While I was in the Socialist Party, the successor to Militant that ultimately expelled their founder, I did come across more than a few members who held Grant in high esteem. There was also quite a bit of anger toward the leadership when, after his death in 2006, this obituary by Peter Taaffe was used as an occasion for putting the boot in. Famously, Socialist Worker paid tribute to him in a profile that was much warmer and respectful. However, for all that, for all the veneration and fondness Grant inspired I was never actually sure of what his "contributions" were. For Cliff, whatever you think of them as positions, his state capitalist analysis of the Soviet Union, and theories of deflected permanent revolution and permanent arms economy offered something new and, at least in some circles, proved influential. Set against Cliff, in what ways did Ted Grant contribute to a Marxist understanding of the world? This urgent, burning question has begged an answer - until now.
Alan Woods' biography, Ted Grant: The Permanent Revolutionary is very much a book of two halves, or, as Grant would not doubt have appreciated it, a work of dialectical synthesis. The thesis is a genuinely interesting wealth of biographical information and portrayal of his character. There's an informative account of the early history of British Trotskyism from before the war up until Militant got going in 1964. And there are good summaries of Grant's positions - his contributions to Marxism, if you like. The antithesis of this, however, is - to be honest - a load of self-serving tripe and half-truths. But of that more later.
In his history of the pre-war Workers' International League and the 1944-49 Revolutionary Communist Party, Grant is cast as a revolutionary militant always looking at ways of grounding the party in the working class, and soberly assessing the play of national and international politics as a means of divining a way forward. Unfortunately, at this early point in British Trotskyism's development, the immediate post-war period was beset by shenanigans on the behalf of Michel Pablo, the leader of Trotsky's Fourth International (to which the RCP was affiliated), James Cannon of the American SWP and Gerry Healy who, at that point, was keen to pursue entry into the Labour Party. Where Woods is particularly interesting is the drawing of the nature of these disputes out. On the one hand they were part-political, caused by the justifiable disorientation and confounding of Trotsky's perspectives for the aftermath of the war (he did not expect Stalinism to emerge strengthened), and partly due to unprincipled power grabs and grudges. Apparently, Grant, RCP general secretary Jock Haston and others were too independent and had perspectives that were at odds with those of the International which, like Healy, favoured entering Labour. The result of this dispute was the destruction of the RCP - the only time Britain's Trotskyists have been united under a single banner. Healy established himself as leader of 'The Club' and the official franchisee of the Fourth International. Those that had reluctantly gone along with this manoeuvre after losing the argument were very quickly driven out. This included Grant and his small group of supporters, as well as one Tony Cliff.
An aside. In this and subsequent history of Grant's role in the splits, fusions, and further splits that comprise the rich tapestry of British Trotskyism's record, time and again Grant is cast as a naive innocent, as a victim of unprincipled behaviour and scurrilous factionalising. Woods repeats and repeats again how "such methods" are "alien to Trotskyism". Au contraire, as his accounts of the split in the RCP, the formation of the International Marxist Group, and later the split in Militant; the bumping off of opponents, bureaucratically speaking, runs through the tradition like cynicism through Simon Cowell. To pretend otherwise is not befitting someone who lays claim to the tradition of "genuine Marxism", whatever that is.
Now, Grant's contributions. In the exchange of polemic after the war, he made two observations that were initially out of sorts with the Fourth International. The first was that capitalism would not face an imminent slump - the increased role of the state in the production process, the devastation the war had wrought on Western Europe and the vast sums of capital flowing in from the United States meant the late 40s would not be a repeat of the early 30s. The second point, and probably his most widely influential (if unacknowledged) contribution to Trotskyist ideas was his analysis of Eastern Europe. The expansion of the USSR's borders and the establishment of client regimes in its own image threw the Fourth International into a tailspin. Some, like Cliff saw it as an imperialist outgrowth of Russian state capitalism. Similarly Max Shachtman and his followers in the States (who had split from Trotskyism in Trotsky's day) also took it as evidence of an expansionary new mode of production utterly at odds with working class interests. The Fourth International on the other hand stuck with Trotsky's analysis of the USSR as a 'degenerated workers' state' and that Eastern Europe "people's democracies" were a mish-mash of bureaucratic and capitalist societies.
This all seems academic now, but at the time Trotskyism - which aimed to displace 'official' communism as the main global revolutionary trend - had to get the character of the new Stalinist regimes right so programmatic conclusions could be drawn and the correct action be subsequently taken. For example, on the basis of the different categorisation of the USSR Tony Cliff's Socialist Review Group (the British SWP's next-but-one predecessor) raised the slogan of 'Neither Washington Nor Moscow' in the context of the Korean War, and peddled their politics accordingly. Those that saw the USSR and its clients as degenerated and deformed workers' states agitated in their "defence". But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Most famously in The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky argued that despite the monstrous nature of Stalin's dictatorship (he said it only differed from Hitler's in that Stalin's was more unbridled in its savagery) the legacy of the October Revolution laid buried under layers of bureaucracy. And, all told, those foundations were pretty solid. The economy of the USSR rested on "proletarian property forms". i.e. The country's planned economy succeeded the abolition of capitalism, which was the direct effect of the world's first socialist revolution. This wasn't to say the USSR was socialist but it was in a transitory phase between the (underdeveloped) capitalism of the past and the industrial socialism of the future. The nationalisation of economic life and the possibility of planning to meet the needs of the Soviet peoples remained the undiminished fruit of the Bolshevik's efforts. And this despite the absence of workers' democracy and the stupid brutality of Stalin's police state.
To justify this position Trotsky turned to Marx's writings on Bonapartism. Regular readers will know this is a useful concept, and I've used it to make sense of the revolutionary process in Egypt. For Marx, Bonapartism was so named after the French coup d'etat of 1851 that brought Napoleon III to absolute power. Marx argued that while the press was shut down, Parliament gagged, and democracy silenced, nevertheless capitalist relations of production were expanded and strengthened. As such, despite the dictatorship the French bourgeoisie remained the ruling class by virtue of their ownership of the means of production. Trotsky took this argument and applied it to the USSR. Political power may have concentrated in Stalin's hands and all democratic contact had drained away from the soviets, nevertheless because the state was established by a revolution led by the Russian working class and the economy remained in the hands of that state, they were by virtue of the character of the USSR's property forms also the ruling class. Stalin and his regime, therefore, were a species of Bonapartism, proletarian Bonapartism. Hence the Soviet Union remained a workers' state, albeit one that had degenerated since the revolutionary outbreak of 1917.
For the record I don't happen to agree with this position. It mangles history and massively oversimplifies matters, but there isn't the time to critique it now. But a 'degenerated workers' state' had the virtue of nattily grasping the dialectical complexity of the USSR, how the regressive and progressive, the past and the future were fused together in a hideous dictatorship that performed giant leaps of rapid industrialisation and laid the foundations for socialism. What Grant was quick to realise after the war was how Eastern Europe, by bayonet and edict, was seeing the replication of this state of affairs. In his analysis of the Baltic States and Eastern Poland after the USSR invaded in 1939, Trotsky argued that as the bureaucracy rested upon and was sustained by non-capitalist property forms, it would have absolutely no choice but to uproot capitalism and extend its patterning of economic relationships to new territories it acquired. While these were not introduced by a revolution, qualitatively they are identical to the soviet property forms that were. For Grant, bureaucratically-led overturns of capitalism (with the exception of insurgency in Yugoslavia, and partially Albania and Czechoslovakia) led to the establishment of national proletarian Bonapartisms under the "tutelage" of the Soviet state. Reflecting the circumstances of their birth, as they were not descended from revolutionary upheavals they were born deformed. Hence Grant's widely-used term, 'deformed workers' state'.
It is a measure of Grant's force and patience of argument that this was, despite otherwise getting shafted by the Fourth International, officially adopted. Most of its descendants, including groups as whacky as surviving Healyites, the Spartacists, and the Posadist Trot UFO cult hold to this perspective without acknowledging who it came from.
The second of Grant's key contributions is his observation that in order to build a Leninist party, you have to go where the most class conscious workers are. Practically, it means work in the trade unions and, more controversially today, in mass parties that command the bulk of labour movement support. It's for this reason that nowhere is Grant's International Marxist Tendency engaged in 'independent' party building projects. All seek to build parties inside parties with the experience of Militant as a guide and inspiration.
However, while his analysis of Eastern Europe and the need to "follow the workers" have been very influential on the far left, from the standpoint of being new concepts that deepen a Marxist understanding of Grant's contemporary reality, they were pretty thin gruel. They did the job well enough from the point of view of building a small revolutionary organisation, but they rested on the application of what could already be found in the grey beard archive. Tellingly, in one of the many warm portraits Woods draws of Grant he notes how before the writing of a document or theoretical article, he'd return to Engels' Anti-Duhring or Trotsky's In Defence of Marxism. It was as if charging his dialectics batteries was necessary before pronouncing on the issues of the day. Of course, there is nothing wrong with using tried and tested concepts. Marxism does not have to undertake the sociological equivalent of reinventing the wheel every time a political shift or economic difficulty is encountered. But consider the massive restructuring - with the attendant upheavals - British capitalism went through in Grant's lifetime. For example, there is no sense in Woods' book that Grant accounted for the political economy of the shift from the post-war social democratic consensus to neoliberalism, nor how the British working class were becoming differentiated and its solidarities broken up before the strategic labour movement defeats of the 1980s. Likewise another key feature of the last 50 years - the rise of new social movements - are dismissed, rather than explained, and denigrated in terms of an economistically-conceived class politics, not engaged with. For all the praise Woods heaps on Grant for being a holder of the dialectical master key, two key developments of modern British history bypassed the theoretician of "genuine Marxism".
While wrong, Woods' discussion is nevertheless interesting. However, the book frequently falls into absurdism. Ted Grant and the IMT tradition, apparently, are all that remains of "genuine Marxism" today. The rest are so much parvenus and pretenders. The splits of recent history get a tendentious treatment too. Whatever the circumstances and politics of Woods and Grant's expulsion from Militant, the author conveniently fails to mention the moves he had made prior to the split to set up Socialist Appeal. Another oversight refers to the staggered split their organisation underwent in 2010, which merited no mention at all. That is apart from a sarcastic observation about petit bourgeois weirdos hanging round in Hyde Park. So much for the "true democratic traditions" of Trotskyism the IMT uniquely upholds.
Ted Grant: The Permanent Revolutionary is an interesting book. When it's bad, it borders on the cringeworthy. But at its best you get a sense of the important role Ted Grant played in re-orienting Trotskyism after the war, and through vignettes and anecdote what he was like as a person. Nevertheless this is Grant filtered through a factional prism designed to position the IMT as The Party and Woods as its theoretician. Hardened Trots and Trot-watchers will have fun with the bombast that disfigures this biography, but that's about it.