Chapter 6 (1960-1964) Keep Left
BY MID-1960 ALL the potential for reforging the Trotskyist movement in Britain, which had arisen from the 1956-7 crisis in the Communist Party, had been squandered by Healy. Many important recruits from the Communist Party – John Daniels, Peter Fryer and Brian Behan among them – had been driven out of the SLL. Even veteran Trotskyists like Ellis Hillman, Harry Ratner and Bob Pennington had been expelled or had resigned after questioning Healy’s methods and perspectives.1 In the course of these developments, any vestige of democracy in the SLL had been destroyed and Healy’s complete domination over the organisation established. It was to be another 14 years before he again faced a significant challenge to his authority.
Harry Ratner warns against laying all the blame for this on one man. ‘Healy could not have acted as he did’, he points out, ‘without the support of a whole group of other people around him in the leadership.’2 Healy himself was well aware of this, and made a specific point of involving other leading SLLers in his attacks on political opponents. In September 1959, for example, when two dissidents were ‘visited’ in the middle of the night and entry forced into their house, he had insisted on taking Cliff Slaughter along – because, Healy explained afterwards, ‘it was important to commit people like Slaughter.’3 Tom Kemp was brought in by Healy to rubbish Behan’s economic analysis – an analysis which was, in reality, indistinguishable from the catastrophist views traditionally expounded by Healy himself. And Kemp happily gave his advance endorsement to Behan’s expulsion, without even attending the National Committee meeting where the decision was taken.4
Indeed, throughout the 1959-60 purges, Healy succeeded in committing each of his victims to the suppression of earlier critics. When he expelled Ellis Hillman for opposing the unconstitutional and undemocratic proclamation of the SLL, this was done with the agreement of all those who would later denounce the bureaucratic character of the Healy regime. Before his own expulsion, Brian Behan was an enthusiastic proponent of disciplinary action against the so-called ‘Stamford faction’,5 while Bob Pennington played a prominent role in crushing opponents of the leadership, only to fall beneath the Healyite guillotine himself soon after. Healy was thus able to implement a version of the salami tactic, isolating and destroying a series of opposition groupings one by one.
Healy apparently regarded his record in expelling political opponents as cause for boasting. At an Executive Committee meeting in September 1959, according to Peter Cadogan, he ‘reeled off a list of them from Jock Haston to Ellis Hillman. He then snarled across the room at me: "I am determined to put you out now"’.6 But such internecine warfare, taking place as it did against the background of a downturn in the class struggle, inevitably had its destructive effect on the SLL. By June 1960, when the League’s second conference was held, membership had plummeted to less than 300 – under half the figure claimed at the foundation conference the previous year – and the circulation of the Newsletter had slumped from 5,000 a week to below 3,000.7 As his organisation’s size and influence continued to decline, Healy reportedly found a ready explanation: ‘Police spies! GPU men!’8
In a Newsletter article entitled ‘Cause for Revolutionary Optimism’, Healy tried to boost the morale of his depleted troops, assuring League members that a developing crisis in the Labour Party would have ‘decisive repercussions on the evolution of the struggle against imperialism’.9 When Gaitskell declared that he would ‘fight, fight and fight again’ against the 1960 Labour Party conference vote in favour of unilateral nuclear disarmament, Healy asserted that the Labour leader’s purpose was ‘clear and unmistakeable’: having ‘decided to emulate [Ramsay] MacDonald’s betrayal’, Gaitskell was ‘systematically preparing to split the Labour Party’.10 In Healy’s mind, the perspective on which he had begun entry work in 1947 – that of a militant Labour left breaking from the right wing, with the Trotskyists standing by to take over the leadership – was about to reach fruition.
But Healy completely misjudged the situation. Just as the dispute over public ownership had ended with the right wing still in command (Clause IV being retained in principle but renounced in practice), so too did the battle over nuclear disarmament. For although the conflict in the party culminated in the withdrawal of the Labour whip from Michael Foot and a handful of other MPs early in 1961, the Tribunite parliamentarians’ defiance soon crumbled, as did that of the left trade union leaders who had swung the block vote behind the unilateralist resolution at the party conference. ‘The task of the Left’, Healy explained to his members in May 1961, ‘is to lead the fight for unilateralism along the lines of the class struggle. Lacking any understanding of this kind of struggle, the centrists [sic] are unable to fight.’11 It became clear even to Healy that ‘the so-called "leaders" of the Left wing have no intention of widening the breach with Gaitskell’.12 Healy’s mistake was in supposing that they ever did have any such intention.
At the League’s 1961 conference a new slogan, ‘Build the Marxist Left in the Labour Party’, was adopted. This was to be accomplished, Healy argued, not primarily through work in the adult party – ‘since many of the older Labour Party members are tired and demoralised’ – but through intervention in the Young Socialists. ‘Marxists must combine with these new youth to organise the Left wing’, Healy urged, ‘... and lead the fight to conduct the next election campaign on a unilateralist policy.’13 Indeed, since the launch of the YS in 1960 the Healyites, organised around the paper Keep Left, had made major gains in this area, prompting the Labour Party NEC to demand that YS branches cease sponsoring the paper. By recruiting large numbers of working class youth through dances and other social events, the Keep Left tendency rapidly emerged as the dominant force on the left of the YS. While there was nothing necessarily wrong with such methods of recruitment, so long as they were backed up by serious political education, for Healy there was an obvious appeal in an increased reliance on politically raw youth who would present less of a threat to his domination of the SLL than the more experienced converts from the CP had done.
Political work in the YS required a clear and principled policy towards the semi-pacifist Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which had attracted thousands of youth since the success of the first Aldermaston march in 1958. In particular, it was necessary to take a firm stand in defence of the Soviet Union’s right to retain the H-Bomb while it remained under threat of attack from the imperialist powers. Healy, to his credit, did take up this issue in the correspondence columns of Tribune. However, as had been the case a decade earlier during the Korean War, his political line tended towards an adaptation to Stalinism. Thus he referred to the ‘socialist economic basis’ of the Soviet Union,14 a classically ‘Pabloite’ formulation.15 And he counterposed to Khrushchev’s call for peaceful co-existence, not the revolutionary programme of the Fourth International – but the foreign policy of the Chinese Maoist regime!16
Moreover, while Healy used the position of Soviet defencism to polemicise against both left reformists and the state capitalists of Tony Cliff’s Socialist Review Group, Keep Left took a much less open stand on this issue. Yet it was among the youth that the SLL wielded its greatest influence at this time. In a letter to Tribune in January 1961, the question was posed point blank to Keep Left: ‘Does the unilateralist editorial board agree with Mr Gerry Healy’s public support for the Soviet hydrogen bomb?’17 But this received no definite answer. It seems that Healy was more concerned with winning numbers than with training a cadre among the youth, and he was prepared to compromise on political principles in order to achieve this.18
The 1961 Labour Party conference vote to abandon unilateralism appears to have convinced Healy that there was no longer any point in fighting the bureaucracy from within the Labour Party proper. The power of the right wing, the SLL now decided, rested ‘on the carcass of a party, not on a living movement’.19 The usual apocalyptic pronouncements were employed in order to justify the shift away from opportunism towards sectarianism. Healy claimed that by early 1962 Britain was gripped by an economic crisis so deep that the working class faced ‘the most serious threat to its wages and conditions since the defeat of the 1926 general strike’ and even the imminent prospect of ‘dictatorship and fascism’. In these circumstances, there was ‘absolutely no room for a compromise with capitalism’.20 With reformism supposedly finished, the SLL now saw its central task as constructing a revolutionary organisation outside the Labour Party. ‘The need to build independent Marxist parties in order to provide alternative leadership’, it was declared, ‘is the most urgent task of the day.’21
This change in line was a response not only to domestic but also to international pressures. For, from mid-1960, the US Socialist Workers Party had been drawing closer to the International Secretariat of Pablo and Mandel, the rapprochement being cemented by a common opportunist response to developments in Castro’s Cuba. This was held to have evolved into a healthy, ‘uncorrupted’ workers’ state, and the role of Trotskyists was not to build a revolutionary opposition to the Castro regime, but to enter as a loyal tendency into the party that the Fidelistas formed with the Cuban Stalinists. Healy’s sudden conversion to the principle of the independent party is to be explained in part, therefore, as a factional manoeuvre to block unity with the Pabloites.
Not that Healy had made any effort to prepare his organisation for the conflict that now erupted within the International Committee over the SWP’s moves towards reunification with the IS. ‘The Fourth International as far as the rank-and-file membership of the SLL is concerned is virtually non-existent’, the Behan faction had complained in 1960. ‘Information of a serious character on the world movement ... is conspicuous by its absence.’22 Bob Pennington, too, had condemned the SLL’s failure to criticise the growth of ‘Pabloism’ in the SWP.23 Nor did Healy make any serious attempt to grapple with the theoretical and programmatic challenge posed by the Cuban Revolution. Instead, the SLL ignored the wholesale expropriation of the bourgeoisie which had been carried out in 1960, and insisted that Cuba remained a capitalist state – a position which had the advantage of raising another obstacle to unity with the IS. There was, of course, the small problem that the SLL’s analysis bore not the slightest resemblance to the facts. This problem was overcome by the simple expedient of denying that facts had anything to do with Marxism.
For this purpose, Healy’s fraudulent philosophical polemic of 1945-6 against the ‘empiricism’ of the Revolutionary Communist Party leadership was resurrected, and acclaimed as part of the priceless theoretical heritage of Trotskyism! ‘If there was one thing Haston and Co. taught us’, Healy pontificated, ‘it was around the vital necessity of the Marxist method. Before we became the leadership of the British movement, we went through many long years as a minority battling it out against the empiricists and impressionists.... We have been working with that political capital ever since.’24
In the immediate post-war period, Healy’s ignorance on matters of theory had been ridiculed by RCP intellectuals like Denzil Harber.25 By the early 1960s, however, he was able to rely on some rather more compliant members of the intelligentsia. Cliff Slaughter was called in to attack the view that Marxism shared with empiricism a respect for the facts as a philosophical heresy, which inevitably resulted in capitulation to petty bourgeois political leaderships.26 The SLL’s political ‘analysis’ was thereby freed from the constraints of empirical evidence – and ‘the world was what G. Healy declared it to be!’27 The road was opened to the SLL’s evolution into an increasingly bizarre cult, divorced from political reality and doomed to sectarian irrelevance.
* * * *
SINCE 1957, when the Socialist Workers Party leadership first responded favourably to proposals for reunification with the International Secretariat, Healy had been playing a double game with his US comrades. For, while he was plainly opposed to unity and did his best to obstruct progress towards a merger, he nevertheless failed to mount an open struggle against the SWP. In fact, during discussions with the Americans, Healy always declared his support for their line on reunification. Early in 1960, when Healy held a second meeting in Toronto with Jim Cannon and other SWP leaders, he had agreed with them that the political differences between the two international currents were not sufficient to justify continued separation, and he had endorsed the SWP’s proposal to seek unity with the IS on the basis of parity leadership. The only objection Healy raised was the difficulty of persuading the French section of the International Committee to go along with this.28
However, when a movement towards unity got under way later that year, Healy had second thoughts. In June 1960, SWP leader Joseph Hansen entered into correspondence with an Indian IS supporter, in the course of which he expressed enthusiasm for reunification and dissociated himself from Healy’s public polemics against ‘Pabloism’. In December, the IS, while retaining its deep hostility to the SLL, began to make overtures to the SWP in the form of two flattering letters from Pierre Frank. A worried Healy immediately wrote to SWP national secretary Farrell Dobbs declaring his opposition to ‘the new unity offensive, designed to split the SWP from the SLL’.29 And in January 1961, the SLL sent off a long letter to that month’s SWP National Committee Plenum, in which Healy for the first time came out openly against reunification. ‘It is time to draw to a close the period in which Pabloite revisionism was regarded as a trend within Trotskyism’, the SLL stressed. ‘Unless this is done we cannot prepare for the revolutionary struggles now beginning. We want the SWP to go forward with us in this spirit.’30
When the SWP Plenum both endorsed the leadership’s lurch towards Castroism and launched a turn towards international reunification, the SLL made another sharp intervention. A second letter took up the ‘Pabloite’ deviations which had characterised the SWP’s regroupment drive in the late 1950s (about which Healy had, of course, remained silent at the time). It argued, in relation to Third World nationalist leaderships, that it was ‘not the job of Trotskyists to boost the role of such nationalist leaders’ (quietly forgetting Healy’s personal courting of Messali Hadj). And the letter emphatically denied that workers’ states could be established in the absence of organs of workers’ power (ignoring the fact that, by this criterion, the SLL would be forced to deny the formation of workers’ states in Eastern Europe and China).31
Despite the inconsistencies of the SLL’s political line, Healy’s defence of ‘orthodoxy’ was welcomed as an alternative to the SWP’s opportunism by a dissident grouping in the US party. Headed by Tim Wohlforth, James Robertson and Shane Mage, this still inchoate opposition had come into conflict with the SWP leadership over the latter’s uncritical attitude towards the Cuban regime, Wohlforth having acted as the sole opponent of the party’s pro-Castro line at the January Plenum. From early 1961, the group began corresponding with Healy, and proceeded to organise their faction under his guidance.32
This unprecedented challenge by Healy to the SWP leadership – combining as it did sharp polemics against the SWP’s politics with the promotion of a pro-SLL tendency within the party – provoked an angry reaction from Cannon. Abandoning his hitherto avuncular attitude towards the British section, in May 1961 Cannon wrote a number of letters severely criticising the SLL, which were then published in the SWP internal bulletin. The SLL was ‘off on an Oehlerite binge’,33 Cannon asserted, and its line on Cuba had been adopted for purely factional purposes. ‘The breach between us and Gerry is obviously widening ....’, he wrote. ‘In my opinion, Gerry is heading toward disaster and taking his whole organisation with him.’34
Healy was not yet ready to break with Cannon, though. In his advice to the SWP minority, which became the Revolutionary Tendency, he urged a long-term perspective of working as a loyal opposition with an orientation towards the SWP’s ‘proletarian kernel’.35 As Wohlforth recalls: ‘Healy insisted that the main cadre of the SWP, workers around Dobbs and Cannon, remained revolutionaries and it should be our aim to win them over to our perspectives in time.’36 So the RT’s main document ‘In Defence of a Revolutionary Perspective’ presented the minority as party patriots, who saw the SWP as still essentially Trotskyist and sought to return it to a consistently revolutionary programme.37
While this approach was firmly supported by the Wohlforth section of the RT, the current around Robertson adopted a harsher attitude towards the SWP, which they came to regard – not inaccurately – as a ‘rightward-moving centrist party’.38 Fearing that the Robertsonites’ factionalism would provoke a split with Cannon and Dobbs, in November 1962 Healy drew up a document which all members of the RT were required to sign. This stated that the tendency ‘must not make premature characterisations of the leadership of the SWP’, and that the majority of this leadership was ‘not a finished centrist tendency’. There were, Healy conceded, ‘elements of centrism in its thinking and activity, but these do not predominate’. When the majority of the RT refused to bow the knee to Healy on this matter, he simply excluded Robertson and his supporters by ‘reorganising’ the tendency.39
A split was thus imposed on the RT, as Wohlforth himself later recognised, ‘in typical Cominternist style’.40 For what was at issue was not the tactical question of whether it would be counterproductive to openly denounce the SWP as centrist (this characterisation was in fact made in a document intended for circulation only within the RT). The real issue was that Healy’s intervention amounted to an ultimatum that, as the price of remaining in the SLL-recognised group, the RT majority would have to renounce their political views. Healy had at any rate given notice of the sort of organisational practices he would later employ in his ‘own’ International.
Healy might have succeeded in postponing a split with Cannon, but he had done so at the cost of dividing and weakening the SWP opposition. Party members were now confronted with the spectacle of two rival pro-SLL groupings, which scarcely gave the impression of political seriousness. Moreover, Healy’s increasingly bitter polemics against the SWP leadership cut across the tactical line he had agreed with the ‘official’ tendency. As Wohlforth observes, it was not easy for his group to argue convincingly that they believed the SWP to be a revolutionary party, when their sponsors in Britain were producing documents such as ‘Trotskyism Betrayed – The SWP Accepts the Political Method of Pabloite Revisionism’.41 This contribution from 1962 was followed up the next year by another, entitled ‘Opportunism and Empiricism’, in which Cannon and Co. were condemned as American pragmatists who had renounced the theory of Marxism.42
Healy’s tactics in relation to international reunification were equally confused. As Peng Shuzi pointed out, the SLL leaders could proclaim the necessity of ‘uncompromisingly separating ourselves ... from the Pablo gang’, while at the same time blithely declaring that they were ‘not against unity’.43 The contradiction was not resolved by Healy’s insistence that he would accept reunification on the basis of ‘fundamental political agreement’, for he had made it perfectly clear that with the ‘Pabloites’ no such agreement was possible. Yet in August 1962, on the SLL’s initiative, the IC proposed the formation of a parity committee with the IS to prepare for reunification, and in September this committee began a series of meetings.44 Healy’s intention was presumably to delay fusion by engaging in a prolonged political discussion. He may even have hoped to attract some dissenting elements from within the IS, for he had earlier expressed the view that there were ‘undoubtedly people in Pablo’s organisation in different countries who can be won to our position’.45
But Healy had considerable difficulty in winning anyone to his position on Cuba, which he portrayed as a capitalist state with Castro in the role of a bourgeois Bonaparte. It is hardly surprising that, as Wohlforth reveals, Healy ‘did his best to try to avoid a discussion of the class nature of Cuba, feeling quite defensive about his own theory’.46 When Joseph Hansen attempted to raise the question at an SLL National Committee meeting in February 1962, Healy just ignored him. He preferred to concentrate on such weighty matters as Hansen’s refusal to defend him during a confrontation with Isaac Deutscher at Natalia Trotsky’s funeral, where Deutscher had accused Healy of sectarianism towards the IS.47 Yet, given the centrality of Cuba in the pre-unification discussions, without a coherent theory on this issue Healy could scarcely hope to hold most of the existing IC sections, still less to attract forces from the IS. Hansen certainly took advantage of the SLL’s mistaken line on the Cuban Revolution in order to dismiss the Healyites as ‘ultra-left sectarians’.48
Later that year, with the aim of putting the Cuban question in its historical context, Wohlforth began work on his ‘Theory of Structural Assimilation’, which represented a serious attempt to grapple with the theoretical problem of the post-war expansion of Stalinism. But his efforts were received with ‘total lack of interest’ on the part of Healy and the SLL leadership. ‘I informed him of every step of my work’, Wohlforth recounts, ‘and sent him the draft as I produced it. I got no comments. This seemed strange to me because the heart of Healy’s critique of the SWP had been his contention that the party had abandoned Marxist theory. Here I was trying to develop an inclusive theory of post-war Stalinism – the very issue which was at the heart of so many of the disputes and splits in our international movement – and Healy couldn’t have cared less.’49
By 1963 Healy found himself under severe pressure, with an IC Congress scheduled for April and a majority for unification with the IS a virtual certainty. Worse still, the SWP had dropped its demand for parity leadership, thereby removing the IS’s one objection to fusion. In March, however, Nahuel Moreno of the IC’s Argentinian section wrote to Healy asking for a deferment of the Congress until July or August. As IC secretary, Healy had until then shown complete contempt for the IC’s Latin American affiliates, failing to answer their letters and ignoring their requests to publish their theses in the international bulletin,50 and he had apparently viewed the Argentinians’ entry work in the Peronist movement as a variety of Pabloism.51 Now, seizing on Moreno’s letter as an opportunity to delay fusion, Healy suddenly developed a deep concern for the Latin Americans’ rights. He wrote to the SWP urging that the IC accede to Moreno’s request and postpone the Congress.52
But the SWP leaders would have none of it. Demonstrating their own contempt for the international current of which they were part, the Cannonites organised a breakaway meeting of those IC sections favouring immediate unity, and in June 1963 led them into the IS at its Seventh World Congress to form the United Secretariat of the Fourth International. The official IC Congress met in September, attended by the British, French, Hungarian and Greek groups – the only sections opposed to unification. The Latin American sections, who opposed the SWP’s unprincipled split but themselves favoured unification, broke with the IC shortly afterwards and joined the USec. The end result of Healy’s manoeuvring was thus to leave the SLL holding joint ownership with the French of a rump IC, which was isolated from the vast majority of those currents throughout the world claiming adherence to Trotskyism.
* * * *
THE SITUATION Healy faced in 1964 was thus very different from today, when what passes for the international Trotskyist movement is fragmented into a multitude of competing tendencies. For, after the reunification of the International Secretariat and the majority of the International Committee, very few ‘Trotskyist’ forces remained outside the United Secretariat. If Healy had possessed a correct political line (which he didn’t), it would probably have made sense to participate in the reunification and fight out the differences inside the USec. As it was, Healy’s decision to go it alone placed the Socialist Labour League in a position of national isolation.
The situation undoubtedly accelerated Healy’s retreat into the insularity which had always been encouraged by the federal structure of the IC itself. He developed a political outlook which Ernest Mandel dubbed ‘Trotskyism in One Country’,53 whereby his work at national level became a substitute for – or rather, in Healy’s mind, identical with – the struggle to rebuild the Fourth International. This reasoning was expressed quite openly by Healy’s political attorney Cliff Slaughter, who explained that the SLL was fulfilling its internationalist obligations by demonstrating in practice the correctness of its orientation towards the construction of independent revolutionary parties. ‘Building the SLL in Britain’, Slaughter asserted, ‘is fighting in the front line of the reconstruction of the Fourth International’.54
Healy’s readiness to pursue his own national course was reinforced by the organisational gains registered by the SLL in this period. According to one account, during 1962-4 the League’s membership grew from 300 to 1,000.55 While such forces were tiny in relation to the multi-millioned British working class, the SLL was nevertheless the largest organisation claiming adherence to Trotskyism that had ever existed in Britain, and was far bigger than any of the USec’s European sections. As a result, Tim Wohlforth argues, Healy ‘became convinced his methods worked and those of his competitors did not’.56 From this standpoint, the International would be rebuilt when groups in other countries saw the need to emulate Healy’s superior political methods.
The SLL’s advances were the product of its effective intervention in the Labour Party youth movement. Despite the proscription of its paper Keep Left in 1962, and the subsequent suspension and expulsion of some of its leaders, the SLL faction in the Young Socialists took a majority of seats on the National Committee at the 1963 and 1964 YS conferences. As he had done during the 1956-7 crisis in the Communist Party, Healy completely outmanoeuvred his opponents on the left. Despite pooling their resources to bring out the paper Young Guard in competition with Keep Left, the SLL’s rivals – Tony Cliff’s state-capitalist tendency, Ted Grant’s supporters and the forerunners of the International Marxist Group – were unable to equal the gains made by Healy’s faction. Furthermore, Young Guard’s willingness to compromise with the Labour leadership compared shabbily with the young Healyites’ defiance of the bureaucracy, leading to charges of ‘scabbing’ from Keep Left. Conflict between the groupings reached a peak at the 1964 YS conference, when Healy’s car was mobbed by Young Guard supporters demanding that he stop ‘interfering’ in the YS, while NEC representative Reg Underhill looked on approvingly.57
A number of important individuals were won out of the YS. Roger Protz, for example, resigned as editor of the official YS paper New Advance in 1961 to become editor of Keep Left. And it was in this period that Sheila Torrance, the future assistant general secretary of the Workers Revolutionary Party, joined the movement. The League’s youth work also attracted militants from the Young Communist League, and in 1964 there was a furore which spilled over into the capitalist press when Jean Kerrigan, daughter of a leading CPer, came over to the SLL. Healy was able to assemble a staff of able full-timers from such recruits, which greatly strengthened his organisation.
But the success of the Keep Left tendency stemmed from its ability to recruit thousands of working class youth, either unemployed or in low-paid jobs, which the post-war boom had passed by. These youth were used as ‘Healy’s shock troops’ – the phrase is Tim Wohlforth’s58 – against the Labour bureaucracy. Here again, as in 1956-7, Healy’s talent for spotting a political opening and directing his organisation’s resources towards it paid real dividends. By September 1964, on the eve of the general election which ended thirteen years of Tory rule and put Harold Wilson’s Labour government in office, Keep Left mobilised 3-4,000 youth on a ‘Fight the Tories’ demonstration.59 These advances were reflected in the expansion of the SLL’s press. The Newsletter reached a weekly circulation of 10,000, and by September 1963 Healy was talking of transforming the paper into a daily.60
However, and here there is another parallel with his earlier intervention in the CP, Healy showed his incapacity to use the forces won from the YS in a revolutionary way. One of the problems, as Wohlforth observes, ‘lay precisely in the rebelliousness and rootlessness of these youth [who] took to the revolutionary rhetoric of the SLL more easily than trade unionists, as they had little or no experience in the major institutions of the class, the British Labour Party and the trade unions. This could and did encourage Healy to escalate his rhetoric’.61 Thus by 1963 Healy was projecting a scenario in which an economic slump, combined with the political crisis which the Profumo scandal had produced in the Tory Party, would give rise to a revolutionary situation. ‘The problems of the British economy are so acute’, a resolution at that year’s SLL conference declared, ‘and the relation between capital and its agents so full of contradictions, that the problem of power is in fact continually posed.’62
Of course, ultra-left bombast had always been a feature of Healy’s political style. And to the extent that his more exaggerated pronouncements reflected a euphoria generated by his organisation’s impressive growth, there was an element of ‘honest’ self-delusion in all this. But it has been argued that there was already a more cynical purpose behind Healy’s rhetoric.63 Rather than restrain and give political direction to the impatience of young workers, whose hatred of capitalism was not easily harnessed to a ‘long haul’ perspective for its overthrow, Healy sought to exploit this impatience by motivating them to feats of extreme activism with the promise of short-term revolutionary results.
Aside from boosting the circulation of his press, and providing bodies for the SLL’s demonstrations, the activism of his young followers had two main advantages for Healy. First of all, it kept the rank and file so occupied with organisational work that they had little time to give critical thought to the leadership’s political line. And, secondly, it led to a high turnover of members, with the result that, during their short time in the League, members never achieved the level of political experience which would enable them to mount a challenge to the ruling clique. Healy’s bureaucratic stranglehold over the organisation was thereby considerably tightened.
That the youth’s energies were directed into such activities as paper selling and organising for the SLL’s meetings and marches also had negative consequences. For it became a substitute for serious work in the basic organisations of the working class, where young revolutionaries would have been forced to grapple with the domination of reformist ideology over the movement. This freed Healy from the need to develop a programme to break workers from social democracy, and allowed him to indulge instead in sectarian propagandism. Symptomatic of this transformation of the WRP into a sect, walled off from real developments in the working class, was the increasing tendency for the Newsletter to hail the League’s own achievements as milestones in the history of the workers’ movement.
Ultra-left sectarianism went hand in hand with the familiar adaptation to parliamentarianism, as embodied in Healy’s call for ‘a Labour government pledged to carry out socialist policies’. Such policies included the nationalisation of basic industries under workers’ control, and for the capitalist state to be ‘abolished and replaced with a socialist one’ – in short the economic and political expropriation of the bourgeoisie. All of which, apparently, was to be carried out by a Labour majority in the House of Commons! Transitional demands were completely absent. Indeed, according to Healy, the implementation of workers’ control was to be secured, not through the class struggle at the point of production, but through parliamentary legislation.64
Healy’s one foray into the international arena during this period was in response to the Lanka Sama Samaja Party’s entry into a bourgeois coalition government in Ceylon. This betrayal by the USec’s largest section was a major calamity for Trotskyism, and one which Healy was eager to blame on the evils of ‘Pabloite revisionism’. However, quite aside from the fact that, within the USec, Pablo himself was the main opponent of a soft line towards the LSSP leaders, Healy’s own record on this question scarcely stood up to examination. In fact it had been one of the criticism levelled at Healy by the Pennington-Grainger opposition back in 1960 that he had failed to take a stand against the degeneration of the LSSP.65 And despite the fact that two leading members of the SLL – Mike and Tony Banda – had close links with the movement in Ceylon, Healy had taken no action regarding the LSSP during the following years, apart from an opportunist attempt to recruit LSSP oppositionist Prins Rajasooriya during a visit to Britain in 1963.66
In June 1964, however, on the eve of the conference which was to endorse the party’s entry into the government, Healy suddenly flew to Ceylon in a last-minute attempt to intervene in the LSSP. Having been preceded by no political preparation whatsoever – not even a letter to the LSSP to inform them of his impending arrival, still less a request that he should be allowed to address the conference – Healy’s intervention amounted to little more than a crude attempt to gatecrash the proceedings, to which he was not surprisingly denied entry. The articles Healy wrote afterwards for the Newsletter – later published as a pamphlet, Ceylon: the Great Betrayal – were shoddily written and politically inaccurate, and can have done little to convince militants in the breakaway LSSP(Revolutionary) that the IC represented a serious alternative to the USec.67
On his return to Britain, Healy apparently used the betrayal in Ceylon as a pretext to withdraw his forces from the YS68 – presumably on the basis that the example of the LSSP showed the need to split the revolutionaries from the reformists. This decision, which was announced to the membership at the SLL’s summer camp in July-August 1964,69 was subsequently justified on the grounds that attacks by the Labour bureaucracy on the SLL’s youth made further revolutionary work in the YS impossible. But there seems to be little truth in this assertion.
The Keep Left tendency was faced with increased repression by the bureaucracy in the run-up to the general election, it is true, but the expulsions fell far short of the ‘thousands’ claimed in Healyite mythology.70 In early 1965, Keep Left was claiming that just over 50 leading members had been expelled nationally.71 As Healy himself explained at the summer camp, ‘it is we who have chosen the moment of split because we now believe it is possible to recruit large numbers of working class youth’.72 This bears out the accusation that, far from being driven out of the Labour Party, the SLL leadership ‘decided on an organised break ... in the face of witch-hunting and limited expulsions, and thereafter they set out, by being awkward and provocative in local Labour Parties and elsewhere, to have as many people as possible expelled and branches closed down. The bureaucracy did not need much provocation!’73
1. Harry Ratner resigned from the SLL early in 1960, having found Healy’s predictions of growing working class radicalisation completely at variance with his own experience in the labour movement (H. Ratner, Reluctant Revolutionary, 1994, pp.242-3).
2. Ibid., p.228.
3. SLL Internal Bulletin No.5, June 1960.
4. SLL Internal Bulletin No.3, June 1960.
5. Named after the town where it met in September 1959, the Stamford faction was not really a faction at all but a loose association of oppositionists which included John Daniels, Peter Fryer and Peter Cadogan.
6. Socialist Leader, 16 September 1961.
7. By Their Words Ye Shall Know Them, Solidarity Pamphlet No.4, 1960, pp.2, 8.
8. So Walter Kendall claimed in Socialist Leader, 9 September 1961. Healy’s obsession with agents, which was to achieve its full flowering in the paranoid fantasies of the ‘Security and the Fourth International’ campaign in the 1970s, was evidently well established in this earlier period. Celia Behan had already noted Healy’s readiness ‘to create a spy mania which has nothing to do with the necessary vigilance in protection of a communist movement. I was in the print shop once when Comrade Healy grilled a young comrade for almost an hour because he had in his possession a list of comrades’ addresses. This comrade was accused of being an agent and was subjected to a tirade of threats’ (SLL Internal Bulletin No.5, June 1960).
9. Newsletter, 25 June 1960.
10. Ibid., 29 October 1960.
11. Ibid., 27 May 1961. Healy habitually referred to left reformists as ‘centrists’ or even ‘left centrists’.
12. Ibid., 30 September 1961.
13. Ibid., 27 May 1961.
14. E. Heffer, Never a Yes Man, Verso, 1991, p.91.
15. Cf. the dispute between Morris Stein and George Clarke in 1953 (International Secretariat Documents, 1974, pp.114-6).
16. Tribune, 25 November 1960; 27 January 1961.
17. Ibid., 13 January 1961.
18. Not that this was anything new. Socialist Review supporter Peter Sedgwick pointed out that under Fryer’s editorship the Newsletter had argued that the Soviet Union should abandon the bomb unilaterally ‘without (as far as I am aware) any objection from Comrades Healy, Pearce or Slaughter’ (Tribune, 10 February 1960).
19. Labour Review, Winter 1961.
20. Newsletter, 27 February 1962.
21. Labour Review, Winter 1961.
22. SLL Internal Bulletin No.5, June 1960.
23. By Their Words Ye Shall Know Them, p.13. There was a certain irony in this, for Pennington later became a leader of the ‘Pabloite’ International Marxist Group.
24. C. Slaughter, ed., Trotskyism versus Revisionism, vol.3, 1974, p.149.
25. See above, chapter 2.
26. Labour Review, Summer 1962.
27. C. Bailey, ‘Theoretical Foundations of Healyism’, WRP Internationalist Faction document, 1988, reprinted in New Interventions, April 1992.
28. Letter from Tim Wohlforth, 16 November 1991.
29. ‘Deep Entryism’ and Pablo’s Anti-Unity Offensive, 1978, pp.82, 86, 87.
30. Slaughter, p.49.
31. Ibid., pp.46-55.
32. Excerpts from the correspondence can be found in T. Wohlforth, What Is Spartacist?, 1971, pp.5-9, and in D. North, Gerry Healy and his Place in the History of the Fourth International, 1991, pp.37-39.
33. The reference was to Hugo Oehler, a US Trotskyist who opposed entryism in the 1930s, arguing that the maintenance of an independent revolutionary party was an absolute principle.
34. Slaughter, pp.71-3.
35. Wohlforth letter.
36. T.Wohlforth, Memoirs, unpublished draft (later published in a revised form as The Prophet's Children, 1994).
37. Marxist Bulletin No.1, Spartacist, New York, 1965, p.18.
38. Ibid., No.2, 1965, p.22.
39. Ibid., No.3, 1968, passim.
40. Wohlforth, Memoirs.
42. Slaughter, pp.236-68; vol.4, pp.76-107.
43. Ibid., p.139.
44. Ibid., vol.4, pp.2-6.
45. Healy, Letter to Geoff White, 20 December 1961.
46. Wohlforth letter.
47. SLL National Committee meeting, 3 February 1962, extract from minutes. A heavily edited version of this document can be found in Slaughter, vol.3, pp.177-84.
48. Ibid., vol.4, pp.20-71.
49. The Prophet’s Children, p.115. ‘When I went to England in 1964’, Wohlforth continues, ‘Gerry told me to talk to Cliff Slaughter, his top intellectual, about my project. Slaughter gave me ten minutes on a bench in a railway station. While he did not disagree with my project’s overall thrust, Slaughter made some vague methodological points. We went ahead in the winter of 1964 and published the document on our own. I never heard another peep from the Healy people about the theory over the next ten years, one way or another.’
50. See Ken Moxham’s article in Workers News, September 1991.
51. ‘Deep Entryism’, p.86.
52. Slaughter, vol.4, pp.112-14.
53. Ernest Mandel, in J. Hansen, ed., Marxism Vs. Ultraleftism, 1974, p.66.
54. Labour Review, Summer 1963.
55. T. Whelan, The Credibility Gap: The Politics of the SLL, 1970, p.6.
56. Wohlforth, Memoirs.
57. Keep Left, May 1964.
58. Wohlforth, Memoirs.
59. Newsletter, 3 October 1964.
60. Ibid., 22 February 1964; 28 September 1963.
61. Wohlforth, Memoirs.
62. M. Hoskisson and D. Stocking, ‘The rise and fall of the SLL’, Workers Power, February 1986.
63. J. Cleary and N. Cobbett, ‘Labour’s misspent youth’, Workers Action, 28 July 1979. A revised and updated version of this useful account has been published as a Workers Liberty pamphlet, Seedbed of the Left (1993).
64. Newsletter, 22 June 1963.
65. By Their Words Ye Shall Know Them, p.13.
66. Workers News, October/November 1990.
67. When the IC established its own Ceylonese section, the Revolutionary Communist League, only two of its members were won from the LSSP(R).
68. So Mike Banda later claimed (Workers Press, 7 February 1986).
69. Whelan, p.6.
70. Charlie Pottins in Workers Press, 7 December 1991.
71. Keep Left, January 1965.
72. SLL internal document.
73. Cleary and Cobbett.