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

The “Dialectics” of Opportunism

The College of Marxist Education was opened by the Workers Revolutionary Party in Derbyshire in September 1975. For the next 10 years it was to be the venue for countless lectures in which Healy, who was officially in charge of cadre training, presented his conception of dialectical materialism. The main texts upon which he based his lectures were Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks (in Volume 38 of the Collected Works) and Materialism and Empiriocriticism (Volume 14 of the Collected Works). Somewhat later, Healy added Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 to his repertoire. Only on rare occasions did Healy refer to the writings of Leon Trotsky.

Healy’s method of lecturing consisted of extended introductory remarks, which generally dealt with problems which had arisen in the work of the WRP. Up to this point, the audience followed Healy with lively interest. Then, he invariably turned to the blackboard and began drawing diagrams which supposedly represented stages in the cognitive process as manifested in the categories of the Hegelian dialectic. It was not long before the entire audience was utterly bewildered, having lost track of where “semblance” ended and “appearance” began, or at what stage “finite” became “infinite” and “something” turned into its “other.” Matters were not made any easier by the fact that Healy never drew the same diagram twice and it could never be predicted with certainty whether “actuality” would show up before “existence” or the other way around. Indeed, attempts by students to memorize Healy’s dialectic through all its adventures inevitably failed; because it never followed the same path on successive days.

While the mystical presentation often rendered Healy’s lectures unintelligible, it would be wrong to assert that his lectures were simply nonsensical. Rather, Healy’s theoretical conceptions were an eclectic mixture of various trends in bourgeois subjective-idealist philosophy of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As Healy departed from Marxism and its study of the development of social consciousness as a historical process, his fixation with an individual’s cognitive activity came to resemble different trends in contemporary bourgeois “phenomenology.” This resemblance was that of a caricature: in the course of his lectures unintegrated elements of the conceptions of bourgeois thinkers as varied as William James, Edmund Husserl, Alexius Mienong, and even Maurice Merleau-Ponty would unexpectedly announce themselves. Healy was, it goes without saying, entirely unaware of this. Those who are in the process of descending into revisionism are rarely conscious of the bourgeois intellectual trends which are the agents of their theoretical degeneration. What Healy took to be his own original “discoveries” in the field of epistemology were merely commonplace and eclectic representations of conceptions which had been worked up over previous decades in far more polished and systematic forms by professional philosophers in the bourgeois academies.

What, then, was the significance of Healy’s lectures and diagrams? “This is the way I think,” he would emphatically tell students. And that remark was really the key to Healy’s theoretical conceptions. The “practice of cognition” purported to demonstrate how the sense perceptions of an individual, that is, those of Gerry Healy, underwent a process of dialectical transformations and ultimately emerged as theoretical ideas ready to be taken into practice. The diagrams were Healy’ attempt to reconstruct, using a poorly-understood Hegelian terminology, how he instinctively reacted to the perceptions of his sense organs and intuitively arrived at practical conclusions.

There is no question that Healy’s falsification of dialectics played a major role in the degeneration of the WRP. But it would be one-sided and misleading to claim that the party’s degeneration, and that of Healy himself, was merely the product of a bad philosophical method. Rather, the wrong method—whose eccentric features grew more ludicrous with each passing year—developed out of and became a weapon of the WRP leadership’s abandonment of Marxist politics. The source of the vulgarization of dialectics lay in the pressure of class forces upon the WRP. Healy’s theoretical conceptions, encouraged, as we have already seen, by Slaughter, Pilling, Smith and Kemp, represented an attempt to create, with the help of pseudo-Hegelian and pseudo-Marxian phraseology, an epistemological foundation for the rampant opportunism which increasingly characterized the policies of the WRP.

The central precept of Healy’s phenomenology was that dialectical thinking consisted essentially of an unconscious and quasi-organic physiological process. Each sense perception was part of a sort of thought-embryo which spontaneously developed, out of its own immanent movement and in strict accordance with the categories of the Hegelian logic, into a full-grown idea for practical activity. It was only necessary for the individual to allow this stream of sensations to “build up” until it finally completed its dialectical metamorphosis into a theoretical notion and drove the subject into action. According to Healy, the greatest of all epistemological errors, against which he fought furiously, was the unwarranted intrusion of the party’s existing knowledge upon the flow of sensations which members unconsciously derived from the action of the external world upon their raw sense organs. To the extent that the previously accumulated knowledge of party members played any role in the cognition of objective reality, it was merely as a passive and inert substance that was penetrated by the stream of sensations and thereby transformed, again unconsciously, into new knowledge.

“Great care,” he wrote in the early 1980s, “has to be taken not to impose any abstract thought interpretations upon the external world. Its independent properties must be allowed to build up in the mind and not have some premature abstract thought imposed on these, as yet, concealed and unknown properties…

“Training and using our senses properly means to avoid imposing thought images upon the external world” (Hegel-Marx-Lenin).

These “abstract thought interpretations” and “thought images” against which Healy inveighed were, in fact, the theoretical and political conceptions of Leon Trotsky. At lectures given by Healy, students who cited the works of Trotsky and other great Marxists and sought to relate their teachings to contemporary events were generally denounced for using “empty word forms” and imposing “dead abstractions” upon “living reality.” Party members who spoke of “applying” the dialectical method to the study of objective reality could expect to be sharply rebuked. Marxism could not be “applied,” Healy insisted; it could only be “abstracted” from nature.

Such verbal distinctions were not as arbitrary and obscure as they might appear. While his aims were disguised with imposing philosophical jargon, Healy was fighting to suppress the use of Marxist concepts in the analysis of social relations and political developments. Instead of assuming a critical-revolutionary attitude to existing social reality, party members were merely to absorb the “external world” through their senses. What this led to in practice was an adaptation to the existing forms of the class struggle as it was developing spontaneously in Britain and internationally under the domination of the political agents of imperialism, i.e., the social democrats, Stalinists and bourgeois nationalists.

All attempts to analyze political events, or, still worse, to foresee their probable lines of development were angrily dismissed as “idealist speculation” and “propagandist image-making.” It was, Healy insisted, an unpardonable error to “predetermine” the movement of the “external world.” Such outbursts were intended to justify the WRP’s blossoming alliances with all sorts of political scoundrels. The new friends of the WRP like Ken Livingstone, Ted Knight, Bill Sirs, Arthur Scargill and others were no longer to be exposed as the representatives of definite political tendencies who served clearly definable class interests. Instead, their political evasions and outright betrayals were to be rationalized as “moments” of a contradictory development or as manifestations of the conflict of the old form (opportunist treachery) with the emerging content (“revolutionary movement of the working class as it reflects itself inside the trade union and Labour Party leadership”). No conclusions were to be drawn as to the objective logic of their politics. Rather, they were to be seen “dialectically” as individuals whose “concealed and unknown properties” might evolve in a manner which could not be theoretically anticipated. Healy’s supply of cynical sophistries to excuse the opportunism of the WRP was inexhaustible!

In a letter written to branch secretaries of the WRP on June 14, 1980, Healy frankly declared that his goal was “to train comrades in what is best described as the unconscious use of the dialectical method, just as one performs many skills and activities without necessarily being conscious that one is doing so.” There could not be a more explicit repudiation of Marxism than that contained in this letter. Many functions necessary for life are carried out unconsciously. We all digest our food, but that does not qualify us to conduct intestinal surgery. A doctor with a scalpel in his hand must be guided by more than his personal familiarity with the agony of stomach cramps. His work depends upon a conscious study and mastery of biological science. Knowledge of a different but no less scientific character is required for the practice of revolutionary politics. It is no more possible to be an “unconscious” dialectical materialist than it is to be an “unconscious” nuclear physicist. The “unconscious” practice of Marxism is not Marxism at all but its opposite—the practice of pragmatic opportunism.

Healy’s glorification of “unconscious dialectics” revealed yet again how far he and the Workers Revolutionary Party had travelled from the principles which they had once defended inside in the International Committee. Nearly 20 years earlier the WRP’s predecessor, the Socialist Labour League, had ridiculed the American Socialist Workers Party’s praise of Castro as an “unconscious Marxist.” As the SLL wrote pointedly to the SWP in June 1961, “We neither seek nor expect the transformation of the existing petty-bourgeois nationalist leaderships into Marxist cadres, even if, like Monsieur Jourdain, they spout Marxist prose without knowing it!” (Trotskyism Versus Revisionism, vol. 3, p. 117).

By the 1980s Healy no longer concerned himself with the systematic and detailed study of political events. His reading was confined almost exclusively to Lenin’s “Conspectus of Hegel’s Science of Logic” (from the Philosophical Notebooks) and the stale writings of contemporary Soviet academicians on philosophy. [13] Despite his fixation with Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks, he conveniently ignored the fact that Lenin, while copying extracts from Hegel’s Logic and making his own critical annotations, was also engaged in his greatest political struggle against revisionism and writing such great political tracts as The Collapse of the Second International, Socialism and War, and Imperialism. [14] Healy, however, had taken to composing endless articles on the subject of “dialectical cognition.” But he wrote virtually nothing relating to political perspectives. On the rare occasions when Healy felt compelled to provide an analysis of the political situation, as, for example, with the outbreak of the Malvinas War in 1982, the results were disastrous. [15]

Far from serving as a methodological instrument to analyze objective reality and orient the party, Healy’s “dialectics” served as a factional weapon whose purpose was simultaneously to obscure politics, justify the leadership’s grotesque opportunism and confuse the cadre. Hegelian categories were regularly hauled out to sanctify the betrayals of trade union bureaucrats with whom Healy had made unprincipled deals. For example, after the TUC and NGA had sold out the strike against the Stockport Messenger and paid off fines levied by the Tory government, Healy drafted a Central Committee resolution which attempted to prove that the actions of the bureaucrats were the inevitable and necessary outcome of the moments of cognition.

“Wednesday December 14, 1983 marked the negation of Semblance into Appearance when the General Council voted 29 to 21 to abandon the NGA and uphold the 1980 Tory Employment Act.

“The Appearance manifested on December 14 continued to develop through a series of events which finally forced the NGA on January 19, 1984 to legally purge its contempt and pay the fine. At this point appearance as the unity of semblance and existence turns into actuality” (Fourth International, Summer 1986, p. 92).

In order to keep the membership in a state of utter confusion, Healy, with the help of Slaughter and the other high priests of the WRP, began to devise a sacred pseudo-philosophical language which replaced normal English as the tongue in which political discourse—or at least what passed for it—was officially conducted. Rather than challenge the political line developed by the leadership, members were led to believe that they were simply not smart enough to understand it. For example, what was the average WRP member to make of the following explanation, concocted by Healy’s “Central Committee Department,” of the party’s political work:

The four resolutions adopted by the 6th Congress are what the Congress ‘asserted.’ In dialectical materialist terms they are the ‘OTHER OF THE FIRST, (OTHER OF THE 6TH CONGRESS)…

From the 6th Congress decisions (assertion) to unity with immediate being through contradiction (asserted). The presence of the positive in the negative (absolute essence) will denote recognition of the changes which have taken place since the Congress was held. This denotes both Semblance and Absolute Essence which is negated in anti-thesis through negation of the negation into our ‘theory of knowledge’ consisting of the ‘logical’ and the ‘historical’ analysis of events.

A synthesis is formed through essence in existence in which as a result of analysis those parts of Congress resolutions which have become most urgent, together with the ‘changes’ emerge as ‘essence.’ We must counterpose these same ‘parts’ which have changed in essence, sharply to one another in order to determine the essence of the changes which have taken place.

Congress proceeding through the antithesis of negation of the negation, which establishes the synthesis, allows analysis firstly to establish more clearly the importance of the abstract nature of the 6th Congress Resolution becoming more clearly revealed in the apprehension of the movement of dialectical thought” (Ibid., p. 89).

Such verbiage served yet another important function: it enabled the WRP leaders to avoid any direct discussion of concrete political questions among themselves and thus avoid the eruption of political differences which might lead to a split and cost the opportunists their control over the organization and the International Committee. Thus, before any political issue could be presented for discussion, it had first to undergo a series of philosophical abstractions; that is, real political events and problems had to be stripped of their real earthly content and transformed into unreal logical categories.

But these verbal artifices were not enough to conceal the deepening political crisis of the Workers Revolutionary Party. The appearance of party unity was maintained through the increasing concentration of political authority in the hands of Healy. At the Fourth Congress of the WRP a special resolution was passed giving Healy absolute and unchallengeable control over the organization. Full authority was placed in his hands to suspend and expel, with no questions asked, not only individual members but also entire committees.

At the Fifth Congress in February 1981, a motion to renew this resolution was introduced by none other than Cliff Slaughter. Using words of which he would prefer not to be reminded, Slaughter argued in support of the clearly unconstitutional proposal by insisting that Healy needed unlimited powers in order to train the cadre in his dialectical method!

“We passed a resolution in a previous congress,” Slaughter declared, “based on the indispensabilities which have been demonstrated of training in this method and in view of what Comrade Healy has explained about the relationship between that and discipline—the necessity of this method— then this resolution is put here for reconfirmation by the congress: that in the hands of Comrade Healy are placed powers of discipline in all committees and all sections of the Party on the carrying out of this resolution.”

After a long list of speakers, all of whom endorsed the resolution, Slaughter called for a vote and Healy’s absolute powers were approved unanimously. [16] However bizarre it may seem today, this resolution was the logical product of a situation created by the protracted opportunist decay of the party. The work of the WRP was no longer guided by a Marxist perspective nor strategically oriented toward the conquest of power by the working class. The central leadership was torn by political differences which were made all the more bitter by the fact that they were not discussed. Finally, the political quality of the party cadre had been drastically lowered by years of mass recruitment campaigns that conferred membership on anyone who cared to sign a party card and pay an initial fee of 10 pence. To cover over the lack of a unified political perspective, the seething divisions within the leadership, and the disorientation and ignorance of the wildly heterogeneous membership, an imposing mantle of unchallengeable infallibility was placed upon Healy’s sagging shoulders. He was to provide a common point of orientation for a party that lacked any other means of directing its activity.

The unstable equilibrium within the WRP was disrupted in the autumn of 1982 following the publication of Healy’s Studies in Dialectical Materialism. As a direct participant in the sequence of events which followed the release of this strange and pathetic pamphlet, the author is obliged to cite his personal recollections.

In late October 1982 I travelled to Britain in order to inform the WRP leadership of my disagreements with Healy’s theoretical work and the general opportunist drift within the ICFI and the WRP. Both Banda and Slaughter initially declared their agreement with these criticisms and accepted that a discussion on the perspectives and theoretical work of the International Committee and the Workers Revolutionary Party was urgently required. While Slaughter was careful to couch his agreement in the most evasive language possible under the circumstances, Banda spoke against Healy with a vehemence which was as astonishing as it was troubling. Here was the general secretary of the WRP, ostensibly Healy’s protegé and successor, denouncing his life-long political mentor in terms which are normally reserved for one’s bitterest enemy.

As for Healy, he was clearly stunned by my presentation of differences and made no attempt whatsoever to debate the issues I had raised. But he was, in fact, less troubled by my criticisms than by the fact that they had suddenly shattered the unity of the WRP leadership. In private discussions, Healy furiously accused me of “interfering” in the affairs of the WRP and “disrupting” his cadre—as if it was somehow unprincipled and illegitimate for a representative of the Trotskyist movement in the United States to give his views on the work of the Trotskyist movement in Britain! In a private note which Healy prepared for a meeting of his Political Committee, dated October 28, 1982, Healy wrote angrily: “D. North seeks to take advantage of theoretical indecision and backwardness in the approach which he makes to comrades.” Forty years earlier, Healy had entered into a political alliance with the leaders of the Socialist Workers Party to fight against the nationalist provincialism of the old Workers Internationalist League. He endured the taunts of Haston and others who accused him of being “Cannon’s agent” in Britain. But Healy’s own political decline had reached by 1982 such a point that he returned to the very anti-internationalism which he had opposed in the 1940s.

There was another incident that revealed the depth of Healy’s degeneration. Explaining my concern about the WRP’s drift toward opportunism, I attempted to remind Healy of his own warnings to the Socialist Workers Party and the fight he had conducted against revisionism in the 1960s. “F— the sixties,” he spit out bitterly. “The 1970s were the important years. That’s when we had the daily newspaper.” These words made it clear that Healy had turned his back on the very struggles which had constituted his most important contribution to the Fourth International. The growth of the WRP’s apparatus and its practical successes now meant more to Healy than the long struggle for revolutionary principles which had initially made the organizational advances possible.

As was soon to become clear, Healy was not prepared to tolerate any discussion inside the WRP and the International Committee on the political and theoretical issues which had been raised by the Workers League. Back in 1966, commenting on Cannon’s opposition to a discussion on the questions raised by the Socialist Labour League, Healy had written: “Cannon knew full well that if he began a discussion with the SLL his so-called cadre would fall apart.” And for this evasion Healy denounced Cannon as “an opportunist and political coward” (Trotskyism Versus Revisionism, vol. 4, p. 290). These same words could now be applied to Healy.

Once I had departed from Britain, Healy undertook a campaign to restore the “unanimity” of the WRP leadership. I am not in a position to say exactly how this was achieved, but it obviously involved a series of sordid deals between Healy, Banda and Slaughter. They decided to suppress all discussion of the political and theoretical differences which had arisen inside the ICFI. By the time I returned to Britain two months later for what was supposedly to be the opening of a genuine discussion on the perspectives of the International Committee, Banda and Slaughter had renounced their previous agreement with my criticisms and were loudly proclaiming that Healy’s writings on dialectics were an imperishable contribution to philosophy!

A further attempt by the Workers League to force a discussion on the perspectives was made in 1984. A lengthy letter outlining the concerns of the Workers League was sent to Banda in January and these criticisms were elaborated in far greater detail in a political report to the ICFI in February. Healy, who by now studiously avoided all political discussions on questions of perspective, did not attend the meeting. But he entrusted Banda, Slaughter and Pilling with the task of denouncing the Workers League and threatening an immediate split if its criticisms were not withdrawn. Realizing that to press for a discussion would provide the WRP with a pretext to split the International Committee under conditions in which the cadre of the world movement would know nothing about the criticisms which had been raised, the Workers League reluctantly decided not to challenge the WRP ultimatum. [17]

Following the meeting and the return of the Workers League’s delegation to the United States, Healy sent Slaughter a “Dear Cliff’ letter to congratulate him for the “good political job” he had done. This letter and the reply from Slaughter exposes the rotten clique nature of the WRP leadership. It also shows how its leaders sought to dignify their base treachery with pseudo-Marxist phraseology.

Equating the Workers League with the Reagan administration, Healy boasted that “from the standpoint of the development of the dialectical materialist method we are strong enough to ideologically rout our most important and powerful imperialist opponents…

“Our opponents metaphysically saw the opposites as mutually exclusive opposites so they pitched their section as a part of the world party against the World Party itself. Both became mutually exclusive opposites in their heads. To maintain the metaphysical illusion they employed the pragmatic selection of quotations without any real content, wielding them in a subjective idealist way against the political development of the International Committee.

“We, as dialectical materialists see opposites in their unity and reciprocal interpenetration, met the challenge head on, as it were, exposing the arguments of our opponents concretely in the conditions of the world revolution that exist today… That is why we transformed the opposites into one another, with no holds barred, and emerged with a new unity and identity of opposites on a new and higher level. We have avoided the split which was posed by the metaphysical pragmatists and established instead this new unity and identity of opposites, of which they are still a part. We look forward to this state of affairs continuing, also if necessary with no holds barred” (Fourth International, Summer 1986, p. 97).

Two days later, on February 16, 1984, Slaughter replied with rapture:

Dear Gerry

Thank you for your letter of February 14. I believe that what you say does penetrate more deeply to the essential content of what took place at the IC of Feb. 11/12. The attack from the US section has as its content the need of the imperialists to destroy the IC. To defeat this attack means that the dialectical materialist training of the cadre in the last period has indeed been in line with the needs created by the most fundamental processes of revolutionary change in the objective world. This objective necessity at the heart of this interconnection could not have been so clearly grasped and made consciously, the content of our response without the systematic work on Vol 14 as well as Vol 38.

Not only that: we have to understand as your letter says in conclusion, that the newly established unity and conflict of opposites is not a completed and self-contained process but develops always anew in interconnection with the world revolution of which it is a part. Hence we go forward ‘also if necessary with no holds barred.’

Fraternally, Cliff (Ibid.)

The blocking of discussion on the International Committee doomed Healy and the Workers Revolutionary Party. Just one month later the miners strike began. In her obituary of Healy, Sheila Torrance admits that the strike produced “a period of intense confusion” inside the WRP; but she does not admit that the political source of that confusion lay in the opportunist degeneration of the WRP and Healy’s suppression of political discussion in the International Committee.

The WRP’s policy in the miners strike was characterized by a combination of hysteria and groveling opportunism. Healy was convinced that parliamentary democracy had been effectively destroyed in Britain and that Thatcher had established a personal Bonapartist dictatorship. In November 1984, Healy proclaimed at a News Line rally: “If the miners are defeated, we will be illegal in Thatcher’s Britain.” But while insisting that Britain was on the verge of fascism, Healy opposed any criticism of Scargill’s refusal to call on the TUC and Labour Party to bring down the Tory government. Instead, the News Line paid effusive tribute to Scargill and Healy even insisted on hanging the NUM leader’s portrait in the WRP headquarters. For good measure, Healy wrote a personal letter to Scargill offering to place at his disposal all the resources of the WRP!

The defeat of the miners strike utterly destroyed whatever had remained of the WRP’s precarious equilibrium. Within a few weeks of the strike’s end a savage factional struggle broke out within the party leadership which led within a few months to the collapse of the WRP.


Healy was so impressed with these Soviet authors that he frequently incorporated long passages from their writings into his own articles without quotation marks or any other forms of attribution.


All these works reflected the powerful influence of Lenin’s intense study of the Hegelian dialectic—but this expressed itself not in the arbitrary use of philosophical jargon but in the brilliance with which Lenin applied dialectical materialist methodology in the study of political and economic phenomena.


In a rambling letter to the party membership in April 1982, Healy took no notice of the fact that Argentina was a country oppressed by imperialism. He portrayed the war as essentially an interimperialist conflict between the United States and Britain, proclaimed that the United States was secretly working for the victory of Argentina, and that the defeat of Britain was a foregone conclusion. Adopting a pacifist rather than defeatist position, Healy denounced the Labour MP Tony Benn for having responded to the outbreak of hostilities by calling for the bringing down of Thatcher, To prevent a major scandal, Banda arranged for Healy’s letter to be withdrawn before it had been too widely circulated among the WRP membership.


The transcript of the congress shows that speeches in support of the resolution were given by Banda, Slaughter, Dave Temple and Dot Gibson—all of whom now cynically pretend that they were the innocent victims of Healy’s personal dictatorship.


Despite the specific request made by the Workers League for a full meeting of the International Committee, the Socialist Labour League of Australia and the Revolutionary Communist League of Sri Lanka were not even informed of the scheduled meeting.