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

Nationalism vs. Internationalism: The SLL at the Crossroads

The SLL’s break with the SWP was not only a watershed in the history of the Fourth International; it was the turning point in Healy’s own political development. The struggle he had carried out against the SWP’s betrayal of Trotskyism defended the programmatic continuity of the Fourth International and laid down the foundations of its future development. And yet, the period after 1963 was, for Healy, one of deepening political crisis. Indeed, it was in the mid–1960s that Healy began his own tragic descent down a treacherous slope of opportunism that led, inexorably and ignominiously, to political and personal disaster.

To understand why and how this happened, it is necessary to examine the political problems which confronted the Fourth International in the aftermath of the 1963 reunification of the Socialist Workers Party and the Pabloite International Secretariat and their impact upon the development of the Socialist Labour League.

The SWP’s break with the International Committee was an event with profound historical significance. The very section whose leaders belonged to the generation that had played a crucial role in developing the work of the Left Opposition outside the Soviet Union, collaborated closely with Trotsky in the founding of the Fourth International and then spearheaded the fight against Pablo’s revisionism had finally turned its back upon the principles with which it had been identified for so many years and which it had so clearly reaffirmed in Cannon’s “Open Letter” just 10 years earlier.

This betrayal was not merely the product of the personal degeneration of a few leaders, but reflected profound changes in class relations that had developed on the basis of the postwar restabilization and expansion of capitalism. The broad strata of petty-bourgeois elements upon which imperialism relied to regulate the class struggle and divert the independent movement of the proletariat provided a powerful social basis for a new growth of opportunism. Pabloite revisionism, which developed the theoretical formulae required to justify the subordination of the working class to the petty-bourgeois agents of imperialism, was the political expression of this social pressure upon the Fourth International.

The reunification of 1963 was a damaging blow to the Fourth International, which was aimed at isolating those who still defended the program of orthodox Trotskyism. Healy, who had placed great value on his years of close collaboration with James P. Cannon, did not conceal the anger he felt over the SWP’s desertion of the International Committee; and it was reflected in his final letter to the National Committee of the SWP, written on June 12, 1963:

“It was with deep regret that the delegates and visitors to the Fifth National Conference of the Socialist Labour League took note of the failure of your committee to send fraternal greetings to our conference. This is the first time since the founding unification conference of the English Trotskyist movement in March 1944 that you have taken such action, even though you had major political disagreements for a number of years with the old leadership of the Revolutionary Communist Party.

“In the past we have always regarded your greetings as a recognition of the revolutionary ties which existed between our organizations. It is well known that several members of the leadership of the Socialist Labour League, including myself, grew up and developed with knowledge gained from the books and writings of the leaders of your party. We feel, therefore, that your decision not to send greetings is in line with your political hostility towards us” (Trotskyism Versus Revisionism, vol. 4, p. 159).

Healy noted the deplorable role played by Cannon in inciting “petty organizational scandals” in order to prepare the SWP’s break with the International Committee, and sadly concluded that Cannon “despite his long and heroic defence of Trotskyism … has at last capitulated to the Pabloite disease” (Ibid., p. 160).

The letter went on to provide a scathing review of the fraud and deceit which attended the convening of the SWP-Pabloite reunification congress. But it was in the concluding paragraphs of the letter that Healy’s contempt for the political betrayal of the SWP found its most biting expression:

“Of course you have no time for the ‘sectarian SLL.’ Our comrades in the ranks and in the leadership fight day in and day out against reformism and Stalinism in the best traditions of the Trotskyist movement. But they do not yet speak to tens of thousands at public meetings like Ben Bella, Castro and the so-called Ceylon May Day meeting. In your eyes we are merely small, ‘ultra-left fry.’

“Our comrades took the leadership in the recent campaign against unemployment, organized and spoke to a mass meeting of 1,300, but this is small stuff. When our comrades deal powerful blows against the Social Democrats in the youth movement in the teeth of a violent witch-hunt, your correspondent T.J. Peters (a one-time leading SWP supporter who now writes like a retired liberal) speaks only of the great future before ‘British Labour.’

“We old-fashioned ‘sectarians’ believe that the Fourth International of which our organization has always been an integral part, offers the only alternative to the corrupt leadership of so-called ‘British Labour.’ But Peters has no time for us. He, like you, has really seen the light.

“It took you some time. (As the saying goes ‘Those who come late to Christ come hardest.’) It is approximately 12 years since George Clarke joined forces with Pablo and published the message of the infamous Third Congress in the Militant and what was at that time the magazine Fourth International. You failed to understand Pablo at that time, and then we had the split of 1953. Cannon hailed this split with the words that we were ‘never going back to Pabloism.’ Until recently he has been a really stubborn convert to Pabloism. But at last you have made it. You now have allies all over the place, from Fidel Castro, to Philip Gunawardene and Pablo.

“We want to say only one thing and in this our congress was unanimous. We are proud of the stand which our organization has taken against such a disgraceful capitulation to the most reactionary forces as that to which the majority leadership of your party has fully succumbed?” (Ibid., pp. 163–64).

In the immediate aftermath of the split, Healy sought to defend the International Committee, for which the SLL had assumed a huge responsibility. His collaboration with the SWP minority in the United States continued and it was the decisive factor in the founding of the American Committee for the Fourth International in 1964 and the Workers League in 1966. Moreover, Healy’s trip to Ceylon in June 1964 during the conference at which the Pabloite LSSP voted to enter the coalition government of Madam Bandaranaike—the first time in history that a party claiming to be Trotskyist had entered into a bourgeois government—laid the initial foundations for the future development of the Revolutionary Communist League as the Ceylonese section of the International Committee.

But gradually the work of the SLL shifted onto a nationalist axis. This development was to a great extent the expression of the immense objective problems which confronted the International Committee in the wake of 1963. The orthodox Trotskyists were fighting against the stream. Almost all the sections of the Fourth International had capitulated to Pabloite opportunism. Under conditions in which the SLL and the politically-fragile French Parti Communiste Internationaliste of Lambert remained the only viable sections of the ICFI, the survival of the International Committee at that crucial time depended largely upon the political experience and resources of its British section. In this situation, it was virtually inevitable that the International Committee should for a time appear to exist largely as an extension of the Socialist Labour League, which, since its founding in 1959, had made impressive gains.

The SLL developed in a bitter struggle against the Labour Party bureaucracy. Within one month of its founding in 1959, Hugh Gaitskell, the right-wing Labour Party leader, responded by proscribing the tendency and expelling its supporters. Healy fought back against this attack, though he never expressed the slightest regret that the proscription and expulsions forced an end to the 12 years of work as a revolutionary tendency inside the Labour Party. He hated the political and social milieu of the Labour Party, which he viewed as a cesspool of opportunism, and welcomed the opportunity for real independent work. However, he had no intention of letting matters rest with the official proscription and expulsions. The ever-resourceful Healy soon found another avenue of attack against the Labourites. As the recessionary policies of the Macmillan government cut into the living standards of the working class and sparked a growth of political militancy among the youth, the SLL began to develop forces within the Young Socialists, the youth movement of the Labour Party. By 1963 the SLL had recruited into its ranks the majority of the national leadership of the Young Socialists and the editorial board of its newspaper, Keep Left.

Once again the Labour Party responded with a ruthless organizational attack. Keep Left was proscribed and the Young Socialists was dissolved for a period of one year, pending reorganization by the Labourites. The police were summoned to Transport House to evict the Trotskyist youth leaders from their offices. Healy decided to answer the new wave of expulsion with a bold counterattack: rather than bowing to the bureaucracy’s attack, the Young Socialists would continue to exist as the youth section of the Socialist Labour League and Keep Left was to be maintained as its official organ.

This victory inside the Young Socialists was an important achievement. As a result of a determined struggle that had been led by Healy, the cadre of the Socialist Labour League was replenished by this influx of spirited youth who had been won to Trotskyism. For the first time in many years, the cadre and material resources of the British Trotskyist movement began to expand significantly. Healy would later recall that it was not until 1963 that the British Trotskyists received their first substantial financial contribution: the unheard of sum of 9,000 pounds was donated by a supporter who had received an inheritance. Healy used it to pay off debts that were plaguing the movement!

But Healy had plans far more ambitious than the simple repaying of debts that had accumulated over many years. In 1964 he proposed that the SLL set itself the task of launching the first daily Trotskyist newspaper in the world within five years. Healy was convinced that the establishment of such a paper would alter dramatically the relationship between Trotskyism and the working class in Britain, end for all time its “propagandist” existence and isolation, and spearhead the transformation of the SLL into a mass revolutionary party of the British working class.

Healy had every right to draw great satisfaction from the impressive gains of the SLL in Britain. At a time when the Pabloites were striving to liquidate the Fourth International into the swamp of petty-bourgeois protest politics and turn its cadre into cheerleaders for Stalinism and bourgeois nationalism, Healy rightly saw the gains of the SLL as the vindication of its struggle for Trotskyism. While the Pabloite liquidators were denouncing Healy as an “ultraleft sectarian” because he refused to abandon the program of the Fourth International, the SLL was steadily broadening its influence within the working class and among the youth.

Healy sincerely believed that the political advances of the SLL within the British working class represented a decisive counterweight to the international betrayal of the Pabloites. However, to the extent that Healy believed that the 1963 split had resolved the problem of Pabloism within the International Committee and its British section and that the fight against opportunism could be conducted, at least within Britain, simply at the practical level of party building, his approach carried with it the danger of a retreat to a national orientation to the working class. Healy should have remembered that the old WIL had proceeded with precisely such an incorrect appraisal of the relation between practical activity in the workers movement and the defense of the international program of revolutionary Marxism. Its leaders, Healy among them, had initially spurned the Fourth International’s appeal that it accept reunification with other Trotskyist tendencies within Britain on the grounds that its superior practical work and successes in the labor movement would eventually settle the question of who the real Trotskyists were.

However important the advances of the SLL inside the British workers movement, the future of the International Committee and its British section required the deepening of the international struggle against Pabloite opportunism and the assimilation of its theoretical and political lessons. If anything, the degeneration of the SWP had demonstrated that neither a “proletarian orientation” nor an organizational break can, by themselves, settle accounts with revisionism. The prevalence of opportunism is a historical phenomenon with deep social roots; and that is why the struggle against it is such a protracted and difficult process. Even within the ranks of a Marxist tendency which has a long history of struggle against revisionism, there exists no guaranteed immunity against the enormous class pressures that politically reveal themselves in fresh eruptions of opportunism. Indeed, a leader who believes that the party structure provides an impenetrable barrier to the opportunism produced by the pressure of social forces is engaged in self-deception.

Therefore, the central task that confronted the Socialist Labour League in the wake of the 1963 reunification and its tragic aftermath in Ceylon was to develop the program and perspectives of the International Committee and clarify the issues of political principle that separated the Fourth International from the petty-bourgeois revisionism of the Hansen-Mandel United Secretariat. This required, above all, a continuous examination of the theoretical and political forms through which the pressure of alien class forces manifests itself within the ranks of the revolutionary party. It is only on this basis that the recurring tendency of layers within the Marxist party and its leadership to adapt to the petty-bourgeois agencies of imperialism can be counteracted. But the conviction gradually took hold within the SLL leadership that the material growth of the British section, rather than the strengthening of its international political line, was the decisive precondition and essential foundation for the development of the International Committee; and from this flowed an incorrect and increasingly nationalist conception of the relation between the SLL and the International Committee of the Fourth International. The SLL proceeded from an increasingly organizational conception which held that the practical successes of the Socialist Labour League in Britain were the prerequisite for the further development of the world Trotskyist movement.

By 1966 this was clearly reflected in Healy’s Problems of the Fourth International:

“The Socialist Labour League now shoulders an enormous responsibility— that of constructing the mass revolutionary party which will lead the working class to power. By doing so it will inspire revolutionists in all countries to build similar parties to do the same” (p. 5).

This formulation, which reduced the world party to the mere sum of its national parts and replaced the collaboration of Marxists within a unified International with the emulation of the successes of one national group by another, represented a concession to the prevailing unfavorable relation of forces between the Marxists of the International Committee and the petty-bourgeois opportunists of the United Secretariat on an international scale. Furthermore, it encouraged the development of dangerous nationalist attitudes within the Socialist Labour League. The idea that the Fourth International would develop only as the by-product of the conquest of power in Britain was false. On the one hand, it rejected the dialectical interaction between the world crisis of imperialism, the international class struggle and their specific expression in Britain; on the other hand, it denied that the organization of Marxists in any country is possible only as part of the World Party of Socialist Revolution.

The growing pressure to shift the struggle against the Pabloites on to the national axis of practical work in Britain was clearly expressed in a startling interpretation of the roots of the SWP degeneration presented by Healy in Problems of the Fourth International, in which he gave the following explanation of the SWP’s betrayal of Marxism:

“The answer to this question does not lie in the difficult conditions of the cold war and the boom under which the SWP has been operating in the United States, especially since 1949, although these have played a role, but in the origin of the early Trotskyist movement…

“Its founder, Trotsky, went through all the early political experiences of the pre-revolutionary Soviet Union, the revolution itself, when he led and organized the Red Army, the post-Lenin degeneration and the growth of the Soviet bureaucracy under Stalin.

“His supporters in the USA and in other countries came mainly from those who entered the communist movement after the foundation of the Third International in 1919. Their development was conditioned by the post-World War I defeats of the working class outside the Soviet Union and the growth of Stalinism…

“This was precisely the weakness of the Cannon-Trotsky combination.

“Trotsky’s theoretical genius flowed from the entire revolutionary experience of the Soviet Union, both in its triumph and degeneration.

“Cannon’s politics, on the other hand, were mainly derived during the period of Soviet degeneration and defeat for the international working class outside the USSR” (Problems of the Fourth International, pp. 14–15).

This interpretation of the SWP’s degeneration had absolutely nothing in common with the Marxist analyses advanced between 1961 and 1963, which insisted that there existed objective social reasons, rooted in the complex character of the postwar settlement between Stalinism and imperialism upon which the restabilization of capitalism was based, for the growth of revisionism inside the Fourth International. As Cliff Slaughter correctly pointed out in his report to the ICFI in September 1963, Pabloism “was not just the aberration of a few individuals, but has found a response in many countries” (Trotskyism Versus Revisionism, vol. 4, p. 190). But Healy’s new interpretation entirely rejected this basic materialist framework for an analysis of the origins and social significance of Pabloite opportunism. Aside from its almost preposterous dismissal of the postwar boom (and its vast impact on international class relations) as a source of the crisis of the SWP and its subjective appraisal of the political relationship between Cannon and Trotsky, it more or less attributed the degeneration of the Socialist Workers Party and the growth of revisionism to the supposed “nonrevolutionary” origins of the Fourth International!

Whether Healy realized it or not, he was providing an updated theoretical defense of all the centrist tendencies who had opposed Trotsky’s decision to found the Fourth International in 1938 on the grounds that a new International could only emerge as the product of a successful revolution. This interpretation denigrated the historical significance of the theoretical activity of Marxists in the elaboration and defense of the international program of socialist revolution. It denied that the revolutionary character of Marxism asserted itself in the 1920s and 1930s through the protracted struggle to theoretically comprehend the nature of Stalinism; and that the defense of the programmatic heritage of the October Revolution in a period of intense political reaction represented the greatest achievement of Marxism. Healy reduced revolutionary activity to only one of its forms— the practical work carried out by Marxists in the midst of a victorious revolution. On this basis, one might conclude that with the exception of his limited practical experiences during the bourgeois-democratic revolutions of 1848, Marx’s lifework was of a decidedly “nonrevolutionary” character.

By calling into question the entire pre–1953 history of the Fourth International, Healy was providing fertile opportunities for the development of a nationalist orientation for the cadre of the SLL. Indeed, it would not be long before attempts were being made to deny the crucial historical contribution of the Socialist Workers Party to the development of the Fourth International after 1940. When Sheila Torrance writes in her ignorant obituary that “Healy was the only real Trotskyist to emerge” after the death of Trotsky, she is only giving voice to the nationalist outlook that came to pervade the Socialist Labour League.

Moreover, Healy’s attribution of “Trotsky’s theoretical genius” to “the entire revolutionary experience of the Soviet Union” falsified both the biography of Trotsky and the objective historical process through which Marxism has developed. It legitimized a one-sided glorification of practical activity and the “successes” it produced, while cultivating a disdainful attitude toward those labelled as “propagandists.” The latter term encompassed not only those who were unable to relate abstract principles to concrete conditions, but also the Trotskyist veterans who were concerned with the programmatic integrity of the SLL and inclined to critically evaluate the political content of the practical initiatives which Healy proposed in the name of “party building.” Thus, the political life within the SLL became increasingly dominated from the mid–1960s on by the frenzied struggle against the “old propagandists” who were supposedly scarred by their association with the Trotskyist movement in the period of working class defeats and therefore held back the development of the youthful activists with whom the growth and success of the Socialist Labour League was more and more identified.