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

The Final Years

In August 1985 the Workers Revolutionary Party summoned an emergency meeting of the International Committee in order to request assistance to overcome a financial crisis which, it claimed, had been caused by the sudden and unjustified imposition by the Thatcher government of exorbitant tax surcharges on party assets. The International Committee responded to the WRP’s appeal with generous pledges. After the meeting, I spoke with Healy as he stood in the yard of the WRP headquarters in Clapham. He appeared uncharacteristically subdued and detached. “Jim Cannon used to say,” Healy suddenly recalled, with no apparent connection to the main line of our conversation, “that opportunism means mortgaging the future.” He repeated this phrase several times.

Some weeks later the members of the International Committee learned that the reports on the alleged financial crisis given by Healy, the party treasurer, Dot Gibson, and Corin Redgrave had been a pack of lies. The Workers Revolutionary Party was, in fact, on the verge of a complete political and organizational collapse. The desperate political crisis within the WRP leadership, of which the financial problems were merely one manifestation, emerged into the open. The words of Cannon now seemed a poignant epitaph for Healy himself. For years he had been mortgaging his principles; and the time had come for Healy to pay the accumulated debt.

The details of the sordid scandal in the Workers Revolutionary Party which precipitated the crisis in the summer and autumn of 1985 have been so thoroughly rehearsed in other publications that it is hardly necessary to dwell on them here. Moreover, events have demonstrated that those like Cliff Slaughter, Michael Banda and Dot Gibson who reveled in the salacious details of Healy’s sexual misconduct were the most determined to prevent an examination of the political significance of the scandal.

Healy’s gross abuse of political authority expressed not only his own political degeneration, but also that of the other principal leaders of the WRP, who had condoned and covered up Healy’s increasingly compulsive behavior. Indeed, throughout the summer of 1985, Banda and Slaughter sought desperately to quash the demands of Dave Hyland, a member of the WRP Central Committee, for a control commission investigation into reports of Healy’s abuse of women cadre. When that finally proved impossible, they suddenly shifted their tactics and, with the assistance of the scandal-mongering bourgeois press, whipped up an atmosphere of hysteria within the WRP.

Despite the bitter opposition of Slaughter and Banda to a Marxist analysis of the crisis, the International Committee of the Fourth International analyzed its political roots. In a statement on the expulsion of Healy adopted on October 25, 1985, the International Committee explained his abuse of authority as “the end product of his rejection of the Trotskyist principles upon which these past struggles were based and his descent into the most vulgar forms of opportunism.”

The statement continued:

The political and personal degeneration of Healy can be clearly traced to his ever-more explicit separation of the practical and organizational gains of the Trotskyist movement in Britain from the historically and internationally grounded struggles against Stalinism and revisionism from which these achievements arose.

The increasing subordination of questions of principle to immediate practical needs, centered on securing the growth of the party apparatus, degenerated into political opportunism which steadily eroded his own political and moral defenses against the pressures of imperialism in the oldest capitalist country in the world.

Under these conditions his serious subjective weaknesses played an increasingly dangerous political role.

Acting ever-more arbitrarily within both the WRP and the ICFI, Healy increasingly attributed the advances of the World Party not to the Marxist principles of the Fourth International and to the collective struggle of its cadre, but rather to his own personal abilities.

His self-glorification of his intuitive judgments led inevitably to a gross vulgarization of materialist dialectics, and Healy’s transformation into a thorough-going subjective idealist and pragmatist.

In place of his past interest in the complex problems of developing the cadre of the International Trotskyist movement, Healy’s practice became almost entirely preoccupied with developing unprincipled relations with bourgeois nationalist leaders and with trade union and Labour Party reformists in Britain.

His personal life-style underwent a corresponding degeneration.

Those like Healy, who abandon the principles on which they once fought and who refuse to subordinate themselves to the ICFI in the building of its national sections must inevitably degenerate under the pressure of the class enemy.

There can be no exception to this historical law.

The ICFI affirms that no leader stands above the historical interests of the working class. (Fourth International, Summer 1986, p. 115).

Healy made no attempt to contact the International Committee to answer the charges against him. Instead, four days before the October 25 meeting of the International Committee, he organized a rump meeting consisting of delegates from only two sections—the Spanish and the Greek. They bestowed upon Healy the hitherto unknown title of “historical leader” and proclaimed that he alone possessed the right to summon meetings of the International Committee Healy’s participation in this miserable farce marked the definitive end of his career as a revolutionary.

The last four years of Healy’s life amounted to a humiliating public spectacle of political self-debasement. In a futile attempt to conceal the political significance of Healy’s evolution into an apostle of perestroika, Sheila Torrance asserts:

“The shock of the split in the party in 1984–85, the apparent liquidation of everything that he had achieved in fifty years was in reality too much for Healy to bear. This is what led him in the last years to turn toward the Gorbachev-led bureaucracy in the USSR and away from the working class” (News Line, December 21, 1989).

This analysis is as theoretically bankrupt as her explanation of the split itself. As the history of the revolutionary movement has demonstrated tithe and again, splits are generally fatal only to opportunist tendencies. In the course of a necessary split from the opportunists, a revolutionary tendency renews its theoretical foundations, clarifies its principles, and thereby deepens its roots in the proletariat. For an opportunist organization and its leaders, a political crisis has very different consequences. It exposes the uncorrected errors in policy, the stagnation of theoretical work, the retreat from principles, the dishonest relations between the leaders and the party ranks, the accumulated contradictions between the revolutionary program and the existing practice, between words and deeds, between the optimism and convictions of the past and the prevailing pessimism and cynicism. It lays bare, in other words, all that is rotten and false in the opportunist tendency. That was the significance of 1985 for Gerry Healy and the Workers Revolutionary Party.

Even if one were to grant that the events of 1985 came as a terrible shock to Healy, that does not explain why Healy concluded from the crisis in the Workers Revolutionary Party and its split from the International Committee that the Soviet bureaucracy, under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, was carrying through the political revolution. Tn actual fact, Healy’s transformation into an open apologist for the counterrevolutionary and restorationist policies of the Gorbachev regime flowed inexorably from the opportunist politics which he had pursued over the previous decade.

In the years leading up to the split, it was increasingly apparent that the WRP was moving rapidly toward a reconciliation with Stalinism. We refer here not only to the evidence of its theoretical and programmatic adaptation to Stalinism, but of Healy’s cultivation of practical relations with the Soviet bureaucracy. In 1980 a reporter for the News Line, Paul Feldman, was permitted by the Kremlin to attend the Moscow Olympics, where he was accorded the warmest reception. Not long after, the Soviet bureaucracy granted the WRP’s New Park Publishers the rights to an English-language edition of a book written by a prominent Soviet philosopher. In the same period, the News Line reprinted a worthless article from the Soviet press agency, Novosti, glorifying the conditions in the steel industry of the USSR. It refused, however, to reproduce in the News Line a critical study of the Soviet economy which had been published in the Bulletin of the Workers League.

Finally, in 1983, Healy publicly aligned the WRP with Gordon McLennan, the leader of the British Stalinists, in the course of a bitter faction fight within the Communist Party. When the CPGB leadership lost control of its wretched daily newspaper, Morning Star, to a rival faction, the News Line launched a campaign demanding that the authority of the Stalinist party’s leadership over the editorial board be reestablished. The News Line denounced “the political coup against the Communist Party” and proclaimed that “the ‘Morning Star’ is the daily newspaper of the Communist Party and must remain so” (Fourth International, Summer 1986, pp. 81–82).

The most significant feature of this grotesque campaign was the political justification provided by the News Line. It claimed that the takeover of the Stalinist newspaper by the opposition group severed the Morning Star from not only the Communist Party of Great Britain, but also from “the historical foundations on which the party was formed, namely to defend the great gains of the Russian Revolution of 1917 led by Lenin and Trotsky and the establishment of the first workers’ state in history” (Ibid.).

By claiming that the Communist Party of Great Britain, one of the most corrupt Stalinist outfits in the entire world, was based on the “historical foundations” of 1917, Healy had, in essence, repudiated the historical and programmatic conceptions of the Fourth International. He no longer viewed the Stalinist organizations as the political instruments of a counterrevolutionary bureaucracy; rather, he considered them to be the genuine offspring of the October Revolution which had to be defended against their opponents. The support extended by Healy to Gordon McLennan was, in fact, the political dress rehearsal for the support he was to extend only a few years later to Mikhail Gorbachev.

Prior to 1985, Healy could not proclaim openly the political conclusions at which he had more or less arrived. All sorts of sophistry and subterfuge had to be employed to justify his opportunist escapades and preserve whatever remained of the political veneer of Trotskyist orthodoxy upon which his authority within the International Committee depended. But that changed after the split, which released Healy from all the political restraints which the program and traditions of the International Committee had previously placed upon him. [18]

In August 1986, Healy asserted at a meeting of the Political Committee of the rump Workers Revolutionary Party which he had formed with Torrance that “the bureaucracy was no longer Thermidorean, that a left turn was taking place in the USSR and that a left turn would take place internationally” (The Marxist, June-July 1987, p. 28). A few weeks later, Healy’s political position was elaborated ina document written under his supervision by a member of his faction inside the WRP, Mick Blakey. It hailed Gorbachev’s accession to power as “the latest in a long series of developments of the political revolution, which could be dated as beginning in 1953 with the uprising of East German workers and proceeding through the Hungarian uprising in 1956, the developments in Poland in the 1960s, in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Poland again in the 1970s and early 80s” (Marxist Review, April 1987, p.40).

Healy and Blakey stated that the advance of the political revolution had been reflected “amongst a section of the Intelligentsia [in] the development of dialectical materialism… this development of dialectics did not take place in a vacuum, but has entered into the thinking of a left moving section of the bureaucracy, which today occupies the leading positions, and which is De-Stalinizing the bureaucracy” (Ibid.).

This assessment of Gorbachev and perestroika could have just as well been written by Ernest Mandel. How the wheel of history had turned! At the time of the split with the SWP, Healy had referred scathingly to Cannon’s capitulation to the Pabloites. But by 1986, some 33 years after the founding of the International Committee, Healy himself had become the most stubborn and extreme convert to Pabloism.

Healy, together with Vanessa and Corin Redgrave, split from Torrance and formed what was to be his final political resting place, the Marxist Party. During the last three years of his life, he travelled on several occasions to the Soviet Union as a guest of the Soviet government. Healy still referred to himself as a Trotskyist, and this self-delusion permitted him to imagine that his visits to the Soviet Union represented some sort of vindication of his life work.

Had he remained true to the principles for which he had devoted so many years of his life, there would have been a triumphal element in his visits to the USSR. He would have found among Soviet workers an enthusiastic and devoted audience for the revolutionary program and traditions represented by the International Committee. But in the very process of severing his connections with the International Committee, he had turned his back on the working class, in whose revolutionary capacities he no longer believed. The most significant expression of Healy’s political perspective was provided in an article he wrote for The Marxist Monthly a little more than a year before his death:

“The Soviet Union presently numbers 24 percent of the intelligentsia of the entire world. It is no longer a predominantly illiterate peasant population as in the period following the October Revolution. We have the utmost revolutionary confidence in the rising Soviet intelligentsia to arrive at the most revolutionary conclusions from the writings of Leon Trotsky. Through tireless discussion and debate the theory will emerge to guide their practice within the concept of world revolution” (Marxist Monthly, September 1, 1988, p. 11).

Healy no longer looked to the Soviet and international working class to implement the program of the political revolution. Instead, he pinned his hopes on the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia, which, as a distinct social stratum within Soviet society, is deeply alienated from the proletariat and hostile to Marxism. In the final analysis, the shift in the class axis of Healy’s political orientation constituted the essence of his break with the revolutionary program and traditions of the Fourth International.


A similar process could be observed in the political evolution of Slaughter and Banda. As they prepared to break from the International Committee, both turned openly toward the Stalinists. In November 1985, Cliff Slaughter welcomed Monty Johnstone, one of the most notorious Stalinists in Britain, to a public meeting of the Workers Revolutionary Party. In 1986, Banda denounced Trotsky as a counterrevolutionary and lauded Stalin as one of the greatest leaders in world history.