Forty years ago this month the Militant was launched. Its subsequent evolution has no parallel in the history of left groups in Britain or internationally. From a miniscule group with no resources, it became the most successful Trotskyist tendency in Britain since the founding of Trotsky’s Left Opposition. Unfortunately the majority of its leadership was to take an ultra-left turn that would eventually destroy it. Rob Sewell, who was part of the opposition to that turn, recounts what happened.
Forty years ago the Militant was launched
At its height in the late 1980s, Militant became a household name. Everybody knew about the Militant Tendency, not just in Britain but internationally. We controlled the Labour Party Young Socialists, had a growing influence within the Labour Party and trade unions, had more than fifty councillors, three Members of Parliament, a comrade on the National Executive Committee of the Party, as well as a member on the General Council of the TUC. We led the Liverpool City Council in battle with the Tory government and also the multi-million strong anti-Poll Tax Campaign, which eventually brought down Thatcher.
These were extraordinary achievements by what started as a very small group. In 1988, the Tendency had more than 8,000 supporters, national and regional headquarters, as well as 200 full-time workers – even more than the Labour Party. Investigative journalist Michael Crick described the Militant as Britain’s fifth largest political party. This was not far from the truth.
As a consequence of our success, we attracted the fierce opposition from the ruling class and its right wing agents within the Labour movement, which instigated the biggest witch-hunt against the supporters of Marxism since the 1920s. Militant’s growing influence in the Labour Party was considered by the strategists of Capital as the most dangerous to the capitalist system.
The ruling class ignored (and still ignores) the sectarian splinter groups on the fringes of the Labour Movement – but this they could not ignore. In the end, however, Militant was destroyed from within, as a result of the mistaken perspectives and policies adopted by a part of the leadership. It is imperative that we learn the lessons from this, because he who does not learn from history will always be doomed to repeat it.
Yet Militant had an extremely modest beginning. It started as a monthly with a few pounds in the bank, a typewriter, a shared office and no full-time staff. But we had something far more important than money and material resources. We had ideas, perspectives and policies, and we pursued the correct methods and were firmly rooted in the mass organizations of the working class. This was guaranteed above all by Ted Grant, the founder and inspirer of Militant and the architect of all its successes.
The paper was set up on the initiative of Ted Grant, together with Jimmy Deane, Arthur Deane and a small group of supporters who had defended Marxism throughout the dark days of the 1950s. These comrades had a long pedigree within the Trotskyist movement. Ted was the founder and leading theoretician of the Workers’ International League and then the Revolutionary Communist Party. With the break up of the RCP in 1949, a small group joined the Labour Party and published a magazine called International Socialist, and later the Socialist Fight, both edited by Ted. (See Ted Grant, History of British Trotskyism).
The main task in these years was to defend the programme, theory, traditions and methods of genuine Marxism, or Trotskyism, against opportunism and ultra-leftism. The Socialist Labour League of Gerry Healy, an ultra-left outfit, had split from the Labour Party in 1959, declaring its intention to build a mass revolutionary party. However, in 1960, the Labour leadership, realizing they needed the youth to win an election, set up the Young Socialists. Healy, seeing an opportunity, then sent his significantly larger forces into the YS and took it over.
The actions of the ultra-lefts proved to be an unmitigated disaster. Healy’s majority in the YS immediately sought a head-on collision with the Labour leadership, resulting in the proscription of their paper Keep Left in 1961 and a series of expulsions. With no perspective or understanding of how to work within the Labour Party, the Healyites engaged in wild ultra-leftism combined with hooliganism, seeking to provoke confrontation and expulsion at every opportunity. Of course, these actions played into the hands of the Transport House bureaucracy and made “Trotskyism” stink in the nostrils of Labour workers. [Note: Transport House was where the national headquarters of the Labour Party were based at the time].
Meetings of the YS national committee were suspended. Out of the 11-member NC, the supporters of Socialist Fight had only one supporter, Peter McCallum from Swansea, which, together with Merseyside, Brighton and London, were the only bases of Ted Grant’s support nationally. At this stage, the number of Ted’s supporters in Britain was around 50 or 60 comrades, far less than his main political competitors, Healy’s SLL or the group around Tony Cliff, the International Socialists (now the SWP), who held the position that Russia was state capitalist.
If the truth is to be told, these years constituted the lowest point in the fortunes of the Grant tendency. The group had no money, no apparatus, no centre, no full-timers and no paper. All the tendency had were the ideas and methods of Marxism. However, this is always the decisive factor, as all history has shown – both before and since.
It was in this bleak situation that the decision was taken in the summer of 1964 not to revive Socialist Fight, but to launch a new paper aimed at the Labour youth. At a small committee meeting of the tendency in London in April 1964 it was decided to “authorise Ted Grant to negotiate for premises with the ILP”. A month later, they were “getting estimates of costs” and asking to get a copy of the lease. With the likely election of a Labour government, plans were slowly put together for the launch of a new paper in the autumn. All we needed was the cash, which was raised in dribs and drabs, enough for the first issue at least.
As always in any new venture lively debate takes place over the name for the new paper. But the choice is limited given other competitors. Eventually, the name Militant was chosen, with the paper’s masthead “For Labour and Youth”, with the launch date of October 1964.
The first issue of the back and white monthly contained eight pages, but this was quickly reduced to four pages as a result of financial problems. While we launched a £500 Fighting Fund in the first issue, we only managed to raise £150 in the first year. “Drive out the Tories – But Labour must have socialist policies” was the headline on the front-page article that set the tone for the Militant in these years. The first editorial explained:
“The job is to carry the message of Marxism to the ranks of the Labour movement and to its young people. There is room for all tendencies in the Labour movement including the revolutionary Left.
“Above all, the task is to gather together the most conscious elements in the Labour movement to patiently explain the need for these policies on the basis of experience and events. Militant will endeavour to seriously gather the facts and arguments to provide the ammunition for this struggle to rearm the Labour movement. Soberly we hope to present a Marxist analysis, whether of industrial disputes, the housing crisis, or the crisis in the Congo, to take a few examples at random, with suggested solutions in the interests of the working class. The most important thing is that we wish to tell the truth to the working class, against the lies and exaggerations of the capitalist class and the half truths of Labour’s officialdom.”
Unfortunately, shortly after, for pressing personal, financial and work reasons, Jimmy Deane had to go abroad. Despite his long absence, Jimmy remained a committed comrade and close friend of Ted and a supporter of Socialist Appeal right up to his death two years ago.
Jimmy’s departure made it necessary to bring somebody from the provinces to help with the paper and strengthen the organizational side of the work. This role was fulfilled by Peter Taaffe, who was at that time a promising youngster from Birkenhead, who was brought down to London in the summer of 1965 on a full-time basis.
Taaffe was to work energetically alongside Ted Grant for the next 35 years and, with his considerable organizational skills, undoubtedly played a significant role in the building of the tendency. But although he was formally the editor of the paper, the political line was always determined by Ted, who politically stood head and shoulders above all the rest.
There was never any question of who was the political leader of Militant. Peter Taaffe himself wrote in January 1988. “Ted Grant, [...] at that time was – and still remains – the theoretician and principal leader of Trotskyism in Britain” (my emphasis). He could hardly have written anything else. No one who was active in Militant doubted that Ted Grant was our most outstanding theoretician and leader. However, just over three years later, Taaffe began to sing a very different tune.
Apart from insisting on the central role of theory and cadre building, Ted ensured that the paper’s orientation would be firmly towards the mass organisations, particularly the Labour Party and the trade unions. He insisted that we should avoid the shrill ultra-leftism of the sects and argue the Marxist case in a sober fashion, sticking to “facts, figures and arguments”. Without making any principled concessions, the paper expressed the ideas of Marxism in a language that would be understood by Labour Party members, trade unionists and youth. In the words of Lenin, our slogan was to “patiently explain” the fundamental ideas and tasks facing the Labour movement.
Ultra-lefts and Labour
Militant opposed the adventurism of the Healyites, which had effectively destroyed the official Young Socialists. By 1965, the bureaucracy had closed down the YS conference, while the Healyites took as many as they could out of the Labour Party with the aim of establishing an independent YS. These ultra-left antics wrecked Labour’s youth organisation and played into the hands of the right wing and the bureaucracy.
The Labour bureaucracy then reorganized the youth organization, stripped it of its rights, and changed its name to the Labour Party Young Socialists. At that time the Wilson government was carrying out right wing policies. This caused widespread disgust among the workers and the rank and file of the Party and unions. Some miners’ lodges were openly talking about disaffiliation. It was quite similar to the present situation.
Within a few years, the other left groups – like the Cliff group (now the SWP) and the tiny Mandelite sect, the IMG, left the Labour Party in a fit of ultra-left impatience and set about creating “mass” revolutionary parties in the clouds. We were the only group to remain. Despite the difficulties, we had a perspective that things would change and a Left would develop within the Party.
Of course, the sects accused us of capitulating to reformism, waiting on events, and so on. But we just ignored them and got on with the work. We answered their nonsense in advance. In August 1966, Ted wrote a piece called ‘A Contribution on Ultra-leftism’, where we read the following:
“For them [the sects] it is sufficient to issue ultimatums to the working class, the trade unions, the Labour Party, the Young Socialists... to give the working class its marching orders. And when the workers and militants pass them by, they ‘take off’, denouncing all those who fight, practically, for a consistent revolutionary programme and policy based on Lenin’s principles, as centrists, scabs, and ‘Pabloites’.
“Experience has taught the British comrades that those who shout loudest today about betrayals, about sell-outs, fake-lefts, etc, are precisely those ‘revolutionaries’ who were the deepest of deep entrists. The ‘anti-Pabloites’ of today were in fact the most hysterical of the ‘Pabloites’ of yesterday. Those who, in the past, refused to criticise Nye Bevan on the grounds that this would ‘disrupt our relations with Tribune’ are the same people who now denounce Tribune as the main enemy, and reserve their main fire, not – God forbid! – for the capitalist enemy, the Tories, or even the right wing Labour leaders – but for the ‘Left fakers’, and, of course, the ‘Pabloites’.
“Marx said that history repeats itself first as a tragedy, and then as a farce. Healy’s Third Periodism, with its theory of ‘permanent betrayal’ is absolutely alien, not only to Marxism and Trotskyism, but also to the Labour movement.
“Much has been made of the alleged tendency to ‘contemplative Marxism’, to ‘waiting on events’, etc. The task facing Marxists today is certainly not to wait on history, nor even for that matter to ‘rape’ history – it is to practically prepare for history, for the great historical events. Again, not by abstract propaganda, either inside or outside the Labour Party and the trade unions, but by a conscious participation in the struggles that lie ahead.
“The real perspectives of the mass movement, as has been explained, is the inevitable growth of a left wing. It is the duty of our movement to participate and prepare for these events by positive criticism, not only of the right wing leaders, but, of course, of the inadequacy and inevitable betrayals, not only of the aforesaid right wing, but the ‘lefts’ (e.g. Tribune, Cousins, etc.). But while preparing the cadres has been explained in perspective, it is necessary to understand that the masses will move towards a confused left reformism and centrism in the early stages. Fully participating in this movement of break[ing] with the right reformists, our tendency will be able to gain the ears, not only of the militants, but also of thousands of leftward moving workers.”
The Sussex group
One of the key areas for the tendency was in Brighton, which rapidly became the strongest after London and Merseyside. The Sussex group was built by Alan Woods, who had joined the tendency in Swansea in 1960, and had gone to study in Sussex University in October 1963. He won over Bob Edwards and Roger Silverman and was able quickly to establish a group of students around him, and from there the tendency spread into the town itself.
Alan was soon elected to the national leadership, where he played a key role until he was sent to Spain in 1976 to build the tendency under difficult underground conditions. There is absolutely no doubt about the key role played by the Brighton comrades at this time. Their work really served to sustain the tendency in these difficult years and it became an example to the rest of the country.
One year before the launch of the Militant they were already producing a fortnightly Marxist journal, Perspectives, as well as the Socialist Society’s quarterly magazine, Spark, which for a time acted as the Tendency’s theoretical journal nationally, and several other publications, including important pamphlets such as World Perspectives, Against the Stream, The Marxist Theory of the State and others.
A report given to the Editorial Board in May 1965 notes that: “Brighton played an enormous role both financially and politically in the past period”. Alan succeeded in training a layer of students and workers who were to become leaders of the Militant Tendency in the period ahead. Not least, gains were made in the Young Communist League, where the entire active membership came over to us in August 1966, later followed by Jim Brookshaw, the former national chairman of the YCL.
The success in Sussex allowed us to spread the influence of the tendency to other areas. “The Brighton comrades are going back to their different areas until the vacation ends, although a number of comrades will remain in the area and branch meetings will continue”, stated a national report in July 1966. “Two comrades are expected to be based in Notts next year, and others will be going to areas of the country where we have nobody to date. Although not given to the idea of ‘exporting revolution’ this will be a means of making contact with new elements... Their work on the Press Fund should be a pace setter for all the other branches.”
The work in Sussex opened the door to our student work on a national scale, but it also played a key role in the Labour Party work. Brighton Kemptown CLP was to become a stronghold as a result of this work, regularly submitting Marxist resolutions to Labour’s Annual Conference and sending Ray Apps as CLP delegate. Eventually, a Militant supporter Rod Fitch was selected as parliamentary candidate, but failed to take the seat.
Foresight and astonishment
Trotsky said that theory is the superiority of foresight over astonishment. The ultra-left groups that left the Labour Party had no theory and no perspective, and were consequently left with their mouths open when the situation changed, which we knew it would.
On the face of it, the situation appeared bleak. Our main field of work was the youth and things there were pretty bad. After the mess created by the ultra-lefts in 1965, the YS organization declined dramatically. From then on, the YS National Committee members were to be appointed by the regional executive committees of the party.
Discussions were restricted to youth matters. One bright spark moved a resolution at the national conference that “this conference declares its solidarity with all the Vietnamese freedom fighters under the age of 25.” Naturally, it was not taken! Contact between YS branches were blocked as Area Federations were abolished. However, we had the perspective that things would change and they did.
In 1968, the Simpson Committee recommended reviving the YS with certain rights. A year later, with the NEC youth committee being chaired by left-winger Joan Lestor, the LPYS was granted a journal, Left, its own regional and national committees, and a seat on the NEC. In the elections for the national committee, Militant supporters managed to gain an overwhelming majority. The chairman of the YS, Peter Doyle, who remains very active with our tendency today, was elected as the first Militant supporter on Labour’s NEC.
A Militant conference, made up of 41 delegates, took place above a pub in South London on the weekend of 19/20 April 1969. Discussions took place on World and British Perspectives and new organisational targets were adopted: 1) New premises and press within six months; 2) two more full-timers and a fortnightly paper within six months. This would mean doubling the full-time staff, but still a very meagre apparatus to say the least. The conference then ended by sending greetings and support to “revolutionary Marxists throughout the world”.
All this hard patient work started to pay off. Slowly but surely, the forces around Militant were painfully built up. With a majority in the leadership of the LPYS in 1970, the road was now open to building the youth organisation in a systematic fashion. This coincided with the election of a new Tory government under Ted Heath, and a massive radicalisation within the working class not seen since 1926.
Despite the timetable of our 1969 conference, premises and press were not obtained until 1970-71. Nevertheless it was a massive leap forward. Throughout 1970, the old rickety building we acquired in Bethnal Green was gutted and renovated by voluntary labour from all parts of the country. Comrades even had to dig new foundations. In 1971 we bought an old press, camera and plate-making equipment, which was operated in a shed at the rear of the building, and from which the fortnightly Militant with the new red masthead appeared in September of that year.
At this time we had 217 supporters nationally. Progress was rapid and within the next five months the weekly Militant was launched (four pages), coinciding with the 1972 national miners’ strike. By September it had eight pages, and our supporters rose to 354 comrades. We turned the LPYS outwards towards the massive industrial battles that were taking place, starting with the sit-in at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders.
Transformation of the unions
As always in Britain, the transformation of the Labour Movement began in the trade unions. We should add that many of the ultra-lefts denied the possibility of changing unions like the TGWU or the General Municipal and Boilermakers’ Union and even supported splitting the unions to form “left” unions, as on the Liverpool docks and Pilkington Glass. But as always events proved them wrong.
The shift to the left in the trade unions resulted in the election of Jack Jones as general secretary of the TGWU and Hugh Scanlon as general sectary of the AEU. The groundswell from below pushed the TUC into opposition to the Heath government, especially over its anti-trade union legislation. This fight against the government reached its height in 1972 with the arrest of five dockers and the threat of the TUC to call a 24-hour general strike.
As we explained many times, the mass organisations do not develop in a straight line, but dialectically. The organic link between the trade unions and the Labour Party, which Gaitskell and Blair have attempted to break, results in their radicalisation as the masses begin to move. The growing industrial militancy was feeding into the unions and the Party, resulting in a pronounced shift to the left in the Labour Party, even at the level of the NEC. None of this had been foreseen by the so-called Marxists who had left the Party, loudly proclaiming it to be “dead”.
The shift to the left in the unions was followed by a shift to the left in the Labour Party. Tony Benn, who had formerly been, if anything, to the right of centre in the Party during the Wilson government, now came forward as the leader of the Left. This was no accident, but flowed from the objective pressures that were driving the process.
We can add that our comrade on the NEC played an important role in stiffening the Lefts. Under our influence in 1973, Labour’s NEC came out with the programme of nationalising the top 25 monopolies. Of course, it is necessary to understand the limitations of resolutions, but it was certainly symptomatic both of a sharp turn to the left and of the growth of our influence in the Labour Party.
The first signs of a recovery could be seen in the youth. The Labour Party youth organisation had been at a very low ebb. Now all that changed. The LPYS and Militant began to take on flesh during these years. This rapid progress was no accident but the result of years and decades of patient work, correct programme, perspectives and methods. Attendances at the YS conferences, which had around 200 attending in the late 1960s, began to reach the 1,000 mark. Our Militant fringe meetings also began to attract larger audiences.
We always maintained a firmly internationalist line. When the Labour government ordered troops into the North of Ireland in August 1969, Militant – along with the Derry Labour Party – opposed the measure, although at this time virtually the entire Left, including the Cliff group (SWP) and the CP, supported sending British troops to Northern Ireland.
At the Labour Conference in October, comrades from Bristol SE and Brighton Kemptown, Ray Apps and Brian Beckingham, moved our Emergency Resolution Two which “affirms its support for those sections of the Irish Labour movement, particularly the Derry Labour Party, which has attempted to unite both Protestant and Catholic workers against the common enemy, the capitalist class, whether they be orange or green, and calls upon the trade unions of Ireland to contain the sectarian terror by the organization of Joint Defence Committees comprising both Protestant and Catholic workers.”
Under our direction, the YS took up the struggle against unemployment, racism, and international solidarity. Campaigns were launched on Ireland, Chile, Spain, and other issues. The Spanish Young Socialist Defence Campaign was a great success, raising solidarity with the underground against General Franco. Alan Woods was chosen to head this work, which led to him moving to Spain along with his family in early 1976.
The second national miners’ strike in early 1974 succeeded for the first time in bringing down a government. Our comrades, especially using the banner of the LPYS, played an important role in the election of a new Labour government. In particular, we helped to secure the election of Tony Benn in Bristol, when busloads of YS members helped in mass canvasses around the constituency. I remember we brought two coachloads of miners from South Wales. That was the extent of the influence we had built up.
Faced with a massive revolt on the industrial plane, the Tory government of Edward Heath collapsed in 1974 and was replaced by a new Labour government. Under the impact of the world crisis, the Wilson government shifted from reforms to counter-reforms. The trade union leaders agreed to a wages policy, which began to undermine living standards. By 1977 and the first firefighters’ strike, the dam started to burst. Opposition to wage restraint surfaced within the unions and the Labour party. Wilson was demoralised and resigned, handing the leadership over to Jim Callaghan.
Millions of low-paid workers became unionised and waged a fierce battle for increased wages. They could not wait any longer! Thus began the Winter of Discontent and the demise of the Callaghan government. In 1978, Terry Duffy, a comrade from Liverpool Wavertree CLP successfully moved a composite at the Labour Party conference in opposition to the government’s wage restraint. It was the end of the incomes policy.
The crisis of the Wilson/Callaghan government of 1974-79 enabled the Tendency to connect with a wide layer of radicalised workers as never before. In 1975 we were in a position to take on a new larger industrial premises at Mentmore Terrace in Hackney. By 1976, our supporters had reached the 1,000 mark. Militant’s influence continued to increase. The size of the paper increased to 16 pages weekly.
By this time our success began to attract attention. Alarm bells were beginning to ring, not only in the ears of the Labour bureaucracy, but also in the ruling class. The strategists of Capital were alarmed by the shift to the left in the Labour Party and saw us as a catalyst for this development. For the first time, Trotskyism in Britain had become a serious factor in the calculations of the state.
As early as 1976, a witch-hunt had been started against us with an “exposure” in The Observer newspaper. This used material gathered by Reg Underhill, the Party’s National Organiser to prove a “conspiracy” and instigate a purge against the Marxists. A year later, with the appointment of YS chairman Andy Bevan as National Youth Officer, all hell broke loose in the press about the Militant. The de-selection of Labour MP Reg Prentice in Newham, who later joined the Tories, added fuel to the flames of the witch-hunt against the Tendency.
However, the witch-hunt failed in its objectives. In fact, it was counterproductive. The more publicity given in the media against Militant, the more we attracted support from youth and trade unionists. By the general election of 1979, we had at least 1,500 active supporters in Britain and were very well known in the Labour movement, where our actual periphery was much bigger and growing all the time.
Ruling class alarmed
The defeat of Callaghan and the victory of Margaret Thatcher created a shock wave throughout the movement. It shifted the Labour Party further to the left. Under the leadership of Tony Benn and Eric Heffer, Left reformism became the dominant trend in the Labour party at this time. Even in the Parliamentary Labour Party the right wing was in retreat. Denis Healey, the right wing candidate, only managed to beat Tony Benn by less than one percent! Under these conditions, the Tendency grew by leaps and bounds, breaking through the 2,500 barrier.
The ruling class was now thoroughly alarmed. They could not tolerate a Labour Party under the control of the Left, let alone the Marxists. They organised the splitting away of an important section of the right wing leaders to form the SDP (Social Democratic Party), an attempt to stab the Party in the back. But this backfired. The split of the SDP proved sufficient to keep Labour out of office, but it did not halt the party’s swing to the left. Getting rid of the most corrupt right wing leaders, only served to further intensify the swing to the Left.
All the forces of the Old Order were now mustered to smash the Left, starting with the Militant Tendency. They recognized our role in stiffening the left reformist leaders and so began their offensive against the Left with a furious attack on Militant. The capitalist press was thrown into a frenzy over “Marxist revolutionaries intent on taking over the Labour Party”.
Day in, and day out, they launched a Niagara of lies against “the cancer of Militant”, demanding that we be expelled along with the supporters of the Labour Left led by Tony Benn. As a supplement to the public witch-hunt against the Tendency, it was subsequently revealed that MI5 quietly planted 30 secret agents within our ranks to combat “Marxist subversion”. Here was the real conspiracy against Labour – a conspiracy not by the Left and the Militant Tendency, but by the bourgeois state and its creatures inside the Labour Party, conspiring to take it over and turn it into an obedient tool of Big Business.
The capitalist counter-offensive gave backbone to the right wing in the Labour Party and trade unions. The Underhill Report had been repeatedly blocked by the Left majority on the NEC since it had first been raised in November 1975. However, when Michael Foot became leader and the NEC swung back to the right in 1981, wheels were set in motion for a purge.
Under the remorseless pressure of the bourgeois media, the right wing demanded action on the Underhill Report and the expulsion of Militant. Despite all the resolutions of protest to the NEC, the ‘soft Left’ capitulated, and an “investigation” was narrowly agreed into the tendency by 10 votes to 9. The Haywood-Hughes Report, as it became known, was endorsed by the 1982 Labour Conference, and established a register of “acceptable groups”, from which Militant was specifically excluded.
The fight against the witch-hunt
There have always been Marxists in the Labour Party ever since it was set up. Therefore the attempt to expel the Marxists was in reality an assault on internal Party democracy. The capitalist class wished to reassert its control over the Labour Party by attacking the Left and installing its own trusted agents in the Labour leadership. What they really objected to was that the Militant was so successful and had consistently defeated the right wing. That is why they attacked us so ferociously.
The argument that we were organised was just a smoke screen, since the right wing was always organised like a party within a party. That was true of the SPD before they split and betrayed the Labour Party, and it remains true today of the Blairite clique that has hijacked the Labour Party with the enthusiastic support of the same capitalist newspapers that viciously witch-hunted the Militant.
Naturally we defended ourselves against these attacks. In order to defeat the right wing, which had behind it not only the powerful apparatus of the Labour Party but also all the vast resources of the capitalist state, it was absolutely necessary to be organised! We organised a successful anti-witch-hunt Labour movement conference at the Wembley Conference Centre attended by 2,000 delegates. Meetings of 1,000 and more were organized in the major cities of Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle and Glasgow.
The support for Militant rocketed, with nearly 3,500 supporters recorded in 1982. More and more were attracted to our fight within the Labour Party and our call for socialist policies in the interests of the working class. Despite the fact that the big majority of the rank and file was opposed to expulsions, the NEC proceeded to expel the five members of the Militant Editorial Board in February 1983, on the eve of the Bermondsey by-election.
They argued that by cutting the head off, the body would wither. But that was not true. By this time the Militant had thousands of active supporters and tens of thousands of sympathisers. In order to drive it out of the Party, they would have to destroy Party organisations up and down the country and inflict terrible damage on it, demoralising the activists and making a Labour victory impossible for a long time. This is what actually happened.
The defeat of Michael Foot in the 1983 general election and the election of Kinnock as Labour leader signalled a shift to the right within the leadership. The witch-hunt continued under Kinnock’s leadership. The new Labour leader was completely obsessed with the fight against Militant, which he pursued with fanatical zeal, even though it was doing tremendous damage to the Party. This foolish parvenu slavishly followed the advice of the Tory press that was constantly egging him on. As a result, the rank and file were demoralised and Labour was unable to defeat the Tories.
Despite everything, the general election resulted in the election of two Militant supporters, Terry Fields and Dave Nellist, giving Militant for the first time a voice in Parliament. Unfortunately, Pat Wall failed in his election bid in Bradford North, with the SDP splitting the vote. This was rectified at the 1987 general election, when he was finally elected. For the first time in history, there were Trotskyist MPs in the British House of Commons. Here again was confirmation of our correct approach.
Liverpool City Council
In the same year, Militant hit the national headlines over its role in the leadership of Liverpool City Council. In May 1983, a number of Militant supporters had been elected as Labour councillors. In victorious city elections, Labour gained 12 seats from the Liberals and one from the SDP, while its vote increased by 40%. “I am disappointed for the city. Many members of the Militant Tendency have been elected”, lamented Sir Trevor Jones, the Liberal leader.
The success of Militant in Liverpool, like all our other successes, did not drop from the clouds. It was the result of decades of consistent Labour Party work by Jimmy Deane and the Deane family, Tommy Birchall, Pat Wall and others, on whose shoulders the then generation stood. They fought against the Braddock machine that ruled Liverpool with an iron hand, confident that events would transform the situation, which they did in the end. Walton CLP, in particular, was the bedrock for the Tendency for decades. It even chose Ted Grant as their prospective parliamentary candidate in the mid-1950s. Eric Heffer finally won the seat for Labour in 1964.
A Militant supporter, Derek Hatton, was elected Deputy Leader of the Council. With a majority of three, and a dire financial position, Liverpool Labour was faced with a stark choice: either make cuts or fight. To remain within the Liberal-Tory budget would mean abandoning its programme of creating 1,000 new jobs, reducing rents by £2 a week, raising the minimum wage and introducing a 35 hour week for council workers.
Of course, we decided to fight. A massive campaign, involving rallies, public meetings, demonstrations and strike action, was then launched to win support for the council’s stand and fight the Tory’s financial constraints. Eventually the council set a deficit budget, demanding that the Tory government make up the difference.
Despite the ambivalence and opposition of the national Labour leadership, the Liverpool working class rallied to the fight. This was reflected in the May 1984 local elections where Labour’s majority shot up to 17 seats. Eventually, the Militant-led City Council managed to force major concessions out of the Tories, which allowed them to carry through their programme.
“Today in Liverpool, municipal militancy is vindicated”, stated The Times (11th July 1984), “... a third rate provincial politician, a self-publicizing revolutionary... Mr. Derek Hatton has made the government give way... Mr. Hatton and his colleagues threatened a course of disruptive action. The reward is the abrogation of financial targets which 400 other local authorities have been told are immutable... in order to buy off Militant.”
The Militant comrades led the struggle to defend the workers of Liverpool for the next three years until they were surcharged and removed from office by unelected judges. Until that time they won every election contested. At the 1985 Labour Party conference, Kinnock launched a vitriolic attack on Militant and the Liverpool City Council, opening up the purge against all Militant supporters. In November the Liverpool District Labour Party was suspended. “I want them out of the Labour Party”, snarled Kinnock.
The Liverpool comrades, with the backing of the Militant nationally, put up a tremendous fight, but in the end they could not win against the combined hostility of the Thatcher government, the Tory press, the trade union bureaucracy and, above all, Kinnock and the right wing Labour leaders who were determined to see them defeated and thrown to the wolves.
So-called Lefts like “Red” Ken Livingstone and Blunkett also played a pernicious role. Despite all their demagogic speeches and gestures, they left Liverpool in the lurch, isolated and therefore doomed to defeat. Finally, Kinnock put the knife in. Sixteen Liverpool comrades, including Hatton, were charged in March 1986 with “engaging in course of action prejudicial to the Party”, and expelled from the Labour Party in a kangaroo court.
In spite of this, we were not dismayed. We were getting enormous sympathy and support from the Labour rank and file. At the same time that Kinnock was expelling the Liverpool comrades, we organized a 5,000-strong 21st anniversary rally in the Royal Albert Hall, raising a massive £27,000 for the Militant fighting fund.
Successes in the unions and the youth
I first met Ted Grant in July 1966 at a YS summer school in Swansea, and joined the tendency soon afterwards at the age of 14. In the early 1970s, I was elected to the National Committee of the LPYS and then onto the leadership of Militant. I worked as the West Wales full-timer until the end of 1982, then went to work in the national Centre.
Towards the end of 1983, I was made National Organiser for the Tendency and made responsible, as head of the Organisation Department, for co-ordinating our response to the witch-hunt and the building of the tendency in the different fields. By this time we had around 200 full-time workers at the Centre and in the areas. It was a very large operation, which was increasing at every turn. Far from declining, the Militant was very much on the advance at this time. We were able to buy a large factory at Hepscott Road in the East End of London, where at least a hundred full-timers were based.
During a part of the struggle in Liverpool (for one year), Britain had been shaken by the miners’ strike. The Tendency was able to put a number of full-time workers into the coalfields to assist the strike. As a result of this work, our authority was enormously boosted with the strikers and some 500 miners actually joined the Militant, although inevitably with the defeat and closures, many dropped by the wayside later. We knew, given our prominence, that we were under close scrutiny by the secret services and made plans in case the national headquarters were raided, the press seized and comrades arrested.
Our industrial work had grown in parallel with the successes in the youth field. Eight or nine comrades worked full-time in the industrial department coordinating our intervention in the different unions. We had literally hundreds of shops stewards and conveners across the industries, although our strongest area of support was in the civil service union, the CPSA. To extend our influence we promoted the Broad Left Organizing Committee (BLOC), which by early 1984 became the largest left force in the trade unions. At this time, we organized a successful national trade union conference of around 2,500 workplace representatives from dozens of trade unions.
This period also coincided with the successful building of the LPYS, which also threw its energies into the miners’ strike and the Liverpool struggle. By 1985, the number of LPYS branches had swelled to 573, with between 10-15,000 members, the biggest number since its foundation in 1960. The first black person to sit on Labour’s NEC was Linda Douglas from the YS. Despite allegations by our opponents that we did not treat the women question seriously – simply because we rejected petty bourgeois feminism – the majority of LPYS national committee members were female. Under Marxist leadership, the youth work was an outstanding success.
That was the reason why the right wing Labour leaders, headed by Kinnock, decided to destroy the Labour Youth by one means or another. Tom Sawyer (now Lord Sawyer), head of the NEC Youth Committee pushed through proposals to reduce the age limit from 26 to 21, immediately reducing the membership by one third and preventing many young trade unionists from having an effective influence. The youth paper was closed down, and the youth conference (which attracted regularly over 2,000 youth) reduced to a rump conference with a rigged electoral system. It was a throwback to the 1965-69 period. The Tendency reacted with flexibility and established the Youth Trade Union Rights Campaign as a means of circumventing the measures of the bureaucracy. For instance, in April 1985, YTURC led a school strike of 300,000 youth.
As a result of the witch-hunt against Militant, the coverage on the TV and the newspapers was at saturation point. Every morning I would get photocopies of all the coverage, which stretched across the room in boxes. To capitalise upon this, we organized meetings against the attacks up and down the country, gathering streams of new supporters in the process. By 1987, the list of firm Militant supporters went over 8,000.
Were these lists exaggerated? All I can say is that in that year well over 7,000 people attended our massive rally at the Alexandra Palace in London, with a live link up to hear Trotsky’s grandson, Esteban Volkov, in Mexico City. This was the last national rally before the split that destroyed the Militant.
Despite the witch-hunt, with around 220 being expelled from the party and a layer also suspended from party membership, the ranks of the Tendency remained overwhelmingly intact and rooted to the Labour Party. Of course we expected to be witch-hunted, how could it be otherwise? The point was not to lose our head. Unfortunately, this is just what a section of the leadership did.
The Poll Tax
The victory of the Tories in 1987 brought new challenges. Thatcher had promised to introduce a Community Charge or Poll Tax, as it became universally known and hated. The plan was to introduce the Poll Tax in Scotland in the first year, to be followed by England and Wales. Once the Scots had been subdued, the rest would fall into line.
At a series of national meetings soon after the election, Ted Grant outlined the perspectives facing the tendency and for the first time raised the idea of a campaign of mass non-payment “as in Glasgow in the rent strike of 1915” and predicted social upheavals. From then on preparations were made by the Tendency to take on the Tory government.
As people began to realise the massive bills they faced, a burning anger built up in all areas of Scotland. We began mass work by organizing meetings on the schemes (housing estates) and then establishing Anti-Poll Tax Committees made up of local representatives. Within a year, one million people in Scotland were refusing to pay the tax. Tommy Sheridan, who was our candidate to lead the campaign, became the chairman of the Scottish Anti-Poll Tax Federation.
In the meantime, the Labour leaders ran a mile from breaking the law. “The mass non-payment campaign is being led by supporters of the Militant tendency largely because of the political vacuum left by the party leadership”, commented the Scotland on Sunday. “The substantial support to the calls for non-payment is known to be more than an irritant to Labour’s leaders.” (2 July 1989).
I was put in charge, as head of the organisation department at Militant HQ, of co-ordinating the mass campaign throughout the country. The tendency issued two pamphlets on the Poll Tax, both written by myself, which sold in their thousands. The first pamphlet analysed the lessons of the Scottish non-payment campaign, while the second, issued later, dealt with the unfolding struggle in England and Wales.
On the day of the introduction of the Poll Tax in England and Wales, the Militant-led All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation organised a massive 250,000 strong demonstration in London and a demonstration of 50,000 in Glasgow. Typically, Kinnock disowned 31 Labour MPs who were refusing to pay their Poll Tax. By the end of 1990, some 18 million people were refusing to pay the Poll Tax and Thatcher, discredited, was forced to resign and the tax was effectively scrapped.
Despite these enormous successes, there were serious problems starting to develop within the tendency. Our mass work around the Poll Tax placed colossal pressure on the comrades, especially in the localities, and the burden, which was increasing, was falling on fewer and fewer shoulders. We were beginning to fall victim to the limitations of “single issue” politics and the work was becoming more and more unbalanced. This had very negative consequences.
There were a lot of frustrations at the time. For instance, at a national meeting of regional representatives in September 1990, alarm was raised that the tendency was locked into the Poll Tax struggle, with no time for anything else. It was reported that our full-timers had become anti-Poll Tax full-timers, and our comrades were substituting themselves for the working class. The organisation department was becoming increasingly an anti-Poll Tax department and we were over-stretched and in danger of running the tendency into the ground.
In fact, we had boxed ourselves into a corner. The pressures were bearing down on us from all sides. The tendency seemed to be continually on a war footing, leaping from one action to the next, one court case to the next, and one confrontation with the bailiffs to the next. The problem was that our successes in the Poll Tax campaign went to some comrades’ heads. To use a phrase of Stalin, they were “dizzy with success”.
This was especially the case in Scotland and Liverpool, two areas that were directly under the control of Peter Taaffe. There was a sense of frustration and impatience. At bottom this was a reflection of a low political level, lack of perspectives and lack of a sense of proportion. What was needed was to explain to the comrades the limitations of the Poll Tax campaign and the need for a worked out perspective of how the Tendency would develop, not only today, but also tomorrow and the day after.
Unfortunately, no attempt was made to educate the comrades in this spirit. Instead, the moods of impatience were systematically fed and reinforced from the national centre. The young and inexperienced full-timers were encouraged to put pressure on the comrades to run around and get immediate results. As a result, many older comrades were burnt out and dropped out. This in turn led to a political dilution of the tendency and a further decline of the political level.
The political capital of the tendency was being frittered away for the sake of illusory short-term gains. If the full-timers could not meet the ambitious targets demanded by the Centre, they would just invent spurious results that were passed on to the Centre. There was a growing gap between theory and practice. We were running ever faster in order to stand still. Also, there was increasing substitutionalism, where the full-timers were substituting themselves for the rank and file comrades, who were substituting themselves for the class. One thing led to another, producing a downward spiral. But the leading group paid no attention to this.
The group around Peter Taaffe had lost all sense of proportion. Taaffe by this time had become obsessed with his own importance. He even revealed privately that the fate of the British revolution was on his shoulders alone! The arrogance of the leading circle was transmitted to the rank and file through the full-timers, who lacked the necessary theoretical training that the old layer had had. This increasingly alienated other sections of the Left and ordinary Labour workers. This was of no concern to the group around Peter Taaffe. They seriously imagined that we could somehow by-pass the Labour Party. We could do it all on our own.
There was a big problem for Taaffe: the colossal political and moral authority of Ted Grant. This was the cement that had kept the Tendency together through the most difficult circumstances. It was Ted who worked out the perspectives and he would never tolerate adventures, stunts or ultra-leftism. Politically speaking, Taaffe did not come up to Ted’s ankles, and he knew it. He was always overshadowed by Ted’s political authority, and this continually rankled with him.
Peter was without doubt a capable man, but his abilities were of a purely organisational and agitational character. He was never a theoretician. But he was extremely ambitious and felt his “genius” was not being properly recognised. Unable to tackle Ted in an open political debate, he therefore manoeuvred to isolate him within the leadership. In this he received encouragement by the group of yes-men and women he had gathered around him. The latter owed their promotion to him and were constantly egging him on to sideline Ted.
The tendency, which in the past had prided itself on a strong theoretical foundation, was becoming trapped in a spiral of constant activism. There was no time to draw one’s breath, let alone politically train the comrades in the fundamentals of Marxism. We were building on unsound foundations. The whole edifice was becoming top-heavy. This was to have the most serious consequences.
Ted and Alan Woods attempted to address the problem of the low political level and lack of cadres. Ted had continually warned about the lack of theoretical training of the newer comrades, but was ignored. The fact was that the group around Taaffe were not interested in theory, which they at best regarded as an unnecessary encumbrance, at best as the fairy on the Christmas tree. They treated Ted with complete contempt, although they did not yet dare to attack him publicly.
The other problem they had was Alan Woods who firmly supported Ted and had a lot of support, especially in the tendency internationally. Immediately after his return from Spain, Alan revived the moribund theoretical journal, the Militant International Review (MIR). This was very popular with the rank and file and the full-timers, who keenly felt the need for theory. But the journal was given no support from the leadership, which starved it of resources. At no time was the MIR even discussed on the leading committee.
Eventually, Taaffe managed to remove Alan from the journal, alleging that he was “too busy” with international work. This was entirely phoney. Despite Alan’s very heavy international commitments, he was running the journal very successfully. It was actually coming out regularly, which it never did before and was popular with the comrades. But that was just what Taaffe could not stand. He wanted every aspect of the work to be under the control of people he trusted, irrespective of their personal or political abilities, or the lack of them.
The “Scottish turn”
Impatience in revolutionary politcs plays a pernicious role. Some people, especially in Liverpool and Glasgow, were seeking a shortcut to success. In April 1991, they convinced Taaffe to launch a “new turn” in Scotland, allegedly to combat Scottish nationalism and reap the rewards of the Poll Tax campaign. This was sold to the leadership as a “temporary detour”, nothing out of the ordinary. Of course, it was nothing of the kind, as subsequent developments proved.
The tensions within the leadership had been growing over a long period. They suddenly erupted over a secondary incident early in 1991. A violent argument broke out about Taaffe’s attempts to promote his followers in a blatant way. Ted Grant and Alan Woods accused him of organising a clique – which was perfectly true and evident to anyone who worked at the Centre (the national office). This led to a sharp deterioration in relations within the leadership.
It soon became evident that the Taaffe group had been preparing for this for a long time. They immediately mobilised the full-time apparatus to crush the “disloyal opposition”. They instituted a kind of loyalty oath to isolate their critics, on whom the most extreme pressure was brought to bear. Meetings were organised, not for the sake of debate, but to denounce Ted and Alan. Nobody spoke to the handful of supporters of the opposition at the Centre, not even to say good morning, and all kinds of petty measures were introduced, even to the extent of searching people’s bags before they were allowed to leave the building.
When I saw what was happening, I was shocked. These methods had nothing in common with the clean democratic traditions of the Militant, which we were all so proud of. All kinds of pressures were put on me to fall into line, but I refused. Taaffe even suggested I take a “long holiday”! But it was really impossible to condone what was being done in the name of the Militant Tendency. A stand had to be made, even if we were in a minority – which we were, of course.
The Walton adventure
Soon afterwards, events took a new turn. With the death of Eric Heffer, a Militant supporter, Leslie Mahmood, put her name forward but was manipulated out of the contest. The group around Taaffe suggested standing an independent candidate in Walton. At a staged-managed national meeting held in Liverpool, with Alan away, only Ted and I spoke and voted against the decision to stand. Taaffe and his supporters presented the “Walton turn” as a short cut. Ted aptly described it as “a short cut over a cliff.” Later events showed just how right he was.
At that time, there were a lot of doubts, especially among the more experienced comrades. But there was now no turning back. The leading group had now embarked on an ultra-left adventure with a logic of its own. They irresponsibly decided to sacrifice our members of parliament and deliberately to court expulsion. During the Walton campaign, when Dave Nellist asked if he should support the official Labour candidate in Walton, as all Labour MPs are required to do or face expulsion, he was told by Taaffe, “under no circumstances!” These few words from the General Secretary effectively sealed his fate.
The leading group in Hepscott Road whipped up a campaign that raised entirely false hopes in our prospects of success. Comrades were drafted into Walton from other parts of Britain and even from abroad. But despite all the wild boasts and exaggerated reports, Leslie Mahmood came third with only 2,613 votes, compared to Labour’s 21,317. The Walton episode was a complete farce. But this could not be admitted, because the Leadership had to be infallible. Therefore, on the front page of Militant, a banner heading appeared proclaiming this disastrous result as “2,613 votes for Socialism!”
Of course, anybody can make a mistake. That is not a problem as long as the mistake is honestly admitted and not repeated and the lessons are drawn. That was always the method of Lenin and Trotsky, and it was what Ted had always taught us. For a serious Marxist leadership to admit a mistake is only part of the learning process. But for a leadership that lacks the necessary political and moral authority, mistakes cannot be admitted. In such organisations the leaders can never admit mistakes because they feel that this would undermine their prestige. Consequently the same mistake is repeated over and over again. Then it ceases to be a mistake and becomes a tendency.
The Walton rout caused consternation in the ranks, who had been given to believe that we could win the seat. In a desperate attempt to raise the demoralised spirits of the rank and file comrades, the leading group promptly declared black to be white and a defeat to be a victory. With a straight face, they announced: “This success should be repeated in other parts of the country”!
The Walton episode was a bad mistake, but not necessarily a catastrophe. It could have been corrected. But Taaffe and his group could not do this. The overriding consideration in all this was the prestige of the leadership. Everything else was subordinate. By refusing to admit a mistake, they turned a defeat into a shameful rout that ended in the destruction of the Militant and the work of four decades.
The immediate effect of the Walton adventure was to provide invaluable ammunition to Labour’s right wing, which naturally intensified the witch-hunt. The main victims were the two MPs, Dave Nellist and Terry Fields (tragically, Pat Wall had died by then). Pursuing their irresponsible policy, the leadership had deliberately placed their heads on the chopping block and the right wing had no problem in securing one of their principal objectives:
“On the basis of photographic, and other verifiable evidence of Labour members campaigning for Mahmood in the by-election, the NEC Organization Committee ordered 147 suspected Militant sympathisers to be suspended – the biggest ever crack-down against the organisation”, wrote George Drower. “Proceedings were begun to expel allegedly Militant-supporting Labour MPs, Dave Nellist and Terry Fields.”
It took us decades to build up these positions, but only a few months to throw them away. The sole motive for this was to maintain their prestige. They were blind to all the consequences of their actions. Every lunatic move was one hundred percent correct, and all criticism was regarded as little short of treason.
In the leadership, Ted, Alan and myself opposed the ultra-left “new turn”, which was quickly heading down the same road as the Healyites some thirty years before, and which the Militant had always fought against. The so-called debate on the “turn” was a farce that had nothing in common with our democratic traditions. The opposition was subjected to a vicious campaign of distortion, lies and slander, orchestrated by Hepscott Road. They claimed that we were in favour of our MPs paying the Poll Tax, that we were against action and only wanted to “passively wait upon events”, we wanted a quiet life in Labour Party meetings, etc, etc.
Not a word of this was true. But the rank and file was not in a position to know the facts. The leading group controlled the full-time apparatus and used it in an unscrupulous way to undermine us. The reason for this was that they were completely unable to answer us politically. We were treated, not as erring comrades to be convinced by argument (as had always been our approach to oppositionists in the past), but as enemies. In an atmosphere of hysteria, we were sacked from our jobs and unceremoniously expelled, along with the rest of the opposition.
The heritage we reject...
Over the decade or so following the split, Taaffe and his followers have had a golden opportunity to demonstrate the correctness of their perspectives, policies and methods. When we were expelled, the majority argued that the only thing preventing the meteoric growth of the Tendency was our connection with the Labour Party. All that was necessary was to break from the Labour Party, and we would “grow by leaps and bounds”.
This was said repeatedly (with these very words) in one meeting after another. But as old Engels liked to say, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” We are entitled to ask: What is the balance sheet? What has been achieved in the space of over a decade? After all, that is not a negligible period of time. Has the Militant “grown by leaps and bounds”? Nobody believes this! On the contrary, they have succeeded brilliantly only in one thing – in destroying the Militant utterly.
Following the expulsion of the opposition, the Militant tendency immediately went into a steep decline. From 8,000 comrades, which we had at our peak, the Taaffe group were eventually reduced to a rump of a few hundred people. There has been one split after another – an inevitable result of the organizational measures that were first used against the opposition and were later used against anybody who did not support the leadership with sufficient enthusiasm.
The comrades in Liverpool – “the jewel in the crown” of Militant – subsequently came into conflict with the leadership, were suspended, and then expelled, including Dave Cotterill, Taaffe’s main supporter on Merseyside, who he used to praise in glowing terms. The organisation that led the 1983-87 struggle was utterly wrecked. In Scotland – as we predicted – Tommy Sheridan and practically the entire organisation parted company with Taaffe and have now moved away from Marxism and towards left nationalism.
Living in their ultra-left dream world, the Taaffe group really imagined that they were going to replace the Labour Party. They launched the so-called “Socialist Party” (one of about twenty or so that one can choose from) that has been a spectacular flop. They regularly stand in elections and regularly obtain derisory results, which are regularly proclaimed as great victories for socialism.
After the split they fell over themselves in their haste to jettison all the old ideas, methods and traditions that had been proved to be successful, not in demagogic speeches but in fact. Now in their sectarian madness they declare that the Labour Party is a bourgeois party and call on the unions to disaffiliate from Labour. This has nothing in common with the methods and traditions of Militant but is more like a caricature of the Third Period policies of the Stalinists. Like all the ultra-left adventures of the past, it will lead nowhere.
In order to solve their financial problems they had to sell off the big headquarters in Hepscott Road – a great achievement to which we all contributed but which they managed to lose all on their own. The money they got from the sale will keep them going for a while, but it will not last forever. And in any case, no amount of money can make up for the lack of correct ideas, perspectives, policies and methods.
As a final indignity, they even jettisoned the name of the Militant. This was an act of sheer stupidity. The name of the Militant was known not just in Britain but also all over the world. But nobody has heard of the paper of the “Socialist Party”. Even the bourgeois understands that a successful brand name ought not to be abandoned.
In this way, not a single trace is left of what we built. One by one they threw away all the gains we had made with such difficulty and sacrifice in the past. This is a result that not even the most optimistic of our enemies could have anticipated! He who is not capable of defending the gains of the past will never be able to lead the way to future advances. Peter Taaffe has earned his place in the history books, but not in the way he had hoped. He will be remembered as the man who destroyed the Militant.
And the heritage we defend
Our success in Britain was an historical breakthrough with no parallels in the history of the movement. Today it is necessary to spell out the reasons for this remarkable success so that the new generation can learn from it and benefit by it. The spectacular rise of Militant was the result on the one hand of a scrupulous attitude to ideas and Marxist theory and on the other to the fact that we did not succumb to ultra-leftism and sank deep roots in the Labour Movement.
We remained within the Labour Party while all the others marched off into the wilderness, where they stagnated and declined. The Militant, on the other hand, did in fact grow by leaps and bounds, thanks to a correct policy. Our orientation to the mass organisations, and especially the Labour Party, was the key factor in this process. That we were highly successful is clear in the first place from the reaction of the ruling class to us.
The attack on Militant was really the first step in a sustained and orchestrated offensive against the left wing of the Labour Party and was part of an attempt on the part of the ruling class to regain control over the Labour leadership and turn it into a tool in its hands. This ended in the temporary aberration of Blairism and so-called “New Labour”. But the struggle for the Labour Party is by no means over. In fact, it has scarcely begun.
The Blairite right is now on the defensive. The opposition of the rank and file is growing. People are looking for an alternative, but not outside the Labour Party. If we had succeeded in keeping our forces together, building on the gains of the past, we would now be in a much stronger position to take advantage of the big possibilities that will open up in the next period when Blair is forced out and the fight in the Labour Party begins in earnest.
It is a matter of regret that many of the positions we won through hard work were criminally thrown away, and that many good cadres were destroyed in the process. Things would have been a lot easier than they are. But the struggle continues anyway. The basic nucleus of the forces of Marxism remain intact and are continuing to work, to fight, to win new friends and supporters and to advance. In fact, we have been strengthened, not weakened, by ridding ourselves of sectarian and ultra-left elements.
The argument that the demise of Militant was due to difficult objective conditions is radically false. Ted always points out that good leadership in a period of retreat is even more important than when you are advancing. The difference is that with good generals you can retreat in good order, keeping your forces intact and preparing for a new advance when conditions are ripe for it. But bad generals will always turn a retreat into a rout. That is just what happened.
On this 40th anniversary of the launching of the Militant, we pay tribute to the great achievements of the past. We are proud of the traditions of Militant, which we are still continuing to this day. The real inheritor of Militant is the Marxist tendency that is fighting for socialism in Britain and internationally – the tendency of Ted Grant, represented by Socialist Appeal and Marxist.com. We proved before how a successful Marxist tendency could be built by combining the ideas of Marxism with the mass organisations of the working class, and we will do so again.