Chapter 8 (1968-1971) OCI
ALTHOUGH THE election of the second Wilson government in 1966 saw a partial reversal by Healy of the ultra-left turn which had accompanied the launch of the independent Young Socialists, this proved only temporary. During 1968-69 Healy suffered a renewed outbreak of leftist delusions. He became convinced that the SLL was about to replace the Labour Party as the political leadership of the working class and that the struggle for power was on the immediate agenda. This was underpinned by the usual nonsense about the capitalist economy heading towards its final collapse.
Mike Banda would later compare Healy’s economic perspectives to the ‘breakdown’ theory of early German social democracy, citing the front page article by Healy headlined ‘Crisis, Panic, Crash’ with which the Newsletter responded to the threat of dollar devaluation in March 1968.1 ‘Every serious attempt to analyse world economy was frowned upon’, Banda wrote, ‘and the intellectuals were forced to toe the Healyite line: apocalypse now!’2 Not that some of them required much forcing. Geoff Pilling, for example, had apparently been happy to endorse Healy’s belief that the growth of automation was plunging world capitalism into ‘deepening crisis, if not total destruction’,3 and it was he who had pioneered the line (enthusiastically adopted by Healy) that the mounting instability of the international monetary system would sound the death knell of capitalism.
The only intellectual prepared to take a stand against Healy’s catastrophism was Tom Kemp. At the 1967 SLL conference Kemp submitted an alternative document on economic perspectives which, as Robin Blick recalls, ‘criticised cataclysmic projections and said that the economy was perfectly capable of sustaining various recoveries, and that the end was far from being in sight. He got up and defended the document, and the only person to vote for it was Tom Kemp – and he wouldn’t back down, he wouldn’t yield. And Pilling was the main torpedo fired at him, of course .... Healy lambasted him in a knockabout manner – "lacking faith in the revolutionary perspective" and all this – but Pilling actually tried to take it apart, nuts and bolts’.4 As a result of his defiance, according to Banda, Kemp was ‘virtually driven out of leadership and almost out of the party’.5
Healy’s ultra-leftism was also fuelled by the gains the SLL was making in the unions. Though he had previously denied the need to build a specifically industrial organisation, in February 1968 Healy launched the All Trades Unions Alliance as the ‘political arm of the SLL in industry’. This repeated on a larger scale the mistakes of Healy’s attempt at establishing an industrial base in the late 1950s, using impressive conferences aimed at individual recruitment as a substitute for organising a real movement within the unions.6 Nevertheless, Healy did succeed in winning a number of militants and extending the SLL’s influence in industry. When the Wilson government produced its white paper In Place of Strife in January 1969, which outlined plans to impose legal shackles on the trade unions, the SLL took the initiative in calling for a May Day strike against this, which was supported by almost a quarter of a million trade unionists.7
The fact that militant workers were bitterly opposed to the Wilson government’s anti-union policies, together with a more general disillusionment with Labour’s record in office – reflected in large-scale abstentions by Labour voters in by-elections – was enough to persuade Healy that social democracy had now run its historical course in Britain. The SLL’s 1969 conference proclaimed that ‘the desertion of the reformist party’ was ‘almost complete’, and stated unequivocally that ‘no section of the working class will ever again look to the Labour Party for leadership’.8 As for the Labour government, Healy declared that it was ‘out to destroy the trade unions’ – an objective which Trotskyists have traditionally regarded as the defining feature of a fascist regime!9 The SLL’s task, therefore, was ‘to fight now for socialist policies against the Labour government, to bring it down’.10
The French events of May-June 1968 were taken by Healy as confirmation that revolutionary battles were imminent in Britain. SLL central committee member Cyril Smith was doubtless echoing Healy when he told students at the London School of Economics that there were ‘perhaps 18 months in which to prepare for a struggle similar to that in France’.11 A developing political crisis would ‘carry us in the immediate future into the struggle for power’, a resolution at the 1969 SLL conference asserted.12 And the Newsletter explained that the working class faced the stark choice: ‘EITHER the dictatorship of Wilson and, after him, a right-wing semi-fascist dictatorship of Tories, OR a workers’ government based on workers’ councils and the trade unions with a socialist home and foreign policy.’13
Healy’s grotesque misreading of the political situation prevented the SLL from intervening effectively in the real crisis which the Labour leadership faced in its attempt to impose In Place of Strife. The Communist Party was denounced for raising ‘the illusory hope that Wilson’s government can be forced to adopt different policies by pressure’, and for failing to recognise that ‘only a general strike would halt Wilson’.14 In the event, faced with a revolt in the party and the trade unions (which, however, fell far short of a general strike), the government was indeed forced to back down and withdraw the proposed anti-union laws. This did not prevent Healy from announcing smugly that ‘the perspectives of every group and party except ours are in ruins’.15
It was a measure of the SLL leaders’ political disorientation that in the following months they were increasingly reduced to issuing bombastic, pseudo-revolutionary declarations which avoided addressing any programmatic or tactical questions. A political committee statement of October 1969 was typical. This rambling, disjointed piece, evidently written by Healy himself, contained ‘not a single transitional demand, not a single policy on which militants might fight in any union or industry, not even a suggestion as to how to organise such struggles’, as one contemporary critic pointed out.16 Healy’s only practical proposal was that workers should join the SLL and build the revolutionary party.17
It was against this background of galloping sectarianism that Healy’s longstanding plan to transform the Newsletter into a daily finally reached fruition, with the appearance in September 1969 of Workers Press. ‘The daily paper was Healy’s prestige project, his Aswan Dam’, Tim Wohlforth writes. ‘I spoke with Healy within weeks of the launching of the daily ... and he had not yet figured how he was going to distribute it. Almost to the last day he was considering a commercial newsstand distribution. Healy appeared to be unaware that the physical production of a daily paper was the easy part of it, especially with modern web offset printing. The real problems were how to sustain such a paper financially and how to maintain a circulation that would make the effort worthwhile.’18 But the print run for Workers Press, in Wohlforth’s estimation, was no more than 6,000 during the week and 10,000 for the weekend edition.19 Healy was immune to such considerations. ‘We have only just begun’, he told a rally celebrating the launch of the daily. ‘We are going to tear down the capitalist system shred for shred. We are now going to use this paper to build the mass revolutionary party.’20
Another product of Healy’s ultra-leftist lurch was his attempt to mount an electoral challenge to Labour. This policy was first agreed at the SLL’s 1968 conference, which proposed to stand candidates in the next general election with the aim of ‘exposing and defeating the "parliamentary" leaderships of the working class’. It was given a trial run in the Swindon by-election of October 1969. The Young Socialist candidate, Frank Willis, was a well-known local trade unionist, and a six-month campaign was organised which brought in YS members from all over the country. Yet Willis received only 446 votes (1.1 per cent), a result which completely demolished the argument that large sections of the working class were breaking from Labour to the left. Healy, however, pronounced the intervention to have been ‘absolutely correct’, while Keep Left went so far as to declare it ‘a great victory’!21
As it became clear that, with a general election and the threat of a Tory government looming, workers were rallying to the Labour Party, Healy executed a characteristic about-turn. At the SLL’s 1970 May Day rally, he denied that he was one of those revolutionaries attacked in the capitalist press for believing that revolution was ‘just around the corner’ – they must have been thinking of Tariq Ali of the IMG, Healy remarked disingenuously. And in the run-up to the June general election the SLL reverted to its demand for a ‘genuinely socialist Labour government’, calling for a Labour vote on the (correct) grounds that returning the reformists to office would provide ‘the best conditions for defeating Wilson and his anti-working class policies and replacing him with a socialist leadership’.22 As for Healy’s plan to stand SLL candidates against Labour, it had been quietly abandoned.
* * * *
IF THIS ACCOUNT of Healy in the late 1960s has been lacking in an international dimension, it is because there is so little to say on this score. For, in Healy’s view, his political activity in Britain was his international work. As he put it in 1966, by transforming the SLL into a mass revolutionary party and leading the British working class to power he would ‘inspire revolutionists in all countries to build similar parties to do the same’.23 This Anglocentrism would later provide the method behind Healy’s construction of his own ‘International’, consisting of groups modelled on, and completely dominated by, the SLL.
But it was impossible for Healy to exercise such control over the Lambert group in France, which had its own political positions, few of which tallied with those of the SLL. The French section’s dual defeatist line on the 1967 Middle East war was diametrically opposed to the Healyites’ support for the ‘Arab revolution’, while Banda’s backing for Mao and Ho Chi Minh was anathema to the bitterly anti-Stalinist Lambertists. And the latter’s emphasis on the need to ‘reconstruct’ the Fourth International, which they correctly argued had ceased to exist as a centralised world leadership, was an implicit challenge to Healy’s bogus theory of continuity.24 Under the common ‘anti-Pabloite’ banner of the International Committee, the two groups in fact carried out their own political activities completely independently of each other.
Their relationship became somewhat warmer at the time of the 1968 struggles in France, in which the Organisation Communiste Internationaliste (as the Lambertists had become) achieved some prominence. Healy now publicly acclaimed the OCI as the SLL’s sister organisation, campaigned against its illegalisation by De Gaulle and raised a £1,000 support fund. But the dramatic growth of the OCI – by February 1970 it was able to hold a 10,000-strong youth rally at Le Bourget airport outside Paris – threatened to make it the major force within the IC, and Healy’s attitude cooled again.
In an attempt to find some programmatic agreement between the two sections, in September 1969 the OCI submitted a document entitled ‘For the Reconstruction of the Fourth International’ to the IC pre-conference, which eventually met in July the following year.25 At this meeting, Robin Blick recounts, Stephan Just of the OCI tried to open a discussion on the document. ‘And do you know what Healy talked about? He talked about philosophy, for about four hours.’ Tim Wohlforth, who had actually tried to address the programmatic issues raised in the French document, was hauled off to Healy’s office at the end of the first session and told to stick to philosophy. ‘That was the only way they could stop a discussion, you see’, Blick comments.
When the meeting resumed, the OCI attempted to discuss the Transitional Programme, the workers’ united front and the political struggle in Europe. ‘And Healy, and Slaughter – and then Wohlforth got up and did his thing – all talked about method and philosophy. There were two worlds which never met. So at the end of the conference, with time ticking away, and Just looking at his watch and saying he had a plane to catch, there was a one-paragraph resolution passed which said that the French document was within the traditions of orthodox Trotskyism, and that discussions would continue upon it. Which they never did, because not long after that the two organisations split.’26
As the conflict between the British and French sections of the International Committee escalated towards an open break, Healy responded with his usual combination of evasions, political zigzags and dishonest polemic. Instead of attempting to clarify the issues involved, he pursued his dispute with the OCI on a thoroughly unprincipled basis, for which his repeated appeals to Marxist theory and dialectical materialism merely served as a cover.
At the 1970 SLL summer camp, which took place a few weeks after the IC pre-conference, Healy declared that he was launching a fight ‘against all those who display arrogance against theory in this camp and in the International Committee, against sections which think they are superior because they have had some success in struggle, but which refuse to recognise that, with their snobbishness towards Marxist theory, they are leading the International to destruction .... I was very shocked at the pre-conference to hear the French comrades argue that Marxist theory does not exist. I declare war on them’.27
It might have been supposed that this statement, made as it was in front of an OCI delegation attending the camp, was intended to unleash a sharp political struggle inside the IC. Yet, when Pierre Lambert wrote to him asking for an explanation of these remarks, Healy sent back a conciliatory reply, assuring Lambert that he was ‘no more and no less in conflict with you and the OCI than at any moment in the past’. Challenged by Lambert to produce a detailed critique of the political document the OCI had presented to the pre-conference, Healy simply prevaricated.28
Healy was at this time more interested in a political dialogue with the ‘revisionists’ of the United Secretariat than he was with his French comrades. Having for years denounced the hated ‘Pabloites’ as traitors to the working class, in April 1970 Healy suddenly dispatched a friendly personal note to USec leader Pierre Frank proposing informal talks on ‘matters of mutual interest’. As a result, Healy held two meetings with Frank and other USec representatives in Paris the following month. According to Frank’s report, Healy stated that the situation had changed since 1963 when the SLL had rejected reunification, and that he now believed ‘joint discussions, perhaps a conference, would be useful’. The clear implication was that unity between the IC and the USec had become a practical possibility.29
What was Healy up to? That he genuinely intended to test out the possibility of unity with the ‘Pabloites’ seems improbable to put it mildly. It is more likely that he saw an opportunity to win some oppositionists from the USec’s European sections, which had experienced a substantial growth since 1968. Healy’s search for international recruits to reinforce his faction in the IC was given urgency by the fact that the OCI was busy establishing fraternal relations with organisations such as Guillermo Lora’s POR in Bolivia. On the eve of the pre-conference, Healy proclaimed a new, Irish section of the IC (acquired by imposing a premature split on the League for a Workers Republic, with whom the SLL was holding discussions) in order to provide himself with another vote to use against the French.30
If Healy hoped to pick up some additional forces from the USec to strengthen his hand against Lambert, he was to be disappointed, for the USec leaders refused to play ball. Publicly they took the line that the IC’s ‘slanderous attacks’ on them ruled out any prospect of discussions,31 while internally they justified their decision on the grounds that ‘Healy’s overtures are a manoeuvre’.32
Undeterred, in July 1970 Healy published an article in Workers Press repeating the proposal for a joint conference.33 And he issued another statement in September offering to refrain from public polemics against the USec while discussions took place. Healy went out of his way to play down the political differences between the IC and the USec, openly embracing Mandel, Frank and Co. as fellow revolutionaries. ‘Both the organisations of the International Committee and the Unified [sic] Secretariat’, he wrote, ‘are thrust more and more into the bitterest struggles against the counter-revolutionary forces of Stalinism and social democracy. The building of mass revolutionary parties based on the working class is within our reach in a number of important countries.’34
Not only did Healy’s appeal fail to move the USec, but it led to a further deterioration in relations with the Lambertists. In late September, the French sent the SLL a letter bitterly criticising Healy’s opportunist adaptation to ‘Pabloism’ and reasserting the principles of IC orthodoxy. Healy’s proposal for a joint conference, the letter pointed out, had no basis in the decisions of the IC, which had only authorised him to approach the USec for discussions. ‘As national secretary of the SLL’, the OCI wrote, ‘he counterposes his orientation to that of the International Committee – for which, nonetheless, he himself voted. He violates the most elementary rules of the functioning of the IC.’ The letter concluded by demanding a recall of the IC pre-conference. Healy, however, didn’t even bother to reply.35
As had been the case during his break with the SWP in the early 1960s, Healy’s readiness to defy his longstanding international partners was undoubtedly related to the growth of his own organisation in Britain. The Tory victory in the June 1970 general election, and the assault on the trade unions embodied in the Heath government’s Industrial Relations Bill, produced an upsurge of anger in the working class. This was reflected in a significant expansion in the SLL’s influence. In February 1971, a YS anti-Tory rally at Alexandra Palace was attended by over 4,000 people – by far the biggest meeting Healy had yet organised.36 The conclusion which Healy drew from these developments was made clear at an IC meeting early in 1971. ‘It is we who struggle against the Tory government, the centrists and the Stalinists’, he boasted. ‘... It is in England that the situation is explosive. It is by starting there that the Fourth International will be able to overcome the crisis.’37
The first public rupture between the British and the French took place at the international youth rally which the OCI organised at Essen in July 1971. It was the YS delegation which provoked this open declaration of differences by presenting the rally with a resolution which called for youth to dedicate themselves to the study of Marxist theory, on the basis of the one-sided (and essentially idealist) assertion that political opportunism in the workers’ movement was caused by revisionism in the sphere of theory. The 5,000-strong rally overwhelmingly rejected the YS resolution, with the OCI voting against it in company with a number of organisations hostile to the IC.38
Although Healy subsequently claimed that the conflict at Essen marked the ‘real split’ in the IC, this argument seems to have been thought up after the event. In fact a strong OCI delegation attended the SLL summer camp shortly afterwards. And Lambert himself was invited to give the closing speech to the camp, on the subject of dialectical materialism. He made it clear that what the French rejected was not Marxist theory as such, but the SLL’s attempt to separate philosophical issues from the basic practical tasks of tactics, strategy and programme. Lambert was able to underline this point with a quotation from The German Ideology in which Marx argued that, with the development of a materialist approach recognising the primacy of practical activity, ‘philosophy as an independent branch of knowledge loses its medium of existence’.39
Perhaps this was what finally decided Healy to make a complete break with the French. But the pretext on which the split was carried out was the role of the POR during the right-wing coup in Bolivia in August 1971. Barely had the new military regime been installed than Tim Wohlforth of the US Workers League published, at Healy’s instigation, an article holding the Lora leadership of the POR responsible for the Bolivian workers’ defeat. In October the OCI, the POR, Michel Varga’s Hungarian group and the Mexican section of the IC issued a statement defending Lora and attacking his critics, whereupon Healy immediately announced that a de facto split had taken place in the IC. And despite repeated appeals by the OCI that the differences should be fought out at the forthcoming World Congress, Healy refused to budge.
Although Healy declared the split in the name of a majority of the IC, this claim was questionable to say the least. Indeed, it was one of the products of the loose, decentralised character of the IC (for which Healy himself was mainly to blame) that it was far from clear who the IC’s sections actually were! The SLL’s split statement was co-signed by the Workers League, the Revolutionary Communist League of Ceylon, the Workers Internationalist League of Greece and the League for a Workers Vanguard of Ireland. But the OCI pointed out that the Greek ‘section’ no longer existed, as it had split into two organisations back in 1967. The SLL, for its part, having earlier hailed the POR as a member of the IC, now denied that the Bolivian party had ever joined at all.
As for the political issues in dispute, the Healyites’ documents criticising the OCI (which were finally produced after the split!) simply added to the confusion. In addition to the usual abstract dissertations on philosophical method, the SLL now attempted to outline some programmatic differences with the Lambertists, condemning both their syndicalist line during the 1968 general strike and their opportunist interpretation of the united front tactic, which centred on the demand for a joint Socialist-Communist candidate in the 1970 presidential election. But the SLL’s critique was extremely light on alternative proposals. Similarly with the POR, the Healyite documents accused Lora of capitulation to a nationalist wing of the Bolivian military, but were almost entirely devoid of suggestions as to what the POR should in fact have done.
Healy – and the SLL intellectuals like Cliff Slaughter who presumably wrote the documents – could pontificate endlessly about ‘the Marxist method’, but they were incapable of seriously addressing questions of Marxist programme. (The main programmatic statement produced by the SLL in Britain at this time – the ‘Charter of Basic Rights’ around which the big February 1971 rally was organised – was a jumble of elementary democratic demands and ultimatist calls on a future Labour government to abolish capitalism.)40 Far from addressing practical issues concerning the class struggle, the purpose of the SLL’s anti-OCI polemics was to justify the ludicrous fantasy that Healy and his supporters were the sole embodiment of revolutionary continuity.
In April 1972, Healy tried to give this myth of continuity some organisational basis by holding his ‘own’ Fourth World Congress of the IC, minus the OCI and its allies. The congress voted to draw up a constitution based on the original statutes of the Fourth International, in order to facilitate ‘centralised work and guidance to the sections’.41 In reality, the IC was now a thoroughly bureaucratic set-up which bore no resemblance to the democratic centralist International envisaged by Trotsky. Indicative of Healy’s method of international organisation was his treatment of the Greeks. An exile group in London led by Dimitri Toubanis was adopted by Healy as the official section, while the Karliaftis group in Greece – which had made the mistake of raising political disagreements with the SLL – was demoted to the status of a sympathising section.42 The OCI commented that there was nothing new in all this: ‘It is merely a caricature of the Zinovievist conception of the Communist International.’43
This point is endorsed by Tim Wohlforth. ‘At least the old IC’, he writes, ‘was an arena for two reasonably sized, and somewhat politically distinct, parties to discuss with each other and negotiate an occasional joint international venture. Now the IC was nothing but a collection of satellites hovering around the Great Guru, Gerry Healy. At least this is what Healy now clearly wished it to be. There was still a bit of sorting out to take place before the IC could be completely purified of deviations, or even potential deviations, from the British model. Healy got the international movement he wanted. The price he had to pay was the impotence of his international worshippers.’44
1. Newsletter, 19 March 1968.
2. Workers Press, 7 February 1986.
3. Fourth International, January 1966. Pilling made the further prediction that the devaluation of the pound would ‘virtually spell the end for the City of London and for British capitalism more generally’!
4. Interview with Robin Blick, 15 August 1992.
5. Workers Press, 7 February 1986.
6. One critic wrote of the ATUA at this time that ‘its main "activity" seems to be the frequent conferences. These, however, very rarely get down to any discussion of building a movement, either on a national level or on that of one industry ... the leaders don’t really want to build a movement ... rather than have an oppositional movement of the masses of workers in any particular union, the League wants to recruit a few individuals’ (T. Whelan, The Credibility Gap: the Politics of the SLL, 1970, p.45).
7. A. Thornett, From Militancy to Marxism, 1987, pp.139, 143.
8. Quoted by R. Black, Fascism in Germany, 1975, p.1077.
9. Newsletter, 11 January 1969.
10. Black, p.1077.
11. Newsletter, 18 June 1968.
12. Black, p.1077.
13. Newsletter, 19 April 1969.
14. Ibid., 19 April, 3 May, 1969.
15. Black, p.1075.
16. Whelan, p.41.
17. Workers Press, 25 October 1969.
18. T. Wohlforth, The Prophet’s Children, 1994, p.226.
19. Wohlforth, Memoirs, unpublished draft (later published in a revised form as The Prophet’s Children).
20. Workers Press, 30 September 1969.
21. For the Swindon by-election, see Whelan, pp.2, 62-70.
22. Workers Press, 28 May 1970.
23. C. Slaughter, ed., Trotskyism versus Revisionism, 1974, vol.4, p.270. It would be a mistake, however, to see this as a sudden descent into nationalism. Cliff Slaughter was putting forward an identical argument three years earlier – see chapter 6.
24. Ibid., vol.5, pp.84-132.
25. Ibid., vol.6, p.47.
26. Interview with Robin Blick, 14 August 1992.
27. Bulletin of Trotskyist Discussion, February 1986. (This is a translation of an article by Gerard Bloch which originally appeared in the OCI publication La Vérité, April 1972.)
29. International Marxist Group internal document.
30. See D. Whelan, ‘The SLL and Irish Marxism (1959-1973) – a disastrous legacy’, reprinted in Workers News, September 1989.
31. Intercontinental Press, 27 July 1970.
32. Statement by the Secretariat on the Report of Discussions between Healy and the Fourth International, 7 July 1970 (IMG internal document).
33. Workers Press, 7 July 1970.
34. Ibid., 8 September 1970.
35. Bulletin of Trotskyist Discussion, February 1986.
36. Workers Press, 15 February 1971.
37. Bulletin of Trotskyist Discussion, February 1986.
38. Material relating to the SLL-OCI split can be found in Slaughter, vol.6.
39. Bulletin of Trotskyist Discussion, February 1986.
40. Fourth International, Winter 1970-71.
41. Slaughter, p.108.
42. Documents of the Workers Vanguard, 1979, p.68.
43. Bulletin of Trotskyist Discussion, February 1986.
44. Wohlforth, Memoirs.