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

Conclusion and notes

The death of Gerry Healy on December 14, 1989 did not go unnoticed in the bourgeois press. The Independent, the Times, the Guardian, the Telegraph, and the Observer seized upon the opportunity to ring up their friends among the revisionists and renegades from the Fourth International to provide the required quantity of subjective vomit to pour over the memory of Healy. And they were joined by the pompous dean of Establishment journalists, Sir Bernard Levin, who probably surprised many of his readers by devoting an entire column to a furious denunciation of a man whom most of them had hardly heard of. The attitude of the bourgeois press was not without political significance. Despite his degeneration and abandonment of Marxism in the closing period of his life, the British ruling class and its agents among the various petty-bourgeois revisionist groups were not inclined to forget so quickly the many years in which Healy defended with such indefatigable energy and determination the revolutionary perspectives of the Fourth International.

And herein lies the enduring significance of Healy’s contribution to the history of the Marxist movement. The International Committee waged a bitter struggle against Healy during the final years of his life. It does not retract a single sentence that it wrote against him. And yet, not even during the most intense stages of that struggle were we inclined to forget what Healy had achieved during the best years of his life. Throughout virtually the entire postwar period—first during years of extreme poverty and isolation and then during the prolonged capitalist boom which strengthened petty-bourgeois radical and revisionist tendencies all over the world—Healy fought to keep alive the perspective of international proletarian revolution. While the opportunists ridiculed the revolutionary traditions of the Fourth International as “ultraleft sectarianism,” adapted themselves to the powerful Stalinist and social democratic bureaucracies, and glorified the short-term successes of petty-bourgeois guerrilla movements, Healy insisted upon the historical significance of the October Revolution and the revolutionary capacities of the working class. This conviction, moreover, was not merely of an intellectual and abstract character. It found expression in the inexhaustible energy with which Healy dedicated himself to the work of constructing a political party which would lead the working class in the seizure of power. In stark contrast to all the revisionists, who took neither themselves nor their own organizations too seriously, Healy was guided by the unshakeable conviction that the party he was building would lead the working class in the overthrow of the capitalist system.

Healy possessed an uncanny ability to articulate and convey that conviction, and therein lay his astonishing gifts as an orator. He had the rare ability to move a mass audience. At the peak of his form, he could literally raise thousands to their feet. And this effect was achieved by inspiring his audiences with confidence in the power of the historical principles of the Fourth International and the revolutionary strength of the English working class.

I recall a lecture he gave at a summer camp in late July 1972. Its theme was the history of the English working class. Healy’s lecture spanned centuries, from the Peasant Rebellion of 1381, the Cromwellian Revolution of the mid-seventeenth century, the struggle against the Combination Laws of the early nineteenth century, the great Chartist movement of the 1840s, the founding of Labour Party, the General Strike of 1926, the “Hungry ’30s,” the postwar upsurge of the working class, all the way up to the ongoing struggles against the Industrial Relations law enacted by the Tory government of Edward Heath. “And now this Tory government,” Healy declared, the pitch of his voice rising as he came to the conclusion of the lecture, “thinks that it’s going to turn the historical clock back and destroy this working class.” He paused and looked around the audience of hundreds of young workers who had listened in utter fascination for nearly two hours as the grandeur of the history of the English proletariat had unfolded before them. And then Healy said, “A big job for little men!” The tension and concentration of the audience was released with an outburst of enthusiastic applause. At that moment, Healy, standing on the podium with his sleeves rolled up and his hands fastened to his suspenders, beads of perspiration visible on the large dome of his head, appeared before the audience as the very embodiment of the indomitable determination of the working class.

Just a week later, a spontaneous nationwide strike involving millions of workers erupted over the jailing of five dock workers who had violated the Industrial Relations Act. It seemed almost to be the natural extension of Healy’s lecture.

Another speech which comes to mind is Healy’s address several months earlier, in March 1972, at a rally organized by the Socialist Labour League to honor the Young Socialists’ “Right-to-Work” campaigners who had marched from Glasgow to London. The miners had just dealt the Heath government a major defeat and the mass movement of the working class was building to a showdown with the Tories. Although serious political problems were already manifesting themselves inside the SLL, Healy had lost none of his ability to make the political perspective and principles of the revolutionary movement accessible to a mass audience of workers.

“This great rally,” he began, “serves notice on the Tory government and all those right-wing Labour and trade union traitors who serve its purpose within the labor movement, that the working class is determined to put an end to capitalism as soon as it possibly can.”

He then reviewed the political situation and warned of the dangers posed by the treachery of the reformist leaders of the labor movement.

“This new stage of mass political development is chiefly characterized by an enormous polarization of class forces. The working class is thrusting forward its demands for improved wages and living standards. The Tory government is in a deep crisis, with the Labour and trade union leaders engaging in secret coalition arrangements with the Heath cabinet.

“Such a situation, while creating conditions of great promise for the revolutionary forces, will not last. The Tory government is playing for time while preparing the counterattack. There is no time to lose. The working class is making a great political leap and woe betide the revolutionary forces if they lag behind.

“Never forget that the Tories are conscious that their class is in real danger. They are going to fight back like cornered rats.

“Those Labour and trade union leaders who help them by disarming the working class are nothing more than the MacDonaldites of the 1970s.

“The Stalinist leadership of the Communist Party, which in its attack on the marchers aided such traitors, demonstrates once again that Stalinism is the most counterrevolutionary force within the international working class in these vital days.

“And that is what is so powerful about the Trotskyist history of the Socialist Labour League and the Young Socialists. We are the only movement that can throw open the pages of its history to the tens of thousands, both young and old, who want to put an end to capitalism forever. Our history is spotlessly clean in its struggle to preserve the traditions of Bolshevism alive throughout the long decades of defeat since the victorious Russian Revolution of 1917.

“We say today, loud and clear, that the greatest gain which the working class possesses is the struggle for Marxist principles personified by Leon Trotsky and the building of the International Committee of the Fourth International.

“Workers who want to fight the Tories need tools and those tools are the vital principles of Marxism. That is why we refuse to blunt these vital principles by engaging in middle-class protest stunts and fake ‘unity’ intrigues.

“If we were to do this at such a critical turning point in the struggle against the Tory government, then we too would be guilty of betraying the working class.

“Here is our authority for calling upon this great audience to make this Tory government resign.

“We say to those trade union members of the audience: the TUC has sold out to the Tory government. It has already betrayed as it did in 1926. You must act at once. Break the unions from the capitalist state and the Tory government, clear out the leaders who have betrayed, democratize the trade unions from top to bottom by electing new leaders who will be strictly controlled by the rank and file.

“We say to Labour Party members: You must engage immediately in the fight against the right-wing leaders of your party. Delay will breed disaster.

“We say to the Communist Party members. Your fight is even more fundamental. You must immediately study the history of the international workers movement and the powerful vindication of Trotskyism against Stalinism. We stand ready and eager to help you to accomplish this. For Trotskyism today is the only real voice of Bolshevism and communism.

“We say to the youth whose stout political shoulders have borne the brunt of the preparatory work for this great rally—and with them we include the students and young intellectuals—the old parties of Labour reformism and Stalinism have betrayed. Only the program of Trotskyism, the building of revolutionary parties organized within the International Committee of the Fourth International can liberate yourselves and mankind from the pauperization and bankruptcy of world capitalism and the enormous danger of the destruction of this planet in a thermo-nuclear third world war.

“You must join us at once and help transform the Socialist Labour League into a revolutionary party. You must join the Young Socialists and help transform it into a mass revolutionary youth movement, the champions of the right to work, the staunchest defenders of the old age pensioners, in a word, the vanguard of the working class, staunchly defending and extending its struggle to apply and learn from the great principles of Marxism.

“We throw open the doors of membership of the Socialist Labour League to all those who will unite with us in action to fight for these principles of Marxism.

“The history of the British working class is a history of unvanquished struggle against the capitalist and the Tory enemy. It is also the history of the most shameful betrayals by its leadership.

“The Socialist Labour League is the only authentic voice of revolutionary Marxism in Britain today. We will not betray. We will march with you to final victory” (Workers Press, March 13, 1972).

As we reread this speech today, we know that Healy was unable to keep the pledge he made to that rally. And yet, no one who knew Healy at that stage of his life would have doubted the depth of the conviction with which he delivered those words.

As a genuine workers’ leader, Healy towered over his contemporaries in the postwar British labor movement. Had he been so inclined, he could have easily secured for himself a powerful position in either the Labour Party or the TUC. But that sort of petty personal ambition was alien to Healy, who felt nothing but contempt for those who had betrayed the socialist convictions of their youth and made their peace with the ruling class. Those who crossed swords with Healy were unlikely to forget the experience. His attitude toward those he considered traitors to the working class would certainly not have been endorsed by Amnesty International.

Healy knew the labor movement and its leaders like the back of his hand; and they knew him. In 1971, Healy, in the course of a trip to Blackpool to meet with a new Workers Press reporter who had been assigned to cover the Labour Party congress, decided to look in on the traditional gala held during the proceedings. As he walked among the “great men” of British social democracy, many of whom had organized the expulsion of Healy and other Trotskyists from the Labour Party back in the 1950s, some smiled nervously and others attempted rather conspicuously to take no notice.

But one of the more courageous among them, Lawrence Daly, the president of the National Union of Mineworkers, approached Healy gregariously with a “Great to see ’ya, Gerry” welcome. They had known each other back in the 1930s as members of the Communist Party; and Daly was among those with whom Healy had held intensive discussions after the Khrushchev revelations of 1956. For a period thereafter, Daly had indicated some interest in the development of a revolutionary tendency inside the trade unions and even spoke on the platform of the Newsletter conference organized by Healy in 1957. But not long after, Daly finally opted for a comfortable opportunist career in the NUM bureaucracy.

Healy did not exchange pleasantries with Daly. He introduced the NUM leader to the new reporter and asked if he would give him an interview on the preparations for a coal strike and a political confrontation with the Tory government.

“Of course, Gerry,” Daly replied. “I’m always glad to be of some help to the lads at Workers Press.” And then, flashing a smile, he added, “But I won’t join your party.”

“We wouldn’t f—in’ have you,” Healy answered and walked away, leaving both Daly and the Workers Press reporter to keep each other company.

Healy was, undoubtedly, a “hard man.” His character was shaped by the experiences of a poverty-stricken youth in Treland and then by the difficult life of a revolutionary in the 1930s. Like Cannon, whom he admired, Healy was a working class communist “of the old school.” His Marxism was anchored in a burning hatred of the capitalist system, with whose brutality he was personally familiar. He knew what it was to sleep in public shelters for the poor with one’s shoes on (so that they would not be stolen); to stand on line day after day for months on end outside the labor exchanges; to face the charges of mounted police against demonstrations of the unemployed; and to go for several days without food. Not until the 1960s, when the growth of the Trotskyist movement in Britain provided it with substantial resources for the first time, did Healy’s personal circumstances rise to the level of what could be described as modest comfort.

But the experience of personal privation was not the only, or even principal, foundation of his “hardness.” Healy was of a generation whose conceptions of revolutionary struggle and sacrifice were inspired by the world-shaking achievements of the Bolshevik Party. For workers such as Healy, the events of 1917 demonstrated that the socialist revolution was not an event destined to occur in the distant future. It was, rather, a practical task. Thus, until the final tragic years, Healy lived for the revolution and the revolution lived in Healy. This passion distinguished him unmistakeably from all others in the workers movement. Next to him, the leaders of the opportunist organizations appeared as little more than rank amateurs or charlatans.

Healy was not the type of man who wore his heart on his sleeve or who was prone to sentimentality. When engaged in a political struggle, either within the party or against its open enemies, he was relentless and impervious to any sort of emotional appeals, which he considered just one of the many cunning devices developed by the English middle class to evade political issues. And yet, I recall one occasion when Healy’s emotions broke through his tough exterior.

He was giving a lecture on the fortieth anniversary of the Fourth International. As he approached its conclusion, having vividly recounted the destruction of the early cadre of the Trotskyist movement, Healy picked up the recently-published memoirs of Leopold Trepper, the Soviet master-spy who had headed the Red Orchestra. He read from a chapter in which Trepper, recalling the Stalinist purges of the 1930s, proclaimed that all who did not rise up against the murder machine were collectively responsible. His voice thickening, Healy read on:

“But who did protest at this time? Who rose up to voice his outrage?

“The Trotskyites can lay claim to this honor. Following the example of their leader, who was rewarded for his obstinacy with the end of an ice-axe, they fought Stalinism to the death, and they were the only ones who did. By the time of the great purges, they could only shout their rebellion in the freezing wastelands where they had been dragged in order to be exterminated. In the camps, their conduct was admirable. But their voices were lost in the tundra.

“Today, the Trotskyites have a right to accuse those who once howled along with the wolves. Let us not forget, however, that they had the enormous advantage over us of having a coherent political system capable of replacing Stalinism. They had something to cling to in the midst of their profound distress at seeing the revolution betrayed. They did not ‘confess,’ for they knew that their confession would serve neither the party nor socialism” (Leopold Trepper, The Great Game, (London: Sphere Books, 1979], pp. 55–56).

It was with great difficulty that Healy read to the end of this passage. Then, he closed the book, abruptly brought his speech to an end and walked out of the lecture hall.

* * *

For a long and difficult period, Gerry Healy was a crucial human link in the historical continuity of the Fourth International. For decades he fought against Stalinism and opportunism. In the end, he broke beneath the pressure of this tremendous struggle. But the best of what he achieved in his long political career lives on in the International Committee of the Fourth International; and the resurgent international revolutionary workers movement, learning both from his achievements and failures, will not fail to pay proper tribute to his memory.