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Militant’s Real History: In Reply to Ted Grant and Rob Sewell


by Tony Aitman

The history of our movement is an important study for our members. Reading history can be a pleasure in itself; the lessons of history are important to understand the present and as a guide to the future; the history of the Trotskyist movement in particular is often an inspiration to new members just coming into activity, especially in the way that a small grouping can transform itself into a mass movement.

Rob Sewell’s postscript to Ted Grant’s History of British Trotskyism is none of these. Whatever else may be said of the book itself, at least Grant attempts to place each development in the movement – the successes, the reversals, the growth, the splits – in the context of the events against which they took place. In stark contrast, Sewell’s postscript is a vicious stream of bile and venom, in which leading figures disappear and entire historical periods are reduced to the strengths or weaknesses of one or two particular individuals.

It is of course true, as Sewell says, that the history of 50 years cannot be compressed into a few pages, or even one book; Sewell threatens, god help us, several more. But in Sewell’s "history", whole periods are expunged from history; great events just disappear; individuals and the role they played are airbrushed from the picture in a manner worthy of the worst of Stalin’s "historians".

It is also true, again as Sewell says, that history is made by individuals. But in the typically crass and mechanical method with which Sewell approaches Marxist theory, the dialectical relationship between the individual and the mass movement, the individual and history, is reduced to the idea that events occur purely because of the whim of particular individuals concerned. Mass movements are, of course, composed of individuals, and the role of each individual in the movement is vital. The point is, however, that individuals can play a crucial role when the general movement of the classes has reached a point when their intervention can be decisive. Lenin played such a role in 1917, but was only able to do so because the masses had moved into revolutionary action. To Sewell, every success was due only to the particular brilliance of Ted Grant (and, of course, himself and his brother), and the reverses of the 1980s and 1990s due to the incompetence of …. Peter Taaffe!! To Sewell, it is as though nothing happened in those years to affect the consciousness of the working class. The defeat of the miners’ strike, the defeat of Liverpool City Council, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the qualitative change in the nature of the Labour Party – you will search Sewell’s postscript in vain to find any real mention or analysis of these. To him, as to the whole of the grouplet around Ted Grant, nothing has changed since the beginning of the 1980s. The tactic of work in the Labour Party has become a mantra, as the slogans of the past are repeated in place of the genuine method of Marxist analysis.

In reality, the defeats of the 1980s and 1990s had a cataclysmic effect on the consciousness of the working class, throwing back decades of understanding. This was particularly so where the consciousness was most advanced and the activity of the class most pronounced, such as Liverpool and Scotland. Inevitably, this also had an effect on the leading layers of the class, within the revolutionary movement itself. We will return later to the truth of Sewell’s assertions about the Party in Liverpool, but what is true is that the events of the closing decades of the twentieth century had a major impact on sections of the leadership of the movement. To blame Peter Taaffe for this is like blaming Noah for the flood. That our Party has come through this period is a testimony to the strength of its leadership and its commitment to the ideas of Marxism.

And that is the point. Any leadership of a revolutionary movement is a collective leadership. Just look at the archives of the Revolutionary Communist Party; the leadership was, it is true, based around Ted Grant, but Jock Haston played no small role in developing its theory. Grant’s ideas themselves at the end of the war were influenced by the theories of Felix Morrow and Albert Goldman. As an aside, it is interesting that Sewell admits this in his introduction to Grant’s book. In all the time Grant spoke in the old Tendency on the history of the movement, this was never mentioned (see the transcript of Grant’s speech on the history held in the Liverpool archives). I myself raised this in the 1980s on first reading Morrow and Goldman’s documents. The exact formulations were different, but the analysis and conclusions were basically the same. When I took this up with Ted, I was dismissed. Morrow and Goldman were petit bourgeois at best; their ideas were only superficially similar, only the British section (i.e. Ted Grant) had the correct ideas. Unfortunately for Sewell, the documents are there and the truth of history cannot be dismissed.

Sober analysis and attention to the realities of history are complete strangers to Sewell. It is often nauseating to have to go through what passes for history in Sewell’s mind. It is important, however, to place things on paper for the historical record. For this reason alone, we shall try to deal with at least some of Sewell’s points.

Firstly, it is important to give some impression of the state of the movement at the time of the final break with Healy. The group was extremely loose, held together solely by the ties of their previous close collaboration and the force of the ideas, for which Ted Grant must take much of the credit. However, it terms of there being a cohesive force with a clear idea of where it was going, this was virtually non-existent. The faction fighting and manoeuvring after the war had taken its toll. Small, isolated groups existed in London, in Liverpool, in South Wales, with odd individuals elsewhere.

The importance of the Liverpool group, however, was its industrial base and its history going back to the 1930s; the first independent Trotskyist candidate had stood for the council in Bootle. The apprentices’ strike, led by the Communist Party in Scotland, in Liverpool was led by our comrades. Terry Harrison, who played an important part in the development of the Liverpool organisation, particularly with younger members, had a leading role in the apprentices’ strike committee. Incidentally, Terry is one of the few people praised by Sewell. It is a pity he did not know Terry’s nickname for him – the bullshitter!! Still, Sewell says that the strike allowed us to recruit a number of young workers, but, amongst all the names that are mentioned, is curiously shy of mentioning any of these apprentices. Perhaps it is because they included Ted Mooney, later to be a Liverpool City Councillor, spokesperson for the Shop Stewards Action Committee in English Electric – and, to use Sewell’s terminology, still a committed member of the Socialist Party to this day.

The organisation that Ted Mooney joined was chaotic to say the least. The secretary of the branch did not attend meetings; work was being ignored in many areas; the base in Walton that Sewell mentions, while important for the group in terms of the intervention into Labour Party conferences, etc., was nevertheless woefully lacking in terms of what was required of a revolutionary party.

"Over the past few weeks there has been no group meetings….there are one or two comrades who have never attended a meeting since I’ve been in the group, namely H Dalton and M Black" (letter from Ted Mooney to Terry Harrison, 26/6/62)

Dalton and Black were later to become leading figures in the Labour Party. Black moved to the right but Hughie Dalton did not significantly change his politics and stood by the heroic 47 Liverpool councillors who defied Thatcher and were fined and removed from office.

"LK is much settled in a new role as a ‘has been’ …. Geo McC is much more friendly … he may soon be back" (letter from Brian Dean to Terry Harrison, 10/6/62).

George may well be a nice old man, friendly with Ted Grant, but to say he is "a supporter of Socialist Appeal to this day" will be met with surprise by many Liverpool Socialist Party members, past and present, who will never have heard of him. He was almost totally out of contact with the group when I went to Liverpool in 1967 and, from Brian’s letter above, even before that. That someone who has had no contact with the Trotskyist movement for 40 years and played no part in any of the internal discussions throughout that period can be paraded as evidence of the continuation of ideas with the Grant group is an indication of that group’s bankruptcy. It is also an indication – and we shall return to this later – that to them, nothing has changed since the 1960s!

For the group nationally, it was vitally necessary to strengthen its organisation and central cohesion. For this reason, Keith Dickenson, a long standing member of the Liverpool group, went to London to work. Strangely, while others receive fulsome praise, Keith is not mentioned. Could this also be because Keith remains a member of the Party’s leading body to this day? For Liverpool, it was necessary to reorganise, rebuild and put some order into chaos.

New members were being recruited, particularly from Birkenhead Young Socialists, where John McDonald was based. Of particular importance was the recruitment of Peter Taaffe, a young Council employee. Sewell has high praise for Dougie Holmes in his acknowledgments; I don’t want to be critical of old Dougie, who made sacrifices for the movement, but let him speak for himself:

"Now we have got two new members …. and Peter Taaffe, a mate of John McDonald’s from Birkenhead, who for only being in the Labour Party for six months knows quite a lot, at least more than I do" (letter from Doug Holmes to Terry Harrison, 19/1/62)

Incidentally, Doug was writing when Terry was in the army in Hong Kong doing his National Service; Doug was still in Liverpool because, against the advice and policy of the group, he had claimed to be a Conscientious Objector and thus evaded doing his service. That Doug finds himself with Socialist Appeal today comes as no surprise; their whole guiding policy seems to be to avoid a fight by any means possible.

Peter had an enormous impact on the group, putting it on a firm footing, making sure meetings took place regularly, developing its theoretical strength. John McDonald is more fulsome in his praise than Dougie:

"We have three members who have shown that they know how to work methodically and more properly…….but P(eter) T(aaffe) is just amazing! Some comrades have been directing sometimes petty and unconstructive criticism at Brian (Deane). Not Peter, he can criticise Brian, but in a way to get something out of him, and he can work himself. He isn’t Trotsky yet, but believe me, Terry, wait and see, he’ll leave Brian and Paddy (Pat Wall) behind in a few years and on the national plane. He might very well be the Maccabee. He has a very powerful and aggressive mind" (letter from John McDonald to Terry Harrison, 5/8/62).

Despite the shortage of space, Sewell devotes an inordinate proportion of his postscript to the very early years of development. Why is this so? Clearly, to do otherwise, he would have to deal with the years of growth in Liverpool, the leadership of the LPYS, the real history of the building of the international. What has happened to all the people involved in those years? To Sewell, they have simply disappeared from history. Why, for example, is so much time spent on the Mani affair, an episode which has disappeared into the mists of pre-history, while the expulsion of the editorial board and the MPs is glossed over in a few lines, and blamed on the Peter Taaffe misleadership? The Mani affair centred around some of our supporters opposing a hooligan element in a clash with the bureaucracy in order to preserve their position in the Labour Party. Is Sewell suggesting that we should have backed down over the expulsions, that the events in a tiny backwater of the labour movement can be compared to a major battle in the full glare of publicity and in front of the whole of the Labour Party? To give the expulsions their true worth in time and explanation would reveal Sewell’s real position. There comes a time when it is necessary to stand up to the bureaucracy and fight, and the position around the expulsions was clearly one of them. Why does Sewell not go into detail about this? Perhaps it is because, of the expelled editorial board members, apart from Grant himself, all the rest are – still committed members of the Party. But waving the brush of Stalinism, Sewell has consigned Lynn Walsh, Keith Dickenson and Clare Doyle to become the non-people of history.

Take the break with Young Guard. As Sewell admits, the closure of Rally and the fusion with Young Guard was clearly a mistake, brought on by Jimmy Deane’s lack of confidence in the ability of the group to develop on its own. The whole blame cannot though be laid at the feet of one man; the desire for unity with others on the left at that time grew out of the isolation of the group in the face of the SLL (Healy, later the WRP) and the IS (Cliff, later the SWP). Sewell, though, does not mention Ted Grant’s position. Jimmy could not have brought the merger about on his own. Was it only Jimmy Deane who was in favour of the merger? In cowardly fashion, Sewell places all the blame for the Rebel/Rally merger on one man unable to answer back.

A hallmark of Ted’s work was to take the easy road. It was precisely the same with his position regarding the Open Party faction and entry into the Labour Party after the war. It is interesting that Sewell now says that it was a mistake for Ted not to have backed the Open Party faction. Despite his claim, Ted never admitted this before – again, see the transcript of his speech on the history of British Trotskyism in the Liverpool archives – and Sewell still says later on that in or out of the Labour Party at that time made no difference, and also talks of "40 years work" in the 1980s. If it made no difference, why was it wrong not to back the Open Party faction? And if the turn by the tendency to open work in the 1980s was a "threat to 40 years work", the implication must be that it was correct to have joined the Labour Party in the 1940s. Sewell can’t have it both ways.

On Rebel/Rally/Young Guard, Sewell is also silent on the position of the Liverpool group:

"In your last letter, you mention the merger of Rally with Rebel and you express your lack of faith in such a transaction. I am afraid I can only agree with you. I was against the merger from the beginning. I pointed out the inevitable results of such a merger and recent events have proven me to be right" (letter from Ted Mooney to Terry Harrison, 16/12/61).

The split with Young Guard was not accidental. It grew out of the campaign for a youth charter. The charter itself developed on Merseyside out of the apprentices’ charter drawn up by the comrades at the time of the apprentices’ strike. The charter became the sticking point with the IS in Young Guard, and also became a major weapon in our hands in the development of the YS itself. Opposed to the very concept of a transitional programme, the IS/SWP could not tolerate Young Guard being associated with this in any way.

Nevertheless, the split with IS took place and the decision taken to set up Militant. Incidentally, Sewell’s selective memory, while mentioning a number of attempts to set up a paper, curiously forgets Socialist Current, involving Sam Levy and others. Ted was involved in the early issues, yet this gets no mention. Perhaps it is because his "research" involved only received wisdom from others, rather than the more painstaking method of reading through the archives to check and bolster up other people’s memories. Ted was wont to call the Socialist Current the "Currant Bun"; my own attempts to obtain information from him about his involvement proved fruitless, perhaps another example of selective memory.

The production of the paper made an important impact on the growth of the tendency. For the first time in years, a regular paper, whatever its faults, was produced. Despite the early issues being marred by yet another attempted merger with the International Group, forced on us by the International of which we were still (just) a part, the paper made a big impact. It was at this time that I came into contact with the tendency. My father was a building site worker in London’s East End, and came from the proud Jewish East End Communist tradition. He had left the Communist Party in 1956 over the Hungarian events, and I had been brought up with a hatred of Stalinism and a firm belief in the ability and necessity of the working class to change society. My first contact was with the International Group, later to become the IMG. However, they were more concerned with selling me pamphlets by Malcolm X than serious discussion. Similarly, I was repelled by the sectarianism and aura of violence around the Socialist Labour League (later WRP). There was nothing down for the International Socialists (SWP); they seemed overwhelmingly middleclass, with a membership in my YS branch who had open contempt for the "failure of the working class to achieve socialism". The only group who seemed to have any real sense of where they were going, an understanding of the Labour Party – and, given my background, a sympathetic attitude to the working class militants of the Communist Party – was the group around Militant.

Joining in London, I quickly came into contact with the group mentioned by Sewell from Sussex and Brighton University. But again, Sewell’s selective memory kicks in. Keen to make a sectarian point, he twists and turns reality to his own purpose. To him, the Militant tendency was built by Ted Grant, with assistance from Alan Woods and Rob Sewell. And to make this distorted view of history, people have to disappear. Those who also came from Brighton – Lynn Walsh, Clare Doyle, Roger Silverman, Bob Edwards and a host of others – are simply ignored. If Sewell has a point to be made, everything goes by the board. Thus, Jim Brookshaw’s joining is put years further back in time than it really was, to make it seem as though he was another victory for the great Woods.

But what other events built the tendency? There were some important developments on the industrial front. In Liverpool, the threatened closure of the English Electric factories in 1969/70 by Arnold Weinstock, who was honoured by the Labour government, was met with militant opposition by the workforce, with a threatened workers’ take-over of the factory. The dispute attracted attention from throughout the world, with film and television crews coming from France, Germany and America. Although the shop stewards committee was forced to make a tactical step back from action when other factories failed to come to their assistance, the dispute was instrumental in forcing Tony (at that time Wedgwood) Benn to rethink his policies and place himself on the left of the Labour Party. Again, no mention by Sewell. Could it be because the Shop Stewards Action Committee spokesperson was Ted Mooney and the Chief Clerical Workers’ Shop Steward was Tony Aitman, at that time also a member of the LPYS National Committee? Both of these comrades are, of course, still committed and active members of the Socialist Party.

Where is the analysis of the momentous events in Liverpool around the council campaign? Hardly a mention is made of this, but the struggle in Liverpool had national and international repercussions, raising our stature in the eyes of the working class to an unprecedented level, bringing with it growth everywhere. Why no real mention of this struggle or the people involved in it? And where are the people who built the Liverpool organisation? Sewell mentions three: Doug Holmes played a role years ago, George McCartney flared briefly in the 1950s, Terry Harrison played an important part until he lapsed into inactivity in the mid-1980s. But where are the others? People such as Tony Mulhearn, active in the tendency since the early 1960s, a leader of the council campaign, a print worker militant, blacklisted since the council defeat? Or Tony Aitman, active in the youth work of the tendency since 1964, a full time worker for the tendency, first in Liverpool and then in the national publishing company? Or councillors such as Paul Astbury and Harry Smith, both industrial workers, who made enormous sacrifices in the council campaign? Or Roy Farrar, active in the tendency since the late 1960s, a Post Office engineer until ill health forced his retirement? No mention for them – of course, they all remain firm supporters of the Socialist Party to this day.

This raises the question of the Liverpool split. Let us nail once and for all the lie about the events in Liverpool. The entire leadership was not "booted out". After years of misleadership by the leading comrades in Liverpool, a section of the membership placed themselves outside the Party. When I returned to Liverpool in the early 1990s, the organisation was a shadow of its former self. Paper sales did not take place; the leading comrades regarded the theoretical journal as unsellable; where there had been three branches in one ward, there was now one branch for Liverpool, where a handful of people met forlornly every week.

With a local leadership that had no grounding in theory – in Dave Cotterill’s words, "we need doers, not thinkers" - the defeat of the dockworkers’ strike had an effect on consciousness. The leading members, bowing to syndicalist trends among the dockworkers, questioned whether activity in the Trade Unions was worthwhile. When pressed, they would deny this, but that was the logic of their position. Rather than the revolutionary party, or even the Trade Unions, the saviour of the working class movement was to be – the internet!! Preparing for a split with the organisation, they proposed a new journal to be produced in Liverpool, a new literary and political magazine. Indeed, with grandiose ideas, they held a conference in which papers were presented and plans laid for the launch of this literary marvel.

The reality was somewhat different. Of course, no magazine was forthcoming. The Liverpool premises, stolen from the organisation by the people in whose names it had been entrusted, has now been sold and is the personal property of … Mike Morris!! For a while, they continued to meet as Merseyside Socialists, but, with no cohesive programme or perspectives, this has crumbled. In Cath Wilson’s words, "Merseyside Socialists is not a party, it is a holding group, we do not aim to recruit or build". As a result, you can count the number still active on the fingers of one hand. They remain as a social group, held together by ties of friendship, the memories of past greatness and bitterness towards ourselves, wandering sadly from social event to literary gathering while the battles in the labour movement go on without them.

When the split took place, it was like a breath of fresh air in the Liverpool organisation. Let us be clear: Although on paper a majority of members left, in reality a majority of the active membership, particularly those active in the Trade Union movement, stayed. Every comrade who had been removed as a councillor and who was still involved in politics stayed with the Socialist Party - not a single surcharged councillor comrade went with those who left. At the time of the split, we retained comrades on the National Executives of UNISON and the NUT; within a few months of the split, we had another comrade elected as the Black workers’ representative on the UNISON National Executive. The branch secretaries of Liverpool and Knowsley NUT are both members; we have UNISON and MSF shop stewards as members. We have active members in the car plants, the local authority, the voluntary sector, the health service, the building industry. The chair of one the most active of Merseyside’s Trades Councils is a member. We have a number of women comrades, disabled comrades, ethnic minority comrades. For Sewell, no mention is made of this, or of his own tiny grouplet in Merseyside, which has disappeared into the bowels of the Labour Party. To him, Peter Taaffe is responsible for the death of Militant and the Socialist Party on Merseyside; in reality, it is only the programme and perspectives of the Party that has kept the ideas of Trotskyism alive and growing in their historical heartland.

Tony Aitman

Read The Rise of Militant, by Peter Taaffe, the official history of 30 years of Militant, the forerunner of the Socialist Party, serialised on this site

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