David North
Gerry Healy and his Place in the History of the Fourth International

Healy’s Early Years in the Trotskyist Movement

Nineteen hundred and twenty-eight was a momentous year in the history of the international Marxist movement. In November and December of the previous year, in the immediate aftermath of the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution, Leon Trotsky and thousands of other leaders and members of the Left Opposition had been expelled from the Russian Communist Party and the Communist International. The struggle against Trotsky and the Left Opposition had been waged by the Stalinists in the name of the reactionary nationalist program of “socialism in one country.” The devastating effect of this program upon the development of the international Marxist movement had already been seen in a series of defeats suffered by the working class—especially in Britain, where the General Strike of May 1926 was betrayed by the reformist Labour and trade union bureaucracy with the assistance of the British Communist Party, and in China, where the subordination of the Communist Party to the bourgeois Kuomintang of Chiang Kai-shek led directly to the bloody massacre of thousands of revolutionary workers in April and May 1927.

From his exile in Soviet Central Asia, Trotsky sent to the Sixth Congress of the Comintern, which was meeting in Moscow, a detailed critique of its draft program. The title of its first section posed the historically fundamental character of the differences between the Left Opposition and the Stalinist leadership: “The Program of International Revolution or a Program of Socialism in One Country?” Trotsky then concisely explained the essential significance of internationalism for the revolutionary proletariat:

“In our epoch, which is the epoch of imperialism, i.e., of world economy and world politics under the hegemony of finance capital, not a single communist party can establish its program by proceeding solely or mainly from conditions and tendencies of developments in its own country. This also holds entirely for the party that wields the state power within the boundaries of the USSR. On August 4, 1914, the death knell sounded for national programs for all time. [1] The revolutionary party of the proletariat can base itself only upon an international program corresponding to the character of the present epoch, the epoch of the highest development and collapse of capitalism. An international communist program is in no case the sum total of national programs or an amalgam of their common features. The international program must proceed directly from an analysis of the conditions and tendencies of world economy and of the world political system taken as a whole in all its connections and contradictions, that is, with the mutually antagonistic interdependence of its separate parts. In the present epoch, to a much larger extent than in the past, the national orientation of the proletariat must and can flow only from a world orientation and not vice versa. Herein lies the basic and primary difference between communist internationalism and all varieties of national socialism” (Leon Trotsky, The Third International After Lenin [New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972], pp. 3–4).

In this passage Trotsky established the theoretical foundation of the struggle against Stalinism and the future work of the Fourth International, whose creation became a historical necessity following the betrayal of the German working class by the Communist International and the resulting victory of Hitler’s Nazis in January 1933.

During the crucial five years between Trotsky’s call for the creation of a new International and the founding conference of the Fourth in September 1938, he fought continuously against all tendencies which denigrated the paramount significance of the international party and saw its construction as secondary to the building of national organizations.

It is hardly to be expected that Healy was aware of, let alone familiar with, Trotsky’s criticisms of the policies of the Comintern at this early stage of his political awakening. A young seaman from an impoverished background, not only his political but also his formal education began with his entry into the British Communist Party. Moreover, it was only in 1928, with the return of James P. Cannon to the United States from the Sixth Congress of the Comintern with a smuggled copy of Trotsky’s critique, that the work of the Left Opposition began to reach an international working class audience.

Unfortunately, Healy, to the best of our knowledge, never wrote any sort of autobiographical sketch; and we do not have in our possession a written record of his work inside the Communist Party or of the exact circumstances which attended his expulsion by the Stalinists and his entry into the Trotskyist movement. On occasion Healy would refer in passing to work he carried out as a courier in Germany on behalf of the Communist International; and given the fact that he was a seaman, it is likely that such work would have been assigned to him. As for his expulsion from the British CP, Healy gave as the reasons his questioning of Stalinist leader Harry Pollitt about Stalinist policy in Spain and his doubts about the Moscow Trials, which had been aroused by a reading of Max Shachtman’s brilliant pamphlet exposing the frame-up of Trotsky and the Stalinist popular front betrayal of the Spanish Revolution.

Whatever the exact circumstances of his expulsion from the Stalinist party, by the end of 1937 he had established himself as an active and energetic fighter for Trotskyism in Britain. That he displayed an almost inexhaustible dynamism and exceptional organizational skills from his earliest days inside the Trotskyist movement has never been denied by even the bitterest of his many political and personal enemies. Healy himself frequently attributed his organizational abilities to his early experience inside the Communist Party, whose substantial proletarian cadre were trained in the conduct of mass work. In private conversations he frequently recalled the personal discomfort which he felt working inside the Trotskyist movement, whose small cadre in those days consisted principally of middle class intellectuals with little practical knowledge of or connection with the working class and whose limited activities were marred by inept amateurism. Herein lay the source of his hatred of “propagandism,” which Healy identified with a purely passive adherence to revolutionary principles, in which revolutionary phrasemongering, unconnected with any practical involvement in the struggles of the working class, was a way of life. To the extent that Healy’s hostility to such “propagandism” was bound up with an intense drive to challenge the domination of Stalinism and social democracy and to materialize the principles of Trotskyism in the working class movement, it enabled Healy to drive the cadre to achieve goals that it believed to be far beyond its reach. But, and here’s the rub, later in his political career Healy’s struggle against propagandism was directed not only against the passivity of the middle class intellectuals, but also against the programmatic principles upon which genuine revolutionary work must at all times be based.

The Trotskyist movement into which Healy entered in 1937 was confronted by immense political difficulties. This was the high point of the Stalinist terror inside the USSR and its international campaign against the Trotskyist movement. The British Communist Party enthusiastically supported the Moscow Trials and the ensuing cold-blooded murders of Lenin’s closest comrades. Day after day, the Stalinist Daily Worker hysterically denounced the “Trotzkyite fascists” and incited the workers to commit violence against the partisans of the Fourth International. Decades later Healy would still recall with bitterness how members of the Communist Party, with whom he had worked closely during the years before his expulsion, would systematically chant as they saw him selling the Trotskyist press: “Here comes Mosley, Here comes Mosley!” [2] Healy regularly intervened at public meetings of the Communist Party to denounce the crimes and betrayals of the Stalinists; and usually was rewarded for his efforts by being picked up by the goons and thrown down the steps of the front entrance. Undaunted, he would take delight in making the Stalinist ranks squirm over the innumerable unexplained shifts in the party line which the CP leadership regularly made in accordance with the needs of Soviet foreign policy. “Tell me quickly before anything changes,” Healy would ask a Daily Worker salesman as he looked at his watch. “It is 4:03 p.m. on December 9, 1939. What is your party’s line on the pact with Hitler?”

In addition to the external challenges, the Trotskyist movement was plagued by internal factional conflicts which, in an environment of clique relations, invariably assumed the most embittered forms. By the end of 1937 there existed no less than four Trotskyist tendencies—the Marxist League, the Marxist Group, the Militant Labour League, and the Lee Group which assumed the name Workers International League. It was the latter group with which Healy was affiliated, along with Jock Haston, Ted Grant and Betty Hamilton.

As the founding conference of the Fourth International approached, Trotsky and the International Secretariat made a determined attempt to effect a unification of the different British groups. While recognizing the existence of differences on important questions of tactics to be pursued within Britain, the International Secretariat insisted that the acceptance of the world program, elaborated by Trotsky in the founding document of the Fourth International, provided the essential basis for the establishment of a single British section. On the basis of the international program, the unified British movement would be in a position to resolve, in a democratic centralist way, its differences on national tactics.

James P. Cannon travelled to Britain in an attempt to carry through the unification of the Trotskyist tendencies in advance of the founding conference. However, his efforts proved unsuccessful as the WIL/Lee Group insisted that unification was impossible without first arriving at an agreement on the national program of a unified organization. Healy himself was openly hostile to Cannon’s efforts, and gleefully noted after their failure that “Cannon unified four groups into seven.”

In addition to insisting on agreement on the national program as a prerequisite for unity, the WIL sought to justify its rejection of the International Secretariat’s initiative by insisting that it was the most effective and, in terms of its activity and social composition, proletarian of the tendencies claiming to be Trotskyist. However, the International Secretariat refused to compromise with the WIL. Trotsky based his fight for the Fourth International on the same scientifically-grounded internationalism upon which he had organized the struggle against the Stalinist bureaucracy. Over the previous years Trotsky had conducted a bitter fight against the Independent Labour Party of Fenner Brockway, whose centrist politics was rooted in his persistent subordination of questions of international principle to the narrow practical needs of his activities in Britain. Now, on the eve of its founding conference, the Fourth International confronted a similar outlook in the WIL. Trotsky understood that the source of this nationalist outlook was the immense pressure of the oldest and most experienced capitalism in the world on the British workers movement. To compromise with it would be to plant the seeds for the rapid disintegration of the Fourth International. Trotsky wrote a sharp condemnation of the position of the WIL:

“Under these circumstances it is necessary to warn the comrades associated with the Lee group that they are being led on a path of unprincipled clique politics which can only land them in the mire. It is possible to maintain and develop a revolutionary political grouping of serious importance only on the basis of great principles. The Fourth International alone embodies and represents these principles. It is possible for a national group to maintain a constant revolutionary course only if it is firmly connected in one organization with co-thinkers throughout the world and maintains a constant political and theoretical collaboration with them. The Fourth International alone is such an organization. All purely national groupings, all those who reject international organization, control, and discipline, are in their essence reactionary” (Documents of the Fourth International [New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973], p. 270).

Though this warning was rejected by the WIL, it represented a seminal experience in the political development of Healy as a Trotskyist. Before he could emerge as a serious leader inside the Fourth International, Healy had to first recognize the error which he had made in subordinating international principles to the practical needs of national work, which is the most characteristic and insidious form of opportunism. Indeed, Healy’s later degeneration was bound up with his rejection of the lessons which he had learned so painfully during his first years as a Trotskyist.

Among the arguments that had been advanced by the WIL against the 1938 unification proposed by the IS was that fusion would leave the young and inexperienced proletarian cadre assembled by the WIL exposed to the demoralizing factionalism of the petty-bourgeois elements which it claimed dominated the Revolutionary Socialist League. This argument was undermined by the fact that the internal life of the WIL was no less factional than that of the official section. By early 1943 Healy found himself at loggerheads with the leadership of Grant and Haston over differences which were without any clear political content. On February 7, 1948, after repeatedly threatening to break with the WIL, Healy informed its Central Committee that he was resigning from the organization—not because of political differences but because of his personal inability to work with Haston, Lee and Grant. The WIL responded by expelling Healy; and though he was soon readmitted to the organization, Healy lost his position on the Political Bureau, the Central Committee and the editorial board of the organization’s newspaper.

Healy might not have recovered from this political crisis had it not been for the intervention of the leadership of the Socialist Workers Party in the United States, which, under conditions of war, was obliged to play a leading role in the affairs of the Fourth International. It saw the bitter factionalism inside the WIL as a product of its nationalist orientation, and was convinced that the internal disputes could not be politically clarified unless the British group ended its independent existence and became part of the Fourth International. On March 18, 1943, Lou Cooper, a member of the Socialist Workers Party, addressed a letter to the Workers International League, urging it to reconsider its opposition to a unification of all Trotskyist tendencies in Britain. The letter insisted that however impressive the gains of the WIL inside the British workers movement, its members could not be educated as Marxists unless the organization functioned inside the Fourth International on the basis of the organizational principles of democratic centralism. Cooper warned the WIL of the profound implications of its hostility to the authority of the international movement:

“The general attitude of the WIL on this question serves to miseducate its many new members in the proven methods of Bolshevik organization. This is possibly one of the most serious consequences of any extension of the present WIL attitude. The membership will not know how to deal with future disagreements and divisions in the WIL itself. The way WIL educated its new members, it is no exaggeration to say that the future may very well see groups of comrades breaking off from the organization and yelling ‘I’m king. Recognize me.’

“Or possibly the WIL believes that future crises of society will affect everyone in its ranks similarly. Possibly there are some who believe that no dissident divisions will ever appear. All I can say at this point is, that if there are responsible comrades with this belief they had better hope and maybe even pray that this miracle occur. At the first real sign of disagreement all the miseducation on this question is going to bounce right back in the faces of the responsible members of the organization. If you’re not going to educate your membership in the spirit of tried, tested and proven Bolshevik organizational methods, you’re not going to have Bolshevik-Leninists in time of real crises.”

Many years later, in the summer and autumn of 1985, this warning would come back to haunt Healy, who had by then completely turned his back on internationalist principles and had created in the Workers Revolutionary Party an organization dominated by nationalism and which looked upon its fraternal sections inside the International Committee of the Fourth International with contempt. Though faced with the disintegration of the WRP, Healy as well as his factional opponents in the party leadership all rejected the authority of the only force that could have clarified the political issues that underlay the explosion inside the British organization and saved it from destruction—the International Committee.

But in 1943 the SWP’s intervention had a profound effect on Healy, and it marked a turning point in his political development. With the assistance of the Socialist Workers Party and James P. Cannon, with whom he began a long and fruitful relationship, Healy initiated a struggle for internationalism against the nationalist position of the Haston-Grant leadership. On August 10, 1943, Healy submitted a document, entitled “Our Most Important Task,” in which he came out against the leadership’s opposition to the unification of British Trotskyists as proposed by the Fourth International. Healy wrote:

“The regroupment of international revolutionists under the banner and platform of the Fourth International was one of the most important contributions of Comrade Trotsky to the cause of Marxism. We must never forget this. No matter how small or weak, the various sections exist and grow strong throughout the greater part of the world. Already the ‘World Party of Socialist Revolution’ is acquiring a flesh and blood meaning for growing thousands of oppressed workers and peasants. Our foremost job is to build and strengthen this great movement…

“The main purpose of this document is to bring home to the membership the importance of being the official section of the Fourth International in view of the vital necessity to strengthen the traditional organization of Trotskyism in the great struggle already begun. If we accept the history of international Trotskyism since 1933 (which is a history of Bolshevik regroupment in the Fourth International), then we must place the question of the International as the most important question before the group. All other questions of group development, such as the press, industrial work or organizational activity are bound up with whatever stand we take on the International. If we accept the political principles of Bolshevism then we must accept the organizational method. It is not sufficient to say that we accept the program of the Fourth International and that we expound it better than the RSL if we do not also accept its organizational method, which means that we must be affiliated to the International, accepting its democratic centralist basis; just the same as it is not sufficient to claim to be a Trotskyist and to be more conversant with the policy of Trotskyism than the organized Trotskyists, unless one joins a Trotskyist party accepting its democratic centralist discipline. That is what is meant by Bolshevik organizational methods.” (Emphasis added.)

Despite the intense opposition of Haston, the unification was finally achieved and the Revolutionary Communist Party came into being in March 1944. Healy was a minority in the new organization, whose leadership was still dominated by the nationalist tendency led by Haston and Grant. For an extended period he was not allowed representation on the Political Committee; and later Healy would frequently recall how the Haston leadership would subject him to petty forms of organizational harassment. But unlike the situation which had existed in the old WIL, the differences inside the RCP were to be fought out within the broader framework of the Fourth International over fundamental questions of international perspectives that arose with the conclusion of World War II. Haston, who remained the leader of the RCP despite his hostility to the unification, was soon to align himself with the right-wing petty-bourgeois tendency led by Morrow and Goldman inside the Socialist Workers Party, which insisted that the perspectives advanced by Trotsky prior to the war had been refuted; that a European revolution had failed to materialize; that the Fourth International had to base itself on the prospect of an extended restabilization of capitalism and replace its revolutionary socialist program with one based on elementary democratic demands. In essence, what was posed by the Morrow-Goldman faction was the dissolution of the Fourth International into a reformist social democratic tendency. The essentially reactionary character of this tendency was most vividly exposed by the fact that within a relatively short period of time its principal leaders abandoned the camp of Marxism and entered that of imperialism.

Healy worked closely with Cannon, the SWP and the International Secretariat throughout the long struggle against Haston. From the moment Healy declared himself in support of the positions advanced in the Lou Cooper letter, he was regularly baited by the Hastonites as a political agent of Cannon. Healy’s opposition to Haston was frequently denounced as the spearhead of an American SWP plot, masterminded by Cannon, against the British leadership. Forty years later the old partisans of Haston had still not forgiven Healy for his “betrayal” of national clique ties. The recently-published book War and the International: A History of the Trotskyist Movement in Britain 1937–1949, which traces all the misfortunes of the British Trotskyist movement to the intervention of the Fourth International, angrily asserts, “The behavior for [sic] the Healy minority gave every cause to the [Haston] leadership to understand that they were being stimulated by the S.W.P. and afterwards by the new leadership in Europe” (Bornstein and Richardson [London: 1986], p. 197). And the authors quote this fairly typical denunciation of Healy’s relationship with Cannon by the old Hastonite, Bert Atkinson: “I always got the impression, always felt, that his position was that he [Healy] was repeating what he was being fed by the American section, Cannon and Company, and that Healy never had any firm theoretical differences—none at all” (Ibid.).

In the course of the struggle against the Morrow-Goldman faction, Cannon made a pointed reference to the Haston group’s treatment of Healy: “Do you know what kind of regime your pals in England have?,” he asked Morrow and Goldman at a plenum of the SWP National Committee in October 1945. “They have a minority led by Healy whose crimes consisted in the fact that he supported the unity line of the International Secretariat, that he broke with the sectarian nationalism of the WIL and became a real internationalist, rejected their nationalistic taint, and has been sympathetic in general to the Socialist Workers Party political position.

“Do you know what this regime calls Healy? A quisling of the Socialist Workers Party; that is, an agent of an enemy country” (James P. Cannon, Writings and Speeches, 1945–47 [New York: Pathfinder Press, 1977], p. 182).

Healy’s struggle against the Haston group continued throughout the 1940s and culminated in his winning of the majority of the British movement in 1949. By that time, the right-wing character of the Haston group had been completely exposed and Haston was himself on the verge of renouncing revolutionary Marxism, which he actually did in February 1950. Later, in the midst of the intense struggle against Pablo’s wrecking operation inside the Fourth International, Cannon wrote a letter to Healy in which he stressed the crucial importance of the fight against the Haston group for the development of the Trotskyist movement in Britain: “If one were to undertake to write the real history of British Trotskyism, he would have to set the starting point as the day and date on which your group finally tore itself loose from the Haston regime and started its own independent work. What happened before that is nothing but a series of squandered opportunities, material for the pre-history of British Trotskyism” (Trotskyism Versus Revisionism, vol. 1 [London: New Park Publications, 1974], p. 262).

It is perhaps the most significant paradox in Healy’s life that while the struggle against the Haston clique was the turning point in his own political development and, as Cannon maintained, that of the entire Trotskyist movement in Britain, Healy never sought to systematically educate the forces who joined the British movement in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s in the essential lessons of the crucial struggles inside the WIL and, after 1944, the Revolutionary Communist Party, against the anti-internationalism of Haston and Grant. In this way, he abetted the growth of nationalist opportunist tendencies inside the Socialist Labour League and its successor, the Workers Revolutionary Party. There exists no British equivalent of The Struggle for Trotskyism in the United States, which is Cannon’s account, based on a series of lectures delivered in 1942, of the origins of the Socialist Workers Party. Healy did not lecture on the subject either publicly or before party gatherings; and the very little that he wrote on the subject—no more than a few cursory paragraphs in his 1966 pamphlet, Problems of the Fourth International—could hardly have provided the cadre with an understanding of the crucial political issues that were involved in the struggle against Haston.

Healy’s account of the struggle against Haston’s nationalism hardly referred to the role played by Cannon and the SWP in the development of an internationalist tendency inside the WIL. His acknowledgement of Cannon’s contribution was limited to one sentence: “The SWP members were especially helpful to us during the period between 1943 and 1949 in the struggle against the Haston clique” (Gerry Healy, Problems of the Fourth International [New York: Labor Publications, 1972], p. 29). Healy’s account left the reader to believe that the struggle to overcome Haston’s opposition to entering the Fourth International was largely the product of a domestic internal opposition that arose within the WIL when, as he wrote in 1966, “some of the present leaders of the Socialist Labour League reanalyzed their mistake and explained its origin within the movement.” This account made no reference to the Lou Cooper letter nor did it relate the struggle against Haston to the broader struggle over revolutionary perspectives that was being conducted inside the Fourth International. Later in the pamphlet, Healy quoted from a 1962 letter he wrote to James Robertson, the future founder of the Spartacist tendency in the United States, in which a few references were made to the struggle inside the WIL. However, while this passage refers to “advice from comrades in New York” on the terms of unification of the British Trotskyists, it was stated that this came after Healy had entered the September 1943 conference of the WIL fighting for unity. But, as we have seen, it was the Cooper letter of March 1943 that initiated the renewed struggle for unification.

This distortion of an important episode in the struggle for internationalism cannot be explained away as Healy’s reaction to the SWP’s subsequent betrayal of Trotskyism in the 1950s and 1960s. If anything, the struggle against the SWP’s degeneration should have compelled Healy to remind its leaders of the positions they had once jointly defended against the enemies of Marxism. Rather, Healy’s failure to constantly review the lessons of the struggle against Haston and his denial of the crucial role played by the International in the development of the British section, not to mention his own, must be explained politically as an adaptation to the very nationalist outlook against which he had once fought.

It is impossible to train a cadre without educating it thoroughly in the history of its organization; and Healy’s failure to undertake this essential task was to have devastating political consequences. Eventually, the same virulent nationalism which characterized the Haston clique was to dominate the cadre of the WRP, which, except for a few of the most veteran cadre, knew nothing about the struggles of the 1940s. Thus, it is possible for the WRP faction led by Sheila Torrance—which is the political crystallization of the nationalism that eventually overwhelmed the WRP—to write an obituary of Healy that presents the WIL in the most glowing terms, does not mention that it was not a section of the Fourth International, and says nothing at all about Haston and the struggle against his nationalist clique.


On August 4, 1914, the German Social Democratic Party, the largest and most influential section of the Second International, voted to grant war credits to finance the imperialist government’s entry into what would become World War I. This betrayal of proletarian internationalism and capitulation to the bourgeois program of “national defense” was justified on the grounds that the realization of socialism in the future required the preservation of the national achievements of German economy and culture. Most other social democratic parties in Europe took a similar chauvinist position. Because of the central role of the German Social Democracy, August 4, 1914 has gone down in history as the date on which the Second International collapsed.


Sir Oswald Mosley was the leader of the British Union of Fascists.