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Saturday, September 02, 2006

The red hermit: remembering Ted Grant

I've just caught up with the news that Ted Grant, founder and guru of Militant Tendency, died in July. This doesn't seem to have been much blogged about, but it surely marks the end of an era for the left. Grant was virtually the last living link with the pioneering days of Trotskyism, a man who committed himself to the cause when Trotsky himself still had a decade to live. And although I don't look back on my own Militant phase with much affection or pride, I can still readily acknowledge that in his way Grant was a remarkable man.

The papers have obits, and his followers have created a memorial website.

It was obvious to anyone who heard him speak that he was South African. I didn't know (perhaps I should have guessed) that he was Jewish, or that Ted Grant was an assumed name. The official hagiography and most of the obits give his real name as 'Isaac Blank'. It only seems to have occurred to the Independent to question whether 'Blank' was his real name either. The multiple layers of concealment seem entirely appropriate for the future leader of an organization which vehemently denied its own existence.

One can accept that he was motivated by the desire to avoid getting his family into trouble, but that in itself does not explain why he adopted such a very un-Jewish name. This stealthy self-Aryanization is something he had in common with his one-time comrade and subsequent leader of the SWP, Tony Cliff, né Ygael Glickstein (and of course Trotsky famously borrowed the name of his jailer). It doesn't exactly speak for a boundless confidence in the ability of the revolutionary proletariat to transcend the prejudices of bourgeois nationalism. And might the phenomenon not be entirely without relevance to an understanding of the far left's attitudes towards Israel?

Grant was utterly single-minded, not just in his commitment to socialist revolution but in his conviction that 'entrism' was the means for achieving it. He took what for Trotsky was a tactic to be applied for a few months, and turned it into an immutable law of history: the working class will always turn to its traditional mass organizations. Not even the apotheosis of Tony Blair could weaken his certainty that the Labour Party was the only place for Marxists to be.

He was a man with no time to waste on ironing his notoriously loud shirts, let alone on anything as distracting as sex (so in that respect very much like his estwhile disciple Tommy Sheridan, whose preferred form of relaxation, we now know, is a quiet game of Scrabble). Away from the conference platform, where he trained himself to be an effective orator, he was, for a political leader, quite remarkably introverted. Already in 1945 we see him keeping his nose buried in his newspaper when he has his picture taken. And during my stint in Militant he seemed to spend most of his time closeted in his office, where he would read all the day's papers from front page to back page.

Ironically for a militant materialist, the introversion went with a rather touching air of otherworldliness. I remember hearing him speak during the glory days of the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism. 'How do the gentlemen of the SWP propose to fight fascism? With dance bands!' Then he corrected the answer to his rhetorical question to 'with jazz bands', and at the third attempt he finally dragged himself into the Seventies: 'with rock bands'.

Militant held together for an extraordinarily long time by far left standards, but when the split came it was inevitable that the far more politically savvy Peter Taaffe would walk off with 90% plus of the membership. And Grant's reaction was entirely characteristic. Left with a few dozen true believers, like Sisyphus he set his shoulder to the stone which had rolled to the bottom of the hill and started building the revolutionary party from scratch.

There's a further irony in the timing of his death, coming as it did while a court in Edinburgh was hearing Tommy Sheridan's libel case against the News of the World. For Sheridan's charismatic leadership of the anti-Poll Tax campaign was plainly crucial in giving Taaffe and the majority of Militant members the confidence that they could turn their backs on the increasingly hostile environment of the Labour Party and 'come out' as an independent party. And it was his charisma which put the new party on the map, in Scotland if nowhere else. But charisma, as the comrades might have remembered from the case of Derek Hatton, is a two-edged sword. If Ted Grant's political project ended in failure, it's not clear that those who turned their backs on him will ultimately fare any better.


Darren said...

Stumbled across your blog.

You might be interested in an obituary of Ted Grant that appears in the latest issue of the Socialist Standard:
Death of a Tendency


Mr Grumpy said...

Darren, thanks for the link - good article. The prehistory of Militant was practically never talked about - unsurprisingly, if it includes the fact that Grant's group got the brush-off from Trotsky himself. By the way, I don't believe that Militant ever really had anything like 8000 members. Figures like that say more about the unrelenting pressure to meet recruitment targets than about reality.