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A Review of Ted Grant: The Permanent Revolutionary


thumb ted-grant-coverI certainly think people should read more than one book a year, but if you read only one book this year, it should be Ted Grant: The Permanent Revolutionary, the new by Alan Woods. Who was Ted Grant and why is this book so important?

Ted Grant is one of those people who will become much more famous in the course of history than when he was alive. The reason is that he played the key role in keeping Marxism alive theoretically, during a time when it was being slandered by the bourgeoisie, by Stalinists, and other so-called Marxists. It is because of the life’s work of Ted Grant that Marxism did not die with Trotsky, but continues today as a living method that the working class can use to win its fight for a better world.

Many readers might be surprised to hear how I found out about Ted Grant. In the fall of 1981, I was in high school, growing up in the old New England mill town of Manchester, NH. My dad subscribed to Time magazine and they had extensive coverage of the British Labour Party moving to the left. Part of that reporting spoke about the growth of the influence of the Militant Tendency, the Marxist wing of the Labour Party. The big business press was worried about the growth of Marxist ideas in the Labour Party, and this article specifically mentioned that Ted Grant, a South African, was the founder of the Militant Tendency. Little did I know when I read this that I would meet Ted Grant about eight years later. More about this later.

Alan Wood’s book on Ted Grant is interesting from a number of angles. Ted’s life took him through the many ups and downs that a revolutionary must go through in the long run. It shows the importance of theory and the Marxist method to get a revolutionary through the harsh times when the movement is in ebb, and how to keep your head during the good times, when the movement is growing. Ted used to say that sometimes success is more dangerous than failure, meaning that with a gain of size and influence, a revolutionary organization comes under more pressure from the ruling class and the middle layers in society. It is under these conditions that Marxists who are not thoroughly grounded in the Marxist method can be turned on to a path that they did not intend to go down. This has happened many times in history.

Alan’s book is also great in that it presents Ted as a real person. Alan does not pull any punches; he shows Ted from all sides. Ted was a man with strong points and weak points, but it is by seeing these as they relate to each other that we can see how ordinary people are able to rise up and play a role in changing society–which the ruling class says is impossible to do.

Ted was born just a few years prior to the Russian Revolution. He joined the movement when he was around 14 years of age and was part of it until his death in 2006. He and others tried to start building a Marxist group in South Africa, when it was more of a backwater, long before it was the industrial powerhouse it is today. Given the rise of Stalinism and its domination of the Communist International, genuine Marxists organized around Trotsky were few and scattered. Ted and some of his comrades decided that their work would be more fruitful in industrial Britain, so they moved there in the middle 1930s. On this trip, Ted met with Leon Sedov, Trotsky’s son and the second most important leader in the Fourth International at the time. Sedov was killed shortly thereafter by Stalin’s hitmen, before Trotsky himself was murdered.

Ted and his comrades tried to work among the tiny British Trotskyist grouplets, but quickly found these people incapable of learning the Marxist method. Ted and his comrades therefore set up their own group of 7 people, called the Workers International League, or WIL. In just six years, even with the repression of World War II, the WIL grew to more than 400 members and had layers of support in the labor movement and in the military itself. The various other “Trotskyist” groups mainly fell apart or were later absorbed by the WIL, which subsequently changed its name to the Revolutionary Communist Party, or RCP.

After Trotsky’s assassination, the leadership of the Fourth International passed to people who were unable to grasp the Marxist method. They could not keep their bearings when World War II ended with a strengthening of Stalinism, a new economic boom for the bourgeois (caused by the huge destruction in the war), and the reestablishment of bourgeois democracy in western Europe. The restabilization of capitalism and the post-war was due to the betrayals of Stalinism and reformism, which cut across the revolutionary initiative of the working class.

Ted and the leadership of the RCP in Britain were the only ones to understand how things had changed after the war. Ted recognizedtedspeakers that the USSR had come out of the war strengthened, and he analyzed the expansion of regimes of proletarian Bonapartism (deformed workers’ states). He explained why this phenomenon arose and where it would lead if not overthrown by a political revolution of the workers, along with its nationalist limitations. Other “Trotskyists” were either tail-ending Stalinism or opposing it and siding with imperialism. Ted also explained the post-war boom, at a time when many did not want to recognize its existence. Ted then had to explain that the boom would come to an end, in opposition to those “leftists” who thought that capitalism had corrected its internal contradictions and that the socialist revolution was off the agenda indefinitely.

Ted was correct in his perspectives, but the combination of the hostile objective conditions and the maneuvers of the Fourth International leadership destroyed the RCP in Britain. Ted’s group was reduced to just a handful of people, trying to maintain the revolutionary tendency. Ted understood that at that stage, the only way forward was to continue to apply the Marxist method, to explain the situation to all who would listen, and to recruit the ones and twos and educate them in Marxist theory.

Ted did just that. In the fall of 1964, with less than 60 members, they set up the Militant newspaper. These comrades understood the tasks before them and they had an orientation to the trade unions, the Labour Party, and its youth wing.

Using the dialectical method as the key tool to build the subjective factor, Ted examined history and looked at how the working class moves.  When the working class becomes active, it tends to move into its traditional organizations. This is clearly different for different countries, but the fundamental process is the same.

For example, in Greece, there is a mass Communist Party (CP) and as of the 1970s, the mass PASOK (Socialist Party). Today, under reformist leadership implementing capitalist austerity, PASOK is mostly destroyed, but the CP and Synaspismos/Syriza, a split from the CP, are gaining. In France, there is a mass Socialist Party and a mass CP. In countries like Greece and France, where there is more than one mass tradition, the working class can move toward one party, when false leadership blocks them at the other end.

But in Britain, the Labour Party (LP) was dominant and there was no other mass party of the working class. Therefore, Marxists in Britain need to orient to the trade unions, the LP and its youth wing, when and where it exists. This of course does not preclude all sorts of open and independent work by Marxists, but we must always understand the overall strategic orientation.

The methods advocated by Ted allowed the growth of the Militant Tendency from a few dozen in the early 1960s, to more than 8,000 by the middle 1980s. At its height, Militant had more than 200 full timers, 3 Members of Parliament, 50-plus local councilors, and control of the Liverpool city council from 1983 to 1986. Militant also led the anti-poll tax movement which heavily contributed to the end of Margaret Thatcher’s reign of terror over Britain. Since the physical annihilation of the Left Opposition in the USSR in the 1930s, no other Trotskyist group has played such a role as Militant! The Militant Tendency also set up the Committee for a Workers International, or CWI, to build the subjective factor in other countries. At its height, it had sections in more than 30 countries.

Alan’s book on Ted explains also how the great work done by Militant and the CWI became undone. The objective conditions of the late 1980s and 1990s started to make it harder for Marxists to grow, as the labor movement suffered defeats. In addition, there was counterrevolution in the Stalinist world, combined with an unprecedented ideological offensive by the capitalist class proclaiming the “end of history.”

In this context, success had indeed become more dangerous than failure. Peter Taaffe, the national secretary of Militant, developed a clique around himself that emphasized organization and downplayed the role or Marxist theory. They got carried away by the success of Militant, and thought that they could deal with political problems with organizational measures and gimmicks. This led to a wave of expulsions in 1992 and a split in the CWI. Ted himself was expelled from the organization he himself had founded.

I moved to NYC in 1982, and in 1986, met the comrades of Labor Militant, the then Canadian/American section of the CWI. Ted came to the U.S. for a tour in 1989, and this is when I met him. Ted had a very great sense of humor and would have the room roaring with laughter at times. However, Ted was also very economical with his use of words. He would make his point with ten words rather than use fifty. Ted would get to the point of the matter and quickly add clarity. He had no use for those who love to talk endlessly on a subject but had no intention of doing anything. Ted was a revolutionary to the core and he wanted to do everything he could to see socialism. And yet, he was the extreme opposite of a pretentious person. Ted was just one of the crowd who never claimed any special importance, although he was vitally important to the movement.

Unfortunately, in 1991 and 1992, the leadership of Labor Militant forgot what Ted taught them and they proceeded to follow the Taaffe path toward short-cuts, gimmicks and organizational methods to solve political problems. Whenever this has happened in history, the results have never been good.

In a class society, the dominant views are those of the ruling class.

Without Marxist theory, there is no way to resist the pressures of the ruling class. Without the Marxist method, an organization will gradually accommodate itself and become reformist.

tedgrantSince 1992, this process has become increasingly clear. There was no proper debate in the Labor Militant in 1991 and 1992. We, the rank and file members, were told that the “minority” (Ted Grant and Alan Woods) did not care about the U.S. and Canada. However, we were not told that although Ted and Alan were extremely busy going to various sections of the CWI to put forward the debate, they could have sent another person to the U.S. and Canada, but this offer was not accepted by the Labor Militant leadership. The expulsions and split meant the degeneration of the CWI and all of its sections. I lived through this as the the Labor Militant had its own crisis a few years later in 1996.

Labor Militant subsequently changed its name to Socialist Alternative, and the name of their paper to Justice, and its politics have degenerated.  As Ted would say, when a mistake is not corrected in time, it becomes a tendency. Ted always explained that groups like these lose their bearings and will not admit their mistakes–therefore they can never correct them. They operate empirically, going from ultra leftism to opportunism. They have given up on the fight for a mass party of labor based on the unions and think they can build a mass party from scratch. But any person can see that small forces in a huge country like the USA can not build a mass party with a serious working class base. As they get more involved in electoral politics, we will tend to see them adapt themselves more and more to “public opinion.” Marxists know that public opinion in class society ultimately reflects the interests of the ruling class and is no guide for the positions we take. We base ourselves on what is in the interests of increasing working class consciousness, confidence, unity, and internationalism.

So today, young people and workers looking for answers to the crisis of capitalism and the history of Trotskyism in the 20th century should read this book. They must learn who Ted Grant was, what he accomplished, and how we can learn from his example today. They will see that it is possible for a few individuals to stand strong against the ruling class and link the ideas of Marxism to the struggles of workers and youth. In the coming years, these correct ideas will grow into a powerful force to change society. No person who reads this book will ever doubt this.

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