Chapter 9 (1971-1975) WRP
IF A DETAILED account of Gerry Healy’s political career has a justification, it lies mainly in the period up until the late 1960s. For two decades before that, the organisation led by Healy was the only significant political grouping in Britain to the left of the Communist Party, and any study of British ‘Trotskyism’ during those years would necessarily concentrate on the Healyite movement. By the early 1970s, however, there were some much more positive developments than the SLL on the far left. Tony Cliff’s International Socialists were by then engaged in building rank-and-file movements in the trade unions, while Ted Grant’s Militant Tendency was beginning to make some headway with its entrist strategy in the Labour Party. The International Marxist Group, for its part, was pursuing its orientation towards the students’ and women’s movements and Irish solidarity campaigns.
Healy’s ‘orthodoxy’ (which was in fact characterised by ignorance of, and contempt for, the political positions of Leninism and Trotskyism) offered no revolutionary alternative to those he dismissed as ‘revisionists’. Healy could attack the IS’s intervention in industry for its syndicalism and economism, but the SLL made no attempt to organise a real opposition to the bureaucracy inside the unions. And while Healy could deride Militant’s aim of transforming the Labour Party, the SLL failed to carry out even the most minimal fraction work in the party which still held the political allegiance of mass of the working class. As for the IMG, its uncritical attitude to the IRA and its turn away from the labour movement in search of ‘new vanguards’ were lambasted by the SLL. However, Healy’s response to the Irish liberation struggle was to denounce ‘the reactionary, indiscriminate violence of the Provisionals’1 (while engaging in a short flirtation with the leadership of Official Sinn Féin) and to hold the occasional SLL public meeting when Ireland hit the headlines. No serious activity was carried out by the YS among students, and the SLL’s position on the women’s movement was distinguished by downright political backwardness.
Not that Healy ignored the post-1968 politicisation of a layer of the middle class. With his eye for the main chance, he was not averse to recruiting from among the very ‘petty bourgeois radicals’ who were otherwise the object of the SLL’s scorn. From the end of the 1960s, Healy began holding classes with a group of producers, directors, playwrights and actors who had been drawn towards Trotskyism.2 As he had with the dissident intellectuals from the CP back in the 1950s, Healy approached these potential recruits with a degree of subtlety. ‘There was always give and take at these meetings, much more so than at regular party events’, Tim Wohlforth writes of Healy’s classes. ‘The cultural people received special kid gloves treatment from Healy who spent many, many hours with each of the key people in this milieu carefully nurturing their development.’3 Healy’s intervention in this milieu was preserved for posterity in Trevor Griffiths’s play The Party, in which the Healy character (named John Tagg) was played by no less a figure than Sir Laurence Olivier.
For some of these artists, Wohlforth observes, involvement with the SLL allowed them to enjoy a vicarious identification with the struggles of the working class while maintaining their own comfortable existences. For others, notably two of Healy’s most celebrated recruits from the theatrical world, Corin and Vanessa Redgrave, their commitment was much more serious. ‘Corin impressed me’, Wohlforth recalls. ‘He seemed extremely interested in Marxist theory and quite willing to do everything other members did. He would go out at five in the morning to sell papers at plant gates and deliver papers door to door in working class neighbourhoods. It was Corin who brought his more famous sister around the organisation. I met Vanessa on several occasions and she seemed equally as serious as her brother and more than willing to carry out any party task she was asked to do.... Clearly, I told myself, these two can make a real contribution to the movement.’4
At its most cynical level, Healy’s turn to the radical middle classes was motivated by the straightforward pursuit of cash. According to one perhaps apocryphal story, Healy’s response to the recruitment of C. Redgrave was ‘It’s the big one I’m interested in, the one with the money’ – namely Corin’s wealthy sister.5 Another probable motive on Healy’s part was that such recruits, who had no real background in the workers’ movement and were won to the SLL mainly on the basis of admiration for Healy the individual, were a useful source of uncritical political support. This would seem to be the only explanation for the immediate elevation to leadership positions of the Redgraves – and others such as Alex Mitchell, a former Sunday Times journalist who became editor of Workers Press in 1971.6 The consequence was to encourage in these people a combination of arrogance and ignorance which destroyed any potential they had as revolutionaries.7
The rise of political competitors like the IS and IMG did not mean that the SLL went into decline; on the contrary, the early 1970s were the years in which Healy’s organisation enjoyed its most spectacular growth. For this was a period marked by the most intense industrial conflicts in Britain since the pre-1914 ‘Great Unrest’. And although the predominant form of these struggles was wage militancy, the attempts by Edward Heath’s Tory government to shackle the unions through its state pay laws and National Industrial Relations Court gave these industrial battles an extremely sharp political character. Tens of thousands of workers were radicalised by their experiences, and the SLL and YS intervened energetically among them.
On the face of it, Healy’s successes in this period were very impressive, at least so far as the SLL’s ability to win a wide audience for its politics was concerned. A rally at the Empire Pool Wembley in March 1972, which marked the culmination of a YS national Right to Work march, drew a crowd of over 8,000 (though some of them were no doubt there partly for a concert featuring such attractions as the rock group Slade).8 A year later at the same venue a ‘Pageant of Working Class History’, in which the SLL’s playwrights and actors collaborated with trade unionists and youth to stage large-scale dramatisations of earlier workers’ struggles, was attended by 10,000 people.9 During Healy’s speech at this event, which the SLL hailed as ‘the greatest day in the history of British Trotskyism’, a forty-foot high enlargement of the great leader was projected onto a screen in front of the assembled multitude!10
To Healy, who had spent the best part of his political career in small revolutionary groups, it must have seemed that he had finally cracked it. Yet these rallies were more a tribute to Healy’s talents as a political showman than a reflection of the SLL’s real influence in the working class. Indeed, for Healy such mass spectacles became a substitute for a serious fight to establish a solid political base in the mass movement. As Mike Banda would later comment, Healy came to suffer the delusion ‘that by marches, pageants, pop concerts and various other politically exotic devices ... he could replace historical experience and the long arduous struggle of the party and persuade thousands of workers to abandon social democracy and become Trotskyists’.11
The essentially sectarian relationship which Healy developed between the SLL and the mass struggles of the working class seems to have been based on a particularly dogmatic reading of Lenin’s What Is To Be Done?, with its one-sided, and ultimately false, emphasis on revolutionary consciousness being brought into the workers’ movement ‘from without’.12 Thus Workers Press, despite being a daily, remained essentially a propaganda organ which gave little agitational guidance to militant workers. Healy’s line was that trade unionists should be left to get on with the practical details of industrial struggles, while the SLL’s role was to argue for the general strategic line of bringing down the Tory government and electing a Labour government ‘pledged to carry out socialist policies’. This meant that leading trade unionists in the SLL were often allowed to behave in a thoroughly opportunist fashion in their union work.13 It also produced the familiar sight of SLL members intervening at labour movement meetings in a woodenly propagandist manner which failed to address any of the immediate issues under discussion.
Nor was Healy capable of providing the working class with a Marxist analysis of the economic and political developments underlying the class struggle. When Nixon broke the dollar’s link with gold in August 1971, Healy asserted that this had provoked an economic crisis which was ‘the worst in the history of capitalism’14 and was driving the system towards complete collapse.15 The Tories’ response to this ever-deepening economic crisis, according to Healy, was to try and establish through its industrial relations legislation a corporate state along the lines of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, in which independent trade unions would be destroyed. And in this project, bizarrely enough, the Tories supposedly had the support of the right wing of the union bureaucracy, who Healy claimed were ‘getting ready to accept the government’s laws and join the corporate state’!16
Predictions of imminent economic catastrophe and incipient right wing dictatorship were of course nothing new for Healy. He had been saying this sort of thing as far back as 1945-46.17 But whereas at that time Healy had employed such arguments to advocate total entry into the Labour Party, he now drew precisely the opposite conclusion – that reformism was finished and that it was necessary to set up an independent revolutionary party. The result, in November 1973, was the ‘transformation’ of the SLL into the Workers Revolutionary Party. As was often the case with Healy, ultra-left bombast went hand in hand with opportunist practice. The fantasy that Heath was intent on imposing a ‘Bonapartist dictatorship, in preparation for massive state repressions against the working class and the Marxist movement’18 was used to justify a programmatic emphasis on the defence of democratic rights. The perspectives document for the new party, which appeared as a central committee statement in February 1973, was based on the ‘Charter of Basic Rights’ from 1970, and had a predominantly reformist character.19 ‘Not a word was said about the dictatorship of the proletariat as the strategic objective of the socialist revolution in Britain’, it has been pointed out. ‘The perspectives did not explain and expose the class nature of bourgeois democracy .... The document had nothing to say about the struggle against British imperialism, nor did it say anything about the relationship of the British working class struggle to the national liberation and anti-imperialist struggles throughout the world. The programmatic section of the document did not call for Irish self-determination. In its content and underlying conception, the programme on which the WRP was founded had nothing to do with Trotskyism.’20
The WRP’s founding conference, which was attended by 3,000 ‘delegates and visitors’, should have indicated to Healy that, for all the gains of the previous few years, he was still a long way short of creating a truly mass revolutionary party of the working class. But Healy’s head was filled with visions of an imminent struggle for power. ‘We say the preconditions for the social revolution are maturing rapidly’, he assured the conference. ‘There is no middle road – either we defeat this government and smash its state apparatus or they will destroy us. The conflict ahead in fact poses this question of dual power.’21 The problem of the continuing hold of social democracy over the labour movement was easily disposed of. ‘Workers know’, the first statement by the new WRP central committee blithely asserted, ‘that what is posed today is ... a revolutionary political confrontation in which the whole question of power is posed.’22 Subsequent political developments were to deal harsh blows to such illusions.
* * * *
THE ‘TRANSFORMATION’ of the SLL into the Workers Revolutionary Party was immediately followed by the final upsurge of struggle against the Heath government which was to culminate in the historic defeat of the Tories by the National Union of Mineworkers. In November 1973, when the NUM began an overtime ban in pursuit of a pay claim which breached the Tory pay laws, Heath declared a state of emergency, followed in January 1974 by a three-day week in industry to conserve energy supplies. In the face of the government’s continued refusal to concede their claim, in February the miners declared a national strike, and Heath responded by calling a snap general election, hoping to win the middle class vote with a union-bashing campaign. In the event, he suffered a humiliating rejection. Labour emerged from the election as the party with the largest number of seats and was able to form a minority government under Harold Wilson.
In this situation of intense industrial and political conflict, a genuine revolutionary organisation, even one of the WRP’s relatively small size, could have played an important role in clarifying political issues for advanced workers and outlining the tasks ahead. But the WRP leadership was in a state of complete political disorientation. During the election campaign Healy proclaimed that Heath was intent on installing a police-military dictatorship, and Workers Press carried a series of bloodcurdling headlines to this effect. However, when the maverick Tory Enoch Powell made his intervention just prior to the election, urging his supporters to vote Labour because of its commitment to a referendum on the Common Market, Heath was deposed from his position as aspirant British fuhrer and replaced by Powell. Healy assured a WRP eve-of-poll meeting that ‘the two-party system is breaking up’ and that the coming conflict would be ‘between the Workers Revolutionary Party and the Powellite movement’!23
The WRP stood nine of its own candidates in the general election. They received votes ranging from a derisory 52 for Workers Press journalist Stephen Johns in Dunbartonshire East, to a relatively respectable 1,108 for WRP miner Dave Temple in Wallsend (compared with 41,811 for the successful Labour candidate). These results indicated that at best only a very narrow layer of the working class was responsive to pseudo-revolutionary appeals to break from Labour, and that the overwhelming majority of class-conscious workers retained their political allegiance to social democracy. Yet Healy failed to take this question at all seriously. The WRP leadership deluded itself that a Labour government would be quickly discredited among militant workers, who would then rally to the alternative ‘revolutionary leadership’ of the WRP.24
It all turned out rather differently. The Wilson government proceeded to settle the miners’ pay claim, end the state of emergency and the three-day week, and abolish the Industrial Relations Act. Far from breaking from reformism, the advanced sections of the working class remained loyal to Labour, and at a second general election in October Wilson was returned to office with a narrow overall majority.
But Healy was oblivious to the real political situation. Having surrounded himself with middle class sycophants from the journalistic and acting professions, and cut himself off from all but the most intermittent contact with the working class, Healy was able to allow his political fantasies free rein. Thus he could argue, in all seriousness, that a situation of dual power had been ushered in by the fall of the Heath government. In the October election the WRP again stood its own candidates, scarcely bothering to argue for a Labour vote. Healy set a target of 3,000 new recruits for the election campaign, and ‘members’ were signed up to what was supposedly a Bolshevik party on the most minimal anti-Tory basis. The WRP candidates did no better than in February, and the party’s numbers continued to decline.
All the conditions for a major crisis in Healy’s organisation were present, and it was not long in breaking. The catalyst was provided by a group of former SLL members linked with the French OCI – Robin Blick, Mark Jenkins and John and Mary Archer – who in January 1974 began publishing a regular Bulletin aimed at WRP members. Although the Bulletin group held an unduly positive opinion of Healy’s earlier deep entry in the Labour Party, they were very effective at exposing the anti-Marxist absurdities of his current political line. In particular, the group emphasised the need for transitional demands instead of Healy’s ultimatist calls for the immediate nationalisation of major industries and the banks.
Healy’s reaction was to ban WRP members from reading the Bulletin, and to change the party’s constitution, removing the right of expelled members to appeal to conference.25 Even loyal party members baulked at this. Alan Thornett, the leading figure in the WRP’s factory branch at British Leyland Cowley, voted against Healy’s constitutional changes on the central committee. A furious Healy demanded, and got, from Thornett a written retraction of this vote. When the issue was put to the party’s special conference in July 1974 another Cowley WRPer, Tony Richardson, made the mistake of asking a question of clarification. He was hauled off to Healy’s office and forced to admit, on pain of expulsion, that he was wrong even to have asked the question.
Hamstrung in their industrial work by Healy’s sectarian ultra-leftism, and faced with a party regime which prevented any serious reassessment of the WRP’s policies, Thornett and his supporters opened up discussions with the Bulletin Group, and began with the latter’s assistance to organise a faction against Healy. In September, Thornett presented a document in his own name urging a return to the Transitional Programme, which was in fact written in large part by Robin Blick. It demonstrated irrefutably that the WRP’s politics were utterly divorced from Trotskyism.26
Healy responded to this challenge with his usual anti-Bolshevik methods. Thornett’s views were dishonestly misrepresented to the membership and denounced as a form of Menshevism, while Workers Press editorials suddenly began including the very transitional demands – sliding scales of wages and hours, etc – which Thornett had accused the WRP leadership of rejecting. As it became clear that he was incapable of answering Thornett politically, Healy abandoned any pretence of democratic procedure. In October, Tony Richardson was summoned to the party’s Clapham headquarters and physically assaulted by Healy. A control commission set up to inquire into the violence against Richardson was then rigged by Healy to provide trumped-up charges against Thornett and his supporters in order to justify their expulsion. Some 200 members were thrown out of the WRP, and its main base in industry liquidated.
The effects of Healy’s wrong perspectives, sectarian politics and bureaucratic centralism were not restricted to Britain, but were felt throughout the WRP’s International Committee. In the United States, Workers League leader Tim Wohlforth was encouraged by Healy to implement a new orientation towards youth in imitation of the SLL’s YS work, trying to attract young African Americans and Puerto Ricans to politics by means of dances, socials, etc.27 On Healy’s instructions, Wohlforth waged a bitter struggle against the ‘conservative’ forces in the League who resisted this new turn. The results were devastating. By Wohlforth’s own calculations, around 100 members, including some of its oldest and most experienced cadres, were hounded out of the WL.28 Healy, for his part, regarded all this as a great success. At the Fifth Congress of the IC, in April 1974, he argued that the loss of the old ‘propagandists’ was a necessary part of the WL’s ‘turn to the working class’, and recommended the League’s work to the other sections of the IC as an example to be emulated.
After contact with a group of former WL members, however, Healy apparently woke up to the disastrous consequences of the new turn. That he himself was directly to blame for this situation was not, of course, something that Healy could accept. Instead, Wohlforth recounts, Healy ‘immediately concluded that the loss of leading members over the past year was the work of the CIA! ... After all, as he saw it, the League was breaking up. The CIA would like to see the League break up. Therefore the CIA must be at work’. The chief agent was identified by Healy as Wohlforth’s partner, Nancy Fields, on the sole basis that her uncle, with whom she had broken all relations years before, was a former CIA employee.
Healy attended the WL’s summer camp in August 1974 in order to deal personally with the matter, having first sent Cliff Slaughter on ahead to check that the great leader’s life would not be under threat! The purging of Wohlforth, who was essentially set up as a scapegoat for the results of Healy’s own policies, was carried out at a WL central committee meeting in the middle of the night. Healy started the discussion, charging Wohlforth with gross irresponsibility for not reporting Nancy Field’s ‘CIA connection’. One by one, the participants rose to denounce Wohlforth and Fields. ‘The comrades’, Wohlforth writes, ‘had been up since six am or earlier, were clearly bleary eyed, dazed and caught up in the isolated world of the camp with its tensions, guards and continuous discussion of the outside world in terms ever more stark and unreal. An atmosphere of complete hysteria dominated the meeting.... Healy, with his face getting ever redder and in an extreme emotional state, stood in the centre of the circle, facing me. Finally it was just too much for me. I stood up. “I ... I disagree with the entire proceedings”, I stammered. Healy rushed up to me and shook his fists within an inch of my face shouting “I will destroy you”.’
At Healy’s instigation, Wohlforth was removed as WL secretary, while Fields was suspended from the League. Healy then returned to London to call a meeting of the IC which retrospectively endorsed his actions, for which he had in fact no constitutional authority whatsoever. An internal inquiry into Fields subsequently found that there was no truth at all in Healy’s paranoid accusations. By this time, however, both Wohlforth and Fields had left the WL in disgust.
Another victim of Healy’s arbitrary methods was L. Sklavos (Dimitri Toubanis), the secretary of the IC’s Greek section, the Workers Internationalist League.29 In April 1975, Sklavos put forward a short draft resolution to the WIL central committee, arguing that the League’s call for the immediate overthrow of the government did not correspond to the actual state of the class struggle or the existing level of political consciousness of the working class. And, to make matters worse, in an international school later that year, Sklavos had the nerve to question Healy and Slaughter’s exposition of dialectics. At the WIL congress that summer, Sklavos and his supporters found themselves in a minority, and Mike Banda, who attended on behalf of the WRP, organised the removal of Sklavos as editor of the League’s paper.
After being repeatedly postponed, an international discussion on philosophy was held in Athens in January 1976. Healy, who seems to have been worried that his intervention in the Workers League had too blatantly revealed his corrupt organisational practices, did not address the conference, but remained in his Athens hotel room directing operations against the opposition. Sklavos, who was refused the right to relate the disputed philosophical issues to differences over practical political questions, resigned as secretary in order to fight for his positions among the membership – and was promptly expelled for doing so! As had happened in the Thornett case, this was followed by a wholesale purge of oppositionists.
It would be a mistake to see the events of the mid-70s in the WRP and IC as representing the degeneration of what had once been a healthy revolutionary tendency. If this study of Healy’s career has demonstrated anything, it is that the organisation he led was never more than a degenerate fragment of Trotsky’s Fourth International. But the bureaucratic thuggery and sheer political craziness which became synonymous with Healyism certainly intensified from this time onwards. In retrospect, the only surprising thing about the collapse of Healy’s organisation, which occurred a decade later, was that it did not happen long before.
1. Workers Press, 24 February 1972.
2. Interestingly, this group also held discussions with Tony Cliff, but were more impressed with Healy’s ‘revolutionary’ hardness than with an IS which had then only just emerged from its libertarian phase to adopt a formal Leninism. (Interview with Robin Blick, 14 August 1992.)
3. T. Wohlforth, Memoirs, unpublished draft (later published in a revised form as The Prophet's Children, 1994).
5. Tasks of the Fourth International, May 1980.
6. These points are made in D. North, Gerry Healy and His Place in the History of the Fourth International, 1991, pp.54-57. North, however, apparently holds the anti-Marxist view that it was impermissible in principle for Healy to recruit from this petit bourgeois milieu.
7. ‘I was shocked when I next met them’, Wohlforth writes of the Redgraves. ‘It was at an International Committee meeting held in 1973 and Corin and Vanessa were the SLL’s delegates to the conference! This seemed unreal to me as Vanessa had been in the movement barely a year and Corin only a couple of years basically as a rank and filer. They had become Healy’s special pets, the mask of humility was being dropped, and a kind of arrogance emerging. Both made rather lengthy and totally hollow presentations to the meeting asserting – as if they had just discovered something – the critical importance of the revolutionary party and theory in the next period of the capitalist crisis, etc, etc, etc’ (Wohlforth, Memoirs).
8. Workers Press, 13 March 1972.
9. Ibid., 12 March 1973.
10. D. Widgery, The Left in Britain, 1976, pp.499-50.
11. Workers Press, 7 February 1986.
12. Trotsky never accepted that Lenin’s formulation was correct. See his Stalin, 1968, p.58; also P. Pomper, ed, Trotsky's Notebooks, 1933-35, 1986, p.84.
13. See the comments in Workers Socialist League, The Battle for Trotskyism, 1976, pp.78-80.
14. Workers Press, 20 October 1971.
15. ‘A US Treasury prediction of “another 1929” could be the understatement of the year’, one editorial stated (ibid., 31 March 1973).
16. Ibid., 20 February 1973. For an analysis of Healy’s stupid and incoherent positions on ‘corporatism’, see R. Black, Fascism in Germany, 1975, pp.1088ff.
17. See chapter 2.
18. Workers Press, 20 January 1973.
19. Draft Perspectives to Transform the SLL into the Revolutionary Party, SLL pamphlet, 1973.
20. Fourth International, Summer 1986.
21. Workers Press, 5 November 1973. (Healy’s speech to the WRP founding conference was later published by the Redgraves in their Marxist Monthly, December 1992/January 1993. Strangely enough, none of his barmier predictions concerning the imminence of dual power, of the struggle to smash the capitalist state, etc, appeared in this version.)
22. Workers Press, 12 November 1973.
23. Ibid., 1 March 1974.
24. Thus Cliff Slaughter argued (ibid, 8 January 1974) that, if the Heath government were brought down by industrial action, ‘in a general election that followed, the reformist Labour leaders would be exposed by the demand that they carry out socialist policies and by the refusal of workers to call off their action simply because Labour was elected’.
25. This account is based on the Workers Socialist League’s The Battle for Trotskyism, 1976.
26. When the details of this collaboration were revealed some years later by Robin Blick, Healy predictably accused the Thornett group of having conspired with the WRP’s political enemies behind the backs of the party. But such conspiratorial methods were entirely justifiable, given the regime that existed in the WRP. The only criticism of the Thornett group is that, after their expulsion from the WRP, they continued to deny that they had collaborated with the Bulletin Group during their factional struggle against Healy.
27. This account is based on the draft of Tim Wohlforth’s Memoirs, on the published version, The Prophet’s Children, pp.231-45, and on a document by Wohlforth serialised in Intercontinental Press, February-March 1975.
28. C. Slaughter, ed., Trotskyism versus Revisionism, vol.7, 1984, p.172.
29. This account is based on a document by the Sklavos group (the Communist Internationalist League), serialised in the Thornettites’ paper Socialist Press, October-December 1976. I am obliged to V.N. Gelis for this reference.