Ted Grant, who has died aged 93, was a Trotskyite revolutionary who, although born in South Africa , spent most of his life in Britain. He founded and became the leading force in the political group Militant Tendency, which was active within the Labour party until the Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, took it on at grassroots level in a speech to the party conference in 1985 in an attempt to make the party electable.
Only his family and a selected few will ever know Grant’s real name. Even in his autobiography he is referred to as Isaac “Blank”. He said this was to protect his family, understandable when entering revolutionary politics in the 1930s as the fascist tyrannies swept Europe. But it was a secret he kept all his life.
Born in the South African town of Germinston to a Russian father and a Parisian mother, he completed his political development after his parents divorced. His mother took in lodgers, including Ralph Lee, a founder of the South African Communist party, who was expelled for his support for Trotsky’s Left Opposition. Lee formed a new grouping that included the 15-year-old Isaac and his sister, Zena.
But revolutionary expectations were limited in this colonial backwater, and the South Africans recognised that their talents could be better used in Europe.
The first to go in 1934 were Isaac and fellow Jewish revolutionary Max Basch. As the only passage they could secure was on a German-owned ship, they took the wise precaution of anglicising their names and documents – to Ted Grant and Sid Frost respectively, names “borrowed” from two of the ship’s crew. On arrival in Paris, Grant met Leon Sedov, the son of Leon Trotsky. It was explained that the new Trotskyist movement was well served on the Continent, and the young South Africans would be of more use in Britain.
In London, Grant was joined by Lee and a small band of South African émigrés, but they had little time for the discussion-circle embryo of British Trotskyism, which Grant despaired of as “your typical Bloomsbury bohemians”.
Subsequently expelled from the “official” British section of Trotsky’s new Fourth International, Lee and Grant formed the Workers International League. They were joined by two former Communist party members and capable organisers, Jock Haston and Gerry Healy. As the second world war erupted, the WIL began to make some headway, particularly after the Communist party became the most fervent supporters of the Churchill coalition government on the shopfloor, in their bid to secure the “Second Front”.
Although never numbering more than several hundred, the WIL nonetheless notched up some notable successes during the war years, including widespread support among the 8th Army in North Africa and effectively taking control of the Royal Ordnance Factory in Nottingham, where production became the highest of all ROF plants.
Yet Healy, with the backing of James Cannon, who was now in control of the Fourth International following Trotsky’s assassination in 1940, continually manoeuvred against Grant to gain control of the organisation. It was a feud of Albanian proportions that would continue throughout their lives – as late as the 1970s, when both were in their sixties, if ever they met by chance at labour movement events they would still square up to each other, only to be pulled apart by their respective minders.
The Fourth International eventually cajoled the WIL into “reunification” with the failed “official” British section, to form the Revolutionary Communist party. The RCP was a shooting star that soon spluttered when the end of the war saw not a 1917-style revolution, as Trotsky had predicted, but a weary world settling down to the new consumer benefits of a protracted capitalist boom.
Grant and Haston were the first in the Fourth International to expand upon the prognosis being put forward by the dissident American Trotskyite Max Schachtman, that far from Western capitalism and the Soviet Union being weakened by war, thus paving the way for revolution, both had been immen-sely strengthened and a capitalist boom was on its way. There were hard times ahead for revolutionaries.
The Fourth International was aghast at such heresy, and gave the green light for Healy to purge the British organisation. Grant was kicked out after refusing to support the expulsion of Tony Cliff, later founder of the Socialist Workers Party. After a brief period working as a door-to-door salesman, and then as a switchboard operator – where by all accounts he spent all his time phoning his far flung points of support to build a new organisation – Grant rejoined his old comrades Jimmy Deane and Sam Bornstein to begin rebuilding an organisation out of the ashes.
By the late 1950s a new group had been painstakingly rebuilt, with its main points of support in London and Liverpool. An important acquisition was made in 1960 – Peter Taaffe, who proved to be the organisational gravy to Grant’s theoretical meat. The Militant Tendency was born.
Of the three main strands of British Trotskyism that resulted from the RCP (Healy’s Workers Revolutionary Party, Cliff’s SWP and Grant’s Militant Tendency), Grant kept his small force tied to the “entryist” tactic of staying inside the Labour party, while all the others bailed out during the student protests of the 1960s. By the 1970s this began to pay dividends. Within a decade the Militant Tendency was a household name, with 8,000 members, three MPs, a seat on the TUC, control of Labour’s youth section, effective control of Liverpool council and more full-time organisers than the Labour party.
But revolutions often eat their own fathers. Despite the expulsion of Grant and four other key members from the Labour party in 1983, the Militant Tendency bounced back with a successful campaign against the poll tax. This created the illusion for the Taaffe-led organisation that activism was all.
Grant, meanwhile, was beginning to see the writing on the wall from the Soviet Union, in that there would not be a “political revolution” as he had previously predicted following the collapse of Stalinism, but instead a triumphant West and an ideological counter-revolution. It was going to be hard times again.
Once more he was expelled, this time by the Militant Tendency he had created. He took 200 members with him to form the “Socialist Appeal” group (the name of the original WIL paper), cheerfully explaining that: “Well, that is the best split I’ve ever been through!” After his expulsion, Militant soon split into several warring factions. While his group stumbles along in the UK, inter-nationally Grant has begotten several organisations that today are creating a similar impact to that of the Militant Tendency in Britain in the 1980s, notably in Pakistan and Latin America.
Grant was not the easiest of people to work with. During his RCP days, his exasperated comrades famously locked him in his room, refusing to let him out until he had written a promised article, only to discover he had escaped out of the window to go to the cinema.
But he was not the mindless automaton derided by the tabloid media in the 1980s. He liked to bet on the horses, loved cowboy films and had an infectious laughter. He clearly had had his loves too, and late into his life old female revolutionaries from the US and France often asked after him.
Grant remained active until three years ago, when he suffered a stroke while speaking at a meeting in London. He leaves no family, following the death of his eldest sister, Rae, in Paris last year.
· Ted Grant, founder of the Militant Tendency, born July 16 1913; died July 20 2006
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