Thursday 5 September 2013

Ted Grant and Trotskyism

What can you say about the three key figures of British post-war Trotskyism? Gerry Healy was a hyperactive pseud with a penchant for thuggery, rape and doing dodgy deals with unsavoury Arab regimes. Tony Cliff was flighty, excitable and an inveterate bandwagon chaser - qualities he imparted to the Socialist Workers Party. And there is Ted Grant. Founder of the Militant Tendency and with a reputation for super seriousness, of all of Trotsky's British progeny it was he who came closest to disturbing the sleep of the great and the good. But for all that, it's the repulsive Healy and the Mercurial Cliff who are most often recalled and discussed among the tiny circles of people who care about such things. Poor old Ted, the longest lived and most successful of them all merits nary a mention. Perhaps not recruiting enough celebrities or future Guardian journalists has something to do with it.

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.


Evan said...

Another book to add to the growing list of far left biographies. Who published this? Is it the IMT's Wellred press?

Jim Jepps said...

Thanks for this. Very enjoyable.

Re: Bonapartism. Agreed. A useful concept and a terrible term.

There's a very large disjunction between the things people associate with Bonapart (like invading Russia or having a big hat and putting your hand in your shirt) and the phenomenon it attempts to describe.

The idea that a political revolution (or coup) can be a response to *maintain* the status quo when the elites are too weak to maintain their status in the normal way is a pretty powerful concept when we would normally be drawn to seeing a coup or social upheaval ushering in a new, distinct regime as a huge change.

It's a sign of how out of touch "marxist" circles are when they use this term when the twentieth century provides so many examples far closer to anything that happens now than Napoleon's shenanigans.

Pinochet, musharif in Pakistan or the colonels in Greece, are likely to provide better parallels than napoleon who, all credit to him, was pretty exceptional.

Phil said...

I only saw a PDF, but I believe it is.

One thing I missed out from the review was mention of Militant's infamous sectarianism, one that has carried down to the IMT and CWI to this day.

This wasn't only rooted in their mutual 'ourselves, alone' nonsense but in the early experiences Grant had with other trends in the Trotskyist movement. Just because the account provided by Woods is one-sided doesn't mean other trends were awful. Militant's predecessor groups were burned by factional opponents and unprincipled fusions because it appeared they were always longing for the short cut. They weren't interested in the nitty gritty of hard work over long periods of time building a revolutionary tendency required.

It would probably be fair to say that criticism is as true of many Trotskyist trends today as it was back then.

Anonymous said...

Grant was regarded with genuine affection by many Militants in the 1970s and 1980s. Although when I saw him speak in the 1980s the standing ovations he routinely received at rallies said more about the respect we held for his lifetime of commitment than his grasp of the complex dynamics of class politics in Thatcher's Britain.

To the extent that Militant grasped those dynamics (which, on reflection, I don't think it really did) much of the analysis and development of strategy was conducted by Taaffe.

What was Grant's lasting contribution?

Well, within the thin and fractious milieux of post-war Trotskyism he acknowledged and analysed post-war growth sooner than most.

But should recognising reality really be cause for such celebration? It says much about the deeply dogmatic and self-referential nature of Trotskyist sub-cultures that many think it is.

But Grant was a deeply sectarian operator and his lasting legacy is a form of politics that was and remains cultish in its contempt for anyone who rejected his particular interpretation of Marxism.

This was not limited to Grant himself. CWI and Militant documents in the 1970s and 1980s routinely referred to 'the Marxists' when discussing the activity of CWI sections. Only CWI members warranted this designation - all others were not worthy, rendered impure or corrupt by their petit-bourgeois origins and preoccupations.

So what are we to make of the life of Ted Grant today? My view: interesting, but irrelevant to the future of Marxism as a creative and inclusive form of politics.


johnpaul said...

I met Grant in his last few years, he lived In Romford, the epitame of Tatcherite Working class Tory Britain,

Anonymous said...

I tend to view the USSR not as a deformed workers state but as a deformed capitalist state. Workers got up in the morning, with only their labour power to sell, they produced more than they themselves required to live on and the surplus was appropriated by a group other than the workers.

It wasn't a transition because the social relations were self reproducing.

Heiko said...

Funny enough Ted used to love coming to Speakers' Corner and spoke there for at least a decade himself in the 1930s and 40s.

Phil said...

Ah, Jim, Marx was quite clear which "Boney" he was talking about, but I believe it was Trotsky who brought in the comparison with the original Napoleon. Or it might have been Grant, I'm not sure. Like Napoleon, the expansion of Stalinism into Eastern Europe did overturn established capitalist (and where they persisted, feudal) relations. But a workers' state it did not make IMHO.

You are right though, 'Bonapartism' as a concept is very, very useful. But it could do with a name change. Ditto with imperialism.

Phil said...

Bang on, Mike. Throughout the book Woods rails against "Zinovievism' and the similar understanding of Leninism pushed by JP Cannon onto the Fourth International. And yet Militant, and Socialist Appeal/IMT subscribe to that very same model.

Whatever you think about revolutionary politics (personally, I think their time has passed in the advanced capitalist nations), the one question the remaining Trotskyist groups have refused to subject to serious analysis is why they remain stubbornly small with barely any reach - up to and including the times political conditions were more benign. They're very good at decrying "objective conditions", but do not examine or even ask if they're doing politics the "right way".

Phil said...

As it happens Heiko, I once met someone who joined the IMT on the strength of your Speakers' Corner efforts.

ejh said...

I didn't know he was originally Isaac Blank. Off the cuff I can't think of anybody else whose name contains only three vowels and all of them A.

ejh said...

Although given that I is a vowel I can't imagine what I meant to say there. I think I'll go for a lie down.

Phil said...

Reading 2,500 words on Ted Grant is enough to make anyone less-than-sharp. How do you think I felt after penning it?

Weirdly, I've now got a taste for this sort of thing and find myself glancing interestedly at Woods & Grant's Reason in Revolt. This review has ruined me.

Anonymous said...

I have just finished reading Woods' book.

It really is unreadably bad. A mish-mash of anecdotes, clich├ęs and catchphrases presented as political analysis.

Compare it to, for example, Ian Birchall's biography of Tony Cliff. That was a serious attempt to grapple critically with Cliff's political thinking and activity.

Woods' book is, by comparison, hagiographic tripe.

So Grant’s prediction that the 1987 stock-market crash signalled an impending collapse of global capitalism was, according to Woods, not a mistake of ‘method’ but only a mistake of ‘timing’. Only a mere 20 years later a devastating crisis of capitalism struck. Grant wins! Good grief.

If Grant’s analysis in 1987 was so misguided, Woods’ argues, then why did those who claimed to have disagreed with him (such as Taaffe) consent to his views being published?

What Woods’ neglects to mention is that Grant often threatened to resign if he did not get his own way on such matters and that such a public split in the context of the time would have greatly weakened Militant on the eve of the anti-poll tax struggle.

The leadership around Taaffe, having indulged the cult of Grant as embodying the essence of ‘genuine Trotskyism’ (and having long embraced the Stalinist notion of the public infallibility of the party leadership which required that all disagreement be hidden from the rank-and-file) found itself in the position of having to publish Grant’s catastrophist nonsense.

The way to have handled Grant’s dogmatic and damaging behaviour would have been to develop an open relationship between the leadership and a politically mature membership in which dealing with internal disputes was a routine part of party life that served to educate members and prevent elitist tendencies from emerging within the full-time leadership.

In this context Grant’s megalomania could have been managed and Grant, if necessary, be removed.

Instead, the leadership (Grant and Taaffe together) choose to depoliticise and infantilise the membership by cultivating the image of leadership infallibility in the context of which the membership could not be trusted to handle political disagreement.

The logic of this behaviour led to a situation in 1991 where most members of Militant first heard of the split between Grant’s minority and Taaffe’s majority when they read about it in The Guardian.


Phil said...

That was why all Woods blather about his opponents' "Zinovievism" was utter crap. You just have to see how the IMT handled its recent split to see how broken their conception of socialist politics are.

The whole point of the biography was to position Woods as Grant's heir, as the living, breathing embodiment of the unbroken thread running back to the grey beards. It's pathetic really.