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

Trotskyism Betrayed

According to the obituary of Healy written by Sheila Torrance, the collapse of the Workers Revolutionary Party in the summer and autumn of 1985 was an event which could not have been anticipated. If her account of the history of the WRP is to believed, the party, under the unerring leadership of Healy, was marching triumphantly toward power when, all of a sudden, it simply blew up! “What could not have been foreseen,” she writes, “was the counterrevolutionary uprising by most of the ‘old’ party leaders after the return of the miners to work in 1985, when these leaders decided in a period of intense confusion, both inside and outside the party, that they had had enough of the forced march and that they were going to smash the party.” In other words, everything was going splendidly right up until the very moment disaster struck. This brainless presentation conforms perfectly to the outlook of opportunism. But it fails to explain anything, least of all how virtually all of Healy’s closest associates in the leadership of the WRP— including Torrance herself—became involved in a “counterrevolutionary uprising.” [7] Upon reading Torrance, one is reminded of Stalin’s cynical explanation for the supposed conversion of the Old Bolsheviks into fascists: “As the Soviet Union approaches socialism, the resistance of the bourgeoisie grows more desperate.” Similarly, Torrance would have the gullible reader believe that the greater the successes achieved by the WRP under Healy, the more determined to smash the party became most of its leaders, who “rose up like furies to wreak their revenge.”

The only furies which took their revenge on Healy in 1985 were those of his own making. The collapse of the WRP was the inevitable product of its protracted opportunist degeneration; and Healy and the WRP leadership were given ample warning that a terrible crisis was in the offing. In January 1984 the author of these lines wrote to Healy and Banda that without a critical examination of the opportunism which had developed within the movement, “we will face greater and greater confusion which inevitably, if not corrected, will produce political disasters within the sections.”

As we have already seen, the founding of the WRP in 1973 had been preceded by several years of opportunist downsliding. The establishment of the WRP accelerated the process of political degeneration. From the start, the Workers Revolutionary Party was wracked by internal crisis. In the period leading up to the founding conference, hundreds of workers were recruited into the WRP simply on the basis of a fight to throw the Tories out and return the Labourites to power. While lip service was paid to the need for a socialist program, little was said about the character of the struggle that would confront the working class and the WRP if and when the social democrats formed a new government. To the extent that this issue was addressed, the WRP leaders—and especially Healy—insisted that the reformist leaders of a Labour government brought to power on the crest of a mass anti-Tory movement would be quickly swept aside. “If the working class can deal with the Tory masters,” Healy would thunder at meetings, “it can deal with their reformist servants.” [8] As an applause line, this phrase was extremely effective; but it oversimplified the problem of reformism in the workers movement. Capitalism has survived into the last decade of the twentieth century only because it has been able to create the necessary political bulwarks within the labor movement itself, in the form of social democracy and Stalinism, against the threat of socialist revolution. Indeed, historical accounts will only be settled with the capitalist masters when the working class has learned how to deal with their highly skilled and treacherous servants.

Behind the failure to clearly warn the working class of the implications of a future Labour victory was an opportunist adaptation to its existing level of consciousness. The SLL declared that the Workers Revolutionary Party was being formed to undertake the specific task of bringing down the Tories and electing a Labour government. It was upon the limited basis of “anti-Toryism” that the SLL began a “mass recruitment” campaign in preparation for the founding conference of the WRP in November 1973. This program was realized in March 1974 when the Heath government was defeated in an emergency election brought on by the coal miners strike. Given the fact that many of the workers recruited into the WRP had been won on the basis of a program that failed to establish the implacable opposition of Marxism to social democratic reformism, it was inevitable that the election of the Labourites would lead to a political crisis inside the WRP.

Political differences advanced in September 1974 by Alan Thornett, an auto worker and member of the WRP Central Committee, reflected the illusions of broad sections of the working class, not to mention many of the inexperienced new members, in the new Labour government. Rather than confronting the political source of the differences within the party, discussing the issues and seeking to educate the party membership, Healy responded with desperate and ill-considered organizational measures. Thornett’s secret and unprincipled collaboration with the centrist Blick-Jenkins group (which was connected to the French OCI) certainly violated the norms of democratic centralism and the party’s constitution. [9] But regardless of Thornett’s intentions and methods, the fact that his tendency was widely supported within the WRP, especially among trade unionists who had recently joined the party, was an expression of serious political problems.

But for Healy, the suppression of political differences had become a way of life. For years he had chosen to ignore the unmistakable signs that Pabloite positions were gaining ground within the central leadership of the SLL and WRP. Indeed, more worrisome to Healy than the positions of Thornett were those of Banda and Slaughter. We have already noted that Banda’s political views had been assuming an ever more pronounced Maoist and bourgeois nationalist coloration since the mid–1960s. As for Slaughter, at the time of the Third Congress of the International Committee in 1966, he had evinced agreement with the OCI’s centrist formulations for the “reconstruction” of the Fourth International. Rather than probing the nature and extent of the differences which lay beneath the surface, Healy chose to sweep the political issues under the rug in the interests of maintaining a superficial unity within the leadership of the British organization.

The situation which existed inside the WRP was disturbingly similar to that which had prevailed in Cannon’s SWP in the 1950s. When reviewing the degeneration of the Socialist Workers Party, Healy frequently commented that Cannon had called off the fight against Pablo and Mandel in the aftermath of the 1953 split because he suspected that those who appeared to be his staunchest supporters in the party leadership—i.e., Farrell Dobbs, George Novack, Joseph Hansen—were really in agreement with the opportunists. Similarly, Healy’s decision to deal with the opposition by throwing Thornett and those who supported him out of the party reflected his own fear that the apparent unity of the party’s “old guard” would be shattered and the WRP would break apart if he permitted a prolonged debate on its program and perspective. Though he had hoped he could stabilize the uncertain political situation inside the WRP by resorting to organizational measures, Healy’s decision to preempt a political clarification by expelling Thornett and his supporters damaged the party beyond the wildest dreams of the Blick-Jenkins group.

In its meticulous study of the opportunist degeneration of the WRP, the International Committee analyzed the methods employed by Healy in the fight against Thornett and the consequences of the split:

“Healy fought Thornett by mobilizing the Party apparatus against him, relying heavily on the middle-class academics and professionals to intimidate the minority and make the organizational case for expulsion. Physical violence was used against the Thornett group. Elements like Cyril Smith were exhumed from their London flats to assist Healy in rigging a Control Commission while Slaughter, who had been sulking in Leeds for years, was brought down to play the role of priest at Thornett’s execution, providing a suitably sophisticated Marxist benediction as Healy lowered the axe. Healy dealt with heretics within the Party not in the manner of Trotsky but in that of Henry the Eighth, and all he succeeded in doing was to place over Thornett’s head the halo of a martyr.

“The expulsion of Thornett cost the party several hundred members and wiped out its most important faction in basic industry. The direct result of the politically-irresponsible factional methods was to tilt the social base of the party toward the middle class. Forces like Redgrave and Mitchell rose to prominence as Healy, wounded by the desertion of the worker with whom he had collaborated so closely, reacted bitterly to what he regarded as a personal betrayal.

“Coming on top of the unclarified split with the OCI, the bureaucratic expulsion of Thornett was a political disaster for the WRP. In the first instance, fundamental international questions had been evaded. Now, basic questions related to the political line of the movement in Britain were left unanswered. Regardless of Thornett’s aims, intentions and orientation, the emergence of his faction was bound up with crucial problems of the development of the Workers Revolutionary Party and the British working class. The coming to power of the Labour Party in March 1974 and its re-election in October 1974 placed immense political pressures on the Marxist vanguard and required theoretical clarity, without which tactical resourcefulness inevitably degenerates into opportunist scheming…

“The fall of the Tories and the return of Labour produced a new round of illusions in the viability of Social Democracy. This was reflected first of all inside the Workers Revolutionary Party. The inability of the Healy leadership to conduct the patient political and theoretical struggle posed by the emergence of the Thornett opposition meant, within the context of the class struggle in Britain, that the Social Democracy had won an important victory over the WRP. In the name of saving the WRP from agents of the OCI, Healy plunged the WRP into a political bloodbath that enormously weakened the organization. Far from achieving political clarity as a result of the inner-party struggle, the Trotskyist movement in Britain emerged from the struggle more disoriented than at any time in the previous 21 years.

“It must be added that at no time prior to the expulsion of Thornett was the struggle within the British section brought to the attention of the International Committee. Healy obviously believed that the ICFI had no independent role to play in the affairs of the WRP and looked upon it as merely an organizational appendage of the British movement. On this matter, there is no evidence that Thornett’s views were any different from Healy’s” (Fourth International, Summer 1986, vol. 13, no. 1, pp. 25–26).

It was a very sick organization that emerged from this split. The predominance of unstable petty-bourgeois elements within both the WRP leadership and ranks soon found its expression in a swing toward ultraleftism. Despite all that Healy had learned and taught over decades of political work about the need for patience in the struggle against the Labour Party, he accommodated the nervous petty-bourgeois forces inside the WRP by changing the party’s political line and calling for the bringing down of the Labour government. As the International Committee explained, this change in party policy, which ignored all the lessons which the Trotskyist movement had learned over 40 years of struggle against the Labour Party (and on which Trotsky himself had written) “was a profoundly disturbing expression of the class shift that had taken place inside the leadership of the WRP which was inseparably connected with the split of the previous autumn. A predominantly petty-bourgeois leadership, upon whom Healy was now resting, had quickly become disillusioned with the Labour government and was impatient with the tempo of development in the political consciousness of the working class. It is far easier for Vanessa and Corin Redgrave to break with the Labour Party than it is for a coal miner or shipyard worker” (Ibid., p. 26).

It would be somewhat one-sided to claim that the call for the bringing down of the Labour government in July 1975 reflected only the impatience of the middle class. This line also found a response among those sections of workers inside the WRP who despised the Labourites and, remembering the treachery of the 1964–70 Labour government, were by no means squeamish about launching a frontal assault against Wilson and Callaghan. But it was Healy’s responsibility to stand firm against such immature leftism, regardless of the support it found among different layers of the party. His failure to do so undermined the ability of the workers in the WEP to intervene effectively in the class struggle; and, in the long run, served to strengthen the petty-bourgeois tendencies in the party.

This serious error in the tactical line of the party was intimately bound up with the increasingly nationalist perspective of the WRP. To the extent that Healy’s estimate of the political situation in Britain took as its point of departure national, rather than international, conditions, he failed to recognize the implications of changes in the world situation for the development of the domestic class struggle. By mid–1975 the world recession which had shaken the stability of world capitalism had clearly run its course. The easing of the acute economic tensions indicated that the class struggle in Western Europe, and especially in Britain, would enter, if only temporarily, into a somewhat more subdued stage. In his great speeches and articles on perspectives, Trotsky had always stressed the significance of such conjunctural fluctuations in the international situation for the political tactics of the national sections of the Communist International. But Healy, inclined to approach the class struggle in Britain as a self-contained whole, failed to take these decisive international factors into consideration. Had the WRP done so, it could have profited greatly from the interlude provided by the temporary restabilization of the political and economic situation in the aftermath of the second Labour election victory in October 1974. The strategic lessons of the recent upheavals could have been assimilated and the cadre prepared for the next stage of the proletariat’s offensive.

Instead, the adoption of this ultraleft policy, to which the WRP stubbornly adhered, marked a turn away from the working class and accelerated the centrist degeneration of the WRP. Unable and unwilling to recognize that the mounting difficulties were the product of a false perspective and incorrect political line, Healy and the WRP sought opportunist solutions to the party crisis.

In early 1976, Healy decided to close down the Workers Press and replace it with a more “popular” daily newspaper, which was to be called the News Line. The political reasons for this change were never openly discussed within the party. Rather, when Workers Press was closed down in February 1976, members were actually led to believe that the party could no longer afford to publish a daily newspaper. Within the leadership, Healy presented the shutdown of the Workers Press as an elaborate ruse directed against the Stalinist union officials who had been causing trouble in the party print shop for years. Healy proposed to close down the Workers Press, move the party presses to a new production facility outside of London, and establish a new union chapel composed entirely of party members so that the Stalinists would no longer be able to interfere with the printing of the party’s newspaper and other publications.

If nothing more had been involved than changing the name of the newspaper and the location of the party print shop, this ruse would have been an unqualified success. But the ruse was executed not only at the expense of the Stalinist officials of SOGAT, but also, of the struggle for Marxism in the working class. The transition from Workers Press to the News Line was a milestone in the transformation of the WRP into a centrist party. Though not all at once, the transition to the News Line revealed a fundamental change in the orientation and purpose of the party press. While the Workers Press had been oriented to the political education of the party cadre and the most advanced sections of the working class, the News Line became more and more openly a means through which the WRP sought to acquire influence within the Labour Party and trade union bureaucracy.

In the name of striking yet another blow at the demon of “propagandism,” Healy conceived the News Line as a popular newspaper with a mass circulation. Nearly half of the News Line’s pages were devoted to the coverage of sports events and television. Much of the news coverage consisted of hasty rewrites of material provided by the bourgeois news services. The theoretical and political analyses of international developments that had distinguished the Workers Press during its best days were few and far between. The work of the sections of the International Committee was hardly ever reported. Virtually no attempt was made to critically analyze the politics of the Pabloites and to clearly demarcate the line of Marxism from that of centrism.

The political tone of the News Line was, from the start, markedly different from that of Workers Press. Alex Mitchell imported into the editorial office of News Line the habits and morals he had acquired while working for the Murdoch press in Australia and Fleet Street in Britain. Mitchell, as his earlier exploits on the Sunday Times had demonstrated, was a talented investigative reporter. But he knew virtually nothing at all. about Marxism and showed no interest in educating himself. There were a number of party journalists, of whom Jack Gale was the most outstanding, who would have been eminently qualified to serve as the editor of a Marxist newspaper. But the fact that Healy assigned the post to a man as ignorant and superficial as Mitchell was the most telling expression of the political degeneration which characterized the transition from Workers Press to the News Line.

Healy’s concept of a “mass paper” was not as original as he imagined. Some 40 years earlier, the Trotskyist movement in France had confronted a similar experiment, which was launched by the opportunist adventurer Raymond Molinier. His La Commune was subjected to a withering criticism by Trotsky, who exposed the political essence of Molinier’s charlatanry long before it was aped by Healy.

“What is a ‘mass paper”? The question is not new. It can be said that the whole history of the revolutionary movement has been filled with discussions on the ‘mass paper.’ It is the elementary duty of a revolutionary organization to make its political newspaper as accessible as possible to the masses. This task cannot be effectively solved except as a function of the growth of the organization and its cadre, who must pave the way to the masses for the newspaper—since it is not enough, of course, to call a publication a ‘mass paper’ for the masses to really accept it. But quite often revolutionary impatience (which becomes transformed easily into opportunist impatience) leads to this conclusion: The masses do not come to us because our ideas are too complicated and our slogans too advanced. It is therefore necessary to simplify our program, water down our slogans—in short, to throw out some ballast. Basically, this means: Our slogans must correspond not to the objective situation, not to the relation of classes, analyzed by the Marxist method, but to subjective assessments (extremely superficial and inadequate ones) of what the ‘masses’ can or cannot accept” (Leon Trotsky, The Crisis of the French Section [1935–36] [New York: Pathfinder Press, 1977], p. 97).

The second manifestation of the qualitative political degeneration was Healy’s initiation of relations with bourgeois regimes and national movements in the Middle Kast. As the final preparations were being made to launch the News Line on May 1, 1976, Healy dispatched a secret delegation to Libya in late April to obtain financial backing. This fateful decision, which was to have such a devastating impact upon the WRP, cannot simply be explained as a “money” question, that is, as a desperate attempt to obtain cash subsidies to finance the News Line. [10] Since 1969 the SLL and WRP had been able to obtain from the struggle of its membership in Britain and from the work of the International Committee the resources it needed to sustain the publication of a daily newspaper. [11] The fact that Healy came to believe that the WEP had to look elsewhere for material support, beyond the work of its members in Britain and the sections of the ICFI, can only be explained as an expression of a fundamental shift in his class perspective.

Underlying all forms of opportunism is a lack of political confidence in the possibility of winning the working class to the program of Marxism, which, in the final analysis, represents a rejection of the revolutionary role of the working class as the gravedigger of capitalism and the builder of a new socialist society. Both the premature and ultraleft call for the bringing down of the Labour government and the launching of the “mass newspaper” reflected, in different ways, Healy’s increasing skepticism toward the working class. In both instances, Healy was attempting to find a shortcut to socialist revolution which did not require the patient struggle to win workers to the program of the Fourth International (the program of world socialist revolution) and educate them as Marxists.

The less Healy believed in the possibility of basing the fight against British and world imperialism on the struggle for Marxism in the workers movement, the more inclined he became to seek a base of support for the work of the WRP in other class forces. That is why Healy came to view his relations with Arafat, Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein as more important than those he maintained with his political cothinkers inside the International Committee. Although his visits to sections outside Britain virtually ceased, Healy travelled extensively throughout the Middle East.

At no time did Healy and the WRP leadership discuss with the International Committee the mercenary nature of the relations which it established with Libya, the Gulf States, Iraq and the PLO. In fact, it was not until the end of June 1976 that Healy even raised with the delegates of the ICFI the possibility of establishing formal contact with the Palestine Liberation Organization. And that was two months after representatives of the WRP, one of whom was Corin Redgrave, had already signed a secret protocol with the Libyan regime. This political deception demonstrated that the WRP was functioning as a national party, which looked upon the ICFI as merely an instrument serving the international interests of the British organization.

All the essential lessons of the struggle that the British Trotskyists had conducted against the Pabloites’ capitulation to the bourgeois nationalists were simply swept aside. In 1963 the International Committee denounced the Pabloites’ betrayal of the struggle to construct Marxist parties of the working class in the backward countries which were completely independent of the national bourgeoisie. Slaughter himself had stated:

“The decisive test of a Marxist party’s orientation towards the mass movement is the degree of success in building a revolutionary cadre, whose links with the working class are forged in struggle against the opportunists and bureaucrats. In their concern over the past ten or fifteen years to ‘get closer to the new reality,’ the revisionists have produced a circle of leaders’ and a method of work diametrically opposed to this revolutionary preparation. For the colonial and semi-colonial countries, it is clear that the so-called “sections” of the Fourth International which follow Pablo have become mere apologists for the nationalist leaderships. Their abandonment of an independent orientation to the working class is explicit. Such a method produces only a soft group of professional advisers who are not adverse to becoming petty functionaries, as we see in Algeria. From these positions of ‘influence’ they help along the ‘objective’ process whereby the petty-bourgeois leaders are pushed towards Marxism” (Trotskyism Versus Revisionism, vol. 4, p. 217).

These words and everything else that the Socialist Labour League had written in opposition to the American SWP’s adulation of Castro and Ben Bella were forgotten. The News Line was filled with sycophantic tributes to Gaddafi, Arafat and Saddam Hussein. Healy himself became preoccupied with cultivating personal relations with these “great men” and, to this end, exploited the international celebrity of Vanessa Redgrave to obtain access to Middle Eastern leaders anxious to meet a famous movie star.

The correspondence Healy maintained with various Arab potentates provides a pathetic record of his political and personal degeneration. For years Healy had proudly defended the political integrity of the revolutionary party. Those who dared to insult its dignity in Healy’s presence would generally receive a rebuke they would not forget for the rest of their lives. But his pride in the historical mission of the Fourth International was utterly corroded by opportunism; and his letters to the Middle Eastern patrons of the WRP read like the appeals of a lowly vassal to a feudal lord.

For example, in a letter of May 17, 1981 to Gaddafi which he wrote following a trip to Libya, Healy thanked him for being “kind enough to grant us an interview, and to listen patiently to my report on the political developments in Britain.” Healy then presented “with great respect” an appeal for financial support. “We greatly regret having to approach you with such matters, since you have so many more important affairs to contend with.”

Another “private and confidential” letter to Gaddafi assures the Libyan strongman, “The alliance between the Socialist People’s Libyan Jamahiriya and the Workers Revolutionary Party has never been more vital, and we are proud to restate that our party is your base in Britain to fight against this international imperialist conspiracy. We resolutely place our party and all its material resources at the service of the Jamahiriya to wage this struggle in defense of the whole Arab revolution and the oppressed peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America.”

While humbly offering to place his party at the service of a bourgeois regime, Healy would complain bitterly, in the manner of a hard-pressed small businessman, about the failure of the Jamahiriya to honor its promises of financial support. He vented his frustrations in a letter to another Middle Eastern contact in August 1981:

“In March 1981 I spent eight days in Tripoli, where I had my third successful talk with Brother Gaddafi. We arrived at a signed agreement, in which both sides took decisions to strengthen our alliance. But nothing happened…

“As a result, we have not only lost opportunities for intensifying and better preparing the struggle against imperialism, we have been forced to take a step backwards and raise the price of our daily News Line. Sister Vanessa and Brother Alex will explain all this to you…

“The Libyan Bureau in London spends money like water on trivial things, yet the very force, our Party, which can really help them in the fight against Reagan is practically ignored. Agreements like the one we signed in March, are broken as soon as they are made.

“I am sure Brother Gaddafi does not know this, and we have no direct way of contacting him. Would it be possible to use your influence and inform him of our problems, and arrange for Vanessa to see him?”

These letters testify to the completeness of Healy’s break with Marxism. But Healy had persuaded himself that he was “building the party,” a task which he equated with the acquisition of material resources and the physical growth of the organizational apparatus. The ever-widening gap between the programmatic foundations of the ICFI and the practice of the WRP was justified in the name of the struggle against “small group propagandism.”

The more Healy turned away from the basic task of resolving the crisis of leadership in the working class and depended upon alliances with nonproletarian forces, both inside and outside the party, the more obsessed he became with acquiring vast resources—presses, motorbikes, vacant buildings, and all sorts of expensive electronic gadgets and security paraphernalia. He had convinced himself that all the contradictions within the party and the difficulties it confronted in establishing a strong base within the mass organizations of the working class could be overcome simply through the growth of the party’s assets, regardless of how they were acquired. Indeed, Healy no longer recognized the essential historical link between the growth of the revolutionary party and the development of Marxist consciousness in the working class. Rather, the perpetual accumulation of resources was seen as a substitute for the training of a working class cadre.

This conception of the socialist revolution amounted to an opportunist, bureaucratic and, one might add, fatalistic caricature of Bolshevism. Healy seemed to believe that the breakdown of the capitalist system, arising purely out of economic contradictions, would spontaneously set into motion a mass movement. The working class would then present itself to the party apparatus in order to receive its instructions. Healy had forgotten the historically-verified fact, upon which Trotsky placed such great emphasis, that a truly revolutionary mass movement, no matter how “spontaneous” it may appear, is the product of a protracted, decadeslong struggle for Marxism within the working class. Without the development of a broadly-based Marxist culture within the working class, whose foundation rests on the shoulders of revolutionary workers educated by the party (as Russian workers were trained by the Bolsheviks), the socialist revolution, to put it bluntly, cannot succeed.


A bitter factional struggle between Healy and Torrance in the spring of 1985 set the stage for the political explosion that tore the WRP apart. Threatened by Healy with expulsion, Torrance, at that time the assistant general secretary of the WRP, decided to hit back by blackmailing Healy. She persuaded his personal secretary, Aileen Jennings, to write the notorious letter of June 30 to the Political Commitee which referred to Healy’s sexual misconduct. Torrance intended only to intimidate Healy and defend her position in the leadership. But the letter precipitated a political crisis within the WRP over which the entire leadership lost control.


In his pamphlet Why a Labour Government, Cliff Slaughter also used this formulation: “As the SLL has said many times: a working class strong enough to get rid of the masters (the Tories) will certainly be able to deal with the servant (the Labour leaders)” (Socialist Labour League Pocket Library, no. 4, 1972).


Documents which were later uncovered by the WRP definitively established that the political criticisms which Thornett presented as his own had actually been ghost written by Robin Blick, who had left the Socialist Labour League in 1971. Moreover, while claiming that it was seeking to “correct the wrong positions of the party,” the real aim of the faction, worked out in secret with individuals who were not party members, was the removal of Healy.


As the investigation conducted by the International Committee after the expulsion of Healy established, it was not until 1979 that the WRP began to receive significant sums from Middle East sources.


There was never an occasion when the sections of the ICFI failed to respond to an appeal for assistance from the Workers Revolutionary Party. The investigation of the International Committee established that the WRP received well over one million dollars in loans and gifts from its international supporters between 1978 and 1985.