A Brief Sketch of the Militant Tendency’s History

Christoph Lichtenberg

The origins of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI, formerly known as the Militant Tendency) can be traced to a 1937 split in a small Trotskyist group known as Militant led by Denzil Dean Harber. Ted Grant, after moving to Britain from South Africa in 1934, joined Harber’s group which had entered in the Labour Party. In the summer of 1937, Charles Van Gelderen, Starkey Jackson and Harber helped spread a rumour that Ralph Lee, who had arrived a few months earlier from South Africa, had misled a strike there and ‘decamped’ with strike funds. Lee brought the matter to a London aggregate meeting which reprimanded Van Gelderen, Jackson and Harber and demoted them to probationary membership for their behaviour. Things might have ended there, but Harber appealed to the group’s Executive Committee on the grounds that the London membership did not have the authority to remove national officers. When the Executive Committee reversed the decision, Lee walked out with seven other members: Ted Grant, Betty Hamilton, Jock Haston, Gerry Healy, Heaton Lee, Millie Lee and Jessie Strachan.

The International Secretariat of the Movement for the Fourth International condemned both the slanders and the split, but after the dust had settled, four of Militant’s branches and a third of its membership backed the minority, which promptly set up shop as the Workers International League (WIL), another Trotskyist entrist group in the Labour Party. The following year, the Militant group fused with the Revolutionary Socialist League led by C.L.R. James and a small Scottish group around the paper Revolutionary Socialist at a unity conference sponsored by the international leadership. The WIL refused to participate in this regroupment on the grounds that there had been insufficient discussion to establish a solid basis of unity. It also remained outside the Fourth International when it was founded in September 1938, and instead asked for status as a sympathising section. This request was rejected, and the WIL was condemned for refusing to join the new Revolutionary Socialist League.

Despite this setback, the WIL energetically pursued the tasks it had set for itself. When the Labour Party joined a ‘National Unity’ government headed by Winston Churchill, an anti-working class reactionary well known for his admiration of Mussolini, its internal life dried up and opportunities for recruitment disappeared. The WIL responded by leaving the Labour Party and began to grow rapidly, largely because of the super-patriotic right turn of the Stalinist Communist Party which, after the Nazis invaded the USSR in June 1941, flatly opposed any and all strikes. The RSL, unable to make any progress in the Labour Party, turned inward and was soon paralysed by bitter factionalism.

By 1944, what was left of the RSL fused with the WIL, which had gained a militant reputation through its role in the Barrow shipyard strike and the Tyneside Apprentices’ strike. The fused organisation, known as the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), was recognized as the official section of the Fourth International in Britain. While it never had more than 500 members, the RCP was known for its intransigent revolutionary hostility to imperialism and its opposition to the class collaboration of the Stalinists. At the end of the war, when working-class disaffection with Churchill’s government resulted in a massive parliamentary majority for Labour, the RCP did not opt for entry because they saw no evidence of a serious left wing which could be regrouped. Instead, the RCP leadership attempted to compete directly with the Labour Party for the allegiance of the working class. This policy failed in part because of the vast disproportion of forces, but primarily because of the depth of illusions in the supposed socialist intentions of the new government. The failure of the RCP’s policy produced a wave of demoralisation that proved an important factor in the RCP’s subsequent disintegration.

Gerry Healy, who had become disgruntled with the Haston-Grant leadership, aligned himself closely with Michel Pablo, who had emerged as the leader of the Fourth International’s International Secretariat (IS) after the war. In 1947, when the British leadership rejected Healy’s proposal to enter the Labour Party, the IS split the British section in two, authorising Healy and his supporters to enter the Labour Party, while the majority continued as an open party.

Over the next two years the RCP declined in numbers and influence. By December 1948, Haston, who was moving away from Trotskyism, proposed that the group dissolve into the Labour Party. While his proposal was initially rejected, he managed, in the space of a few weeks, to win the support of every member of the political bureau except Ted Grant and Jimmy Deane. By February 1949, these two had organised an ‘Open Party Faction’ composed of roughly 100 rank and file members. They argued that entry made no sense as there was little political activity in the Labour Party and no discernible left wing to orient to. One faction member expressed his dissatisfaction with the majority leadership in the following terms:

‘We find a leadership that in the past year has issued not one single political document or directive, a leadership that has wangled out of facing up to the membership by delaying Conference from August to December to Easter to when? And when finally finding themselves trailing in the wake of the organisation say “Let’s drown ourselves in the most stagnant pool in British politics – the Labour Party”.’
(Bill Cleminson, ‘Criticisms of the Entry Statement of JH, HA, RT and VC’, internal document of the RCP; quoted in Sam Bornstein & Al Richardson, The War and the International: A History of the Trotskyist Movement in Britain 1937–1949, 1986)

The RCP was deeply divided: Haston and Grant had roughly equal support, but almost half the members remained undecided. At this point, however, Grant, Deane and George Hanson, the leaders of the ‘Open Party Faction’, did an about-face and proposed to go along with an entry, rather than continue to fight:

‘The discussion has not convinced us that in the present situation entry would constitute a superior tactic. However, faced with the fact that the overwhelming majority of the leadership and the trained cadres, and substantial sections of the rank and file are in favour of entering the Labour Party, and given that the objective situation will be a difficult one for the Party, we believe that a struggle would be sterile.’
(‘Letter to Members’, internal document of the RCP, quoted in The War and the International)

While many RCP members were disturbed by the idea of dissolving the group they had worked so hard to build, the acquiescence of the ‘Open Party’ leaders signalled that the course was set for dissolving the RCP and joining the Labour Party as individuals. Years later, Sam Levy recalled the frustration and anger felt by many members:

‘In a certain sense I was more annoyed at Grant rather than Haston, who was already on his way out – my illusions in Haston had been declining for some time. Tearse supported the idea of a long stabilisation period for capitalism, but was evasive when challenged on it. Grant, Hanson and Jimmy Deane acted as a bridge to Haston and were disliked more – especially when they all came out with an entry perspective. They were going in for the politics of liquidation, and even tried to disguise it when Pablo challenged them on it! Not a single leader of the old Majority was against entry then! Grant was hoping that Haston would not, in fact, leave and Grant was in effect papering over it. It was a question of leadership: many could not see any alternative to the old leadership and followed them into the Labour Party reluctantly.’
(Sam Levy, Interview with Al Richardson, 7 April 1974; quoted in The War and the International)

Within the Labour Party, Grant and his supporters were briefly re-united with Healy in his secret organisation ‘The Club’. The next year, in 1950, Tony Cliff, who had led a state-capitalist minority in the RCP, was expelled from ‘The Club’ for refusing to defend the North in the Korean War. Grant et al were purged when they refused to vote for the expulsion of the Cliff group. At the Third World Congress of the Fourth International in 1951, Ernest Mandel, Pablo’s chief lieutenant, put forward the motion that expelled Grant.

In the 1953 split of the Fourth International, Healy abandoned Pablo and sided with the International Committee led by the US Socialist Workers Party and the French Parti Communiste Internationaliste. The International Secretariat (IS), headed by Pablo/Mandel, set up a ‘Committee for the Regroupment of the British Section of the Fourth International’ and established contact with Grant and Deane who, with Sam Bornstein, produced a journal called International Socialist and set up the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL), with branches in Liverpool and London. The RSL, which held its first national congress in 1957 and began to publish Socialist Fight the next year, was recognised by the IS as their official British section. The RSL’s activity focused on entry work in the Labour Party which they expected would soon be undergoing a profound radicalisation as workers began to feel the impact of an impending major capitalist economic crisis. A document adopted at the RSL’s founding conference projected that:

‘A really strong and organised Left Wing would come rapidly into existence: the possibility of a split in the event of the Right Wing retaining control of the Party apparatus would be present. It is however more likely that the Left would gain the majority and transform the Labour Party into a mass centrist organisation…. In either case the work of the revolutionary Marxists in the period ahead must be largely the preparation and training of a cadre with such a perspective in view. The intervention of a disciplined group of Marxists, politically educated in the Trotskyist method, steeled in struggle and imbued with a capacity to intervene in the mass movement without sectarian reservations will yield ready results in a broad movement ready as never before, to receive and assimilate the revolutionary programme.’
(‘The Present Situation and Our Tasks’, Deane Archive, Manchester Polytechnic, closed section C57 (1); quoted in: John Callaghan, The Far Left in British Politics, 1987)

The anticipation that objective factors would soon propel the mass reformist workers’ parties to the left, was central to the perspectives of the IS leadership at the time. They designated their policy as ‘deep entrism’ to differentiate it from the short-term entries of the 1930s that aimed at breaking leftist elements from centrist and reformist formations (see ‘The French Turn’, 1917 No. 9). ‘Deep entrism’ in the Labour Party was not a strategy for leading a left split from it, but rather for remaining indefinitely in order to pressure it to the left. This perspective made it necessary to try to avoid sharp political conflicts with the leadership.

While Grant’s RSL was recognised as their official section, the IS leadership also established connections in 1961 with the Internationalist Group. In 1964, the two groups were merged and a common entrist paper, Militant: for Labour and Youth, was launched, with Peter Taaffe as editor. This arrangement did not last long, as Taaffe later recalled:

‘We had been forced into a very unprincipled fusion with Mandel’s organisation in Britain, the Internationalist Group, later the International Marxist Group (IMG) in mid-1964. The old, rather self-mocking, slogan of the Trotskyists at that time was, ‘unhappy with fusions, happy with splits’. And sure enough within six months – towards the end of 1964 – because the amalgamation had taken place on an unprincipled basis, there was a split. In order to clarify the situation of a split organisation with two distinct groupings, Ted Grant and myself attended the Congress of the USFI [United Secretariat of the Fourth International which resulted from the 1963 reconciliation between the SWP/US and the IS] in 1965. Our arguments for continuing to be recognised as the only official British section of USFI were rejected. This decision was in the tradition, unfortunately, of the leaders of this organisation who preferred pliant followers able to carry out their line, rather than genuine collaborators, even with serious political differences.’
(Committee for a Workers International, A history of the CWI/CIO, 1998)

Grant and Mandel’s followers were at odds over a variety of issues, ranging from policy toward the European Common Market (forerunner of the European Union) to the assessment of the character of Fidel Castro’s Cuban Stalinist regime. Mandel et al proposed to sweep the differences under the rug and recognise both groups as sympathising sections of the United Secretariat. Grant and Taaffe decided instead to turn their backs ‘on this organisation and the squabbling sects who describe themselves as ‘Trotskyist’’ (ibid.).

By the late 1960s, after the departure of most of its ostensibly Trotskyist competitors, the influence of the Militant Tendency expanded considerably. In 1970, Militant supporters won a majority of the seats on the National Committee of the Labour Party Young Socialists, which they continued to control until 1987. While Militant took care in formulating its political line to avoid unduly antagonizing Transport House, the Labour tops tolerated the Militant Tendency, both because they were able to turn out disciplined foot soldiers at election time, and because their housebroken ‘Marxism’ appealed to elements of the party’s traditional base. In hindsight, the only thing that Peter Taaffe thinks could have been done differently would be to have used a somewhat lighter touch organisationally:

‘We won a majority in the LPYS in 1970, as we have explained elsewhere, later taking all the positions on the National Committee. This probably went a bit far but the LPYS NC members were actually elected at regional conferences. Experience had shown that unless the Marxists won the NC position in a region, the Labour Party bureaucracy would hamper, undermine and frustrate the attempts of the youth movement in that area to engage in any genuine mass work. In the future, however, where we are engaged in mass work, in general it would not be appropriate for us, even when we have an overwhelming majority, to take all the positions in the movement.’

The defeats suffered by the workers’ movement in the 1980s under the Thatcher government were reflected in a pronounced rightward shift in the Labour Party. When members of Militant’s editorial board were expelled from the party in 1983, they responded by running to the capitalist courts in an unprincipled (and ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to retain their memberships. Finally, in 1991, the Militant Tendency signalled that it was breaking from Labour when it supported Lesley Mahmood as a ‘Real Labour’ candidate against the official candidate in a by-election in Liverpool’s Walton constituency. The party leadership responded by expelling Militant’s two supporters among Labour’s members of parliament, Terry Fields and Dave Nellist. Ted Grant, who opposed the decision to break with Labour, led a rightist split in 1992 from the group he had founded some 45 years earlier.

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Posted: 18 May 2008