Ted Grant, who died last week, was one of the last survivors of the generation of Trotskyists who inherited the movement after the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky’s murder in 1940.
Born Isaac Blank in South Africa, he was first drawn into politics by opposition to racism. He quickly evolved towards the tiny Trotskyist movement, and in 1934 came to Britain because he thought prospects for revolution were better here. He was soon involved in activity and took part in the famous 1936 Cable Street demonstration in London’s East End against Oswald Mosley’s fascists.
Because of an injury he was not called up into the army during World War II. Instead he became editor of the Trotskyist paper Socialist Appeal. It was a tough time to be a revolutionary. The Communist Party called Trotskyists “Hitler’s agents” and physically attacked paper sellers.
But while the Communists lined up behind Churchill, Grant put class first. In 1942 he wrote: “In every sphere the ruling class has revealed its complete senility and incapacity to even conduct its own war… Meanwhile the combines and big monopolies are assuming a stranglehold on the economic life of the nation.”
After the war new problems arose. The world was developing very differently from how Trotsky had expected. New analyses were needed. But when Tony Cliff – who would go on to found the Socialist Workers Party – put forward his theory of “state capitalism” Grant wrote a long reply, arguing that Trotsky’s pre-war arguments were still valid, and that Cliff’s theory meant rejecting all that was positive in the 1917 Russian Revolution.
By 1950 the thuggish Gerry Healy had taken over the main Trotskyist organisation, and Cliff and Grant were both thrown out. Grant maintained his own tiny group through the difficult period of the 1950s. Like Cliff’s group they worked inside the Labour Party. To begin with, this was not a matter of principle. As Grant’s follower Rob Sewell wrote, “Work inside the Labour Party was not based on a previously worked out strategy or tactic, but simply a matter of necessity.”
But over time it turned into a principle. The Militant (as Grant’s group became called after their paper) played little part in the campaign against the Vietnam War or the Anti-Nazi League.
But when Thatcher came to power in 1979 things began to look up for Grant’s group. The old Labour left round Tribune was in decline, the crisis in world capitalism made Marxism more credible, and Tony Benn’s campaign for Labour deputy leadership mobilised new forces.
Militant grew rapidly. In the mid 1980s it had several thousand members and three MPs. But success meant that the whole press, from the Guardian rightwards, began to denounce Militant; Labour leaders, first Michael Foot and then more viciously Neil Kinnock, launched a witch-hunt.
Often Militant supporters denied their revolutionary politics to stay in the Labour Party, claiming they sincerely believed socialism could come through parliament. Where they had won significant positions, as in Liverpool Council, these were not enough to secure real working-class victories.
Grant himself and other Militant leaders were expelled from the Labour Party. Militant went on to play an important part in the campaign against the poll tax which finished off Thatcher. But as the Labour Party moved ever further rightwards, many younger members of Militant argued that the time for work inside the Labour Party was finished. Grant bitterly opposed this, arguing that to leave Labour was like taking “a short cut over a cliff.” In 1992 Grant was expelled by the organisation (now the Socialist Party) which he had spent so many years building.
Grant was nearly eighty, but he did not retire. He and his associates rebuilt an international organisation. In the last few years his health deteriorated, but he never lost his commitment to socialism. Even a few weeks ago he was still eager to discuss developments in Venezuela.
The SWP had many differences with Ted Grant. The questions in dispute – including Russia and the Labour Party – were real and important ones. But over more than seventy years he stood by his belief that only the organised working class could put an end to the filth and brutality of capitalism. For that we salute him.