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

From the SLL to the WRP: The Crisis Deepens

The really dangerous implications of Healy’s retreat from the struggle against revisionism found their sharpest expression in the handling of political issues inside the Socialist Labour League and the International Committee. The problem of Pabloite revisionism had not been, nor could it be, conclusively solved by the split with the SWP. The rejection of reunification did not inoculate the SLL and the ICFI against the ongoing pressures of alien class forces. To the extent that the implications and lessons of the 1963 split were not continuously studied and deepened, the political radicalization of the middle class during the mid–1960s, though essentially an anticipation of the revolutionary movement of the international proletariat, had a profound effect upon the SLL and ICFI. The growing pressure of petty-bourgeois radicalism found its expression within both the SLL and Organisation Communiste Internationaliste (as the PCI had been renamed), though in somewhat different forms.

While the OCI justified an orientation toward centrist organizations with the declaration that Pabloism had destroyed the Trotskyist movement and that the Fourth International had to be “reconstructed,” political positions of a clearly Pabloite character began to emerge within the SLL leadership. Michael Banda, who had been Healy’s closest collaborator almost from the date of his arrival in Britain from Ceylon in 1950, began to improvise ever more erratically on questions of international perspectives. Within the leadership of the SLL, Banda’s embarrassing infatuations with Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh and even Abdel Nasser would produce little more than pained grins or raised eyebrows. “Well,” as Healy would say, “that’s Mike!” When the OCI issued a protest against an editorial in the Fourth International, the official journal of the ICFI, in which Banda hailed the Vietnamese National Liberation Front as almost the reincarnation of the Bolshevik Party, Healy tried to contain the scandal by merely ordering the next issue of Fourth International to carry a brief statement explaining that the previous editorial did not necessarily represent the opinion of anyone except its author!

Political crises inside the Socialist Labour League were, whenever possible, dealt with as if they were nothing more than the manifestation of personal problems. For example, it was reported with great fanfare that Cliff Slaughter was to assume the editorship of Newsletter. But when he left his post within a few weeks and returned to Leeds, no attempt was made to establish the political motivation for his action. Whatever his rationalizations, Healy was presiding over the degeneration of the SLL leadership into a clique, that is, a group based on unprincipled relations rather than agreement on a revolutionary program.

Within the International Committee, the differences between the OCI and SLL were papered over. Documents were occasionally exchanged, criticisms were raised by both sides, but their effect on the internal life of the two sections was minimal. The SLL pointed to the OCI’s adaptation to the centrists; the OCI noted Banda’s infatuation with Maoism. But the discussion ambled along aimlessly without the organization of an international congress of the ICFI between 1966 and the abrupt break in political relations between the SLL and OCI in the autumn of 1971.

Healy evaded the political issues confronting the ICFI and the SLL because he feared that the resumption of the struggle against Pabloism within the British section and the ICFI carried with it the danger of disrupting the “successful” practical work that the SLL was carrying out within Britain. When it came to dealing with organizational problems—that is, the more superficial forms in which the deeper political issues find their casual day-to-day expression—Healy did not hesitate to deal ruthlessly with those who undermined the practical work of the party. But he preferred to avoid a direct clash over questions of program; and, in fact, Healy’s volcanic eruptions often served to divert attention from the source of the problems within the SLL.

For all his wall-shaking fulminations against the middle class—“Always smashing the party”—Healy, at the basic level of program, increasingly adapted to the radicalism of the petty-bourgeois students and intellectuals who entered the party in the late 1960s. The evasion of political questions not only blocked the education of the new forces in the history and perspectives of Trotskyism; it also prevented the necessary sifting and selection, the assimilation and rejection, of those who applied for membership. As the party expanded on an ever more slipshod political foundation, the contradictions within it steadily accumulated. To the extent that these could no longer be resolved through political discussion within the party, they had to be organizationally regulated; and this led eventually to the transformation of Healy’s own role within the SLL (and later the WRP), from political leader into the chief regulator of the party’s unresolved political differences, that is, into a sort of organizational Bonaparte.

Unable and unwilling to confront the crucial issues of program and perspective on the basis of genuine political discussion, Healy became increasingly convinced that he could either suppress or defuse problems through the timely development of what he liked to call “new practices.” The greatest of these was to be the launching of the daily newspaper, which was scheduled for the autumn of 1969. A daily newspaper, Healy insisted, would decisively break the Fourth International from the narrow confines of the accursed “propaganda” existence which he held responsible for the degeneration of all other sections of the Trotskyist movement. The main and, it would appear, only lesson which Healy drew from the events of May-June 1968 in France was, as he tirelessly repeated, that the SLL had to be ready for “its May-June in Britain” by having a daily newspaper.

Healy became convinced that he had discovered, in the daily newspaper project, a talisman with which he would somehow overcome all the political problems in the development of the Socialist Labour League and the British working class. With this bold stroke Healy believed that he would not only sweep aside the problem of revisionism—which could henceforth be derided as insignificant “propaganda groupos” capable of nothing more than the publication of weekly and biweekly newspapers—but also settle accounts with the British Communist Party, as if the problem of Stalinism could be solved by publishing the Trotskyist press as frequently as the CP’s Morning Star.

As he pressed ahead with the plan to launch the daily newspaper, Healy was not oblivious to the fact that the Socialist Labour League had, at most, only between two and three hundred members; and that within the factories the influence of the SLL was, despite important gains, still very limited. The financial base of the party remained fragile. How, then, was this small organization to sustain a daily newspaper? For once, we find an important part of the answer to this question in Torrance’s obituary, which says more than she intends:

“A daily paper has to have writers and a cadre to sustain it. And Healy assembled such a cadre. In 1968 the May and June events in France and its continuation in Czechoslovakia radicalised large sections of the middle class and upper middle class. Intelligentsia, artists, playwrights, technicians, actors and actresses. They would meet in salons throughout central London to discuss the ideas of socialism.

“Healy did not have any inverted snobbery about this milieu; there was no crude, anti-intellectual workerism about him. Whilst others scoffed about the ‘West End Revolutionary Party’ he threw himself into the struggle to win them and brought layers of talented writers, actors and artists into the party. Once they began to subordinate themselves to it, they made powerful contributions to its press, its propaganda, and also its leadership.”

At her present stage of advanced and incurable political degeneracy, Torrance does not even realize what a devastating indictment of Healy is contained in these two paragraphs. Healy was so determined to get his daily paper that he didn’t really care what class gave it to him. To obtain the resources for the daily newspaper, Healy turned his party to the middle class, and its most unstable elements at that. The adventuresome recruits from West End Bohemia injected into the party not only their talents, moods, neuroses and eccentricities, but their deeply-rooted class instincts and prejudices as well. As for Torrance’s claim that they “subordinated” themselves to the party, the fact is that the West End celebrities always constituted a distinct, and, one might add, fetid social milieu which was organically incapable of dissolving itself into the general party membership.

Moreover, insofar as they “subordinated” themselves, it was not to the program of Trotskyism, but to the personality of Healy, a fascination to which the grandees of the West End paid tribute with the production of “The Party”, a critically-acclaimed play which memorialized Healy’s visits to the intellectual salons of London. None other than Sir Laurence Olivier was selected to recreate Healy on stage. Healy was not unaware of the effect of his personality and mannerisms upon the actors, actresses, directors and writers; and to his shame as a working class leader and to the detriment of the party, he exploited this to create a peculiar entourage of politically inexperienced and unstable devotees. Even the admittance of some of these individuals into the party betrayed questionable judgment. The elevation of many of them, such as Roy Battersby, Vanessa and Corin Redgrave and Alex Mitchell, to name only the best known, into the party leadership, was politically criminal.

Healy completely ignored one of the central lessons drawn by Trotsky from the struggle against the petty-bourgeois minority inside the Socialist Workers Party:

“Members of the party untested in the class struggle must not be placed in responsible positions. No matter how talented and devoted to socialism an emigrant from the bourgeois milieu may be before becoming a teacher, he must first go to school in the working class.”

But Alex Mitchell was recruited off the staff of the Sunday Times onto the editorial board of the daily Workers Press even before he had joined the Socialist Labour League! And after he decided to join the SLL, little more than a year went by before he was welcomed onto its political committee.

All this was done in the name of “the struggle for the daily paper,” which Healy promoted as the medium through which he would transform the Socialist Labour League into a mass revolutionary party. Instead, it became one of the chief instruments for the corruption of the SLL’s social composition and, especially after the Workers Press was turned into the News Line, the party’s political destruction.

* * *

Healy had been following throughout the 1960s the growing financial instability of the world capitalist system and had expected that this would lead to an eruption of working class struggles. He saw in the events of May-June a vindication of this perspective. The conviction that a mass movement of the British working class was rapidly developing was Healy’s own justification for the launching of the daily paper. The mass movement which Healy had anticipated did arise in the aftermath of the 1970 election of Edward Heath and the introduction of anti-union laws by the new Tory government. But the response of the Socialist Labour League was conditioned by the previous years of centrist downsliding: its adaptation to the petty-bourgeois radicalism of the 1960s was now complemented by an adaptation to the spontaneous militancy of the anti-Tory movement.

Instead of fighting to win the most advanced sections of the working class to the party on the basis of revolutionary socialist policies, the SLL watered down its program to accommodate the elementary hostility of the working class to the Heath government. And on the basis of a program limited to a call for the defense of “basic rights” and the election of a new Labour government, Healy proposed “the practice of transforming the SLL into a mass revolutionary party.”

No clear political reason was ever given for the decision to establish the Workers Revolutionary Party. Healy did not define, within the context of the political situation, the fundamental difference between a league and a party; nor did he explain what it meant, from the standpoint of Marxism and the strategic tasks of the Fourth International, to “transform” the former into the latter. If it was not merely a change of name, how was this transformation to affect the functioning of the organization and alter its relation to the working class? Healy did not answer this question, nor did he analyze how this new political form arose out of and related to earlier stages in the history of the Trotskyist movement in Britain.

Though it was not said, the essential content of this transformation was the conversion of the Socialist Labour League into a centrist organization. The purpose of this transformation was to adapt the SLL to the spontaneous upsurge of the working class. In terms of practical activity, the most important change associated with this transformation was the introduction of “the practice of mass recruitment,” i.e., the indiscriminate handing out of membership cards to virtually anyone who indicated general agreement with the vaguely-defined aims of the organization. The accumulation of a big paper membership and, at the same time, the building of a large apparatus was substituted for the development of a revolutionary cadre trained in the history, principles and program of Trotskyism.

The preparation for the “transformation” of the league into the “Workers Revolutionary Party”—a name that was chosen at the last minute after Healy had toyed for some time with the idea of calling the new organization the “Basic Rights Party”—consisted of mass rallies and colorful pageants, rather than the clarification of the program of the International Committee and the Socialist Labour League. The organization of the founding conference expressed the thoroughly opportunist character of the enterprise. It was a public meeting open to anyone who had purchased a ticket to the event. The new party’s official membership—given as 3,000 in the Workers Press— simply consisted of those who attended the conference’s opening day rally. Needless to say, most of these Sunday afternoon delegates were not in their seats when the “founding conference” reopened on Monday morning.

With the establishment of the Workers Revolutionary Party, the relationship between the British section and the International Committee was fundamentally changed. The sections of the ICFI followed the “transformation” through the pages of Workers Press, that is, as bystanders. Healy no longer saw the need to even discuss the political affairs of the WRP with the International Committee. The program of the WEP hardly referred to the International Committee and the long struggle that had been waged by the British Trotskyist movement against opportunism in the Fourth International. Many of those who were recruited to the WRP were joining, as far as they knew, a national, rather than international party. Even if they were aware of the WRP’s association with the International Committee, many of these new members had no idea of the political significance of these relations. Indeed, as was to become clear in 1985, a substantial number of those recruited into the WRP would not have joined had they been told that this organization accepted the authority of a non-British political party!

In the period leading up to the formation of the Workers Revolutionary Party, the leaders of the SLL developed the theoretical formulations that provided a sophisticated justification for their centrist politics. A clever rationalization was found to justify the opportunist betrayal of program; and, as usual, the principal role in this project was played by Cliff Slaughter. The precipitous split with the OCI in the autumn of 1971 provided the occasion for Slaughter to argue that the “experience of building the revolutionary party in Britain” had demonstrated “that a thoroughgoing and difficult struggle against idealist ways of thinking was necessary which went much deeper than questions of agreement on program and policy” (Trotskyism Versus Revisionism, vol. 6 (London: New Park Publications, 1974], p. 83).

Trotsky had always insisted that the program, through which Marxist theory finds its expression, builds the revolutionary party. But Slaughter, setting theory up against the program, called into question both the validity and viability of the parties produced by the struggle for the Trotskyist program. “Will revolutionary parties,” he asked, “able to lead the working class to power and the building of socialism, be built simply by bringing the programme of Trotskyism, the existing forces of Trotskyism, on to the scene of political developments caused by the crisis? Or will it not be necessary to conduct a conscious struggle for theory, for the negation of all the past experience and theory of the movement into the transformed reality of the class struggle?” (Ibid., p. 226).

With these lines Slaughter gave the most developed expression to the political skepticism which underlay the opportunist degeneration of the Socialist Labour League. The leadership of the British section had concluded that the SLL and the ICFI, that is, “the existing forces of Trotskyism,” would not be able to lead the working class to power by fighting for “the programme of Trotskyism.” Therefore, other forces and other means had to be found, and this was to be achieved with the aid of an abstraction called the “conscious struggle for theory,” unrelated to the Trotskyist program, which somehow produced the tactics required by “the transformed reality of the class struggle.” Stripped of its pseudophilosophical verbiage, Slaughter was merely refurbishing the old opportunist formulations advanced by Pablo 20 years earlier. Though he does not presently care to take credit for his singular contribution to the ideological degeneration of the SLL-WRP, Slaughter blazed the trail for the pragmatic system of unrestrained opportunist improvisations which later inspired Healy and became known as “the practice of cognition.”