“The only true prophets are those who carve out the future they announce.”
Ted Grant defined Marxism, in my hearing, as the “science of prediction”. Grant made many “Marxist” predictions, about the Stalinist states, the, so-to-speak, predetermined evolution of the Labour Party and many other things. He got almost everything spectacularly wrong.
The only prediction of his that came true was his often-repeated assertion that he would outlive all his contemporaries, all his one-time comrades, all his once-upon-a-time political rivals. He did. He was 93 when he died on July 20 2006.
He worked at it. He dieted, religiously shunned alcohol and did special exercise all his adult life. I have spent an evening in a pub with Grant, a stage-prop half of bitter on the table in front of him, and Grant delivering a little lecture every time I went to the bar about how many of my brain cells I was destroying with each trip!
Prediction was central to Grant’s politics. That was his function; he was the shaman. For a long time Grant’s predictions, used as a guide by the organisation he founded and for most of its existence led — it was known variously as the Revolutionary Socialist League and Militant Tendency — seemed to serve him and the organisation well. In the 1970s and the first half of the 80s it seemed that Grant and his comrades had created what was, perhaps, the biggest post-Trotsky “Trotskyist” organisation in the world, and moreover an organisation well-entrenched inside the mass labour movement, in both the trade unions and the Labour Party.
Then it quickly crumpled. So did Grant’s vulgar-evolutionist caricature of Marxism, with the collapse of his predictions about the USSR and the Labour Party.
The USSR, far from evolving ever closer to socialism and the replacement of what Grant named post-capitalist “proletarian Bonapartism” — the dictatorship of the Stalinist bureaucracy — by working-class democracy collapsed. In some respects, the ex-USSR of the early 1990s regressed to something more resembling pre-capitalism than post-capitalism.
After the great battles of the early 80s, the Labour Party lurched first into control by a Kinnockite soft-left and right-wing coalition which began to mimic Thatcherism, and then into the coup by the Blairites, who aimed to outdo the Thatcherites at their own game.
These two great historical events shattered Ted Grant’s political system. But it had already by the mid-80s also received two shattering blows.
The first was in Liverpool where Grant’s organisation won the leadership of the Labour Party and the broader labour movement. The Grantites came face to face with their own spectacularly bizarre political incompetence — the stark discovery that their organisation was “unfit for purpose” for functioning in sharp class struggle, the reason for which Marxist organisations supposedly exist.
The second blow was the effect on the working class of the defeat of the 1984-5 miners’ strike, which, of course, affected the whole labour movement. It was more than that for Militant.
Militant played an important part in determining that the miners would be defeated (just as their main successor organisation, the Socialist Party, played the key role in the public sector union’s recent shameful capitulation on pensions).
Faced with the necessity, in accordance with the development of the logic of the class struggle, of bringing the Liverpool labour movement into the fight which the miners were already waging, the RSL-Militant chose instead to make a short-term deal with the Tory government. They left the miners to fight alone! It was a piece of spectacularly narrow-minded “sectionalism”.
Militant was primarly concerned to protect its own position and its own organisation in Liverpool, and they did it with the shortsightedness of the crassest old-style reformists. The fact that Militant in Liverpool was led by the strange figure of Derek Hatton, who turned the whole affair into a joke-shop burlesque of politics, put the cap and bells on it.
By their nature Grant’s great big predictions for example about the USSR could only be “platonic” assessments and projections. In Liverpool in 1984-5, Grant and his comrades, by deciding to “sit out” the miners’ strike, the most important working-class battle since before the Second World War, made a major contribution to determining what would happen. And in the Labour Party too, where the effect of the miners’ defeat helped the Kinnockites.
It has not been given to many Trotskyist organisations to shape events. And, Like the working class, the labour movement and the Marxist organisations, Militant played a terrible price. By ratting on the miners it helped create in Liverpool the conditions for its own destruction. The Liverpool experience was the “high point”, and the lowest point, in the history of the organisation Ted Grant built.
In the first of a series of articles on Ted Grant and Marxism, I retell the story of Militant’s fiasco in Liverpool.