying! But in the last analysis, our main orientation must be to the mass organisations of the class. All those who have attempted to build outside the organisations of the labour movement have been condemned to complete barrenness and futility.

The future belongs to those who stick to the fundamental ideas of Marxism, while carrying out systematic work in the mass organisations of the working class. On that road alone success is guaranteed.