Founder of the Trotskyite group Militant Tendency who never abandoned his revolutionary ideals
Wednesday 09 August 2006
Isaac Blank (Ted Grant), political activist: born Germiston, South Africa 16 July 1913; Political Editor, Militant 1964-91; died Romford, Essex 20 July 2006.
If consistency is a politician's greatest virtue, then the veteran Trotskyite Ted Grant was one of the most virtuous figures of the 20th century. His convictions did not alter from when he was converted to revolutionary Marxism as a boy of 14 to when he died at the age of 93.
None of Grant's predictions of the imminent collapse of capitalism came true, and in his old age he was thrown out of the organisation he founded, the group known as Militant Tendency, to die as he had mostly lived, in near total political isolation. It took an obdurate kind of bravery to hold on for so long to a belief system that so many others had abandoned. He had an impressive number of ex-followers who were inspired by him when they were young, some of whom are prominent in public life, like the highly colourful Scottish socialist Tommy Sheridan. Grant could also claim to be one of the last living links with Leon Trotsky. Though he never met Trotsky in person, he knew his son, Leon Sedov, who was murdered by Stalin's agents in the late 1930s.
He made a brief appearance on the national stage at Labour's annual conference in Brighton in September 1983, as Michael Foot pushed ahead with a decision to decapitate the so-called Militant Tendency, a Trotskyite organisation suspected of organising a party within the Labour Party. Five members of the editorial board of the newspaper Militant, including Grant, were allowed to appeal to the conference against a decision taken by the National Executive to expel them. As the vote went heavily against the five, Grant made his departure saying: "We'll be back." Like so many Ted Grant predictions, it was wrong.
He was born in Germiston, near Johannesburg, where his father emigrated to escape the anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia. It has been reported that his original name was Isaac Blank, but "Blank" may have been an invention. He concealed his identity to protect his relatives in South Africa, and perhaps out of an innate secretiveness.
His father abandoned the family home when Isaac was young, and his French mother took in lodgers, one of whom was Ralph Lee, who introduced the young boy to the works of Trotsky, who had just lost the power struggle in the Soviet Communist Party. In the early 1930s, Lee was expelled from the Communist Party and founded a tiny Trotskyite group, who decided that Europe was a more promising field of activity. The story goes that "Isaac Blank" and another young Jew made the long voyage on a German passenger ship, and to avoid the attention of Nazi sympathisers on board, borrowed the names of English crew members. One became Sid Frost, the other Edward Grant.
On arrival in Britain, the young Ted Grant followed instructions that came from Trotsky himself to join the Independent Labour Party and try to take it over from within. So began the tactic of "entryism" which Grant pursued for most of his life. However, the tiny band of entryists were soon embroiled in one of the rancorous, incomprehensible feuds in which Trotskyite groups have always specialised.
On the one side were a group of Bloomsbury intellectuals whose main asset was that Trotsky knew who they were; on the other, unknown young men and women mostly from working-class backgrounds, led by a Scottish seaman named Jock Haston. The South Africans all joined Haston's breakaway Workers International League (WIL). There followed a breach of a more personal kind, when Haston began an affair with Ralph Lee's wife, Millie, and Lee moved back to South Africa. He was expendable, but Millie Lee was not, because according to an informant planted in the WIL by Special Branch, her family was the little organisation's only source of funds.
From this unpromising start, the WIL suddenly achieved national notoriety after the Soviet Union entered the Second World War, when the Communist Party of Great Britain called for an end to all industrial action. When Tyneside shipyard apprentices struck, the Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, was sufficiently alarmed by reports of Trotskyite infiltration to have Haston and three others charged with sedition.
WIL influence on Tyneside was a fact, because one of their undercover members was the full-time regional organiser of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), T. Dan Smith, later famous as the corrupt boss of Newcastle City Council. Smith's cover was blown when Ted Grant turned up in Newcastle in 1943 to announce breathlessly that Britain was in a "pre-revolutionary situation", drawing attention to himself and other Trotskyites, who were expelled from the ILP.
This was a period of high hopes for the young Grant. He really believed that when the war was over, capitalism and Stalinism would both collapse in a new wave of revolutionary upheaval. Disillusionment followed when, instead of taking to the barricades, the workers put their trust in the Labour government, and the Trotskyites reverted to the old habits of entryism and internal feuding. Grant became locked in a ferocious feud with an Irishman named Gerry Healy, which lasted four decades. Healy lost because his followers revolted against his practice of continuing the indoctrination of young female revolutionaries beyond working hours. It was revealed that 76 young women had been introduced to what Brian Behan described as "the erect forces of Healyite Labour".
By contrast, Ted Grant is not known to have entered into any sexual relationship with anyone. His only known vices were gob-stoppers and low-grade cowboy movies. Living alone, he devoured the national newspapers and novels by Jack London and John Galsworthy, listened to classical music, and dressed rather like a tramp, in a raincoat and cloth cap.
It was Gerry Healy who set up an "entryist" group inside the Labour Party, whose members were quickly identified and expelled. Ted Grant and a tiny group of followers joined later, their existence going unnoticed for many years until the 1970s, when it suddenly became apparent that there had been a well-organised takeover of the Labour Party Young Socialists. Tony Benn heard Grant tell the LPYS conference in Skegness in 1973 that Britain was on the brink of a revolutionary crisis (again). Benn thought that he sounded like "a theological leader, a teacher by instinct".
In 1975, Labour's National Agent, Reg Underhill, drew up a report alleging that the purportedly pro-Labour weekly newspaper Militant, founded a decade earlier by Ted Grant and a collaborator from Liverpool named Peter Taaffe, was actually a front for a secret political party with its own full-time staff, to which supporters were required to hand over one-tenth of their income.
Nothing was done; the leaked report only helped Militant to recruit by giving them publicity. In 1981, they took effective control of Liverpool Council, through the council's domineering Deputy Leader, Derek Hatton. In 1983, three of their members were elected Labour MPs. Another, John Macreadie, was elected General Secretary of the Civil and Public Services Union in 1986. In 1992, Tommy Sheridan was elected to Glasgow council from the prison cell where he was serving a sentence for refusing to pay the poll tax.
By the late 1980s, the organisation was claiming a membership of 8,000, but as it grew, Ted Grant's influence within it proportionately diminished. He stayed true to the messianic optimism of the little Trotskyite sects. When the stock market crashed in 1987, Grant forecast a repeat of the depression of the 1930s. During the Iraq war of 1991, he foresaw a repeat of the Vietnam conflict and a return to conscription. When Militant embarked on a campaign of civil disobedience against the poll tax, Grant warned against activism for its own sake.
Militant also had an implacable enemy in the Labour leader Neil Kinnock, who pursued a policy of identifying its members and expelling them from the Labour Party. Derek Hatton and others from Liverpool went down in a blaze of publicity in 1986. The MPs Dave Nellist and Terry Fields were expelled in 1990.
The expulsions triggered Grant's final quarrel with Peter Taaffe, who had supplanted him as Militant's effective leader, and who had decided to drop the pretence that it was only a loose group of like-minded newspaper readers and bring it into the open as a new political party. Grant persisted with the view that they should stay within the political mainstream, which was the instruction handed down by Trotsky himself half a century earlier. He circulated a letter to Militant supporters solemnly accusing Taaffe and his supporters of being a "Zinovievist clique" - a reference to one of Trotsky's rivals.
In a parody of what had previously taken place within the Labour Party, Militant's leaders equally solemnly pronounced Ted Grant and a few supporters "have their own small premises and their own staff, and are raising their own funds" and had therefore expelled themselves from Militant. When Neil Kinnock had laid precisely these charges against Militant, he was loudly accused of running a witchhunt.
Ted Grant spent his last 15 years living alone, co-operating with the tiny band of loyalists who had left Militant with him, always looking for signs that the revolution had begun. Latterly, he thought that developments in Venezuela looked promising.
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