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

A Travesty of Marxism

The opportunist degeneration of Gerry Healy found its organizational embodiment with the formation of the Workers Revolutionary Party and its practical expression with the launching of the daily News Line. But its theoretical foundation was a gross distortion of Marxism which Healy referred to as “the practice of cognition.” No study of Healy’s life would be complete without reviewing, if only briefly, the connection between the theoretical conceptions he developed in the 1970s, with the assistance and encouragement of Cliff Slaughter, and the WRP’s betrayal of Trotskyism. But it is not merely biographical considerations that compel a digression into issues of a more abstract character than those which have been dealt with thus far. Just as the International Committee exposes any attempt to associate the proud banner of Trotskyism with the sordid intrigues of opportunism, it is obliged to defend dialectical materialism, the philosophical foundations of scientific socialism, against those who first distort and then cynically invoke its methodological principles as a cover for their own reactionary politics.

As Healy’s attitude toward the program of the Fourth International was drastically different in the mid–1970s from what it had been in the early 1960s, so too was his conception of the philosophical foundations of Marxism and its role in the development of the party. Healy’s decision in 1962 to reintroduce into the struggle against revisionism the vital questions of philosophical method that Trotsky had raised so brilliantly in 1939–40 in the fight against Burnham and Shachtman was a significant contribution to the rearming of the Fourth International. Recalling Trotsky’s analysis of the methodological roots of Burnham’s rejection of the defense of the Soviet Union, Healy proposed to broaden the struggle against the Socialist Workers Party by concretely investigating the relation between its betrayal of Trotskyist principles and the vulgar pragmatism espoused by Joseph Hansen.

Those blinded by their subjective hatred, like Cliff Slaughter and Peter Fryer, either entirely deny Healy’s contribution to the Fourth International or strictly limit it to that of a mere practical organizer. But the finest work of the “party intellectuals”—especially those who were won from the Stalinists in the aftermath of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution—was to no small extent stimulated and inspired by Healy’s shrewd and penetrating insights. Frequently, striking phrases and perceptive ideas formulated by Healy in the course of a political report or even in a casual conversation found their way into the documents and articles of party intellectuals who, unlike Healy, had been given the opportunity to polish their writing skills at Oxford or Cambridge. Although Cliff Slaughter drafted such important and enduring documents as Opportunism and Empiricism and Lenin on Dialectics, the theoretical achievements of the Socialist Labour League in the fight against opportunism were the product of a collaborative effort in which Healy unquestionably played a crucial role.

The most important question, however, is not who deserves the lion’s share of the credit for the theoretical work carried out by the British Trotskyists in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It is far more important to understand why the philosophical interests and attitudes of the SLL were so fundamentally different from those of the WRP just a little more than one decade later. The answer is to be found in politics. As is proven by the history of the international socialist movement and the work of such great Marxists as Plekhanov, Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg, dialectical materialism achieves its greatest victories in periods when it advances under fire against opportunism. The Socialist Labour League’s already intense involvement in the fight against the Pabloites conditioned the party leadership to immediately appreciate the significance of Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks when it appeared in English in 1961 for the first time (as Volume 38 of the Collected Works). As Slaughter noted in his valuable commentary on the Philosophical Notebooks:

“Lenin’s studies of Hegel in 1914–16 were undertaken in the midst of an all-out fight against revisionism in the international socialist movement… Lenin certainly regarded his work on Hegel’s Logic as an absolutely necessary part of his struggle against revisionism. Why was this? Because in the struggle to defeat and overthrow false ideas in the Socialist International, it was necessary to re-discover the essential dialectical view of the relation between theory and practice” (Cliff Slaughter, Lenin on Dialectics [New York: Labor Publications, 1971], p. 34).

Slaughter stressed that the advances in the methodology of scientific dialectics achieved through the critical reworking of the Hegelian logic were employed by Lenin to tackle the complex problems of program and perspective that confronted the Russian and international working class. Indeed, the theoretical implications of the Philosophical Notebooks can be best appreciated when it is studied alongside the great works of political analysis produced by Lenin between 1914 and 1917. As such works as Socialism and War, Imperialism and The State and Revolution demonstrate, the scientific outlook and method of dialectical materialism enables the party to cognize the objective development of the class struggle and establish the political independence of the working class.

The SLL recognized the relevance of Lenin’s concentrated work on dialectics for its struggle against opportunism. At a time when the Pabloites were justifying their abandonment of the theory of permanent revolution on the basis of “facts” like the victory of Ben Bella in Algeria and Castro in Cuba, which supposedly proved that petty-bourgeois nationalists could lead socialist revolutions, the SLL called attention to the reactionary role played by bourgeois empiricism in the elaboration of such popular revisionist ideas.

“We have seen,” wrote Slaughter, “that ‘the facts’ as they present themselves immediately are not sufficient for a Marxist analysis; more, the acceptance of the sum of these facts as reality can only bring about an opportunist adaptation to the existing society. The empiricist or ‘impressionistic’ observer thinks he approaches the facts in an unbiased way without preconceptions, without theory, and in this, is superior to the ‘dogmatic’ Marxist, with his ‘fixed’ theory. But no one starts without theories. The very selection of certain facts as the ones to add up (or to be impressed by) indicates the allocation of a certain significance to these as against the countless other ‘facts’ or ‘sides’ of reality. Those who claim to be objective, avoiding theory in the first place, in fact only use a muddled and less explicit theory; such a theory is, in fact, shaped by the dominant ideology of the society in which they live. Its every-day prejudices may go by the name of ‘sound common sense,’ but they are the definite prejudices of a definite class society” (Ibid., p. 32).

A notable feature of the theoretical work carried out by the SLL in the course of its struggle against the Pabloites was its relation to the development of the perspective of world socialist revolution. Later, in the period of political degeneration, the WRP leaders habitually denounced any suggestion that the dialectical method must actually be applied in the analysis of concrete political phenomena. But in the early 1960s, the SLL insisted upon the inseparable connection between scientific method and the working out of the revolutionary orientation of the international proletariat. Moreover, it demonstrated how the empiricism of the Pabloites invariably produced political conclusions of an opportunist character:

“When we attack empiricism we attack that method of approach which says all statements, to be meaningful, must refer to observable or measurable data in their immediately given form. This method insists that any ‘abstract’ concepts, reflecting the general and historical implications of these ‘facts,’ are meaningless. It neglects entirely that our general concepts reflect the laws of development and interconnection of the process which these ‘facts’ help to constitute. Indeed the so-called hard facts of concrete experience are themselves abstractions from this process. They are the result of the first approximation of our brains to the essential interrelations, laws of motions, contradictions of the eternally changing and complex world of matter … of which they form a part. Only higher abstractions, in advanced theory, can guide us to the meaning of these facts. What Lenin called ‘the concrete analysis of concrete conditions’ is the opposite of the descent into empiricism. In order to be concrete, the analysis must see the given facts in their historical interconnection and must begin with the discoveries of theory in the study of society, the necessity to make a class evaluation of every event, every phenomenon. The empiricist, who pretends to restrict himself to the bedrock of ‘facts’ alone, in fact imposes upon the ‘facts’ an unstated series of connections whose foundations are unstated. With Hansen and the Pabloites, their new reality is actually a list of abstractions like ‘the colonial revolution,’ ‘the process of de-Stalinization,’ ‘irreversible trends,’ ‘leftward-moving forces,’ ‘mass pressure,’ etc. Like all statements about social phenomena, these are meaningless unless they are demonstrated to have specific class content, for class struggle and exploitation are the content of all social phenomena. This discovery of Marx is the theoretical cornerstone which Hansen has lost, with all his talk about ‘the facts.’

“All this argument that ‘the facts’ are the objective reality and that we must ‘start from there’ is a preparation to justify policies of adaptation to non-working-class leaderships…

“Marxism arms the working class vanguard in its fight for the independent action of the Labour movement; empiricism adapts it to the existing set-up, to capitalism and its agencies in the working-class organizations” (Trotskyism Versus Revisionism, vol. 4, pp. 81–82).

In the long history of the Marxist movement, the dialectical method has proven itself an irreplaceable theoretical instrument of political prognosis, orientation and analysis. However, while the dialectical method, when utilized properly, facilitates the working out of farsighted analyses and effective tactical initiatives, it provides no once-and-for-all guarantee against political degeneration. Dialectical materialism is not some sort of ideological talisman which, once it has been acquired, bestows upon those who possess it protection against the relentless pressure of class forces. The touchstone of the dialectical method is a critical-revolutionary attitude to the existing production relations of society and the forms of appearance they spontaneously generate. It is a stern science which demands an unceasing struggle to establish, in program and in practice, the independent attitude of the revolutionary working class to every political question raised by the development of the class struggle. A revolutionary party remains “Marxist” only to the extent that it is fighting to overcome the pervasive political and ideological influence of the bourgeoisie and its agents over the working class. The Marxist approach to every significant event entails a reworking of the historical experiences of the international workers movement. Only by relentlessly confronting the fresh problems posed by the objective development of the class struggle with all the theoretical resources at its disposal can a Marxist party replenish and add to its political capital.

The political retreat of the Socialist Labour League from the struggle against opportunism led to a decline in the theoretical level which had been established during the fight against the SWP-Pabloite reunification. Increasingly abstract references to the necessity of a struggle for dialectical materialism became a substitute for the actual development of revolutionary perspectives. Moreover, as the pressure of petty-bourgeois radicalism produced signs of political divisions within the International Committee and the SLL, the formal invocation of dialectical materialism became more and more a means of avoiding the concrete issues which confronted the Trotskyist movement. The WRP leaders utilized the phraseology of dialectics while engaging in practices which were inimical to the critical spirit of Marxism. The “holding fast of opposites,” a phrase which Healy had extracted from Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks, was converted into an organizational principle which justified all sorts of rotten compromises within the central leadership. Thus, dialectics was converted into a system of sophistries which provided an imposing cover for the evasion of political responsibilities and the betrayal of principles.

By the early 1970s, the SLL began developing a theory of “dialectical cognition” which reflected and justified the drift toward opportunism. Healy played a significant role in this enterprise, but the revisionist innovations which led to the “practice of cognition” were, like the positive work of the previous decade, the outcome of a collaborative effort involving the principal leaders of the Socialist Labour League. As we have previously noted, Slaughter asserted following the split with the OCI that the experiences of party building 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.” He argued that the “fight for a deepening of the understanding of dialectical materialism as the theory of knowledge of Marxism” meant that it was necessary “to direct the movement towards the fundamental questions involved in the nature of consciousness, of what is meant by a ‘leap’ in consciousness…” (Trotskyism Versus Revisionism, vol. 6, p. 83).

The content of the consciousness-raising exercise proposed by Slaughter emerged in the polemics produced after Alan Thornett was expelled from the WRP. The party leadership proceeded to mystify the essential political issues underlying the split by presenting the dispute as an epic battle between irreconcilably opposed epistemologies. Banda’s magnum opus Whither Thornett? was largely devoted to “exposing” Thornett’s “total rejection of the Marxist theory of cognition,” as if the Cowley auto worker was a renowned disciple of Bertrand Russell or Ludwig Wittgenstein. The content of the book was indicated by the titles of some of the chapter headings: “Man’s relation to nature,” “From vulgar materialism … to subjective idealism,” “An Idealist Theory of Cognition,” and “A Kantian rigmarole.” For good measure, the appendix included an essay by Slaughter on the “Theory and Practice of Marxism,” and one by Geoff Pilling entitled “A return to Kant.”

Anticipating what was to become the standard fare of Healy’s future lectures and writings, Whither Thornett? presented abstruse descriptions, weighed down with Hegelian phraseology, of the “moments” of the cognitive process, starting with “living perception” of nature and ending with practical action.

“Dialectical thought concepts,” wrote Banda in one such passage, “are now entering matter through us via the self-impulse of the universal movement of matter. As this takes place we arrive at the moment of actuality, which is causality… At this dialectical moment of causality, the cause (essence) cancels itself into the effect (abstract thought already posited in us as part of a previous dialectical process). Likewise the effect cancels itself into cause” (Michael Banda, Whither Thornett? [London: New Park Publications, 1975], pp. 24–25).

In his appended essay, Pilling “explained” the meaning of the above-quoted passage:

“We insisted here that the transition from semblance to appearance (which are united dialectically in the moment of essence) and from essence to the notion and then through practice to the Idea reflects the universal self-movement of matter. All thought concepts are part of the universal movement of matter, but in the transition from essence to appearance they remain a reflection of it (‘objective idealism’). It is at the moment when living perception (which contains moments of the universal self-movement of matter) begins to penetrate our existing body of knowledge that the moment of causality is reached” (p. 147).

These and other sections of the book were certainly incomprehensible to most members of the Workers Revolutionary Party. The use of pretentious and all but incomprehensible jargon was in itself an indication of the shift in the class axis of the WRP. The document was not written to clarify either the membership or the advanced workers who studied the political literature of the Workers Revolutionary Party. The mystifying language was intended to obscure the really opportunist implications of the new philosophical positions being staked out by the WRP. Few suspected or were in a position to understand that concealed within the pretentious and mystifying jargon employed by Banda, Geoff Pilling and Slaughter was a bitter denunciation of the political priority which the Fourth International has traditionally given to the defense of its program.

The connection between the theoretical conceptions of the WRP and its drift toward opportunism emerged most clearly in the reply of Whither Thornett? to the allegations that the WRP was abandoning the Transitional Program. Ironically, Thornett’s own attitude toward the Transitional Program was characterized by opportunist equivocation. But rather than directing its fire against Thornett’s political inconsistency, the WRP argued on behalf of an essentially pragmatic and opportunist attitude toward the party’s program. Banda put the case for opportunism most bluntly:

“Unlike Thornett, the Party has never made a fetish of the program. It remains completely dead unless in its work the Party starts continually from the present economic and social crisis and posits this situation onto the program. Thornett stands this method directly on its head. Whereas dialectical materialism starts always from the highest point of development, in order to grasp the real significance of all previous, lower stages of development, Thornett starts always from the lowest point of development. He starts not from 1975, but from 1938. He starts not from the practice of the Party, which it then must posit onto its body of theoretical knowledge, but he starts from this (for him dead and lifeless) theory, and tailors it to fit his adaptation to the Labour and trade union bureaucracy… In point of fact, the history of the struggle for Marxism, including the struggle for Trotskyism, has proved that the most decisive question has never been formal agreement on program, conceived of as a thing in itself. What have been decisive have been the nature and methods of the Party itself” (pp. 80–82).

The claim that a Marxist “starts from the practice of the party” says nothing about the foundations upon which that practice is developed. And while Banda dismissed the significance of “formal agreement on program,” without such agreement, it is impossible, in a Marxist sense, to determine the “nature and methods” of the party. Banda’s polemic abounded with such anti-Marxist formulations. At another point, he declared that “program is subordinate to the national and international perspective and the perspective subordinate to the conflict of the party’s practice and its theory” (p. 83). But a Marxist perspective takes as its basic point of departure the struggle for a definite program, i.e., the world socialist revolution. Insofar as it is possible to make sense of Banda’s formulation, it implied that the party program is determined by an assessment of the prevailing political conjuncture. The final portion of the above-cited passage was an even more subtle expression of the party’s backsliding. The character of the WRP program, he seemed to be admitting, would ultimately be decided by the outcome of the deepening conflict between the party’s opportunist practice and its formal adherence to revolutionary theory! [12]

Pilling attempted to develop a theory of cognition that would substantiate the opportunism propounded by Banda. He wrote that “our abstract body of knowledge is the form, our living perceptions are the content. Together they constitute a unity of opposites in continual process of conflict, interpenetration and transformation. It is for this reason that Marxism is not a fixed body of knowledge or dogmas, which can be found in books or programs, as Thornett suggests” (p. 145).

All this pseudodialectical phraseology was merely an attempt to surreptitiously rehabilitate the same type of pragmatic impressionism against which the Socialist Labour League had fought in the early 1960s. While accepting that the sensations derived from the action of the external world upon the sense organs (“living perception”) are the starting point of knowledge, materialist dialectics insists that a scientific representation of the objective world is only attained through the mediation of these sensations by historically-developed and increasingly abstract concepts. Building critically upon the real discoveries of Hegel, Marxism views the image of the world supplied by the senses as superficially concrete, i.e., rich in sensational data, but poor in the abstract theoretical determinations upon which scientific cognition depends. The concreteness toward which scientific cognition strives involves a progression from living perception to ever higher levels of abstraction; that is, a movement from the “imaginary concreteness” of sensuous representation to the scientific concreteness attained at the level of advanced conceptual thinking.

Pilling’s references to “form” and “content” were not merely arbitrary. These terms were employed to confuse, in the spirit of pragmatism, the actual relation between the posited theory and sense perception; that is, to present the matter as if the “abstract body of knowledge” was merely a dead mass of “dogmas” and “preconceptions” that obstructed, rather than aided, cognition of the objective world.

Healy was neither unaware of nor uninvolved in this process of opportunist mystification. He worked closely with Slaughter, Pilling and two other university lecturers, Tom Kemp and Cyril Smith. Indeed, the more the theoretical work of the party became separated from and then directed against the struggle for Trotskyism, the more it became the special province of a middle class “think tank” composed of the four professors and Healy. The status of these men in the party, based on their academic training, was out of all proportion to their actual involvement in political work. In striking contrast to the overwhelming majority of party members who regularly worked 18-hour days and made great personal sacrifices to build the movement, these gentlemen led comfortable middle class lives and came and went as they pleased. Slaughter’s summer holidays in Greece and Kemp’s annual three-month sojourns to the south of France were legendary. Pilling’s instability was so notorious that his innumerable resignations and disappearances were generally shrugged off with ironical references to “Geoff’s running shoes.” However, eventually Pilling would return and be ushered into Healy’s office to discuss new theoretical projects.

Down through the decades, the experience of the socialist movement with the university crowd has been far from a happy one. That the SLL and WRP had problems with its “visiting lecturers” was by no means unusual; and it would be incorrect to indict Healy for attempting to make use of their skills or to blame him for the duplicity, cynicism, egotism and cowardice which these “Marxist professors” displayed toward the revolutionary party. But Healy is to be blamed for placing and maintaining these unreliable elements in positions of leadership and depending upon their political support in struggles against opponents within the Workers Revolutionary Party and the International Committee.

Today, the four professors are reluctant to take credit for the role they played in creating a theoretical foundation for the wholesale revisions of Marxism by the WRP. They prefer to attribute everything to Healy’s “tyranny,” “madness” and “lack of culture.” But they assisted and encouraged Healy’s development of the “practice of cognition,” and, when necessary, reassured him of the scientific validity and historic significance of his theoretical concoctions. As Slaughter privately wrote to Healy after his “practice of cognition” came under attack in the International Committee: “I would just like to say that I consider your report (and the discussion which it produced) the most irrevocable proof of the correctness of the struggle for theory and practice which you have led. Here is the ‘concrete’ produced through the work of abstraction, on which living perception has been posited. This concreteness—the road to the dictatorship of the proletariat in England came not from ‘concrete issues’ & ‘action’ but from the qualitative fights for dialectical practice of cognition” (Quoted from the original handwritten letter in “The ICFI Defends Trotskyism,” Fourth International, Autumn 1986, vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 95–96).


Banda’s hostility to the authority of the Marxist program had a very specific content. He had already concluded that Maoism had refuted Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution and that it was necessary to revise The Transitional Program.