During the early years of the Second World War, Ted Grant (1913-2006), as editor of the Socialist Appeal and political secretary of the Workers’ International League (WIL), emerged as the principal theoretician of British Trotskyism. Basing himself on a profound understanding of the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, Ted drafted the main documents and resolutions of the movement for a period of over 60 years. His participation in the revolutionary movement was to span a period of more than 70 years from 1928, when he was introduced to Marxism, through to his death. Throughout this long period, Ted never lost either his faith in Marxism, his sense of humour or his (slight) South African accent.
These decades of Ted Grant’s political activity embraced the titanic events of the Wall Street crash, the great depression, the victory of fascism in Germany, the Spanish Civil War, the Moscow trials, the Second World War, the abolition of capitalism in China and Eastern Europe, the post-war upswing, the revolutionary 1970s, and the eventual collapse of Stalinism. Throughout these years of revolution, counter-revolution, capitalist stability and the re-emergence of capitalist crisis, Ted remained firmly committed to the ideas of world revolution and the absolute correctness of Marxism. However, he was no mere commentator on events, but a man who actively dedicated his whole life to the cause of revolutionary socialism. For all those who knew him, he was a truly remarkable and inspiring figure.
The articles and documents contained in this first volume of Ted Grant’s Writings coincided with the emergence of the Workers’ International League as one of the most successful Trotskyist groups in the world. This present volume covers a period of some five years, dealing with the immediate pre-war period and the first three years of the Second World War, a decisive time in world history. It was the most testing time for British and World Trotskyism. As Hitler occupied Europe, the WIL was alone on the continent in applying the proletarian military policy that had been outlined by Trotsky. This it managed to do in the most successful fashion, allowing the WIL to establish an important proletarian base. Pierre Broué, the celebrated Marxist historian, believed that the British Trotskyists conducted the most successful work during the war of any Trotskyist group in the world. These writings of Ted Grant therefore constitute an essential and rich part of the theoretical heritage of our tendency. Above all, they will serve to educate the new generation of workers and youth who are entering into political activity at this time of deep capitalist crisis, in the ideas, methods, and outlook of the Marxist tendency.
It must be said that there was a problem in the selection of this material. We publish here only the articles that were either signed by Ted or that he drafted in his role as the WIL’s political secretary. He would have certainly written the vast bulk of the editorials of Socialist Appeal, but these have not been included. This is somewhat of a disservice to Ted’s colossal contribution, but it is hoped that we will publish them later in a separate volume as a supplement to his wartime writings. Of course, other leading comrades of the WIL, such as Ralph Lee, Jock Haston, and Andrew Scott, would have also contributed to the drafting of important unsigned documents or material. This should certainly be recognised. Ted was certainly appreciative of their collaboration. Nevertheless, Ted emerged during these years as the organisation’s undisputed theoretician, as demonstrated by his political and theoretical output. He was a cadre of over ten years’ experience. This role was further underlined with the subsequent return of Ralph Lee to South Africa for personal and health reasons in the middle of 1940.
In South Africa
Ted Grant was born in Germiston, near Johannesburg, in South Africa in July 1913, a year before the outbreak of the First World War and four years before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, an event that was going to have a profound effect on his later life. His family upbringing had little effect on his future political evolution except for a family lodger, Ralph Lee, who had been a member of the South African Communist Party since 1922. Ralph, who was about five years older than Ted, had been expelled from the party for opposition views. As a teenager, Ted had been systematically introduced by Ralph to the writings of Bernard Shaw, HG Wells, Maxim Gorky and Jack London. After these authors he progressed to the writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin. By the age of 15, Ted had become a convinced and committed Marxist and remained so for the rest of his life. “It changed my life completely”, stated Ted later, “and I started on a political road that now spans more than seventy years.”
Ted made regular visits to a left-wing bookshop in Johannesburg which was receiving copies of the newly-established paper called The Militant. These were produced by the American Trotskyists headed by James P. Cannon, who had recently been expelled from the American Communist Party. These papers introduced Ralph and Ted to the ideas of Leon Trotsky and the Left Opposition on a whole series of burning questions, beginning with his Critique of the draft programme of the Communist International. This had a massive and lasting impact upon them. “We read them avidly from cover to cover, especially the writings of Trotsky himself,” explained Ted. “These contributions made an enormous difference to our understanding.”
The Left Opposition had been established by Trotsky in 1923 as part of the struggle against the Stalinist degeneration taking place within the Soviet Union. With the defeat of the German Revolution, followed by the death of Lenin, Stalin came forward with the anti-Marxist theory of Socialism in One Country. This theory reflected the outlook of the bureaucracy which turned its back on world revolution and sought to consolidate its privileged position. With each defeat and blow against world revolution, the Russian masses were worn down after years of deprivation and isolation. In November 1927, the Stalin clique succeeded in consolidating itself further by expelling Trotsky and the Left Opposition from the party. Early in 1928, Trotsky was exiled firstly to Alma Ata and later to Turkey. From there he organised the international Left Opposition as an expelled faction of the Communist International in a fight to restore the genuine programme and methods of Leninism and reform the Soviet state.
In solidarity with Trotsky, Ralph and Ted organised the beginnings of a Left Opposition group in Johannesburg and soon recruited Ted’s younger sister Zena and her boyfriend Raymond Lake. Others soon joined, including Millie Kahn, who was to later play an important role in the British Trotskyist movement. Her sister Hilda had joined the Stalinists, which, according to Millie, provoked a “war” between them. Shortly she was to marry Ralph and change her name to Millie Lee. Her steady income from a job in her mother’s hat business served to maintain Ralph as a “professional revolutionary” for the group.
Some years ago, just before she died, I took Ted to meet Millie for the last time. Millie had played an extremely active role in the Trotskyist movement in the period covered by this book, assisting Ted and others to build the Workers’ International League in Britain. She subsequently moved away from Trotskyism, as did many others, after 1950 with the break-up of the Revolutionary Communist Party. She had not met Ted since that time until this meeting at her home in September 2001. It was quite a remarkable meeting as Ted and Millie began to recall events and experiences of the past. She remembered with great pride the time she was arrested and sent to Holloway prison in August 1940 after trespassing on private property during a protest outside the Russian embassy against Trotsky’s assassination in Mexico. The WIL protesters carried placards, “Stalin murdered Trotsky”. After nine days she was finally released and fined £30, which was a considerable sum of money in those days. Despite her advanced years, Millie seemed to come to life as she described the building of the Trotskyist movement during the Second World War. She marvelled at the work they had done at that time in preparing for the British Revolution. “We were optimistic throughout, weren’t we?” as she nodded in Ted’s direction. “Considering everything, we had a fantastic time.” (Interview with Millie Haston and Ted Grant, September 8 2001). Millie supplied us with a host of photographs of the period, many of which appear in this volume.
In the early 1930s, the small group of South African Trotskyists struggled bravely to make their mark, even leading the Johannesburg laundry workers’ strike of 1934. However, the situation was very difficult. The comrades realised that the real centre of future revolution would take place thousands of miles away in Europe. Hitler had come to power in Germany and preparations were being made for world war. In Spain the workers had launched the heroic Asturian Commune, providing a new impetus to the Spanish Revolution. As a result, the South African comrades decided over a period to uproot their small forces and place them where they could better serve the world revolution. Ted and another member of the group, Max Bosch, left South Africa for England in late 1934 for “broader horizons”, to use Ted’s words. Both decided to change their names at this point. Max Bosch became Sid Frost, and a certain Isaac Blank became Ted Grant. Most of the other comrades, including Ralph and Millie, followed in the middle of 1937. “We decided there was no real future for us in South Africa, so we came to England”, stated Millie.
In search for “broader horizons”
On his voyage to London, Ted and Sid stopped off in Paris and discussed with Leon Trotsky’s son, Leon Sedov, who was the main organiser of the international Trotskyist movement. From this conversation it was clear that Sedov had many reservations about the British Trotskyists who were working at this time within the Independent Labour Party (ILP), a centrist party that had split from the Labour Party in 1932. Trotsky had advised the newly formed British Left Oppositionists to join the ILP as a means of winning over the leftward-moving workers to Marxism.
This had constituted a sharp change in the tactics of the Left Opposition and resulted from the fact that the road to the Communist workers had been effectively blocked at this stage. The consolidation of the Stalinist regime with the successes of the Five Year Plans served to strengthen the grip of Stalinism. By the mid-1930s, the purges had produced a river of blood which separated Stalinism and Trotskyism. At the same time, the world capitalist crisis had created colossal ferment in the ranks of the social-democratic organisations. Trotsky explained the urgent need for the Trotskyists in this period to break out of their isolation and turn towards the opportunities within the reformist organisations. With correct work, this could result in the rapid crystallisation of a revolutionary tendency with deep roots in the working class. This tactic became known as the “French turn”, although it was first carried out in Britain.
Trotsky’s proposal led, however, to great controversy and resulted in a split in the British group. The main leaders of the group strenuously upheld the independence of the party as a principle, which simply served to reinforce their sectarian isolation. A dozen of the younger less experienced comrades took Trotsky’s advice and entered the ILP. The Trotskyists—known as the Marxist Group—nevertheless (mainly due to their inexperience) struggled to take advantage of the opportunities within the ILP.
The Marxist Group
On his arrival, Ted joined the Marxist Group in Paddington and began to give regular talks on the lessons of the South African workers’ movement. Ever since he was introduced to the ideas of Marxism, Ted had developed a keen interest in theory. He devoured the classics of Marxism and especially the new articles of Trotsky. Ted also absorbed the perspectives of a new imperialist world war and the development of world revolution in the coming period. Both Ted and Sid Frost, who worked closely together at this time, repeated the perspectives at every opportunity within the ILP. “Here comes ‘War’ and ‘Revolution’,” sneered the hardened centrists wherever the South Africans turned up. Such slurs were water off a duck’s back and in any event the two young South Africans were proved right.
The Marxist Group was clearly in bad shape by this time. There had been an opportunist adaptation amongst some of the group’s leaders to the centrist milieu, causing dissatisfaction amongst the membership. Ted, with other members, wrote to Leon Sedov expressing their deep concerns with the functioning of the group and the lack of prospects (See appendix). At this time, the ILP was haemorrhaging members and losing influence. Most of those who remained were die-hard centrists. There were far better prospects for Trotskyism developing within the Labour Party, especially in the Labour League of Youth.
Trotsky, who would have seen the report, was quick to realise that the ILP episode was clearly coming to an end. The shift to the left in the Labour Party was producing much greater opportunities. “The British section will recruit its first cadres from the thirty thousand young workers in the Labour League of Youth”, wrote Trotsky, as he urged the comrades to leave the ILP and enter the Labour Party. This, yet again, produced another row, with the leaders of the group yet again opposing this turn. Nevertheless, many of the young comrades followed Trotsky’s advice and individually joined the Labour Party, especially its youth section. This new group soon began to produce a paper called Youth Militant mainly aimed at work in the Labour League of Youth (LLY). Ted followed Trotsky’s advice and joined the LLY. Here the comrades battled with the Stalinists who had taken control of the youth. With the growing threat from Mosley’s blackshirts, the comrades, and Ted in particular, also took an active part in the anti-fascist street battles in East London.
The following year, a small number of South African Trotskyists, including Ralph and Millie Lee, arrived in Britain. After discussions with Ted and Jock Haston, a former member of the Communist Party, they decided to join the Militant Group. Along with Ted and Jock, they became members of the group’s Paddington branch. They were extremely energetic in building the branch and were making a considerable impact on the group. Amazingly they were soon regarded with suspicion by the group’s leadership, fearing that these “new-comers” would challenge their positions. These leaders were involved in clique politics and consumed with their own personal prestige. As a result, rumours were deliberately spread by the leadership about Ralph Lee which claimed he had stolen money from the Laundry Workers’ Union. This was a slander spread by the Stalinists in Johannesburg. In fact Ralph had spent everything he had on the strike personally and was held in high esteem by the workers. This poisonous atmosphere in the group led to an almighty row at a London aggregate meeting and a walk-out by several members led by Jock Haston, including, amongst others, Ralph Lee, Millie Lee, and Ted Grant. They were then informed by the group’s leaders that they had been expelled.
The formation of the WIL
After lengthy discussions over a number of days and nights, the comrades decided to turn their back on the “Militant Group” and their clique politics. The old group could not be considered a serious revolutionary organisation. It was a petty-bourgeois clique incapable of doing serious work. In any case, relations were completely poisoned. The comrades decided to launch themselves as a new organisation with a clean banner. With eight comrades, they set themselves up as the Workers’ International League in late December 1937 as the only genuine Trotskyist group in Britain.
They continued with their work within the Labour Party. Their first task, however, was to quickly produce a magazine called the Workers’ International News. The first issue came off the press in January 1938, with an article by Trotsky. The comrades also produced Youth For Socialism from September until the middle of 1941 when it became Socialist Appeal, aimed at the members of the Labour League of Youth. Ralph Lee, as the most experienced comrade, played the leading role in the group, assisted by Ted, Millie and Jock, which acted as the leadership of the organisation. Of course, much of the material of the group concentrated upon Trotsky’s material and the rapidly approaching war. Within about six months they had managed to grow to thirty members, mostly young workers. They were very energetic, selling their papers at Hyde Park, Tottenham Court Road and other central locations. They were very keen to build up their membership and establish themselves on a national basis. Ted wrote several leading articles, all re-produced in this volume, concerning the nature of the war, the developing international situation and the tasks posed before the working class.
1938 “unity” conference
A year before the war, in September 1938, a “unity conference” had been convened in an attempt to unify the four Trotskyist groups in Britain. It was an initiative of the International Secretariat of the International Communist League, the forerunner of the Fourth International, and was hosted by James Cannon who had come over from the United States. This conference was held in order to present a British unified group to the founding conference of the Fourth International which was soon to take place in Paris. However, the problem was that these four groups had different methods and tactics. While the WIL attended the “unity conference” in London, it opposed the unification as unprincipled and unworkable. They argued that it was not possible to fuse different groups with different traditions, methods and tactics into a single organisation. The fusion conference was chaotic with faction meetings taking place, people coming and going, and doors opening and closing. Ralph branded it as more like a French bedroom farce. While the WIL refused to join the fusion, the group did not want to sever all its links with the international movement and asked to be recognised as a sympathetic section of the Fourth International. At the founding conference of the Fourth, Cannon scandalously opposed the WIL’s sympathetic affiliation and secured a vote against the proposal. Unfortunately, the WIL could not afford to send a delegate to Paris as most of the comrades were unemployed. “We became the bastard child of the International”, explained Ted later.
James P. Cannon, who was a prestige politician, never forgave the WIL for its principled stand against the 1938 fusion and its future successes. His reputation had been dented. This was to colour his role in the international movement after Trotsky’s death and his negative relations with the British Trotskyists, as will become clear in future volumes. In the years covered in this volume, however, Cannon’s standing in the Fourth International was very high, as was that of the American Socialist Workers’ Party. On October 27 1941, the trial of 28 members of the SWP and Teamsters’ Union, Local 544 had begun. Eighteen were found guilty of “advocating the desirability of overthrowing the government by force and violence”, which resulted in the imprisonment of Cannon and other SWP leaders. The sections of the “Fourth” tended to look up to the Americans for guidance and inspiration. The WIL was no different and, despite being officially outside the International, it regularly reproduced material and news from the American SWP. For a more comprehensive appraisal of Cannon’s contribution throughout this period, readers should refer to Ted Grant’s book on the History of British Trotskyism.
Following the “fusion” conference, the new “unified” group in Britain took the name of the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL). As predicted, the “unified” group started to break up as soon as the conference was over. “The adoption of different tactics”, explained Ted, “was a recipe for uniting four groups into ten!” And that is what happened. The WIL however continued to make steady progress, even taking chunks out of the RSL. They won over the entire RSL Liverpool and Leeds groups, bringing over the entire Deane family in Liverpool in the process.
It is worth noting that Trotsky never attacked the WIL or its decision to remain outside of the International as an unofficial sympathising group. He basically adopted a wait-and-see approach, which was justified by subsequent events. Within six weeks of establishing the WIL, Ralph Lee wrote a letter to Trotsky on behalf of the group dated February 12 1938, explaining that they had established a printing press. “Up to now we have published two issues of Workers’ International News and the pamphlet Summary of the final report of the commission of enquiry into the charges made against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow trials. Copies of these have been sent to you under separate cover”, stated the letter. The original of this letter is in the Trotsky archives at Harvard. As was usual, Trotsky marked the more interesting passages of any correspondence in a blue and red pencil. This he did with the sentences already quoted. He also wrote a question mark in the margin, probably indicating the need to find out more about this English group. Ralph’s letter ended:
“Hitherto we have been dependent on the initiative and energy of the American comrades but this has meant, among other things, prohibitive prices for our publications that have prevented their wide distribution. In seeking to end this dependence on an external section of Fourth Internationalists we hope that we will have your blessing.”
The last eight words were also underlined in pencil by Trotsky.
In his discussions with members of the American SWP a month or so later, Trotsky praised the WIL for obtaining a printing press, and urged the American comrades to follow this excellent example (Trotsky’s Writings 1937-38, p.394). He also wrote to the WIL thanking them for re-publishing his pamphlet Lessons of Spain, which contained an introduction by Ralph and Ted that is also reprinted in this volume.
The whole period was overshadowed by the rush to war by the European powers. The war was a continuation of the First World War, precipitated by the attempts of German imperialism to force a re-division of the world in its own interests. Hitler’s mission was world domination through the displacement of France and Britain, and eventually the United States. While Germany acted as a bulwark against Bolshevism, Britain assisted her re-armament programme. This was fully exposed in the Socialist Appeal of June 1941 when it published extracts from the diary of William E. Dodd, the US ambassador to Germany between June 1933 and December 1937. Dodd revealed that Britain and France had been preparing for war long before Hitler had come to power. In an entry for March 17 1935, he explains, “I think the Goering air programme is truly belligerent but France, Italy and England have armed in violation of the Versailles Treaty too.” He also reveals the policy of French and British diplomacy was to aid Hitler’s rearmament in preparation for war against the Soviet Union. In a conversation with Lord Lothian in May 1935 he shows the clear attitude of British imperialism.
“Lord Lothian, who as Philip Kerr was secretary to Lloyd George during the world war, wrote me…a letter which I received today…he indicated clearly that he favours a coalition of the democracies to block any German move in their direction and to turn Germany’s course eastwards. That this might lead to a war between Russia and Germany does not seem to disturb him seriously. In fact he seems to feel this would be a good solution of the difficulties imposed on Germany by the Versailles Treaty. The problem of the democracies, as he sees it, is to find for Japan and Germany a stronger place in world affairs to which, in his opinion, they are entitled because of their power and tradition. He hopes this can be accomplished without any sacrifice to the British Empire and with as little destruction to human liberty as possible.”
On January 11 1937, six months after Franco’s uprising, Dodd writes of the leading British diplomats:
“Sir Eric Phipps was as discreet as ever, but he revealed more sympathy for the Fascist crowd in Spain than I had noted before. I believe now that he is almost a Fascist, as I think are Baldwin and Eden.”
In relation to German rearmament, his diary reveals Britain’s role.
“I visited Sir Eric Phipps and repeated in all confidence a report that Armstrong-Vickers, the great British armament concern, had negotiated a sale of war material here (Berlin) last week, just before a British government commission arrived to negotiate some plan with Schacht for payment of short-term debts…due on current deliveries of British cotton yarn from Lancashire. It is impossible, Schacht said to me yesterday, to pay British debts. Yet, last Friday, I reported to Sir Eric, the British arms people were selling for cash enormous quantities of war supplies. And I was frank enough—or indiscreet enough—to add that I understood that representatives of Curtiss-Wright from the United States were here this week to negotiate similar sales. The British Ambassador pretended to be surprised…”
He gives much more material to show what the real attitude of the “democracies” was towards Hitler prior to the war. It demonstrates without any doubt that the Second World War was not a war between “democracy” and “fascism” as the “democratic” imperialists wanted us to believe. Dodd was forced to conclude:
“In the United States, capitalists are pressing in their same Fascist direction, supported by capitalists in England. Nearly all our diplomatic service people here have indicated their drift in the same direction.”
Again Churchill, reflecting the attitude of the British ruling class, was a great admirer of both Mussolini and Hitler. “One may dislike Hitler’s system and yet admire his patriotic achievement”, wrote Churchill. “If our country were defeated, I hope that we should find a champion as indomitable to restore our courage and lead us back to our place among the nations.” (Strand magazine, November 1935). The British imperialists supported Hitler at Munich after he seized Czechoslovakia in the hope that he would be satisfied with central Europe. But to their cost, they finally realised that German imperialism was striving towards world domination, which collided with Britain’s interests. This could not be tolerated. The “war against fascism” provided a convenient cover to rally the masses behind their real war aims.
The isolation and degeneration of the Russian revolution had resulted in the usurping of power by the Stalinist bureaucracy. Stalin carried through the Purge Trials to exterminate all those who had any connection with the October Revolution. Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin and other “Old Bolsheviks” were framed as counter-revolutionary “Trotsky-fascists” and murdered. Stalin decapitated the Red Army and systematically strangled the Spanish Revolution to prove to the western powers how reliable he was as a potential ally. He feared Hitler and therefore sought an alliance with the imperialist “democracies”. This, however, proved fruitless, despite Stalin’s continuous efforts, as the “democracies” were rearming Germany (and Italy) for war with the Soviet Union.
Hitler had decided to move west. A “non-aggression” pact with Stalin suited his interests and in August 1939 the Stalin-Hitler Pact was signed. “We have always held that a strong Germany is an indispensable condition for a durable peace in Europe”, stated Molotov. This pact allowed Hitler access to Russia’s important raw materials as well as guaranteeing the Soviet Union’s “neutrality” in the approaching war. “Stalin acts as his (Hitler’s) quartermaster”, noted Trotsky. The “non-aggression” Pact also allowed Stalin to take Eastern Poland and occupy strategic positions in the Baltic, as well as invading Finland. Above all, for a temporary period, it allowed Hitler to concentrate on conquering Western Europe before turning his attentions towards the USSR.
“The Communist Party leaders represent nothing but the narrow interests of the Kremlin”—stated a leaflet issued by the WIL—“Yesterday they supported the war. Today they are calling for an imperialist ‘peace’ and are quite prepared to sacrifice the German, Czech and Polish workers to rule of German fascism. Tomorrow, if Stalin makes a pact with Chamberlain they will again support the war. The working class can have nothing but contempt for such scoundrels.” (No date, Ted Grant’s archives)
Two days after the signing of the Stalin-Hitler Pact, Germany invaded Poland, and France and Britain declared war against Germany. By April 1940, Germany invaded Norway and Denmark. A month later, she invaded the Low Countries and France. Within six weeks British forces evacuated Dunkirk and France fell. On July 10 1940 the Germans began the bombing of London. This was the international background in which the Workers’ International League was established and conducted its work.
The WIL and the fascist threat
In the 18 months up to the outbreak of war, the Workers’ International League had been engaged in feverish work to build up its forces.
“We published Workers’ International News, a very large part of our activity was making contacts through the Workers’ International News, apart from our entrist work in the Labour Party”, stated Jock Haston much later. “In the main, it was a conflict with the Communist Party. We used the documents also for contact with militants in the ILP. We participated actively in the anti-fascist movement which was fairly strong at that time and some of our publications were devoted to the anti-fascist, anti-Mosley struggle. Ted in particular—I have a picture somewhere of Ted at the barricades in the East End of London, in Cable Street.”
“It was mostly selling Workers’ International News outside meetings and Hyde Park”—interjected Millie—“And attending Communist Party meetings dealing with the Moscow Trials”—continued Jock—“We never allowed any Communist Party meetings to take place on the Moscow Trials in which we didn’t intervene and attack the Stalinists on their line on the Moscow Trials. I think probably one might say that our principal source of contacts was the YCL and the Paddington Young Communist League on at least two occasions, almost to a man, came over to the WIL group, and Johnny Gollan was actually sent up to Paddington when he was leader of the YCL with the object of re-establishing the YCL and we challenged him. Every time they had a public meeting we challenged them.”
Jock Haston, who was the group’s national organiser, also reveals some of the basic problems facing the WIL, particularly the paucity of resources.
“Well, the problems were that first of all, we were an organisation that almost entirely consisted of workers. We didn’t have any money, so money was the pre-occupying activity for us, for our publications, the theoretical bag and baggage that we had wasn’t very great, we were mainly followers, rather than initiators, you know of the broad Trotskyist point of view. The problem was getting up and down the country to make contacts with the people we had heard about in different parts of the country, and it was very difficult due to the lack of cash. The problem was getting our publications out on time with what limited resources we had, so here was a question of really working all the hours god sent. We were almost all of us professionals, practically all of us were on the dole, and we had tons of time, but no money, in which to conduct the work we were carrying out.” (Interview given to Al Richardson by Jock Haston on April 30 1978, with Millie (Lee) Haston participating, Bornstein archives)
The pace of work of this small group of comrades was immense. On top of their other activities, from October 1939 to May 1940, the WIL, mainly due to the work of Ralph Lee, produced a duplicated sheet on practically a daily basis, entitled Workers’ Diary.
The proletarian military policy
In the period before the war, the WIL conducted an anti-war policy explaining that any new world war was dictated by imperialism’s desire to re-divide the world in its search for new markets and profits. The only solution to imperialist war was to fight our real enemies at home as part of the struggle for socialism. This line was reflected in the party press until the adoption by the WIL of the proletarian military policy in the autumn of 1940, which saw a new military emphasis to the articles in the League’s publications. The political thrust was still to call upon Labour to break the war-time coalition and carry through a socialist programme, but additional demands were added for a revolutionary military policy to fight against fascism, and in particular the need to arm the working class in the struggle against Nazism.
Ted Grant explained in a speech he had made towards the end of 1940 of how the policy evolved.
“The policy remains essentially the same, but the emphasis has changed,” he said. “The policy remains irreconcilable opposition to the war-making imperialists. However, with the outbreak of war and the victory of the Nazis, the policy is given a new emphasis. Popular agitation could not be conducted on the basis of revolutionary defeatism, which could never win the masses.” (Notes of a speech on the proletarian military policy in the Ted Grant archives)
He went on to explain that the defeat of Hitler remained the aim, however only the workers could defeat fascism. The ruling class was not waging a war against fascism, but only to defend its own material interests. Without giving any support whatsoever to British imperialism’s war aims, the revolutionary tendency needed to take into account the mood of the working class and its hatred of fascism. In such a struggle, the hopeless inadequacies of pacifism were clearly exposed. What was needed was an independent workers’ policy to serve the needs of the workers. Such a policy needed to emphasise the capitalist character of the army and the need to dissolve the standing army into an armed people. This raised the question of the election of officers, the government to finance schools under the control of the trade unions for training worker-officers, instead of the sons of the ruling class. Such a programme would also make workers conscious of the role of the army, the state and the capitalists. It would pose the need for the working class to take power and wage a revolutionary internationalist war.
This proletarian military policy was first put forward by Trotsky shortly before his death in 1940 and adopted wholeheartedly by the WIL.
“If one proceeds only on the basis of the overall characterisation of the epoch, and nothing more, ignoring its concrete stages, one can easily lapse into schematism, sectarianism, or quixotic fantasy”—wrote Trotsky—“With every serious turn of events we adjust our basic tasks to the changed concrete conditions of the given stage. Herein lies the art of tactics.” (Trotsky Writings, 1939-40, p. 103)
He went on to outline the Marxist approach to the war:
“Without in any way wavering from our programme we must speak to the masses in a language they understand. ‘We Bolsheviks also want to defend democracy, but not the kind that is run by sixty uncrowned kings. First let’s sweep our democracy clean of capitalist magnates, then we will defend it to the last drop of blood. Are you, who are not Bolsheviks, really ready to defend this democracy? But you must, at least, be able to the best of your ability to defend it so as not to be a blind instrument in the hands of the Sixty Families and the bourgeois officers devoted to them. The working class must learn military affairs in order to advance the largest possible number of officers from its own ranks.’
“ ‘We must demand that the state, which tomorrow will ask for the workers’ blood, today give the workers the opportunity to master military technique in the best possible way in order to achieve the military objectives with the minimum expenditure of human lives.’
“ ‘To accomplish that, a regular army and barracks by themselves are not enough. Workers must have the opportunity to get military training at their factories, plants, and mines at specified times, while being paid by the capitalists. If the workers are destined to give their lives, the bourgeois patriots can at least make a small material sacrifice.’
“ ‘The state must issue a rifle to every worker capable of bearing arms and set up rifle and artillery ranges for military training purposes in places accessible to the workers.’
“Our agitation in connection with the war and all our politics connected with the war must be as uncompromising in relation to the pacifists as to the imperialists.
“ ‘This war is not our war. The responsibility for it lies squarely on the capitalists. But so long as we are still not strong enough to overthrow them and must fight in the ranks of their army, we are obliged to learn to use arms as well as possible!’
“Women workers must also have the right to bear arms. The largest possible number of women workers must have the opportunity, at the capitalists’ expense, to receive nurses’ training.
“Just as every worker, exploited by the capitalists, seeks to learn as well as possible the production techniques, so every proletarian soldier in the imperialist army must learn as well as possible, when the conditions change, to apply it in the interests of the working class.
“We are not pacifists. No. We are revolutionaries. And we know what lies ahead for us.” (Ibid, pp. 104-5)
When Trotsky raised the proletarian military policy, it provoked widespread opposition within the ranks of the Fourth International. Many leaders, such as those of the Belgian and British (the RSL) sections, deliberately purged any references to this policy. The Belgian group, for example, struck out several paragraphs on this question from the clandestine version of the May 1940 Manifesto. There were also “reservations” held by the French section and even the European Secretariat of the Fourth International. As a consequence, their whole approach, rooted in a false appraisal of the real situation, completely failed to connect with the working class faced with the onslaught of Hitler fascism. Their tactics were stuck in the past and tainted with pacifism. As a result, they were confined to the fringes. Even the American SWP, which had adopted the military policy under Trotsky’s pressure, interpreted the policy in a passive fashion, reducing it to mere propaganda divorced from any perspective for workers’ power.
In an article about this question, written by Pierre Broué in 1985, he explained that apart from Jean Van Heijenoort, who had worked very closely with Trotsky, “nobody in or on the fringe of the Fourth International had understood the question of militarisation.” This represented a damning indictment of the whole of the Fourth International which was not able to grasp this change of direction, so essential for an understanding of the entire epoch. However, Broué was not aware of the WIL’s position when he wrote this article. Subsequently, through his collaboration with the International Marxist Tendency and his contact with Ted Grant, he came to the conclusion that the WIL had conducted the most successful work during the war of any Trotskyist group in the world.
The success of the Workers’ International League during the war was based on its application of the military policy. While Cannon and the SWP were emphasising their propaganda approach, the WIL was posing the question of power before the working class. It is no accident that the group’s 1942 perspectives document was entitled Preparing for power, a position ridiculed by the RSL from the comfort of their sofas. The WIL’s perspective was however the same as Trotsky’s.
In an article he dictated just before he died, Trotsky addresses not only the SWP but also the world Trotskyist movement.
“No occupation is more completely unworthy than that of speculating whether or not we shall succeed in creating a powerful revolutionary leader-party. Ahead lies a favourable perspective, providing all the justification for revolutionary activism. It is necessary to utilise the opportunities which are opening up and to build the revolutionary party…
“Reaction wields today such power as perhaps never before in the modern history of mankind. But it would be an inexcusable blunder to see only reaction. The historical process is a contradictory one. Under the cover of official reaction profound processes are taking place among the masses who are accumulating experience and are becoming receptive to new political perspectives. The old conservative tradition of the democratic state which was so powerful even during the era of the last imperialist war exists today only as an extremely unstable survival. On the eve of the last war the European workers had numerically powerful parties. But on the order of the day were put reforms, partial conquests, and not at all the conquest of power.
“The American working class is still without a mass labour party even today. But the objective situation and the experience accumulated by the American workers can pose within a very brief period of time on the order of the day the question of the conquest of power. This perspective must be made the basis of our agitation. It is not merely a question of a position on capitalist militarism and of renouncing the defence of the bourgeois state, but of directly preparing for the conquest of power and the defence of the proletarian fatherland.” (Trotsky, Writings 1939-40, pp. 413-414)
It must be said, however, that the adoption of the military policy did not take place without some political frictions within the WIL leadership. While they all agreed with the general thrust of the policy, there were some criticisms by Jock, Millie and Sam Levy about the slant given to articles in the paper and particularly the nature of the Home Guard and how it could be transformed into a workers’ militia. The Minority believed the group had made concessions to defencism. Ted Grant, supported by Andrew Scott and Gerry Healy, defended the Majority line taken in the paper, which had correctly embraced the policy of proletarian militarism. It can be said that Ted, as opposed to the other leading comrades, grasped the real significance of the military policy as argued by Trotsky. This dispute led to exchanges within the internal bulletin between February and March 1941. The issue was resolved at a conference of the group based on a resolution drafted by Ted on behalf of the Political Bureau, which together with the articles in the internal bulletin are reprinted in their entirety for the first time in this volume.
True to form, the sectarian RSL, which was the official British section of the Fourth International, officially rejected the entire proletarian military policy in September 1941, describing it as a capitulation to chauvinism, and calling instead for the war to be turned into a civil war. They even made rejection of the policy a condition of membership! This politically hopeless sectarian group turned in on itself, keeping its r-r-revolutionary whispering for the dressing room. It was a sterile approach. They were simply repeating parrot-fashion what Lenin had written at the time of the First World War, without understanding that Lenin was not addressing the masses, but the cadres. But Lenin changed his approach during 1917 as the Bolshevik party sought not to educate the cadres, but to win over the Russian masses.
Anti-militarism and defeatism could never win the masses. This was especially the case in Britain when, following the fall of France, the masses were alarmed at the prospect of a Nazi occupation and all the horrors that would mean. The Trotskyists also wanted to defeat Hitler, but pointed out that the British workers could not rely on the British ruling class, who supported the fascists when it suited them, to carry out this task. The WIL agitated for a genuine war against Hitler on the basis of the British workers taking power, and an internationalist appeal to the German workers to overthrow Hitler.
As Trotsky explained:
“The present war, as we have stated more than once, is a continuation of the last war. But a continuation does not imply a repetition. As a general rule, a continuation implies a development, a deepening, a sharpening. Our policy, the policy of the revolutionary proletariat towards the second imperialist world war, is a continuation of the policy elaborated during the last imperialist war, primarily under the leadership of Lenin. But a continuation does not imply a repetition. In this case, too, a continuation means a development, a deepening and a sharpening.” (Trotsky, Writings 1939-40, p.411)
Work in the Labour League of Youth
As a result of their sectarian approach, the RSL suffered a steep decline in its membership. At the same time, the WIL made significant progress in the recruitment of industrial workers and built important points of support in the factories. By the time of its first national conference it was 300-strong, 90 percent of which were industrial workers.
Before the outbreak of war, the WIL conducted consistent work within the Labour League of Youth against the Stalinists, however, its independent work began to take on greater and greater importance. This was especially the case with the declaration of war in September 1939 and the conscription of the youth into the army. The political truce reduced the local Labour Party branches to mere shells with little internal life. In the middle of 1940, the Labour Party entered a coalition government under Winston Churchill. Under these circumstances, any potential gains in the Labour Party completely dried up. The WIL adopted a flexible approach and made a turn towards the ILP, which had started to grow on the basis of its anti-war stance. Moreover, with the upturn in the number of strikes, the WIL turned increasingly to the industrial front, changing the name of its paper from Youth For Socialism to Socialist Appeal in June 1941. This gave it a much broader appeal. In the lead article in the first issue of the Appeal it argued for Labour to power on the following programme:
“(1) Arming and organising of the workers under their own control to resist any danger from invasion or any Pétainism at home. (2) Election of officers by soldiers. (3) The establishment of special officers’ training camps, financed by the government and controlled by the trade unions, to train workers to become officers. (4) Expropriation of the arms industries, mines, banks, land and heavy industry. (5) Workers’ control of production. (6) Freedom for India and the Colonies. (6) A Socialist appeal to the workers of Germany and Europe for the Socialist struggle against Hitler.” (Socialist Appeal, June 1941)
Impact of the Nazi attack on the USSR
This transformation of the WIL’s newspaper was not only due to the growing influence of the organisation, but it also coincided with Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union and her entry into the world conflagration. The need to unconditionally defend the Soviet Union from imperialist attack was a long-standing position of the Trotskyist movement. This did not change the general imperialist character of the war, but the defence of the USSR featured more prominently in the WIL’s programme. The banner heading of the July 1941 issue read Defend the Soviet Union and explained
“The war has now taken a new turn with the attack by German imperialism on the Soviet Union. A terrible danger now threatens the first workers’ state with destruction. The greatest clash in the history of the world on a 1,800-mile front has thrown the whole international situation into a state of flux. The assault of world imperialism on the first workers’ state is no longer a Marxist perspective, but a grim reality.”
Prior to this, the Stalin-Hitler Pact, the Soviet invasion of Poland and Finland, and the war itself, had produced a wave of anti-Soviet propaganda throughout the capitalist “democracies”. This shook a section of the American SWP to the core, resulting in a substantial minority led by Max Shachtman and James Burnham buckling under pressure. This led them to challenge the class nature of the Soviet Union as a deformed workers’ state resting on nationalised property rights. They stated that the USSR had become a new bureaucratic collectivist state with its own imperialist ambitions. They regarded it as some kind of new class society which could not be defended. This clearly reflected the pressures of bourgeois public opinion. While the Trotskyists opposed the Stalin dictatorship, their revolutionary duty was to defend the remaining gains of the October Revolution, the nationalisation of the means of production and the monopoly of foreign trade. This position was linked with the need for political revolution to remove the bureaucracy and re-introduce workers’ democracy. The Shachtman-Burnham group finally split from the SWP and abandoned any pretence at defending the Soviet Union.
Despite Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, the WIL did not change its characterisation of the war as an imperialist war, despite the fact that the USSR had allied itself with the “democratic” imperialist powers. For the Stalinists, however, this changed everything. Ever since the signing of the Stalin-Hitler Pact, the Communist Party characterised the war as imperialist and campaigned for, in essence, peace on Hitler’s terms. They branded Britain and France as the real enemies. This showed that the Stalinist parties were simply the mouthpieces of the Russian bureaucracy, twisting and turning with every change of policy emanating from Moscow.
For the Stalinists, as soon as the Soviet Union was drawn into the war, the war suddenly changed to become a “just war” against fascism, which should be given unqualified support. In the space of 24 hours, the Communist Party became the greatest supporter of the war and opposed all strikes which served to undermine the war effort. They became the greatest cheerleaders of the Churchill government. The Stalinists had turned into strike breakers and chauvinists of the worst kind. As a result, the WIL launched an immediate struggle against the pro-war line of the Stalinists in the trade unions and in the factories, exposing their weaknesses and posing a revolutionary alternative.
The work of the WIL during this period began to have an effect on the best workers in the ranks of the CP and a number of its best militants joined the Trotskyists. A growing part of the work of the WIL was directed towards the best CP workers in an attempt to win them away from its Stalinist leadership. The Trotskyists gave whole-hearted support to the increasing number of strikes, to the profound displeasure of the bosses, trade union bureaucracy and the Stalinists.
In November 1941, the WIL held a successful 200-strong public meeting in London on the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. It was described by the Socialist Appeal as “one of the most enthusiastic left-wing gatherings held in Britain since the outbreak of the war.” The speakers were Haston, Healy and Ted Grant. In the report it explains:
“The last speaker was comrade Ted Grant who exposed the real meaning of Churchill’s aid for the USSR. Amidst loud applause he dealt a slashing attack upon [the] treacherous role of the Communist Party. ‘If Hitler was confronted with a Russian victory,’ said comrade Grant, ‘then in 24 hours Churchill would make peace with German Nazism and inaugurate a universal imperialist line up against the first workers’ state.’ In reply to discussion our comrade satisfactorily dealt with a number of issues raised by CP members of the audience.” (Socialist Appeal, December 1941)
The meeting had coincided with a public attack on the WIL by the Sunday Dispatch, accusing the comrades of acting in the interests of the Nazis. Socialist Appeal replied to this attack by a front-page article exposing the role of the Dispatch and its sister paper, the Daily Mail, for its lies, adding that these gutter newspapers had been ardent supporters of Hitler and Mussolini before the war. The Dispatch reprinted all the Stalinist lies contained in a manifesto that the Trotskyists were disrupters and agents of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco! They repeated these slanders and ended with the Stalinist phrase: “Treat the Trotskyists as you would a Nazi.” In the December issue of Labour Monthly, R.J. Campbell described the Trotskyists as the “agents of the Gestapo in the Labour movement.”
Throughout these months, the success of the WIL brought a witch-hunt down on the heads of the Trotskyists, instigated by Will Lawther, national president of the Miners’ Federation, Joe Hall, the president of the Yorkshire miners, the capitalist press and, of course, the Stalinists. All accused the Trotskyists of sabotaging the war-effort and helping Hitler. There was a massive uproar against the WIL in the capitalist press and the Stalinists issued a pamphlet in August 1942 called Clear out Hitler’s agents, by William Wainwright, urging their members to physically attack the Trotskyists. They even raised the matter in the House of Commons through their MP Willie Gallacher, urging that Home Secretary Herbert Morrison ban the WIL and close down its newspaper. Morrison was not convinced, although he stated inquiries would be made. He turned to Gallacher, reminding him of his past saying:
“I ask Mr. Gallacher not to be too keen to suppress this organisation; they are only pursuing much the same political policy which he and his own political friends pursued some time ago.” (Quoted in War and the International by Bornstein and Richardson, p. 64)
The Communist Party’s hooligan tactics were to encourage physical assaults upon Socialist Appeal sellers, who were invariably attempting to sell outside CP meetings and engage the rank and file in discussions. In late 1941, a circular was sent by YCL leaders to its branches:
“We are too tolerant of these people. They are allowed to sell their paper Socialist Appeal outside meetings. They have even become members of the Communist Party and YCL. We must be utterly ruthless with these people. They spread confusion amongst the working class and do serious harm to our party.” (Quoted in Socialist Appeal, December 1941)
Dozens of reports were made to the WIL headquarters of Stalinist attacks and paper-snatching, from Liverpool, Birmingham, Wimbledon, Wood Green, Ilford, Stoll and Chiswick, to name a few. An article outlining these incidents appeared in the January 1942 issue of the Appeal. The report from Liverpool explained, “Replying in the only way such near-fascist methods deserve, the Stalinist was soon on the floor, not much hurt, but certainly disinclined to try any more funny business.” This issue of increasing Stalinist violence, which was akin to the methods of fascist reaction, was also discussed at the Political Bureau of the WIL in January 1942. The minutes record the advice to be given to comrades:
“Discussion on how to counter Stalinist hooligan tactics. Task was not to over-reach. Be friendly, even joke—stop things coming to a clash. Of course, if assaulted the comrades to protect themselves.” It concluded with the instruction, “Don’t call the police.” (Political Bureau minutes, January 3 1942)
In general, the WIL comrades responded magnificently, turning the political attacks to their advantage. They turned the tables on their attackers. For instance, Socialist Appeal counter-attacked with a leaflet entitled, Clear out the bosses’ agents, exposing the strike-breaking policies of the Communist Party. In its issue of September 1942, the paper offered a £10 reward to “any member of the CP who can show any page of this pamphlet [Clear out Hitler’s agents] which does not contain a minimum of five lies.” Needless to say, the reward remains unclaimed to this very day.
Growth of the WIL
From eight or so members in January 1938, the WIL had grown to around 300 members by their first national conference in August 1942. It was held in the Holborn Hall in London, attended by some 120 delegates and visitors. It was here that the document Preparing for power was debated and enthusiastically endorsed. In preparation for this important conference a Central Committee meeting was held on June 27 for which Ted was asked by the Political Bureau to draft a resolution on military policy. The RSL, the official section of the Fourth International, plagued by factionalism, had, by this time, to all intents and purposes collapsed.
The WIL had been proved absolutely correct in breaking with the old “Militant Group” and launching out on its own. It was proved correct in practice for the comrades to turn their back on the Trotskyist sects and their “fusion conference”. The WIL was built on the rock solid foundations of Marxist theory, flexible tactics and confidence in the future. The group was now conducting the most successful work in the war of any Trotskyist group in the world. This was due to a correct political line and the assembling of a core of leading comrades that were self-sacrificing and dedicated to the cause of world socialism. Key amongst them was Ted Grant who above all else grasped the ideas and methods of genuine Trotskyism. Today these ideas and traditions are being advanced by the International Marxist Tendency—a real testament to the work and heritage of comrade Ted Grant.
“Our untrained and untested organisation will, within a few years at most, be hurled into the turmoil of the revolution. The problem of the organisation, the problem of building the party, goes hand in hand with the mobilisation of the masses…”—explained Ted—“Every member must raise himself or herself to the understanding that the key to world history lies in our hands. The conquest of power is on the order of the day in Britain—but only if we find the road to the masses.” (Preparing for power, June 1942)
Rob Sewell, July 2010