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

A re-hash of previous policies

Chapter three

It is possible to visit websites and journals of organisations that would differ with us but to still find something fresh. This cannot be said of the Grant/Woods website which, given its ponderous academic tone, is of no attraction to younger workers in particular, who were looking for a fighting socialist lead. This has not stopped Woods, with that touching modesty for which he is famous, to declare: "Few would dispute that our website is the best in the world". Leave aside that the "few" happens to be the majority, this indicates what this outfit is all about – it is a ‘virtual group’ without any real forces on the ground. Sewell cannot report on anything since the split (ten years ago) except the launch of their website. Moreover, when they mention the Socialist Party and their own journal Socialist Appeal it is always the former not the latter which is compared to Militant, thereby admitting that we are the real inheritors of this continuous fighting tradition. No amount of boasting or bombast by Woods, Grant or Sewell can cover this up.

What is the balance sheet?

By Sewell’s own admission they were reduced to a rump following their decision to split from us – having beforehand collected resources to finance their own printing facilities, withheld subs, etc. And they have remained a rump of no consequence for the labour movement and are never mentioned by other even small groups in Britain.

Sewell tries to console himself with the fairy tale that they took a majority of the CWI. They are welcome to this delusion if it helps them. As the Russian proverb puts it: "We treasure the deceit which uplifts us more than a thousand burdensome truths." Just one fact indicates how ridiculous Sewell’s conclusion is. In the list, very small it must be said, of the CWI sections which came out for them, Denmark is put down as coming out in favour of the ‘opposition’ but this group consisted of just three people. As far as we know it remained as three people ever since and now has differences with them. In Belgium we have dramatically overtaken those who went with Grant and Co and are probably at least six times their size, with an even greater proportional difference in Germany and in many other countries. In Ireland, both in the North and in the South, they have nothing. In Southern Ireland the Socialist Party, which is part of the CWI, has a well-known MP, Joe Higgins, and came close to winning another seat in the recent general election, has councillors, a significant and growing youth movement, and is widely seen as an important and dynamic part of the left. In Greece, Sewell – without knowing the real situation – tries to argue that there was an "even divide" but the workers went with them. Nothing could be further from the truth. Their Greek organisation, as stated above, has also split with a section finally moving away from the idea that PASOK is still a viable area of work.

All the most vital forces in Sweden which were involved in the building of a substantial organisation in Sweden, with a weekly paper, went with us in the split of 1991 and are an important component of the CWI. The Grant group there is virtually nonexistent, its main figure being a very rich individual who occasionally turns up on a demonstration to distribute a leaflet. They have managed to maintain a toehold in Spain – through the state-sponsored Spanish school students’ union – but without winning substantial forces from the huge radicalised youth which exists in that country.

Forced to confront reality, even this grouping has been compelled to drop their position on the ex-Stalinist states. But this has not ended their blunders. They for instance characterise the Russian ‘Communist’ Party as a ‘traditional organisation’ within which the largely illusory forces of Woods and Grant and all conscious socialist and Marxist forces should work. Up to recently this party represented that section of the ex-bureaucracy which lost out in the re-division of the spoils following the collapse of the planned economy in the 1990s. (See the recent document of the CWI on World Relations for commentary on this.)

The position of the Grant/Woods group on continued work everywhere in the so-called "traditional organisations" is so absurd, so flies in the face of the real situation which exists, that after Grant has departed the scene, Woods and Sewell will probably drop it like a hot brick. Indeed, in Sewell’s ‘postscript’ this issue is hardly mentioned apart from in retrospect in relation to their 1990/91 split from the CWI.

Woods is more concerned with issues of personal prestige than of principle, correct strategy and tactics. He can perform the most amazing political somersaults and link up with people who, up to now, have been incessantly condemned as ‘sects’. Witness Woods’s recent open letter to a fragment of the Morenoites in Argentina, the Partido Obreros (PO) on the issue of the ‘constituent assembly’. What is most striking is the persuasive tone of Woods rather than the harsh denunciatory words of Sewell and Grant in this book to all those they designate as ‘sects’. (Of course, they are the smallest sect of all.)

Collaborating with right-wing nationalists

These people have also linked up with the Bietz group in Moscow, which claims to be ‘Marxist’, but is lumpen in its social composition and methods. (It has recently had four splits, one individual being expelled for advocating homosexuality.) When I spoke at a public meeting on May Day 1998, called by our party in Russia ‘Socialist Resistance’ – which is the biggest Trotskyist organisation and the only one organised on an all-CIS scale – I was confronted with the Bietz group trying to shout me down. The following are the comments of our comrades in Moscow on Woods’s CIS members: "Once they were unable to come to terms with the new political situation which followed the collapse of Stalinism, the Grant-Woods group were faced with a crisis – no group with any experience in the real movement would possibly accept their sterile and dogmatic approach based as it was in the historic past of the 70s and 80s, so they were left with no option to search around for any group that was prepared to work with them on any conditions.

"One such is the Russian sect, which calls itself the Workers’ Revolutionary Party (WRP), which Rob Sewell conveniently calls "Workers’ democracy", knowing that the very name of this group will cause unease in his own ranks.

"The leader of this group, Sergei Bietz was once a member of the CWI. His revolutionary rhetoric was proved to be no more than a thin coating when, in August 1991, in the first hours of the coup against Gorbachev he refused to come out on the streets and preferred to watch it on the TV. Following this, ideological differences developed which led him and a few others to break from the CWI.

"As a theoretical justification for breaking with us, he claimed that there were specific Russian conditions that meant that Russian revolutionaries did not need an international. After his departure he maintained a small ultra-sectarian group around him, whose main aim in life appeared to be the disruption of CWI activities. Fuelled by personal pique he found, it seems, a true friend in Alan Woods, They forged a principled agreement not on the basis of political programme but of hatred of the CWI.

"The antics of this group would have been an extreme embarrassment to Ted Grant in the past. They show all the traits of a sectarian group from their stringent demands for violent revolution and lack of understanding of the transitional programme to a complete dishonesty about their size and influence. They are prepared to unite with anyone to attack the CWI.

"Typical were their antics at the public meeting addressed by Peter Taaffe organized by the CWI in Moscow in May 1998. The CWI at the time were heavily involved in an anti-fascist campaign whose main target was the so-called National Bolshevik Party led by Limonov – a right-wing nationalist organization which attracted a lot of youth by using radical, apparently left symbols such as Che Guevara but whose main ideologues were fascist. They use for example the Nazi armbands, the only difference being they have replaced the swastika with the hammer and sickle. When some of this group turned up at the meeting the Chair announced they would not be allowed to speak. Half way through the meeting they started heckling, accusing us of being Jews. Imagine our surprise to see Bietz urging them on and Woods quietly smiling.

"The Bietz group is riddled with all the problems that Rob Sewell falsely says exist in the CWI. Because of its ultra left antics, it is unable to develop any long term work in any area. Under pressure from Woods some of its members have accepted that they should work in the Communist Party. But they do so in a way that Ted Grant once so criticised in the Healey group. They do not put forward a principled programme forward but make huge concessions to the young Stalinists they are trying to win over.

"One recent example occurred when one of their members raised in an internal meeting that they should include some demands on gay rights. This Bietz rejected – after all the young Stalinists would be horrified. Instead this member was accused of propagandizing homosexualism and promptly expelled. To ensure a majority, a number of the Stalinists were quickly signed up – they of course later left.

"And of course the irony is that, even though the CWI does not expect a huge influx of workers into the CP at any time, because of its principled position it is the CWI which has won over a number of young communists, real Trotskyist fighters such as Ionur Kurmanov.

"The Russian ‘WRP’ is similar to its ill-fated British namesake in more than just name. Its lack of political principles, its ultra left demagogy and refusal to take up the reactionary prejudices of the Stalinists leaves the group attractive only to a particular type of "revolutionary" – not to the thinking worker or student but to the lumpenised demagogue who relishes ultra-left adventures but is incapable of the patient painstaking work, including theoretical study necessary to build a real revolutionary organization.

"In recent weeks it appears that the Russian WRP is about to implode in the same way as the British Healyites did. It has suffered a wave of expulsions and splits and there has been a struggle over the control of their web site – about the only thing that shows any sign of life in their group. Anyone who doesn’t agree with Bietz and Woods is pushed out for the most unprincipled reasons. In these circumstances with the lack of any vestige of internal democracy the subsidies paid by the Grant group play a further corrupting role – people who don’t agree lose their subsidy and the less members, the more money there is to share out.

"In contrast the CWI is earning a reputation as principled fighters for the working class and consequently continues to grow and spread its influence."

The National Question

Woods had intervened earlier at this meeting mentioned in an attempt to try and exploit the differences which had arisen between the CWI and the Socialist Party in Britain on the one side, and our then comrades in Scotland on the other, on the issue of establishing a broad socialist party, the Scottish Socialist Party. These comrades also proposed, at the same time, liquidating the revolutionary tendency within this party, which they have now unfortunately done. Woods accused me and the CWI of kowtowing to Scottish ‘nationalism’ because we were prepared to support the idea of an independent socialist Scotland as a step towards a socialist confederation of England, Wales and Ireland. The meeting was informed that this was not the first time that Alan Woods had made fundamental mistakes on the national question. He is of Welsh origin and denied in the past that Wales was a ‘nation’ until this was corrected by me and Ted Grant.

Notwithstanding this, Woods could still write almost ten years later in relation to the national question in Eastern Europe, specifically Yugoslavia, the following: "National aspirations and the right to self-determination are not, and cannot be, absolute. [Their italics.] Such a demand, in a given historical context, may have a progressive character. But it may be entirely reactionary and retrograde. It is necessary in each case to examine the concrete content, determine which class interests are involved... Although the national question is very complicated, it is usually sufficient to pose the question in concrete terms to arrive at the correct position. In 1991, at the very beginning of the collapse of Yugoslavia, the authors of the present document participated in a debate with some self-styled Marxists, in the course of which one sectarian interrupted Ted Grant, with a shout from the back of the hall: ‘What’s your position on self-determination for Croatia?’ Ted swiftly retorted with an appropriate counter-question: ‘What do you mean? You mean, do we support the Ushtasi or the Chetniks?’ (That is to say the Serb fascists or the Croat fascists.) The heckler didn’t ask any more questions." [Marxism and the National Question.]

This is an astonishing, not to say scandalous ‘interpretation’ of the Marxist position on the national question. The right of self-determination of oppressed nations – up to and including the right to secede from a particular state – is a bourgeois-democratic demand, but one which is absolutely vital in a genuine Marxist programme. It is axiomatic for Marxists that, as the part is subordinate to the whole, so the right of self-determination is subordinate to the general struggle for socialism and, at certain concrete periods of history, can clash with this aspiration.

Self-determination

Self-determination for the Saarland in 1935 meant the accession of this area to Hitler’s Germany, given the ethnic German background of the population. Marxists, on the advice of Trotsky, opposed this because it meant placing the Saarlanders under the heel of Hitler fascism. In Germany in 1989, the CWI was in favour of German reunification on a democratic and socialist basis. But to begin with we opposed German reunification on a bourgeois basis, because this would have meant the liquidation of the planned economy in East Germany.

The situation was entirely different in relation to Yugoslavia in 1991, which, because of Stalinism, was in the process of disintegration. It is entirely false to say the choice between the Croatian and Serbian people was between different nationalist-fascist forces. It was necessary to put forward a socialist programme for the whole of Yugoslavia that involved the right of self-determination of all the nationalities which made up the ‘federation’, and in particular the nations which felt oppressed by the dominant Serbian nationalism of the disintegrating Stalinist bureaucracy.

It is true that the Croatian wing of the Yugoslav bureaucracy used separation as a lever for capitalist restoration. However, as Militant pointed out at the time: "Militant is no advocate of separatism. But we support the rights of all nationalities to self-determination and even independence if they wish… The overwhelming votes for independence in Slovenia and Croatia, encouraged by the movement of peoples throughout Eastern Europe, reflect the hopes that secession will somehow abolish poverty and end subjugation to a Serbian-dominated state."

Should Trotskyists therefore have opposed independence at this stage, given the overwhelming mood and vote for this? The answer of Woods and Grant is "Yes!" Instead they counterpose the bare formula of a Balkan federation. Such an approach would have cut the ground from under the feet of a genuine Marxist force with roots in the population. The Marxists in this situation would have countered the nationalism of the burgeoning Croatian and Slovene pro-capitalist forces, not by ignoring the wishes of the overwhelming majority for independence but by giving it a democratic and socialist content. Sometimes this can mean opposing specific referenda on independence – advocating a ‘no’ vote – particularly when it is couched in terms which would violate the rights of minority communities within a proposed independent state. But even then it is necessary to stand for a genuine independence, with safeguards for minorities, at the same time linking this with a socialist confederation in the region. In 1991 Militant suggested that "this would mean the reconstitution of Yugoslavia as a voluntary democratic socialist federation with full rights for all republics and nationalities".

The subsequent dismemberment of Yugoslavia, accompanied by ethnic civil wars and wars means that it is no longer possible to advocate a return to ‘Yugoslavia’, which is now associated in the minds of the masses with terrible bloodshed and suffering of all the nations it previously encompassed. That is why we now advocate the idea of a democratic socialist confederation of the Balkans. But this in no way means, as Grant and Woods argue, that this precludes – now or in the early 1990s – the need for genuine Marxism to support the struggle for independence or the establishment of democratic, socialist, independent states as a step towards a wider socialist confederation in the region.

Trotsky advocated the right of self-determination for the Ukraine, up to and including separation from Stalinist Russia. This was summed up in his suggested slogan: "For an independent, democratic, socialist Ukraine". Yet Woods and Grant opposed a similar approach when applied to disintegrating Yugoslav Stalinism. Rather than fighting nationalism, this plays into the hands of the reactionary nationalists in each of the nations of the former Yugoslavia. It leaves the field free for these forces to champion the national rights of people who felt oppressed under Yugoslav Stalinism. It is entirely false to argue that in either Serbia or Croatia the population was following the fascists, the Ushtasi Croatian fascists or their Serbian Chetnik equivalents.

Lenin taught long ago, and this was hammered home subsequently by Trotsky, that the right of self-determination for oppressed nationalities should be inscribed on the banner of Marxism. This would then allow the workers and socialist movement to win over the majority of a nation. At the same time, this demand should be situated in a socialist context. That is why we call for the right of self-determination but usually accompany this – particularly in former multi-ethnic/national states – with the idea of a socialist federation (the CWI now has slightly altered this to a more accurate ‘confederation’). All of this is foreign to this grouping which operates with abstract formulae, which they can happily repeat (wrongly) in the study or small meetings but which would completely evaporate once applied to a real movement involving the struggle for national, democratic and ethnic rights.

This issue is obviously Woods and Grant’s theoretical Achilles heel. Woods spoke at a CWI International summer school in Belgium in 1988 where he stated that: "In 1917, the national question had been resolved by the Bolsheviks." This is a typical example of Woods’s penchant for hyperbole. The Russian Revolution and the democratic workers’ state which resulted from this achieved wonders in the sphere of the national question. But it did not "resolve" the national question, which would only have been possible over a fairly lengthy period of economic and cultural development, and in conjunction with the triumph of the world revolution. The collapse of Stalinism and, with it, the USSR resulted in an unprecedented explosion of national and ethnic issues, including the creation of numerous other nations who had felt imprisoned within the Stalinist ‘federation’, which was what the USSR was under Stalinism.

CWI – intact and growing

The Postscript of Sewell is completely unworthy of anybody who claims to be a Trotskyist. In the 1930s Trotsky remarked that the Bolsheviks had their disputes but they never conducted themselves in the venomous manner of some of the Trotskyist organisations which he was forced to work with then. This arose from the isolation of these forces and the pressure of Stalinism on the Trotskyist movement itself. But those 1930s disputes were a mere spat compared to the highly personalised, spiteful character assassination, which has become the hallmark of many small groups in Britain and internationally in the last 50 years.

This is a product of the pressure of Stalinism. Sewell’s Postscript is a particularly obnoxious expression of this genre. Assertions are made without facts. Statements are imputed to individuals without any sources given. And gossip in the corridors of the movement become accepted explanations of what took place. For instance, in relation to the Walton by-election, he quotes Dave Nellist as saying that the decision to stand under the banner of Real Labour was "like turkeys voting for Christmas". In not one meeting which any member of Militant can remember taking place did Dave Nellist make a statement of this kind. Dave Nellist states that "this assertion by Sewell of what I said is not true".

Dave Nellist is widely respected as a spokesperson for working-class people and is accepted as someone with great integrity. He wouldn’t lie and would be prepared to admit that he made statements off the cuff which he would not subsequently stand over. This is not one of those cases. Rob Sewell has acted in the manner of the British gutter press like The Sun – make it short, make it snappy, and make it up.

There is even an attempt to claim that Pat Wall posthumously supported them. He was a tremendous fighter for Trotskyism over decades, a Marxist MP, a personal friend of me and others in the 1991 majority. No-one can ‘prove’ that if Pat Wall had lived he would have supported the Grant grouping or our own. However, it is significant that his son, Simon, is a firm member of the CWI and our party in Scotland. Moreover, Pat’s widow Pauline was absolutely appalled when it was explained that this grouping was claiming Pat as one of ‘theirs’. She made it clear to Keith Dickinson that she was no longer a member of the Labour Party, did not support the Grant-Woods grouping, was a subscriber to the Socialist Party’s journal The Socialist and in general agreed with our approach towards the Labour Party and building an alternative.

There are numerous errors of fact and interpretation in this alleged ‘history’, which others will correct. The obituary, which has once more been written for the CWI, is no different from what this trend has done periodically. We are ‘collapsing’, we are on our knees, because we have moved from a big headquarters in Hackney! The reality is, like all Trotskyist groups on the planet – apart from this organisation which exists in a bubble of their own making – the objective difficulties weakened us in numbers but not to the extent that they imagine. For reasons of space it is impossible to list here the successes of the CWI which has a presence in 35 countries and on all continents. But the CWI has grown substantially in a number of key areas such as Nigeria with over 600 members, in South Africa, Australia, Greece, etc. In Britain the Socialist Party has 1500 members. We publish a 12-page weekly paper, a monthly theoretical journal, and produce books and pamphlets on our own press. A balance sheet of the Grant group’s ‘influence’ and ours shows that they are totally absent from the trade union movement, from mass demonstrations in significant numbers, from the struggle against the racists and fascists, battles at local level in councils, and so on.

Why have we devoted this space to them now? As we said at the beginning it is because of their attempt to pervert history in the manner of the Stalinists. They are would-be political ‘grave-robbers’. They try to claim credit for the successes of Militant which they were not mainly responsible. For instance, Sewell makes reference to himself being mainly responsible for building the South Wales organisation. He played a part, but the lion’s share of building our influence over the last 20 years – the most successful period for the South Wales organisation – was undertaken by those longstanding National Committee members like Alec Thraves and Dave Reid, alongside a professional team of Welsh full-timers and experienced rank and file members.

Just one fact is sufficient to answer the false claims of Sewell. The biggest Trotskyist meeting ever organised in South Wales was not by the RCP in Neath but by Militant in 1986 in Kinnock’s constituency of Islwyn. Five hundred workers and young people came to that meeting to hear Derek Hatton and I explain Militant’s case in opposition to the witch-hunts being conducted against Marxists at that time. That meeting was organised primarily by the Welsh Regional Committee (Sewell was based in London at this time). The massive battle against the poll tax was also organised in South Wales by the comrades mentioned.

The tasks of the mass movement were increasingly irksome to this increasingly conservative tendency which harkened back to the small meeting room and study. Our leadership of the anti-poll tax struggle was an enormous plus for Marxism in Britain. Alongside of the Liverpool battle it showed how the genuine ideas of Marxism and Trotskyism could be wedded to a mass movement which could at least gain partial victories in one locality or in one arena of work. In the process it laid down criteria for successful struggle and is a constant reference point even today to groups who go into battle; rail privatisation was described as ‘the poll tax on wheels’, the privatisation of air traffic control as ‘the poll tax in the sky’, to name just two examples. Without the poll tax struggle we would not have enhanced our position in Scotland and Tommy Sheridan would not have been elected as an MSP when he was.

Nevertheless, we were not able to exploit the poll tax sufficiently in terms of increased membership for a number of reasons. This was on a single issue and was against the background of a general retreat in the labour movement because of the aftermath of the miners’ strike, the boom which was still underway, and the effects of the collapse of Stalinism.

However, the biggest barrier was the fact that we were still tied to the Labour Party and were not able to campaign for members openly under our own banner. If this had been seriously posed in 1987, this would have been the signal for a split four years before it actually took place because of this conservative tendency.

The picture that this group gives of their renaissance and our ‘collapse’ amounts to whistling in the dark to keep up their spirits. Any role that some of them played in the building of a viable Trotskyist movement was exhausted when they broke away from the CWI. All trends will be tested in the tumultuous events that impend and we are confident that the CWI will attract to its banner the most theoretically serious and combative elements who can rebuild a powerful Trotskyist force and a mass influence which can change the world.

Peter Taaffe, October 2002

[Appendix]

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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