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Militant after Grant: the unbroken thread?

Colin Lloyd and Richard Brenner

An analysis of the claims to orthodox Trotskyism by the Militant Tendency and Ted Grant, by Colin Lloyd and Richard Brenner

“No other tendency of the right or the left has had the same honest, earnest and open approach to discussion. In contrast to the Stalinists and the ultra left sects, all of whom have made an industry out of hiding their previous mistakes and theoretical somersaults, there are none of the writings or speeches of Ted Grant that the author would not be prepared to re-issue and debate”

John Pickard, Introduction to Ted Grant’s The Unbroken Thread 1989

The leaders of Militant used to boast that only their tendency could reprint its past positions with pride.

Today Militant is careful to avoid such claims. Small wonder. Since 1989 Militant has undergone a profound re-orientation. The Militant Tendency in Britain has split. This, in turn, led to a split in their international current, the Committee for a Workers’ International. The expulsion of Militant’s founder and chief theoretician Ted Grant signalled the abandonment of a key tenet of their political strategy.

The current that had insisted on the need for socialists to undertake long term participation in the Labour Party is today committed to constructing an alternative party to Labour, taking every available opportunity to stand against Labour in elections.

Other changes have accompanied this shift. The current which once regarded the struggles of lesbians and gay men with unconcealed contempt is now forthright in its expressions of solidarity with their fight against discrimination, bigotry and oppression. Whilst in the 1980s Militant opposed attempts to establish a Black Section within the Labour Party on the grounds that it would “divide the working class”, today it promotes its own black front organisation, replete with the slogans and symbolism of the Black Panther movement of the 1960s.

The current which once justly regarded the idea of a separate Scottish or Welsh revolutionary organisation as a concession to bourgeois nationalism today has its own, nominally separate, Scottish section.

How has the current Militant leadership explained these changes in political orientation? Quite simply it has not.

The editorial in Militant which announced the expulsion of Ted Grant and his supporters depicted the split as a semi-political “parting of the ways” with an out-of-touch old guard.1 It is not surprising that the leadership of Militant have failed to account satisfactorily for their break with Grant. Any such analysis would demonstrate that while a particular tactical consequence of Grant’s method has been adjusted to meet the circumstances facing the tendency in the 1990s, the source of Militant’s problems lies not in this or that tactic but in the essence of Grant’s method itself. It is this that remains unexamined, unchallenged and uncorrected.

In this article we aim to examine the fundamentals of Grant’s method. We argue that it represented a direct break with Trotskyism, not an application or development of Trotskyism to meet post-war conditions.

While Grant’s method was elaborated to justify the distinctive attitude of the Militant tendency to British Labourism, it has led to a revision of the Marxist understanding of the relationship between revolutionary socialists and the working class, with grave consequences for programme and practice. Finally, we demonstrate how the core errors of Grantism remain deeply lodged within the politics of Militant, ensuring not only that the tendency is unable to free itself from the legacy of opportunism, but that further instability and crises are guaranteed.

The Trotskyist entry tactic

Militant’s strategy for achieving mass influence through the construction of a tendency within the Labour Party achieved notoriety in the late 1970s, and resulted in a highly publicised purge and expulsions from the party throughout the 1980s. This is commonly referred to as entrism, a term used by the Trotskyists in the 1930s.

After 1934 Trotsky developed a tactic involving the total entry of his supporters into social democratic and centrist parties.2 Faced with an influx of radicalised workers into these parties the Trotskyists entered them, fought for their programme, created open tendencies and factions, and grew significantly. Inevitably, within one or two years of uncompromising opposition, the Trotskyists were subject to bureaucratic measures and expulsions. Faced with the choice between diluting their programme or expulsion, those who followed Trotsky’s advice chose the open road, recognising entrism as a necessarily temporary tactic.

As Trotsky wrote in the French Trotskyists’ internal bulletin:

“We say openly to our friends: Defend your place in the SFIO zealously, but be prepared for independent struggle if it is forced upon us—and it looks as though that will be the case. How can we avoid saying that openly?

The Spartacists’ [a centrist faction in the SFIO] notion that it is necessary to remain inside the SFIO at any cost is treachery. The reformists say, we will do everything within the framework of bourgeois legality. But bourgeois legality allows ‘everything’ except the most important things. Blum’s legality is nothing but a reflection of bourgeois legality. It allows you to do, or rather to say, ‘everything’ except those things that would effectively oppose imperialist patriotism. . . Those who say ‘we will forego telling the masses the truth about the latest social-democratic treachery so as not to be expelled from the party led by the social patriots’ become the witting accomplices of these traitors.”3

The failure of the French Trotskyists to follow this advice promptly, and the vacillation of sections of the their leadership, greatly weakened their ability to intervene as an independent force in the mass workers’ struggles of 1936.4

The key lesson Trotsky drew from this experience was that entry involved an open fight for revolutionary ideas, and could not be expected to last indefinitely:

“Entry into a reformist centrist party in itself does not include a long term perspective. It is only a stage which, under certain conditions, can be limited to an episode. . . To recognise in time the bureaucracy’s decisive attack against the left wing and defend ourselves from it, not by making concessions, adapting or playing hide and seek, but by a revolutionary offensive.”5

Ted Grant and the entry tactic

The Militant Tendency was to reproduce many of Trotsky’s most important writings on entrism in a pamphlet entitled Problems of Entrism.6 In developing his attitude towards entrism in the British Labour Party, Grant found it necessary to distinguish his approach from that adopted by his principal rival on the post-war far left—Gerry Healy. Although Healy’s group later evolved into the Workers Revolutionary Party, it spent the 1950s engaged in entry work within the Labour Party.

Grant’s opposition to Healy went back a long way. Together with Jock Haston, Grant had led the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) in the 1940s. With support from the leadership of the post-war Fourth International, Healy had split the RCP with the aim of carrying out entry into the Labour Party. But Healy’s brand of entrism was not guided by the principled approach that had been developed and fought for by Trotsky during the “French Turn”. Quite the contrary. As Grant was to write in May 1970:

“At no time did [the post war Trotskyists] maintain the clear programme of Marxism, but on the contrary adopted the programme of adaptation to reformist individuals who represented no-one but themselves. They adopted what they called a policy of ‘deep entrism’ . . . The attempt (partially successful) to paint themselves as left reformists (in adaptation to the milieu) did result in their becoming to a large extent ‘left reformists’.”7

Grant correctly pinpointed Healy’s error. Since 1949 the Healy faction had taken a deeply opportunist course. Secretly constituted, “The Club” as Healy’s group called itself, established a joint organisation with left reformists known as the Socialist Fellowship. It produced a paper which was deliberately “non-Trotskyist”, Socialist Outlook.

Deep entrism involved abandoning the fight for a revolutionary programme in order not to “obstruct” the task of organising the left reformist current around Aneurin Bevan. Thus Healy could write that the strikebreaking and Cold War-mongering Labour Government of 1945-51 gave “glimpses of what a Labour regime could accomplish and even more, what a socialist future could bring.” For the Healyites, the Labour Party became not a bourgeois party based on the support of the working masses, but a potential instrument for achieving socialism. The lesson drawn from the experience of the Attlee government was to “use that instrument to fulfil its socialist purposes.”8

Grant was able to level justified criticism at Healy’s entry project. But his critique was partial and incomplete. It did not identify and overcome the essential errors of method that lay at the heart of Healy’s opportunist approach. This was to have grave consequences for Grant’s own experience with the Labour Party over the decades to come.

Grant rejected “deep entry”, by which he meant Healy’s practice of covert organisation and a formal merging of banners with the reformist left wing in a common organisation. But Grant’s approach nevertheless differed sharply from Trotsky’s. He did not deny this. He insisted that, unlike the situation facing the French Trotskyists in the 1930s, in post-war war Britain “the classic conditions for entry work do not exist.”

In his opposition document of 1991, The New Turn—A Threat to Forty Years’ Work, Grant explicitly reaffirmed this view. He wrote:

“For 40 years we have worked in the Labour Party. For the whole of that time the classical conditions for entrism, laid down by Trotsky, have been absent.”9

He always maintained that entrism was applicable for different reasons.

Writing in 1970 of his political enemies’ attempts at entrism, Grant declared:

“Not only in Britain, where they never assimilated the lessons from their experiences, but wherever they have operated the tactics, they have failed dismally in the objectives they set themselves.

This was because of the long economic upswing of the major capitalist countries which led during the quarter century to a renewal of social democracy in such countries as Germany and Britain, and of Stalinism in such countries as France and Italy. Due to their theoretical impasse, and the objective situation itself, the US [United Secretariat] tendency evolved a theory of general entry into the Social Democratic and the Communist Parties, whichever was stronger. This was the correct tactic under the conditions. But unfortunately, as in Britain, they operated an opportunist tactic . . . Entrism was imposed by the objective situation and the weakness of the revolutionary forces, but they operated it in a purely opportunist fashion.”10

For Trotsky a swing to the left on the part of the masses and an influx of radicalised workers and youth into the social democracy was a condition for an entry tactic that would be “only a stage which, under certain conditions, can be limited to an episode”.

For Grant, entry would be based on the unfavourable conditions of economic upswing and expansion in the major European capitalist countries which had stabilised the mass reformist parties. There was one obvious conclusion to draw from this, and Grant drew it. Instead of the “classical” entry tactic designed to win forces to a new revolutionary party on a short time scale, the “general” entry tactic envisaged a protracted period of work within the mass party.

This in turn led to the conclusion that far from recognising the decisive attack of the reformist bureaucracy in time and preparing for a split and independence, the Marxists should remain within the party at all costs until conditions had “matured”. From a tactic to be applied under specific conditions and with strictly circumscribed goals, entrism had been converted into a universally applicable strategy.

The masses “inevitably” turn to Labour

Grant developed a “theoretical” justification for the policy of general entry. This is best expressed in Problems of Entrism, where Grant wrote:

“All history demonstrates that, at the first stages of revolutionary upsurge, the masses turn to the mass organisations to try and find a solution for their problems, especially the young generation, entering politics for the first time”.11

This schema found its way, time and again, into the documents of the Grant-led Militant Tendency. The following, from the Tendency’s 1979 British Perspectives, is typical:

“In the course of [the coming] struggles the working class will find that industrial action is not enough to solve their problems, and that political action is necessary. Once they take the road of political action, there is only one way in which they can go, and that is to try to change the organisation that was built up by the Trade Unions, to move into the Labour Party with the purpose of transforming it to meet their needs.”12

This perspective, which Grant maintained had all the force of a historical law, was a mechanical schema.

When the workers take to the road of political action there is more than “one way in which they can go”. Under certain conditions the masses will exert pressure on existing reformist parties and occasionally join them in large numbers in search of political solutions. But in other circumstances they can look to political alternatives, provided such alternatives are made available to them.

For a short period in the 1980s it appeared to many that Grant’s schema had paid off. Grant’s tendency stood at the head of an active Labour Party Young Socialists numbering thousands, and at the head of Liverpool City Council’s struggle against Tory ratecapping—a struggle which mobilised tens of thousands of working class people.

But in both cases Militant’s commitment to the entry strategy led to serious tactical errors and ultimately a failure to utilise the struggle to strengthen their own organisation.

Grant’s schema was responsible for squandering these opportunities, eventually culminating in the Tendency’s split in 1991.

According to Grant, if it was necessary to stay in the Labour Party at all costs, unnecessary conflicts with the Labour bureaucracy had be avoided, their “provocations” declined.

The reason given was always the same. In 1959 Grant had answered the notion that the tendency might be able to win gains through independent work with the words “any such gains would be disproportionate to the future possibilities in the Labour Party”.14 In the 1980s, on every occasion that the bureaucracy provoked a conflict, a Militant counter-offensive was postponed until a supposedly more propitious occasion.

This became clear as the Labour leadership moved to break Militant’s influence over the Labour Party Young Socialists. On the grounds that the large and active LPYS was “moribund”, the Labour leaders proposed demolishing the independent organisational structure of the LPYS, scrapping regional conferences and lowering the age limit for the organisation, thereby removing its established leaders and organisers.

Clearly this attack demanded total and uncompromising opposition from the left. But Militant, whose main source of recruitment and sole representative on the NEC were attributable to their majority control of the LPYS, equivocated.

On the oft-repeated grounds that “whatever action is taken by the right-wing they will fail. If they do not witch hunt us we will gain influence. If they do witch-hunt us we will grow in influence”, they convinced themselves that the threat was insubstantial.

At the LPYS Conference in 1987, Militant argued that the Sawyer proposals, far from being a serious assault designed to wreck the LPYS, provided “an opportunity to have a full discussion on building a mass socialist youth movement.”

Sadly a “discussion” was not what Sawyer and Kinnock had in mind. The 12,000 strong youth organisation was smashed. In its place the annual Militant-sponsored Youth Trade Union Rights Campaign conference could muster only a fraction of the LPYS’s former strength. The result of strategic entrism was not the extension of the tendency’s influence among the youth, but its dissipation.15

Still more devastating was the Militant leadership’s squandering of their influence in Liverpool, an influence that they had painstakingly established over years of persistent work.

Peter Taaffe and Tony Mulhearn of Militant provide all the evidence for this in their self-serving account Liverpool: The City that Dared to Fight.

In 1985, at the height of the struggle, the Deputy Leader of Liverpool City Council, Derek Hatton, was openly considering the possibility of leading a split in the Labour Party based on Militant’s tremendous influence in the Liverpool District Labour Party. Hatton estimated that around 10,000 could be broken from the official party if a firm lead was given. But, as Taaffe and Mulhearn explain:

“An ‘independent’ DLP would undoubtedly meet with initial success, [the Militant Editorial Board argued], in the short term, but would have undermined the long term struggle to transform the Labour Party in a leftward direction . . . They argued that for one worker who had supported the ‘independent’ DLP, there would be another five, ten and perhaps one hundred at a later stage who would move into the official Labour Party. These workers would be denied contact with the best fighters who would have constituted themselves into an ‘independent’ DLP.”18

Could the Liverpool events have led to a mass working class leftward split from Labour? It was certainly possible. But one thing is certain. Today, over two years after breaking from the Labour Party,. Militant’s leadership must be wishing they had taken with them even a fraction of the 10,000 gains they dismissed so lightly in 1985.

For then a split would have been on their terms, when they still controlled the LPYS, when the party ranks were still alive with political discussion and debate, when Kinnock had not yet completed his destruction of the left and the democratic gains of the rank and file. Instead, when the split came, its results were to demonstrate only too clearly that it was a result of weakness, not of strength.

In both Liverpool and the LPYS Militant clung to Labour’s bureaucratic structures, missing key tactical opportunities to make real advances in the creation of independent, subjectively revolutionary, workers’ organisations. In both cases their politics led them to preside over needless defeats. In the case of Liverpool the defeat lay not just in the missing of an opportunity to lead a split from Labour. Militant’s fear of splitting the Liverpool working class led them to kow-tow to labour movement and bourgeois legality at the crucial moment when generalised strike action could have been launched.

The objective process replaces the revolutionary subject

What led Grant and his supporters to mis-apply the entry tactic so systematically?

The whole schema of strategic entrism was itself based on a deeper methodological error. Grant’s conviction that the masses would flood into the Labour Party at the onset of any major upsurge, and that the task of Marxists was to remain in the party at all costs, was integrally linked to his understanding of the development of class consciousness.

For Grant, the development of class consciousness is a mainly automatic process, carried out by objective developments themselves. This viewpoint is clearly summed-up in Militant’s 1979 British Perspectives:

“Now in every field . . . Mrs Thatcher has sown the seeds of Marxism, sown the seeds of socialist revolution. The ground has been ploughed for the ideas of Marxism. The broad consciousness of the masses has been changed; as Marxism has always explained it is conditions which determine consciousness. But even given all these factors, as Marx, Lenin and Trotsky explained, due to the process of struggle itself, the broad consciousness of the masses moves in the direction of socialism.”19

This is a one sided generalisation. Marxism teaches that social being—the “conditions” Grant refers to—determine consciousness. But this determination does not occur in a direct, unmediated fashion.

The objective situation—the emerging contradictions of the world capitalist system and sharpening class struggle—present the working class with tremendous opportunities; yet these opportunities do not automatically resolve themselves in revolutionary victories. In conditions of the breakdown of social order and intense class struggle, the mass of the working class will often spontaneously gravitate towards socialist ideas. But they will not necessarily or inevitably do so.

Other ideologies can appear to offer a way out, for example fundamentalism in Iran, bourgeois democracy and nationalism in Eastern Europe. Contrary to Grant’s claim, Marx, Lenin and Trotsky all recognised that the process of the class struggle alone would be insufficient to raise the consciousness and action of the workers to their historic tasks.

Unless a revolutionary party, founded on scientific socialist principles and with deep roots in the masses, is able to wrest leadership of the movement from the reformist misleaders such struggles will go down to defeat. The objective conditions provide the terrain on which the working class fight. The party provides the leadership capable of bringing such a fight to victory.

Marx revealed why the working class, despite its historic role as the gravedigger of capitalism, should nevertheless be receptive to the ideology of reformism. He understood why the working class is often prepared to limit even exceptionally bitter, protracted and violent struggles to the aim of achieving justice and restitution for its wrongs within the capitalist system. He explained in Capital that the exploitative essence of the relation between the worker and capitalist is masked by the supposed equality between the “partners” in the work process—the bourgeois who supplies the capital, tools etc, and the proletarian who supplies the labour:.

It was no accident that while working class resistance developed spontaneously, in the form of the trade union struggle to win better terms for the sale of the workers’ labour power to the capitalists, revolutionary communist ideas did not emerge spontaneously. They were developed by subjective, revolutionary socialist leaders of the emerging workers’ movement, in a struggle with the bourgeoisie’s most radical ideas in the sphere of economics, politics and philosophy.

It was this that led Lenin to declare:

“. . . the spontaneous development of the working class movement leads to its subordination to bourgeois ideology . . . for the spontaneous working class movement is trade unionism . . . and trade unionism means the ideological enslavement of the workers by the bourgeoisie.”21

These views have always been an offence to centrists such as Grant. Far from Grant’s view that the process of struggle itself would develop the consciousness of the masses alone, Lenin insisted again and again that revolutionaries, while never cutting themselves off from the mass movement, would need to combat the spontaneous tendency to reformism and infuse the movement with an appreciation of its historic tasks.

In place of the dialectical approach of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, Grant introduced an exceptionally crude model for the development of the class consciousness of the workers. Under British conditions he predicted that, as the capitalist crisis unfolded and sharpened, the Labour Party, as the political expression of the workers’ struggle for reforms, would simply be pressured to move ever further to the left. The right wing would be obliterated by the very contradictions of capitalism.

Thus in 1983, just prior to the onset of Kinnock’s eight year march to the right, he wrote in Militant’s British Perspectives that:

“The old Labour right is finished because, in a historical sense, their role is played out.”23

The inability of British capitalism to guarantee reforms was therefore taken to mean that the entire role of the right was exhausted.

But the Labour right do not exist simply to obtain reforms in periods of capitalist expansion. They exist to discipline the working class, to subordinate its struggle to the interests of the capitalists. It is this that Grant “overlooked” in his analysis.

When the old right were replaced by the new right under Kinnock and Hattersley, Grant failed to appreciate what was happening. Instead of preparing his supporters for a struggle that could culminate in a split, he insisted that nothing would go wrong, because nothing could go wrong:

“The objective situation is moving in the direction of Marxism and the subjective situation as well . . . If the Tories win [the election] . . . Marxism will gain. But if Labour wins Marxism will gain even more.”24

Where did Grant get this fatalistic view of the development of class consciousness from, if not from Marx, Lenin or Trotsky? It was derived from the chief theoretician of the centrist Fourth International in the post-war years, Michel Pablo.

What Grant adopted from Pablo

Ted Grant was the victim of the early bureaucratic degeneration of the FI’s leadership, which allowed Gerry Healy to split the British RCP over the question of Labour Party entry work and to emerge, at the head of the clandestine Trotskyist “Club” inside the Labour Party as the authoritative leader of British Trotskyism in the early 1950s.

But when the FI split in 1953 Healy found himself on the wrong side of the same international leadership which had fostered his rise. Michel Pablo, the International Secretary of the FI, found himself without a British section. Grant, who had been in a political wilderness since the split with Healy, formed the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL) group which became the British affiliate to the Pablo-led International Secretariat of the FI, carrying out entry work in the Labour Party.

Throughout the 1950s Grant’s RSL maintained an uneasy co-existence with another group of Pablo’s supporters, the so-called International Group whose leaders were the fore-runners of the IMG, Socialist Challenge, Socialist Outlook tradition in later decades. Twice during this period Grant’s group attempted fusion into a single British section of the ISFI. These attempts came to an end in 1964 when Grant definitively broke with the USFI, both internationally and with its British section, over the order to begin work independent of the Labour Party.

Thus it is no accident to find Grant’s politics stamped with the hallmark of Pablo’s developing centrism, even if Grant was to give Pablo’s method an added centrist twist of his own devising.

The essentials of Pablo’s position were based on a misreading of the objective situation after the war: namely that World War Three was imminent, that it would be a “war-revolution” with the Stalinist bureaucracies inevitably playing a revolutionary role, and that the inevitable victory of the Stalinist camp condemned humanity to “centuries of deformed workers’ states”. Grant was critical of this perspective from the beginning. As far as can be seen he remained critical of this perspective even though he came to accept Pablo’s tactical conclusions.

Pablo’s catastrophism about the world situation certainly did not lead him, initially, in the direction of a policy of general entry into mass workers’ parties. He believed, wrongly, that in certain countries the Fourth International’s sections no longer faced the obstacle of mass reformist parties and could grow directly from the expected mass radicalisation. Amazingly he included Britain in this judgement as late as 1951.25

However, where conditions did necessitate entry, Pablo insisted that the classic Trotskyist entry tactic was not appropriate. Outlining a new tactic—“entrism of a special type”—Pablo made it clear that the purpose of revolutionaries was neither to split the mass reformist parties in the short term, nor to fight for a distinct revolutionary programme, nor even, despite the “coming war”, to fight for an international programme.

Pablo’s starting point was that with the onset of crisis the reformist mass parties,

“whether they wish it or not, will be obliged to give a leftward turn to the policy of the whole or at least a part of their leadership”.

Generalising from the British experience Pablo concluded that:

“Bevanism, varying in scale from one country to another, is an inevitable phenomenon for the present conjuncture for all these Socialist parties.”26

Left reformism, which Pablo incorrectly described as centrism, was regarded as an inevitable stage of the development of mass revolutionary consciousness. Thus Pablo concluded:

“What is certain is that it will first be necessary to go through the experience of penetrating [Bevanism] and helping it from the inside to develop to its last resources and consequences.”27

Pablo brazenly explained what this meant for the application of the entry tactic:

“We are not entering these parties in order to come out of them soon. We are entering them in order to remain there for a long time, banking on the great possibility which exists of seeing these parties placed under new conditions, develop centrist tendencies which will lead a whole stage of radicalisation of the masses and of the objective revolutionary processes in their respective countries . . . Every manoeuvre and every policy which runs the risk of prematurely cutting us off from the great mass of these parties must be considered false . . . the great danger is to advance too fast, to mistake the movements of a limited vanguard for the radicalisation and revolt of the great mass”.28

This had implications not just for tactics, but for programme. According to Pablo:

“[Our] platform can be summarized in the formula: THE SOCIALIST PARTY ALONE TO POWER IN ORDER TO APPLY A SOCIALIST POLICY. Starting from the demands formulated by the reformist leaders for ‘a more equitable division of the re-armament costs’ our organisations in the SP must elaborate a platform of concrete measures (confiscation of the profits of rearmament and of war, nationalisation without compensation of the war industries; sliding scale of wages; workers’ control of production; price control through housewives’ committees, the nationalisation of the banks and basic industries; a plan for the welfare of the people) . . . which corresponds with the preoccupation of the large masses.”

Despite Pablo’s entire premise being the onset of war between the West and the USSR he advised the entrist FI sections not to make key Marxist positions on the coming war the centre of their agitation. Instead of “Defend the USSR”, he wrote:

“our platform on international issues must be summarised as follows: LET US STRUGGLE FOR A SOCIALIST ENGLAND, FOR A SOCIALIST GERMANY etc.”

Pablo’s rationale for this systematic opportunism was that getting the masses to take a concrete step forward was a task “to which the general propaganda work must be subordinated”. The movement became everything, the goal nothing.

In summary, Pablo introduced a political schema in which crisis leads inevitably to a leftward shift by the Labour leaders; the masses embrace, as an inevitable stage, a centrist programme and leadership; the Trotskyists have to “develop” this process, tailoring the transitional programme around the strategic objective not of soviet power but of a Labour government committed to socialist policies; revolutionary defeatism in war is hidden behind a nationally centred programme.

This should by now be familiar. The essence of this centrist approach was adopted wholesale by Grant.

Grant’s “transitional” programme

We have seen how Grant rejected Trotsky’s approach to entrism, adopting instead the notion of remaining in the mass parties at all costs. We have seen too that Grant was highly critical of Healy’s abandonment of an independent programme.

Militant, throughout its decades in the Labour Party, presented its own distinct programme, identifying itself clearly with certain central demands such as the nationalisation under workers’ control of the top 200 monopolies.

But while Grant avoided adopting a common programme with left reformists, he nevertheless engaged in a systematic programmatic compromise with reformism and with the existing consciousness of the masses. This took place not by refraining from advancing a programme at all, but by modifying his programme so that it embodied a compromise between Marxism and reformism.

Militant’s programme, hammered into shape in numerous Where We Stand documents and re-affirmed time and again at LPYS Conferences throughout the 1970s and 1980s, was nothing more than a list of demands on the Labour Party. Militant’s strategic slogan was, and remained for nearly 40 years, “Labour to Power on a Socialist Programme”.

What is striking about Pablo’s outline of a programme for “entry of a special type” is the absence of the revolutionary mainspring of the method of the transitional programme.

Trotsky’s 1938 Transitional Programme was a series of demands designed to lead the masses from their daily struggles against exploitation and oppression towards the struggle for power. 29 Starting from the tactics and methods of struggle necessary to advance the fight for even the most partial demands, it leads on to the questions of soviets, the workers’ militia and workers’ control of production. While Trotsky never ruled out raising any of the slogans in the programme as demands on the reformist leaders, the programme was never designed solely or primarily for this purpose. It was conceived as a manual of action for millions of workers, not just for the struggle to impose “Marxist policies” via resolutions to the conferences of the reformist parties.

Both Pablo and Grant turned the programme into precisely such a series of demands on reformist parties. But in the process they were obliged to lop off the crowning point of the transitional programme—soviets and the workers’ militia. Likewise, Pablo and Grant abandoned the practical fight for workers to take the first steps towards the achievement of these demands, through attempts to build embryonic workers’ defence organisations, factory committees and committees of action in concrete struggles.

This was explained away by Grant as a necessary adaptation of the programme to the consciousness of the masses as it existed in non-revolutionary conditions in the West. Instead of counterposing revolutionary methods and goals of struggle to those of the reformists, the transitional programme was regarded as a means of obscuring “difficult” questions which the workers’ existing reformist consciousness was not ready to accept.

This completely misconstrued the method of Trotsky’s programme. Trotsky explained to an American audience, in one commentary on the programme, that the US workers had not attained a high level of political consciousness:

“What can a revolutionary party do in this situation? In the first place give a clear, honest picture of the objective situation, of the historic tasks which flow from this situation, irrespective of whether or not the workers are today ready for this. Our tasks don’t depend on the mentality of the workers. The task is to develop the mentality of the workers. Some will say: good, the programme is a scientiflc program; it corresponds to the objective situation—but if the workers won’t accept the programme, it will be sterile. Possibly. But this signifies only that the workers will be crushed, since the crisis can’t be solved any other way but by the socialist revolution. If the American worker will not accept the programme in time, he will be forced to accept the programme of fascism.”30

Trotsky was insistent that the consciousness of the masses could be changed, provided only that the revolutionaries did not adapt their programme to the masses’ existing prejudices and political backwardness:

“That is why all the arguments that we cannot present such a programme because the programme doesn’t correspond to the mentality of the workers are false . . . The class consciousness of the proletariat is backward, but consciousness is not such a substance as the factories, the mines, the railroads; it is more mobile, and under the blows of the objective crisis, the millions of unemployed, it can change rapidly.”31

Militant’s version of the “transitional” programme was systematically adapted to reformist ideas. In every sphere–from workers’ control of production, through to the questions of war, state and government–Militant’s leaders altered Trotsky’s transitional demands in order to obscure the distinction between reform and revolution.

Theory of the state

Pablo, in the early days at least, expected some form of revolutionary struggle, indeed an international revolutionary war. Grant, whose support for entrism flowed from the absence of such struggles, had to make the programmatic adaptation theoretically consistent. So he developed his supposed major contribution to Marxism: the idea that, in Britain, the road to socialism could be peaceful as long as the working class was mobilised and vigilant in defence of a socialist Labour government.

It is enough here to give only one citation to prove the point. In the 1985 version of What We Stand For, under the chapter heading “Peaceful Transformation” Militant’s programme stated:

“All the scheming and conspiracies of the capitalists can come to nothing on the basis of a bold socialist policy backed by mass mobilisation of the labour movement. An entirely peaceful transformation of society is possible in Britain, but only on condition that the full power of the labour movement is boldly used to effect this change.”32

This theoretical revision of Marxism, backed up with a number of spurious arguments, came to be the programmatic hallmark of the Militant Tendency. It allowed the Militant tendency to clothe itself as merely a left wing version of Clause Four reformism, distinguished by its commitment only to an undefined “mass mobilisation”.

A fuller treatment of this question, dealing with the tortuous justifications of Militant’s leadership for this reformist utopia, has been presented in a previous issue of Permanent Revolution .33

As to the question of government, Militant’s adaptation to reformism expressed itself through the slogan, derived directly from Pablo, of “Labour to power on a socialist programme”.

This was born as an opportunist variant of the Communist International’s slogan for a “workers’ government”.

The Comintern recognised that under all conditions it would be necessary for communists to make propaganda against the fraud of bourgeois parliaments, and for a government based on democratic workers’ councils and a workers’ militia. But they did not rest content with this alone. They also recognised that under certain conditions, namely those of heightened revolutionary struggle, it could be necessary for communists to demand of a reformist government that it break with the capitalist class and form a government accountable to the organisations of the workers in struggle.

Reformist parties in power establish themselves at the head of capitalist governments. All historical experience testifies to this. Yet where they claim to represent the workers during a revolutionary crisis, the demand for a workers’ government can be used as a call for them to:

“. . . arm the proletariat, to disarm bourgeois, counter-revolutionary organisations, to introduce the control of production, to transfer the main burden of taxation to the rich, and to break the resistance of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie.

Such a workers’ government is only possible if it is born out of the struggle of the masses, is supported by workers’ bodies that are capable of fighting, bodies created by the most oppressed sections of the working masses.”34

To demand “Labour to power on a socialist programme” under present conditions, for example, is wrong on two counts. First, Labour does not have a socialist programme. And—as Militant have discovered—due to the regime and the absence of a new or radical milieu among the party membership there are no means for altering this.

Secondly there is no pre-revolutionary situation, no soviets, militia or even the embryos of them, which could become an alternative power base for the workers’ government.

Far from being an application of the workers’ government tactic, which is designed to expose the bourgeois character of the reformist government and mobilise the masses in the fight for working class power, the Pablo/Grant approach systematically confuses the bourgeois Labour government with a workers’ government. It is correct for Trotskyists to campaign to return the Labour Party to power in elections and formulate demands on them to act in the interests of the masses. But to encourage the notion that a Labour government would be anything other than a bosses’ government, unless it disarmed the capitalists and transferred power to workers’ councils, is a massive adaptation to reformism.

Effects of Militant’s adaptation

Militant’s adaptation to reformism on governmental slogans reverberated throughout the rest of its programme.

Even the demand for workers’ control had its revolutionary mainspring removed by Militant, being posed as a left wing version of workers’ participation under the formula:

“The management and control of [nationalised industries] to be vested in democratically elected boards with one-third of the places coming from the unions in the industry, one-third from the TUC representing the working class as a whole and one-third coming from the government.”35

As a transitional demand the call for workers’ control should be aimed at building factory level committees to exercise, in the first place, a workers’ veto over management decisions, to develop the independent organisation and activity of the working class and to give rise, in Trotsky’s words, to “dual power in the factory”.

It is applicable not only to big nationalised companies but also to the smallest, least unionised sweatshop. Militant’s distortion of this key demand is a good example of the effect of tailoring transitional demands to the “Labour to power” strategy. It was designed to give the impression that the British working class could take key steps—not just along the road to power but to the achievement of socialism—with its reformist institutions intact.

Another abiding feature of Militant’s politics under Grant was its failure to address itself to the struggles of the socially oppressed, their specific concerns and organisations.

It is a fact that the first 267 issues of Militant, up to 1975, contained only four articles on women. When Militant did produce material on the woman question, it did so in the form of a pamphlet issued by the Labour Students’ South West Region.36 This pamphlet reeks of a musty economism learned from the Labour and Stalinist organisations of the 1950s.

While correctly demanding free childcare, abortion on demand and the abolition of domestic labour, the whole focus, once the pamphlet turns from economic issues, shies away from challenging the sexist ideology which results from social oppression and manifests itself in the workers’ movement:

“. . . whilst socialists should certainly adopt a sensitive and conscious attitude to all expressions of discrimination and prejudice, it would be a mistake to be drawn into a campaign against the superficial manifestations of sexual inequality to the detriment (sic) of explaining and fighting against the conditions from which they arise.

Campaigns against ‘sexism’ and ‘male chauvinism’ inevitably reflect, albeit unconsciously, the assumption that women’s greatest enemy is “man” . . . [human prejudice] cannot be eradicated by preaching and denunciation, which if anything, will tend to reinforce them . . . as soon as the workers are involved in class action all the apparently indelible prejudices of the past begin to be washed off very rapidly.”37

This was a reactionary approach hiding behind a one-sided argument. There is no reason why a fight against every manifestation of prejudice should take place at the expense of fighting their root causes in the capitalist system—unless Marxists leave the whole question for the reformists to take the initiative, in which case such an outcome is guaranteed.

Nor is it true that the struggle against sexism inevitably leads to the idea that men are the enemy, any more than the fight against racism leads to the same conclusions about white workers. The revolutionary socialist vanguard has to take the fight against oppression into the working class organisations, whether or not that in the short term “reinforces” the prejudice of some.

Nor is it true that the prejudices “wash off very rapidly” simply as a result of unity in action. Unity in action provides the basis for this, but the conscious, subjective struggle—which Grant always left to the developing objective conditions—is also essential.

This same pamphlet also reveals Militant’s formerly disdainful attitude to the struggle against lesbian and gay oppression:

“Because ‘gay rights’ have been made an issue in some student circles, it is necessary to comment in passing on Gay Liberation . . . Beyond [the struggle against legal discrimination] ‘gay liberation’ belongs to the sphere of personal relations. It is necessary to maintain a sense of proportion . . . Serious socialists will recognise that ‘gay liberation’ cannot provide the slightest social basis for an independent contribution to the labour movement.”38

Another sphere of adaptation to the existing consciousness of the working class can be seen in Militant’s attitude to war and the threat of war. In Britain’s colonial wars of intervention it adopted utterly reactionary positions. On the bogus grounds of rejecting the accommodation to the nationalist movements in the colonial and semi-colonial world that had been demonstrated by much of the international left, they went on to renege on their elementary duty to offer solidarity with those fighting British imperialism.

On the question of Ireland, Militant peddled the reactionary myth that the Republican forces were nothing more than individual terrorists and gangsters. When mass mobilisations in support of the hunger strikes in 1981 made such a position untenable, Militant argued that the violence of Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries was equally reactionary. Ignoring the justified national grievances of the Northern Irish anti-unionists and playing down the reality of discrimination against Catholics in favour of Protestants, they argued that class unity could be achieved around economic questions alone. Grant’s view that the objective process of economic struggle would produce revolutionary consciousness led him to treat the IRA’s just struggle for national liberation with unconcealed hostility.

Never once did Militant fight for, or mobilise its supporters around, the demand for Troops Out of Ireland Now, or the self-determination of the Irish nation as a whole. Indeed, Militant rejected these revolutionary democratic demands on the grounds that they could only lead to the “Lebanonisation” of Northern Ireland:

“Only on a socialist basis can partition be overcome. The reunification of the country is only possible through the unity of the working class and their organisations, Protestant and Catholic, in the north and south.”39

The unification of Ireland was seen as a function and consequence of the achievement of socialism in both states, rather than the struggle for national and democratic rights being the starting point for a strategy of working class revolution—a kind of stages theory in reverse. And by condemning the anti-unionist revolt out of hand, Militant were able to avoid “difficult” questions which might antagonise reformist workers. The job of building a truly internationalist movement in Britain would be left to the objective process of historical development.

When British imperialism went to war with Argentina in 1982, Militant’s Marxist “orthodoxy” led it to an outright social chauvinist position.

Militant refused to demand the withdrawal of British troops from the South Atlantic on the grounds that it was “impractical” and “a pacifist gesture”. They wrote:

“Marxists have to explain that the wringing of hands and pious declarations of ‘bring back the fleet’ cannot change anything”.40

Militant’s activity during that crucial imperialist adventure—an adventure which was decisive in preparing the way for the defeat of the Labour Party in 1983 and which contributed considerably to the reversal of gains in class consciousness made by the working class—was little more than propaganda. Militant supporters were not present on any of the important demonstrations called against the intervention.

Failing to understand the true nature of the conflict as a clash between a semi-colonial country and an imperialist power aiming to assert its rights in the South Atlantic and Latin America, Militant fell in with the imperialists’ propaganda and decided the real issue was the dictatorial nature of the Argentine regime. Britain’s war against Argentina was wrong, Grant claimed, because it was not carried out by a “socialist” government:

“If necessary the British workers and the Marxists will be able to wage a war against the Argentine junta to help the Argentine workers to take power into their own hands. But only a democratic socialist Britain would have clean hands. A Labour government committed to socialist policies would probably not need to wage war, but could issue a socialist appeal to the Argentine workers to overthrow the monstrous junta, take power and then organise a socialist federation of Britain and the Argentine, in conjunction with the Falkland Islands.”41

Militant International Review finally spelled out the logic of this:

“A Labour government could not just abandon the Falklanders and let Galtieri get on with it. But it would continue the war on socialist lines”.42

Thus Militant were only a change of government away from giving actual support to an imperialist military adventure. The entire “theory” was the logical outcome of a systematic adaptation to the existing consciousness of the masses, and the deliberate confusion of a Labour government with a “workers government”. The result was tantamount to class treason.

Why did Militant split?

Militant’s break with the Labour Party was not the outcome of any serious re-examination of Grant’s theory and the programmatic consequences outlined above.

Rather it was an empirical response to the changing circumstances of the British class struggle in the 1980s. When the march of history invalidated the strategy of general entrism—not in the abstract, but as a practical policy that could no longer be expected to yield results in the immediate future—Militant abandoned it.

But Militant never abandoned the opportunist method that lay at the heart of Grant’s politics, as we shall see when we come to examine their adaptation to the ideologies that have replaced or supplemented left Labourism for thousands of radicalised youth in the last five years.

First however it is necessary to account for the split in the Militant Tendency in 1991.

Grant’s schema for the transformation of the Labour Party had assumed that the British working class could take significant steps towards socialism with its present reformist institutions intact.

The 1980s were to blow this schema apart. The most important event was the defeat of the miners strike of 1984-85. The defeat of the miners unleashed two linked but separate processes:

• A rapid shift to the right of the Labour leadership, reversing all the gains made by the left in the early 1980s and destroying, step by step, the rank and file structures of the party as arenas for any kind of effective entrism

• A steady decline in trade union density and numbers, with a corresponding decline in union recognition and the role and militancy of the shop stewards as a distinct layer of industrial activists.

Emboldened by victory, Thatcher made a serious miscalculation. She moved onto an offensive against the whole working class. The Poll Tax was a class-wide attack which affected all workers and significant sectors of the middle class.

Thus the rightward shift in the Labour Party, the decline of the reformist left and the retreat in confidence and militancy of the trade unions thus took place alongside a mass radicalisation and wave of anger against the Poll Tax. With the official movement unprepared to take the lead, a golden opportunity opened up for the far left to fill the vacuum. Militant, by far the stronger of the two main British left wing groups in 1989, seized this opportunity. But instead of allowing the Tendency to capitalise on their advantage, the contradiction between the objective situation and the constraints of Grant’s schema would swiftly blow it apart.

By March 1990, through an energetic campaign directed at large working class estates and housing schemes across Britain, Militant stood at the head of a mass movement of up to eight million people committed to non-payment of the tax. Though the movement was condemned by Labour and TUC leaders alike, and was given only the most half hearted support by the Labour Left and Communist Party, it was able to organise Anti-Poll Tax Unions in every major town and city. It mobilised 250,000 people to demonstrate in central London on 31 March 1990.

At a local level the anti-Poll Tax movement had thrown up primarily estate-based rather than workplace-based committees, enabling the left, and Militant in particular, to penetrate deeper into the fabric of working class life and struggle than at any time since the miners’ strike.

Two features of Militant’s politics were primarily responsible for the fact that this opportunity to build a revolutionary party with genuine roots in the masses and with significant influence on British political life was utterly squandered.

The first was “general entrism”. As Labour opposed any active resistance to the Poll Tax, mass anger in Scotland, where the tax was introduced a year earlier than in England and Wales, was reflected in a growth of support for the Scottish National Party, the rise of a pseudo-socialist leadership in the SNP and some notable by-election victories over Labour.

In the main the new layer of activists coming forward in the anti-Poll Tax movement showed no inclination whatsoever to join Labour, and Labour was indeed keen to actively prevent it. Efforts were made, such as the attempt to join up 500 anti-Poll Tax activists to Pollock Labour Party en masse, which the Labour party simply refused to countenance, rejecting every membership application point blank.

The idea that the masses would “inevitably turn to the mass reformist party” was simply unsustainable. The unavoidable conclusion was to strike out for a new, independent, fighting workers’ party. But Militant missed the boat.

It was the largest independent grouping—the Socialist Workers Party—that benefitted most in terms of recruitment, despite their initial blunder in opposing the non-payment strategy altogether. The sight of their rivals in the SNP and SWP reaping where Militant had sown was simply too much, particularly for those Scottish branches that had won a high profile in their campaign against the tax.

As the Militant majority resolution on Scotland pointed out:

“If the SNP or SWP had led this mass movement they would have pressed home at every opportunity to urge non-payers to join their party . . . In the absence of a recognised Marxist organisation we have been left in an invidious position. Although we have made important gains in the last three years at least in certain areas some of these gains have been cancelled out, partly as a result of the complicated national and international situation. Moreover the gains we have made are as nothing compared to the potential gains to be achieved on the basis of an open banner.”43

The second feature was a result of Militant’s adaptation to the reformist pacifism of the Labourite milieu. On the 31 March 1990 Anti Poll Tax Demonstration Militant discredited themselves in the eyes of thousands of the most determined young activists. The police launched a vicious assault on the mass demonstration—an assault that was resolutely and successfully resisted by thousands of working class youth. The immediate response of Militant’s stewards was to abandon the demonstration to its own fate, thus avoiding responsibility for the “riot” that ensued. In the aftermath leading representatives of the All-Britain Federation of Anti-Poll Tax Unions condemned the demonstrators in terms that directly echoed the response of the Tory media. Tommy Sheridan, the key national spokesperson for the Federation, even went so far as to declare that the Federation would be investigating who was behind the militant resistance, and that “names will be named.” Though many Militant supporters subsequently sought to explain this away as an isolated error, the statement was never publicly repudiated by Militant. Nevertheless it caused them extreme embarrassment. Here was one speech by a leader of Militant that they would not be “prepared to re-issue and debate”.

Of course, this was no isolated error of judgement. If the programme of the Tendency had not been equivocal on the need for working class violence against the repressive apparatus of the capitalist state; if it had not sought to conceal the distinction between the utopia of peaceful reform and the necessity of violent revolution, then Sheridan’s infamous declaration would have amounted to an open renunciation of Militant’s programme.

For such an act he would have had to be expelled from Militant, or at least removed from the limelight. Instead he was elevated ever further in the organisation, becoming the figurehead and leader of Militant’s subsequent high-profile electoral campaign in Scotland.

From then on tens of thousands of youth, particularly the growing numbers infiuenced by anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism, would regard Militant with nothing short of contempt. The debacle was a direct result of Militant’s concessions to reformism on the question of the state.

Militant’s failure to recruit large numbers from their campaign against the Poll Tax was without doubt the principal circumstance that set their leadership searching for new tactics. But even then the spur to a radical departure from general entrism was to come not from within the Tendency, but from outside it.

The first steps along the road to independent electoral campaigning and a new open organisation came as a response to the actions of a layer of left reformist activists in Liverpool District Labour Party who had lost patience with the right-wing Labour leadership and its undemocratic party regime. Expelled members who were committed to a fighting policy for the Labour Group on Liverpool City Council found that the climate of witch-hunting and the gerrymandering of selection procedures by the right made inner-party struggle impossible.

Organised in the Liverpool Broad Left they took the step of standing candidates against the official Labour nominees in the May 1991 local elections. In five wards they actually won, demonstrating that such a policy could yield results.

Militant were initially cautious, but soon saw a way of recovering influence in what had once been their stronghold. In the Walton constituency, which had been the site of Militant involvement since the 1950s, the right wing had carried through a successful coup after the death of left wing MP Eric Heffer. Though Militant had never formally secured the nomination of the Constituency for a candidate of their own, they could justifiably point to the wholesale expulsion of left-wing activists from the local party as having been the precondition for the selection of hard-right candidate Peter Kilfoyle.

In a sudden break with forty years of general entrism, they put forward Militant member Lesley Mahmood as a “Real Labour” candidate and launched a high-profile campaign against both the Liberals and Kinnock’s new model Labour party.

Though this campaign was unsuccessful it marked a turning point. In response to Walton the Labour leadership de-selected Militant MPs Dave Nellist and Terry Fields. This led Militant to stand their sitting MPs as “Real Labour” candidates in the April 1992 General Election, and to put up Tommy Sheridan as a “Scottish Militant Labour” candidate in Pollock. It was on this question that Grant himself launched a faction which was driven out of the organisation in a public split in January 1992.

Militant Labour – a break with Grant’s method?

To what extent did the turn to challenging Labour electorally constitute a break with Ted Grant’s political method? Obviously in breaking with general entrism Militant had publicly slaughtered one of its most sacred cows. But in two respects—tactical and programmatic—there was a continuity of method.

On the tactical level the launch of an open electoral organisation had taken place under far less propitious circumstances than had existed on several occasions in the 1980s. Already for years Labour Party membership had been plummeting as activists disgusted with Kinnock’s inaction over the Poll Tax and support for the Gulf War resigned from the party. The Socialist Workers Party claimed hundreds of recruits from among former Labour members. Yet Militant took next to no forces with them in their turn away from Labour.

Whereas in 1985 the Militant leadership had rejected Hatton’s proposal to split away with up to 10,000 members of the Liverpool District Labour Party, when the break finally came the gains were pitiful. Nevertheless the Tendency refrained from making any honest accounting or explanation of this. No mistakes were admitted. On the contrary, Militant attempted to maintain its adherence to Grant’s schema, claiming that the open turn was merely a;

“detour through which we can strengthen the forces which in the future will lead the transformation of the Labour Party and the trade unions.”

On the programmatic level, the break from the organisational structures of the Labour Party did not lead to a revision of Militant’s disingenuous alloying of Marxism and Labourism.

This was acutely visible in the electoral platforms advanced by the new independent candidates. Mahmood’s campaign in Walton was a case in point. Instead of taking the opportunity to make broad propaganda for socialist revolution and the need for a new party, Militant’s “Real Labour” campaign spoke of the need to return Labour to its (mythical) socialist past.

Thus despite their formal break with the structures of the Labour Party, Militant were still advocating a parliamentary road to socialism. What is more, in one crucial respect Mahmood observed the division between “politics” and “trade unionism” that has always allowed left reformists to refrain from criticising the role of the trade union bureaucracy.

Massive attacks on the council workforce coincided with Mahmood’s campaign. Although she spoke to mass rallies of council workers and got an enthusiastic reception, she failed to use her campaign to agitate for the strike action that was necessary to resist the employers’ offensive.

Her leaflet addressed to the City’s refuse workers declared, “They are trying to provoke us into an all out strike”, a dangerously ambiguous formula. Mahmood should have used the attention that her election campaign had attracted to call directly for strike action as soon as possible. But Militant announced support for such action only after the election was safely out of the way.

Finally, Militant demonstrated quite how far they were prepared to go in sacrificing political principle for the sake of electoral expediency in their response to the attacks on Mahmood from the pulpits of Liverpool’s many Catholic churches. When the Real Labour campaign produced a leaflet directed specifically at women voters, it refrained from making any mention of the struggle for abortion rights.

Thus tactically, programmatically and in the unprincipled conduct of the campaign, there was nothing to distinguish Militant’s “open” candidature from left reformist electoralism—a point Grant himself was to make in his post mortem on the Walton campaign:

“Even the programme that we stood on was not a revolutionary one. There was no explanation of the capitalist crisis and the need for a socialist planned economy etc. The programme we offered the workers of Walton was in effect a left reformist one.”44

In the midst of the internal strife generated by Walton, Militant was then confronted with the small but revealing development of the Liverpool Independent Labour Party (LILP). The left reformist allies to whom it had tailored much of its programme and practice in the Walton campaign, not capable of remaining in Kilfoyle and Kinnock’s party or of waiting for Militant’s “turn” to open work, launched their own organisation.

Militant’s response to this must have driven the nail in the coffin of any spontaneous left movement created by the Mahmood campaign. It opposed the setting up of LILP—not on the grounds of its left reformist politics but because it negated the strategic task of transforming the Labour Party.

As Militant leader Tony Mulhearn wrote:

“To temporarily organise as we have done . . . . because of bureaucratic expulsions and disbandments is one thing. But to set up an alternative party, to turn their backs on Labour and to encourage others to leave the Labour Party is a completely different question. Socialists should not surrender control to the right wing by splitting from the Labour Party. They should stay and fight for every inch of ground.”45

Clive Heemskerk, writing in the aftermath of Walton, reaffirmed Grant’s essential view:

“The historical law formulated by Marxism, that workers will move to reclaim their traditional organisations, is a process in which a complex interplay of different factors are involved.”46

Even as events negated the rationale for strategic entrism, and forced them to abandon it in practice, the Militant leaders clung to Grant’s method like drowning people to a life raft. But it didn’t save them.

Opportunism: then and now

In breaking from Grant’s practice of general entrism, Militant have nevertheless maintained the core of Grant’s methodological error. His breach with revolutionary Marxism on the relationship between spontaneity and consciousness—his fatalistic view that the existing ideology of the working class develops automatically towards revolutionary socialist conclusions—remains unchallenged.

This is essential for understanding Militant’s political evolution after the split of January 1992.

The legacy of the Tendency’s programmatic accommodation to Labourism remains intact. But Militant is now attempting to orient towards working class youth whose illusions lie elsewhere. Militant has simply tried to adapt the Marxist programme to other, non-proletarian ideologies that hold sway over hundreds of thousands of radicalised young people. This, they believe, will give them a path to the masses.

History will perform the rest of the task by pushing those youth steadily to left. The “process” remains central to Militant’s perspective. It’s “complex interplay” requires simply that the road of programmatic adaptation takes a “detour” through Scottish nationalism and black separatism.

Tailing Scottish Nationalism

Militant’s 1979 British Perspectives correctly argued that whilst socialists must defend the right of the Scottish people to self-determination, up to and including separation if they wish, this is not a step that Marxists actively advocate. It would divide the Scottish, Welsh and English workers, who face a common enemy in the British ruling class and who share common traditions of struggle and solidarity. The Perspectives concluded from this that:

“It would be utterly reactionary to form ‘Scottish Marxism or ‘Welsh Marxism’.” 47

This was absolutely correct. To organise Scottish socialists in a separate party from the English and Welsh can mean one thing only—that they face different tasks, different states and different revolutionary struggles.

But in the course of the Poll Tax revolt Militant had had to tackle the growth of the Scottish National Party, and the fact that it was cynically taking advantage of Labour’s right wing stance to pose as a radical alternative. Agitation for independence mounted apace. As a result Militant abandoned its former intransigence and launched Scottish Militant Labour as an independent party.

The initial rationale for SML was the different tempo of class struggle in Scotland. Once the formation of the independent Militant Labour organisation was declared in the rest of Britain, there should have been no possible justification for a separate Scottish group. But SML did not disappear once Militant Labour was formed. It maintains a formally separate identity to this day.

Furthermore, this departure only paved the way for deeper political accommodation to Scottish nationalism. Militant (13 December 1991) declared that if the Tories won the 1992 election then:

“the call must go out to make Scotland ungovernable . . . It should be linked to a boycott of Westminster by Labour and SNP MPs”.

The article then declared agreement with the words of the leader of Strathclyde regional council that:

“‘They must be prepared to break away from Westminster and form a breakaway parliament.”

Thus Militant were prepared to go so far as advocate a step that would in every practical sense be indistinguishable from a declaration of independence by Scotland.

Scottish Militant Labour was launched in response to a specific, national, variation in the terrain of class struggle in Britain. Not only was the anti-poll tax struggle longer and stronger in Scotland, but specific events gave temporary ascendancy to a left talking petit-bourgeois nationalist leadership inside the SNP.

As Militant’s Scottish perspectives document for 1991 pointed out:

“The SNP manifesto will be well to the left of Labour’s. Their programme for an independent Scotland includes the writing off of the capital housing debt of £3.5 billion, full employment, the re-nationalisation of steel and other privatised industries . . . “48

This left movement within Scottish Nationalism was a result of the left movement in the Scottish working class, Militant’s majority argued. On the basis of this they predicted that the masses’ spontaneous anger would lead them in the direction of the SNP if the Tories won the 1992 election:

“If the Tories were to scrape home at the next election, nationalism would rise up with a vengeance”.49

In response Militant adopted the demand for a Scottish Assembly, not one with only partial powers which the Liberal and Labour establishments advocated, but one with “full powers”.

If the SNP with its economic nationalist programme was now to replace Labour as the “mass organisation” to which the Scottish workers would “inevitably turn”, then the Scottish Assembly was to take the place of the all-Britain Labour government as the method of posing the workers government:

“Such an assembly (in which genuine Socialists have a majority) would in effect be a workers’ government acting with the backing of the one million organised workers and millions of unorganised women and young people in Scotland”50

After the Tory election victory Militant focused the demand for the Scottish Assembly around the demand for a referendum which the Scottish local authorities should organise “from below” if it were not granted by the government.

Militant’s demand for a Scottish Assembly pandered to both nationalism and reformism. How would a Scottish Assembly advance the class struggle of the whole British working class? The answer was, it was not designed to. How would the Militant-controlled assembly deal with the repressive apparatus of the British state when it attempted to enact its socialist programme? Again, only the vague answers of yesteryear: the “backing of the Scottish workers” would save the day.

Militant’s “Scottish Turn” was a break from Grant, but not from the essential method of tailing the spontaneous consciousness of the masses.

Tailing black separatism

The same sorry tale must be told of Militant’s attempt to address black separatism. The rise of racism in Britain and the radicalisation of black youth led Militant to take the initiative in establishing Panther UK, an organisation for African-Caribbean and Asian members. This represented a break with the Tendency’s former wholesale rejection of the idea of black self-organisation within the working class movement. In the 1980s Militant had attracted justified criticism by opposing the democratic right of black members of the Labour Party to their own sections—a right to which other oppressed groups such as women and youth were entitled. There was no accounting for this anomaly except through political adaptation to the bourgeois integrationist consciousness of Labourism. Significantly, for all the posters of Bobby Seale on sale at Militant bookstalls, Militant Labour retains a formal position of opposing black self-organisation within the labour movement. 51

At the same time the politics of Panther UK represented an unprincipled mixture of Marxism and black nationalism.

In perfect concord with the entire method of adapting the programme to the existing consciousness of the masses, Panther’s programme, set out on a leaflet under the heading What we Want, What we Believe, declared:

“We believe black people, or any other people, will not be free until they determine their own destiny.”

It went on to state:

“We believe that the black struggle is part of wider movement for change within society and that our liberation is tied up with changing the whole society. Panther stands for the breaking of the stranglehold of the rich minority over society and to construct a democratic socialist society run by workers and youth.”

This was the only declaration within the programme of Panther’s socialist goals. It failed to mention the crucial point–a point which cuts directly against the prejudices of nationalism and separatism–that the black minority of the working class in Britain cannot hope to achieve emancipation without building a joint revolutionary struggle with white workers.

Of course this unity must be constructed through a systematic campaign against racism within the white working class, not by ignoring the discrimination and oppression that face the black population. But the need for unity with white workers is not an optional extra for the programme of a black socialist organisation. It must be given particular emphasis, as must the need for any black socialist organisation to be committed to the construction of a revolutionary political party uniting the action of all workers, black and white, male and female.

Amidst all their uncritical praise for black nationalist figures from the past, this crucial element was missing from Panther’s programme. Indeed, so keen were Militant to adapt to the understandable suspicions felt by many black youth toward the white working class, that they failed even to declare honestly and openly that any formal link existed between Panther UK and Militant.

But it wasn’t hard to work out that such a link existed. Panther’s programme was exactly modelled on Militant’s “transitional” type programme. The crowning, governmental slogans were missing, and the transitional demands turned into a dead series of “maximum—minimum” demands. The socialist goal was divorced from the everyday agitational demands.

This method, bad enough when applied to the whole class struggle, proved even more disastrous when applied to one sphere of the class struggle.

As a programme for black liberation Panther’s programme was inadequate primarily because it failed to explain how the precondition for black liberation was the victory of workers, black and white, in the struggle for socialism.

In the old days of Ted Grant workers were meant to get the impression that Militant was a loyal, historically organic part of the British Labour Party and its milieu. The same method, consciously applied in the pages of Panther, produced the impression that Panther was simply the latest in a series of socialist black separatist organisations going back to the “reformism with a gun” of Bobby Seale and Huey P Newton.

Whereas Militant’s accommodation to Labourism took four decades to backfire, the Panther project blew up within two years. Many black members of Militant chose not to have anything to do with it. These were largely young black workers and students whose everyday struggles and culture led them towards some form of socialist integrationist strategy. Then a group of Panther members—including some long-standing Militant supporters—went over to separatism to such an extent that they split the organisation in 1993 in order to be “free” from Militant “domination”. The exclusion from active involvement—either through design or ineptitude—of many of Militant’s working class black members left Panther open to those developing in the direction of open black separatism.

The first issue of the newspaper of the new Independent Panther UK contains a programme even more adapted to separatism than that of the original organisation. Replete with separatist rhetoric, the front page article announces the formation of the new group under the headline “Declaration of Independence: Free at Last!”.52 The insinuation is that black people must liberate themselves from any organisational ties to integrated political parties before they can fight for their emancipation.

In the 1950s the Labour entrists who dressed themselves up as left reformists, to use Grant’s phrase, became left reformists. In the 1990s a section of those who dressed themselves up as black separatists became black separatists.

Gulf War – ghosts of the Malvinas

On the question of war again Militant’s break with Grant’s position has been only partial, flawed and dishonest.

The Gulf war came in the middle of the growing internal battle inside Militant. Differences over Militant’s line on the war were aired in the time honoured form of an editorial reply to a “reader’s letter”. The reader in question pointed out the difficulty in arguing against the war in the workplace and suggested Militant argue for a “socialist task force” against Saddam, and for “workers’ sanctions” against Iraq.

Peter Taaffe, Militant’s editor, rejected this. But the line would have been consistent with the method applied to the Malvinas war.

Instead of publicly addressing the disparity Militant chose to hide it.

Taaffe claimed spuriously that the Malvinas war had been an “inter-imperialist” war, ie that Argentina was an imperialist country, whereas Iraq was not. Any serious Marxist analysis of the two economies would show them to be semi-colonial countries, relatively economically developed, but held back from transformation into imperialist powers (economically and politically) by the existing world system of imperialism, against which the national bourgeoisie was forced to declare a temporary struggle.

In 1990/91, Militant adopted the slogan Troops out of the Gulf. Was this a “pacifist gesture”, as Militant had characterised it in 1982? Taaffe could only justify the difference by referring to the fact that in 1982 the demand “found no echo among working class people”. That is, for our great “swimmers-against-the-stream” in Militant, it was far easier to raise opposition to the war against Iraq than it was against Argentina.

As against 1982 Taaffe openly scorned the idea of a socialist task force against Iraq:

“It is the task of the Iraqi workers and peasants themselves to deal with the Saddam dictatorship . . . any suggestion of a task force, even with the qualification that it would be ‘socialist’ would be completely opposed by the masses of the Middle East. They have had enough of interventions from the west which have divided the Arab nation, super exploited its wealth . . .”53

And what about the workers and peasants of Latin America? Hadn’t they had enough of imperialist military intervention in 1982? Wouldn’t they—didn’t they—greet all talk of a socialist task force with derision?

Militant attempted to make this self-correction without an ounce of self-criticism. What is more, Militant’s habitual opportunism meant that, despite assembling all the elements of an Iraqi-defencist position it was never prepared to put this into practice during the war itself.

Taaffe declared:

“It would be a mistake to suggest that Militant can assume a neutral position on the Gulf”.54

So which side was Militant on? Not a single issue of Militant contained the answer, during or after the war. The closest Militant got to defending Iraq was this:

“The imperialists must be forced to retreat and leave the peoples of the whole Middle East to fight for the socialist federation.”55

The same Militant editorial declared “we can give no support to an imperialist war to topple Saddam”, but it refrained from spelling out the logical conclusion of Militant’s position—support for Iraq, despite its right-wing dictatorial government—as the best way to create conditions for the progressive overthrow of the Saddam regime.

In practice, as before, once the shooting started, Militant quickly disappeared from most of the regular demonstrations against the war. Instead of the defence of Iraq—to borrow a phrase from Pablo—they were busy once again fighting for a “socialist Britain”.

The state – covering Grant’s tracks

In the realms of theory Militant Labour has attempted to cover Ted Grant’s tracks on Marxism and the state.

After the disaster of the Anti-Poll Tax Demo Militant found themselves having to defend themselves against the growing influence of anarchism amongst the youth. Militant was obliged to mount a defence of the Marxist analysis of the state against anarchism’s rejection of all state forms—including a workers’ state—as fundamentally oppressive.

In an article by Nick Wrack in Militant International Review 46, they explained that, after the Paris Commune, Marx and Engels concluded that;

“the working class could not simply take hold of the ready made state apparatus of the bourgeoisie but would have to completely replace it with a different form of state, one to serve the interests of the majority in society and to lay the basis for the building of a socialist society.”56

Wrack goes on to explain that a stateless and classless society “could only be achieved by the socialist revolution, that is by the working class conquering state power, by the political destruction of the capitalist state and its replacement by a democratic workers’ state.”57

This apparently represents a qualitative break with Militant’s “parliamentary road”. Or does it? Firstly, they chose to use the term “political destruction”, which could be taken to mean the political transferral of power rather than physical break up of the state—armed forces, police, judiciary and upper layers of the civil service.

Secondly, for any Marxist the next step in the argument would be the explanation of the role of the self-organisation of the masses, of the creation of workers’ councils in both the carrying out and the consolidation of the revolution, and the insistence that it is on the basis of this new, qualitatively different power, that the foundations of a truly stateless society will be laid.

But Wrack says nothing about this. Having deliberately obscured the nature of the revolution, he then jumps over a historic period to concentrate on Marxism’s argument with anarchism over the role of the workers’ state. On such distant terrain, Militant can allow itself a moment of orthodoxy. But on the concrete questions of today’s class struggle Militant remains unprepared to spell out the how and why of smashing the capitalist state.

The current version of Militant’s programme remains firmly on the parliamentary terrain of the 1970s and 1980s, with not one word to say about workers’ power and workers’ democracy, not one word of criticism of parliamentary democracy, or even the slightest nod in the direction of “Marxism” except for the call for “democratic workers’ control and management” in nationalised industries. Militant’s objective of “a democratic, socialist planned economy” is entirely within the scope of their strategic position of “Labour to power on a socialist programme”.58

Recently, Militant have argued that:

“having destroyed the capitalist state it will be necessary for the victorious working class to constitute themselves as a new state, to prevent the defeated bourgeoisie from organising counter-revolution. The capitalists will do everything possible to destroy the gains of the revolution. Unless the working class takes the practical step of organising its own state, that is an instrument of its own class rule, then the working class will be defeated by the violent action of the capitalists and capitalism will be restored.”59

This is absolutely true. But this brief moment of wisdom has no effect whatsoever on Militant’s politics. Far from disproving their centrism, it only demonstrates the proof of it.

Militant are incapable of maintaining a coherent Marxist position, either theoretical or programmatic, with regard to the state. Even when they embrace orthodoxy in the pages of their theoretical journal, the content of their practical intervention remains unchanged. Were the working class to entrust Militant with leadership, the consequences would be disastrous.

Despite its new-found organisational independence from Labour, Militant Labour has been unable to rid itself of the misapplication of the workers’ government tactic. Its local and parliamentary election campaigns have been fought on a programme which is undeniably left reformist.

In local council elections Militant Labour has argued for a “people’s budget”, but suggested no means of imposing that budget in the face of illegality. It has campaigned on the basis that its candidates are “working class”, that they will only take a workers’ wage, that they will help tenants deal with housing problems. But nowhere has it availed itself of the opportunity to explain to tens of thousands of voters that what we need is a revolution, that we need a different kind of government, or that we need a revolutionary combat party to get it.

Even when it is standing independently of Labour, Militant Labour retains the strategic adaptation to the Labourite, reformist consciousness that has shaped its programme and practice for over 40 years.

In the 1920s Trotsky attacked the Labour lefts for their reformism. His words strike home against Militant Labour, even in its renewed, independent, left-talking form:

“Heroic promises to hurl thunderbolts of resistance if the Conservatives should ‘dare’, etc, are not worth a single bad penny. It is futile to lull the masses to sleep from day to day with prattling about peaceful, painless, parliamentary, democratic transitions to socialism and then, at the first serious punch delivered at ones nose, to call upon the masses for armed resistance. This is the best method for facilitating the destruction of the proletariat by the powers of reaction. In order to be capable of offering serious resistance, the masses must be prepared for such action mentally, materially and by organisation. they must understand the inevitability of a more and more savage class struggle, and its transformation, at a certain stage into civil war.”60


How can we characterise Militant’s evolution? The Taaffe leadership seemed to have a purpose when it removed Grant and the obstacle he placed in the way of exploiting the possibility of independent work. But that has not cured the decline of the tendency.

Replacing the central orientation to labour with an orientation to movements of the socially oppressed and to Scottish nationalism has, if anything, accelerated the decline in influence everywhere except Scotland. Today the tendency’s leadership seems uncertain of the way forward but unwilling to retrace its steps and attempt a systematic accounting of Grant’s politics.

Militant’s centrist political past haunts it. Whilst it has certainly moved left on a variety of individual issues, on the essential questions it has only seemed to move.

Schematic, dishonest politics necessitate the construction of a tiny, really sectarian, world where reality does not penetrate. The electoral successes of Scottish Militant Labour, bought at an enormous cost in political opportunism, are today cited as excuses for avoiding the trouble it would cause to really draw up a full account with Grant’s politics.

The change in the global situation in the aftermath of the collapse of Stalinism has shaken the international left to the core. In Britain as elsewhere, the conditions of the class struggle that took shape in the long years of the post-war boom are changing at an ever accelerating rate. Those political organisations on the far left whose programme and practice was adapted not to the needs of the class struggle, but to the two great apparatuses of reaction within the working class movement—Social-Democracy and Stalinism—have been thrown into crisis.

The opening years of this new period in world history have seen important reverses in class consciousness and organisation on a world scale. But at the same time, and integrally linked to this process, the great reformist safety valves for channeling and controlling class discontent are themselves being undermined. It is this historic process that has torn the Militant Tendency apart.

The strategic accommodation of Militant to Labourism could not last. The dates engraved on the tombstone of strategic entrism are the dates which encompass the establishment and decline of the period of the post-war order: 1951—1991.

Without a stable formation like Labourism to which it can adapt, Militant is now chasing after more ephemeral, unstable political formations.

In the years to come, as all manner of maverick and non-proletarian forces endeavour to fill the ideological vacuum, the centrifugal forces acting in Militant will increase. Further instability, further crises and splits, are guaranteed.

There is a way out of this situation. It involves settling accounts not merely with the best known of Ted Grant’s political errors, but with its theoretical foundations. The leadership of Militant Labour are determined not to follow this path, for they sense in the marrow of their bones that it leads to the exposure of the sum total of their aggregated errors, to their own political destruction.

We are convinced that there are hundreds of members of Militant Labour and its sister organisations in other countries who feel a mounting sense of disquiet. They are loyal comrades, hard working activists and cadre who have dedicated their lives to the struggle on which the future of humanity depends. They do not wish to squander their lives in a spiral of ever more demoralised and fruitless manoeuvres. It is to them that this article is addressed. The condition of their future success is that they draw the necessary conclusion—turn to the politics of the LRCI.


1 Militant, 24.1.92

2 By centrist we mean political tendencies that “stand between reformism and revolutionary communism, often borrowing from both or vacillating between the two, or confining its revolutionism to theory and its reformism to practice. It is also essentially a transitional phenomenon, moving either towards or away from Marxism. Paradoxically, its transition can be swift or it can take the form of years of ossified, motionless centrism.” Trotskyist Discussion Bulletin No.1, “What is Centrism?”, Workers Power (May 1986)

3 Trotsky The Crisis of the French Section

4 A detailed and illuminating account of this episode, the first of many subsequent attempts by would-be Trotskyists to establish a centrist current and publication, is given in The Mass Paper a pamphlet by Erwin Wolf) in Trotsky, The Crisis of the French Section

5 ibid

6 Problems of Entrism (1959)

7 The Programme of the International, International Bureau for the Fourth International, London 1970

8 See “The Rise and Fall of the SLL” Workers Power, (February 1986)

9 The New Turn – A Threat to Forty Years’ Work (1991)

10 The Programme of the International, (May 1970) emphasis added

11 Problems of Entrism

12 Militant British Perspectives 1979

14 Problems of Entrism

15 Workers Power was the only tendency in the LPYS that saw the need to prepare for independence.

Our candidate for the leading committee of the LPYS, Gary O’Donnell, argued in his electoral address that a counter-offensive was necessary and that: “such a movement would not co-exist for long in the party of Kinnock and Whitty.”

He urged the LPYS to defy the Sawyer proposals when they were imposed and keep its structures intact. This was a perspective for an independent youth movement. He argued that the movement should adopt unambiguously revolutionary policies.

Workers Power predicted the need for such a course of action well in advance. In 1984 we argued that “a fighting perspective will draw upon us the wrath of Kinnock and Hattersley. This is because it will involve a break with their rotten politics. As they control the bureaucratic apparatus of the Labour Party it may well mean a break with the Labour Party.”

We went on to warn that: “The Militant would never consider this and as a result they help defeat the struggle of youth in advance.”

We were right: the LPYS was surrendered without a fight.

18 Taaffe, P and Mulhearn, T Liverpool: The City that Dared to Fight (London 1988) See also review of this in Workers Power 103

19 Militant British Perspectives 1979

21 What is to be Done?, Moscow 1978

23 Militant British Perspectives 1983

24 ibid

25 Pablo Where are we Going? (1951)

26 Pablo The Building of the Revolutionary Party February 1952

27 ibid

28 ibid

29 Trotsky, The Death Agony of capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, New York 1977

30 “The political backwardness of the American workers” in ibid

31 ibid

32 Militant What we stand for , (London 1985)

33 Foster,S and Hoskisson, M “Militant’s peaceful parliamentary road”, Permanent Revolution 8, (London 1989)

34 Degras, J (ed), The Communist International: Documents (London 1971) Vol 1

35 Militant What we stand for, op cit

36 Working Women and the Struggle for Socialism, Labour Students South West Region, Bristol (undated). First published by the Minority on the National Committee of the National Organisation of Labour Students under the title Women, Sexism and the Labour Movement, 1976.

37 ibid

38 ibid The implication in the first sentence is clear: lesbian and gay liberation is not a class issue and Marxists wouldn’t mention such a “distasteful“ subject were it not for its popularity in the student movement.

39 Militant Northern Ireland – A Marxist Analysis (1984)

40 Militant April 1982, See also Communism and the Test of War Workers Power 33 (May 1982)

41 ibid

42 Militant International Review June 1982

43 Scotland: Perspectives and Tasks (1991)

44 Minority resolution on Walton, July (1991)

45 Militant 30 August 1991

46 Heemskerk, C “After Walton” Militant International Review 46 (Summer 1991)

44 Militant British Perspectives 1979

48 Scotland: Perspectives and Tasks 1991

49 ibid

50 Militant 20 August 1991

51 As recently as December 1993 at the national conference of Youth against Racism in Europe, Militant Labour supporters, without offering a single word of explanation, voted against the right for black trade unionists to organise their own caucuses to identify and combat racism in industry and the labour movement.

52 Panther Winter 1993/4 NB This is the so called “independent” Panther. At time of writing the Militant Labour-controlled Panther has not re-appeared.

53 Militant October 1990

54 ibid

55 Militant 25 January 1991

56 “Marxism, Anarchism and the State”, Nick Wrack, Militant International Review 46, (1991)

57 ibid

58 Militant 2 April 1993

59 ibid

60 Trotsky On Britain


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