Chapter 4 (1955-1958) SLL
DURING 1958 THE entryist strategy which Healy had pursued inside the Labour Party since 1947 came under attack from two sides. Not only had the Group’s intervention in industrial struggles prompted a witch-hunt in the capitalist press, but a number of ex-CPers – headed by Brian Behan – were pushing for the declaration of an open party. Faced with this situation, a genuine revolutionary leadership would have opened a thorough discussion on the whole question of entryism, drawing up a balance sheet of the 11 years’ work in the Labour Party. Needless to say, this was not an approach that Healy would countenance.
Instead he pre-empted any debate over the Group’s future strategy by launching a new policy of confrontation with the Labour bureaucracy. Having kept his head down at the Rank and File Conference of November 1958, a few weeks later Healy suddenly changed tack and called a press conference, where he announced that he was joining the Newsletter editorial board. Journalists were handed copies of an article by Healy denouncing the press campaign, which was to appear in the next issue of the Newsletter.1 The article – later reproduced as a pamphlet, Our Answer to the Witch-hunt and Our Policy for Labour – featured the usual Healyite exaggerations. The employers were supposedly plotting to make the trade unions ‘part of the official machinery of the state’, while renewed activity by the Mosleyites was sufficient to convince Healy that ‘unless the Labour Party takes real socialist measures to solve the problems that capitalism places before the British people, then the middle class will be won over to fascism’
The Newsletter described the article as ‘the most trenchant and hard-hitting political document that has appeared in any left-wing paper in Britain for years’. And its author was introduced in no less hyperbolic terms. ‘Gerry Healy’, readers were told, ‘brings to our paper a rich experience of working class struggle. He is known throughout the country for his firm adherence to socialist principles, his forthright opposition to both Stalinism and right-wing reformism, and his insistence on speaking the truth to the working class.’2 The cult of the personality might have been dispensed with in Moscow, but it was clearly undergoing a revival in Clapham
This raising of Healy’s public profile can only have been calculated to stoke up the press campaign against him. In his home base of Streatham the witch-hunt was vigorously pursued by the local Tory rag, the Streatham News. It had little effect on his standing in the Streatham Labour Party, which in December rejected a right wing motion calling on the National Executive Committee to investigate Healy.3 And in January 1959 Healy was re-elected chairman of his ward party. It was, the Streatham News conceded, ‘an indication of the popularity of the genial Mr Healy. His foes may find it difficult to dislodge him’.4
In 1960, Healy would retrospectively justify his change of course on the grounds that the Group’s recruitment of industrial militants had required ‘a more open organisation ... to educate and train them for the forthcoming struggle inside the Labour Party. Therefore ... when we faced a wave of expulsions that could not be avoided as well as the need to compete more openly with the Communist Party in the trade unions, we proposed to launch the SLL’.11 But this was very much rationalisation after the event. The real explanation, according to Ellis Hillman, is that ‘Healy panicked, because he thought his own position was being threatened in Streatham, so he formed the SLL as a panic reaction ... that was the real basis. And secondly, it served his purpose in that it could make a concession to the pressure from Brian Behan to form an open party.... So he killed two birds with one stone, as it were
That a combination of open and entry work was needed should have been obvious to Healy long before. But at the Group’s annual conference in 1958, when Hillman had proposed the formation of a ‘Marxist League’ to prepare for the expulsions that were plainly in the pipeline, Healy had strongly opposed this.13 Yet Healy now launched a turn to open work in such a way as to make continued work inside the Labour Party virtually impossible.14 Hillman himself attacked Healy’s new turn as a ‘serious blunder’, pointing out that it was contrary not only to conference policy but to everything the Healy tendency had stood for since the days of the Revolutionary Communist Party. ‘The circle has been completed from ENTRY to EXIT’, he wrote, ‘with this difference. Whilst the old RCP hammered the issue out in a serious and responsible – if prolonged – discussion ... the abandonment of the work resulting from the old discussion appears to require but a few desultory and confused contributions and points of view from the National Committee’.15
When the Labour Party NEC responded by immediately proscribing the SLL, Healy adopted a policy of open defiance, circulating a letter to Constituency Labour Parties throughout Britain appealing for support for the SLL. The Streatham News noted gleefully that Healy had thereby ‘sealed his automatic expulsion’.16 Healy successfully moved a resolution on the Streatham general management committee demanding that the NEC withdraw its proscription of the SLL.17 The refusal of the Streatham party to expel Healy only resulted in its suspension, however, and the party was subsequently reorganised, with known SLLers like Healy excluded.18
Other members prominent in the Labour Party were ordered to provoke their own expulsion. Hillman, who was a London County Councillor, was hauled up in front of a ‘provisional national committee’ of the SLL and instructed to publicly announce that he was a member of the League. When he refused, he was expelled from an organisation he had never joined in the first place!19 In Salford, Harry Ratner was assured by Labour Party members that they would cover for him if he denied being a member of the SLL. But Healy told him to proclaim his membership and demand the right to remain in the Labour Party – a course which effectively guaranteed that Ratner would be thrown out.20
This crisis in Healy’s organisation in Britain coincided with a mounting conflict inside the International Committee. The IC conference of June 1958 had passed a resolution calling for the ‘reorganisation’ of the Fourth International, but this formulation was opposed by the US Socialist Workers Party, who advocated unity with the International Secretariat on the basis of parity leadership. In November, therefore, Healy met with Cannon and other SWP leaders in Toronto, where it was agreed that he would argue for the SWP line within the IC. A subsequent IC meeting in Paris, however, issued a call for an international conference open to ‘Trotskyists all over the world’, which provoked further objections from the SWP. Healy found himself caught between his own and the French section’s hostility to unification, and his long-established organisational loyalty to Cannon. Instead of defending his position against the SWP, Healy offered to break with the French and join Cannon in seeking unity with Pablo and Mandel.21
Under pressure at both a national and an international level, and incapable of handling these problems on the basis of political principle, Healy showed increasing signs of personal instability, repeatedly throwing fits of rage on the least pretext. On one occasion in the print shop, Celia Behan tried to defend a young comrade from an unjust attack by Healy. This led to ‘a row which lasted a whole hour during which Cde Healy shouted and raved, he kicked the wall and banged on it with his fist. He said I had no right to criticise him, that he had been 30 years in the movement ...’.22 It was after one ‘especially irrational tantrum’ by Healy in February 1959 that Newsletter editor Peter Fryer walked out. And although he was persuaded to return for a few more months, in August Fryer left the SLL for good.
Fryer explained his reasons for quitting in an ‘Open Letter to Members of the SLL and other Marxists’. The SLL he described as being ruled by ‘the general secretary’s personal clique, which will not allow the members to practise the democratic rights accorded to them on paper, and which pursues sectarian aims with scant regard for the real possibilities of the real world’. Fryer revealed how the panel for the elections to leading committees at the League’s founding conference in June 1959 had been drawn up by Healy himself. The Executive Committee was no more than ‘a sounding board for the general secretary, packed with his own nominees who not merely never raised their voices against him but in some cases never raised their voices at all’. Fryer quoted Healy’s bizarre claim ‘I am the party’, characterising this as a form of solipsism which provided the philosophical underpinning to the fantasy world Healy inhabited – a world in which Healy could claim to have all the ports of Britain watched in order to prevent Fryer leaving the country, when Healy had ‘in cold fact, less than 400 members’!23
The next prominent figure to go was Labour Review editor John Daniels, who had entertained doubts about the organisation for some time, particularly with regard to the policy of support for Messali Hadj’s MNA in Algeria.24 For Daniels, the final straw came when he went on a working holiday in France with two other comrades – one of whom, questioned disapprovingly by Bob Shaw as to what they would be doing there, replied drily that, apart from lying on the beach and swimming, there was ‘always Pablo to see’! On the basis of a report of this conversation, relayed to him by Shaw’s daughter Aileen, Healy informed the SWP that ‘Pablo continues his relentless work against this section.... John Daniels is now the proud bearer of a ticket to Cannes to see Pablo’.25 Another report emanating from Shaw, concerning a contribution by Daniels to a branch meeting where he had argued that the British economy was undergoing a partial upturn, was taken by Healy as proof that Daniels ‘doubts the whole of our economic analysis’.26 Daniels returned from his vacation to find a stern letter from Healy demanding that he should explain his visit to Pablo and put down in writing his differences with the League. Unable to tolerate such hysteria, paranoia and outright lying, Daniels too broke with the SLL.27
* * * *
‘WHAT IS THE situation in which the Socialist Labour League is born ...?’ asked a 1959 Labour Review editorial. ‘If we were to choose one word to sum up the salient features of this period, on a world scale, that word would be "crisis".’28 In Britain, Healy’s perspective was the familiar one of economic slump producing an automatic escalation of the class struggle. But whereas he had previously envisaged a mass revolutionary current emerging from within the left wing of the Labour Party, in the late 1950s industrial action became the centrepiece of Healy’s strategy. He believed that the upsurge of strikes was driving ‘towards a showdown between the classes – towards another 1926 but with far more revolutionary possibilities’.29
The period following the formation of the SLL, however, saw the focus of struggle in the labour movement shift from industrial to political action. After Labour’s third successive general election defeat in October 1959, party leader Hugh Gaitskell proposed to attract the middle class vote by junking Clause Four – which formally committed Labour to the ‘common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange’ – thereby provoking an outcry in the party ranks. Moreover, from 1959 successive trade union conferences registered votes in favour of unilateral nuclear disarmament, a development which culminated in the passing of a unilateralist resolution at the 1960 Labour Party conference.
In response to this changed situation, Healy directed his forces back towards the Labour Party. In doing so, he replaced the ultra-leftist policy of provoking expulsions with a new right-opportunist line. This was already evident at the SLL’s National Assembly of Labour in November 1959, where Healy went out of his way to deny the League’s role in promoting industrial militancy. The SLL was ‘not a strike-happy organisation’, Healy insisted. ‘Just because supporters of the League might be selling their paper around the area of the strike, we will not allow the Press to create the situation that we are responsible for the strike.’ Healy condemned the trade union bureaucracy, not for selling out workers’ struggles, but for dragging their members into industrial disputes without adequate preparation.30 Harry Ratner, who was a leading participant in the Assembly, comments that ‘the spectacle of Gerry Healy striking the pose of a "responsible" workers’ leader was unusual’31 – to say the least!
In adopting this new respectable image, Healy no doubt had an eye on the forthcoming Labour Party conference. But the right wing was able to use Healy’s own record of authoritarianism against him to win the conference’s overwhelming backing for the proscription of the SLL. The NEC spokesman argued that, while Healy had ‘a great deal to say about democracy and the right of Trotskyists to be members of the Labour Party’, he refused to tolerate any political deviations in the ranks of his own organisation. The speaker pointed to the cases of Peter Cadogan, recently expelled from the SLL for advocating a cross-class movement against nuclear war, and Peter Fryer, who had resigned from the SLL in protest at Cadogan’s expulsion.32 ‘The League’s general secretary’, Fryer had written in a letter to the Guardian, ‘has made it clear that he will not tolerate free discussion, any more than [CPGB secretary] John Gollan will; and his methods of silencing dissenters and critics are odious.’33
The National Assembly of Labour was followed in early 1960 by a series of regional Assemblies, the purpose of which, according to Healy, was to ‘strengthen existing socialist organisations such as Victory For Socialism inside the Labour Party’.34 This involved the usual wholesale adaptation to left reformism. Healy ditched his organisation’s long-standing policy of nationalisation with no compensation, advocating reduced compensation instead, while the demand for workers’ control was quietly forgotten. The SLL’s defence of Clause Four was thus reduced to uncritical support for nationalisation in its established Labourite form. The slogan ‘Ban the Bomb and Black the Bases’ was also dropped, presumably because of its call for direct industrial action.
The logic behind this right turn was Healy’s conviction that the Labour Party would inevitably break apart over the disputed issues of nationalisation and nuclear disarmament. ‘Right Wing Threatens Labour Split. Plan to Smash the Party and Keep the Bomb’, read the headline to a front-page Newsletter article by Healy in June 1960.35 ‘The process of change under the surface of political life in Britain is about to be transformed qualitatively into the emergence of powerful new trends’, Healy announced portentously. ‘That is why all the King’s horses and all the King’s men, supported by the Fabian Society, cannot put the Humpty Dumpty of Transport House together again. The possibilities of a satisfactory compromise seem remote indeed. A new stage in the long process of revolutionary change opened up by the election of the Labour government in 1945 is now on the agenda.’36
Another traditional feature of the Healyite world-view to be temporarily shelved was the short-term prediction of economic collapse. Healy informed the National Assembly of Labour that the SLL ‘did not say that a slump was imminent’, and by January 1960 he was arguing that ‘the recession of 1958 has given way to an upswing in the economy’.37 The extent of this turnaround is underlined by Harry Ratner, who points out that only a few months earlier John Daniels had been roundly denounced by Healy for daring to suggest such a thing.38
The new line on the economy not only served to justify Healy’s rightward lurch, it also had the purpose of undermining opposition from Brian Behan, who upheld the old perspective of an intensifying economic crisis necessitating a turn to open work, with the main emphasis on intervention in industry. Although the seven-member Behanite faction scarcely represented a serious threat to Healy, this did not prevent him from lashing out furiously against them. ‘What he always feared’, Ellis Hillman explains, ‘was the emergence of a proletarian tendency which could challenge him politically and organisationally – that was his fear all the way through.’39
Politically, Behan could offer no serious alternative to Healy’s opportunism, his call for the proclamation of a revolutionary party by a few hundred militants being foolishly ultra-leftist. But, contrary to Healyite mythology, Behan was not so sectarian that he denied the need for fraction work in the Labour Party. Nor was he incapable of making some correct criticisms of Healy’s unprincipled political manoeuvring. ‘The zig-zags of policy from "right" to "left" and back again’, Behan wrote, ‘result from the opportunist considerations of a small clique .... Those who opposed the turn to open work a year ago were denounced as reformists and capitulators to the right wing, but now the leadership are fighting to return to the old form of work in the Labour Party.’
It was on the organisational question – the concentration of power in Healy’s hands – that Behan’s attack really hit home. Not only did Healy hold the posts of SLL general secretary, IC secretary and, in practice, League treasurer and print shop manager, Behan pointed out, but he hired and fired full-timers and purchased expensive equipment, all without prior consultation with the League’s elected bodies. Behan also opposed as grossly undemocratic Healy’s control of the organisation’s assets, the SLL’s press being jointly owned by Healy, the Banda brothers and Bob Shaw. Behan described it as ‘farcical that even if the whole conference should decide on a change of policy, four people could frustrate the will of the conference by simply splitting and walking away with the assets’. He proposed to place all the League’s property under the control of the membership.
The Behan faction also exposed the anti-communist methods Healy employed in order to maintain his domination over the organisation. Celia Behan accused Healy of repeatedly humiliating SLL members ‘by haranguing them at great length, preferably in front of a room full of people, for the most trifling errors’. Worse still was Healy’s use of ‘the personal chat, where he flatters the listener by making "in confidence" quite serious criticisms (usually of a personal nature) of another comrade.... Every comrade without exception is subjected to this behind the scenes denigration’. By such means, Healy crushed comrades’ confidence in themselves and each other. ‘The biggest condemnation of Comrade Healy as a communist’, Celia Behan alleged, ‘is that he has surrounded himself by a crowd of petty-bourgeois yes-men who, when they hear any criticism of him, spread their hands and say "Yes, but who but Comrade Healy could lead the movement?".’40
There was no way that Healy could tolerate such criticisms. In May 1960, when Behan was attending a North London branch meeting to put the minority’s case, in marched Healy with a group of majority supporters. Ken Weller, a member of Behan’s faction who was present that evening, describes the scene: ‘They take over the branch meeting, and start shouting and screaming and threatening. "Where do you stand on this? We demand an answer. You deserve a good hiding" – this sort of thing. They were actually trying to provoke a fight .... So we just walked out. And then we were expelled – for walking out of the meeting!’41
Even some of Healy’s political supporters baulked at this. ‘The "trial” of the Behan group’, Bob Pennington wrote, ‘was reminiscent of the best traditions of Stalinism and the Catholic Inquisition.’ He and another National Committee member, Martin Grainger (Chris Pallis), developed a series of criticisms of the SLL’s political positions, ranging from its uncritical line towards the SWP and the LSSP, to Healy’s refusal to oppose Mike Banda’s ‘completely Pabloite attitude to the Chinese Revolution’. Grainger described how the leadership’s ‘obsessional fear of mildly unorthodox views – or of simple questions for which readily prepared answers are not available’ had reduced intellectual life in Healy’s organisation ‘to the level of a religious service’.
But Healy utilised a report by Jack Gale of a personal conversation, in which Pennington and Grainger had admitted to sympathy with the anti-Trotskyist journal Socialisme ou Barbarie, in order to ban their faction for holding views ‘contrary to the principles of the League’. Pennington and Grainger were summoned to a meeting of the London Executive Committee, where Pennington was subjected to a 20-minute diatribe from Healy, consisting entirely of personal abuse. When he and Grainger tried to leave, they were forcibly prevented from doing so and physically assaulted. Disgusted with Healy’s methods, Pennington and Grainger renounced Trotskyism and founded the ‘libertarian’ Solidarity group. ‘The crisis will deepen’, was Grainger’s parting prediction for the SLL. ‘The inevitable ideological ferment will be bottled up, or will erupt periodically in a violent manner. Intimidation will continue. Cases of assault within the organisation will either be denied – or referred to Control Commissions (themselves carefully controlled).’42
1. News Chronicle, 4 December 1958.
2. Newsletter, 6 December 1958.
3. Streatham News, 19 December 1958.
4. Ibid., 23 January 1959
5. Daily Herald, 26 February 1959.
6. News Chronicle, 26 February 1959.
7. Healy, letter to Morgan Phillips, 24 February 1959 (Labour Party archives). Healy’s request was in any case nonsensical. Even aside from the fact that Victory for Socialism was not an affiliated organisation, the Labour Party had closed its list of affiliated organisations back in 1947, in order to block a Communist Party campaign for affiliation.
8. Socialist Leader, 23 November 1959.
9. Interview with Ellis Hillman, 4 January 1991.
10. ‘Deep Entryism’ and Pablo’s Anti-Unity Offensive, 1978, p.43.
11. Forum, March 1960.
12. Hillman interview.
14. At the time, Healy denied that the launch of the SLL meant an end to entry work. In a speech to the SLL summer camp in 1964, however, Healy stated that ‘in 1959 an open break with the Labour Party was necessary so that we could establish an open platform and have public cadres’ (SLL internal document).
15. Forum, February 1959.
16. Streatham News, 10 April 1959.
17. Ibid., 17 April 1959.
18. E. Shaw, Discipline and Discord in the Labour Party, 1988, p.132.
19. Hillman interview.
20. H. Ratner, Reluctant Revolutionary, 1994, p.240.
21. ‘Deep Entryism’, pp.10-18.
22. SLL Internal Bulletin No.5, June 1960.
23. P. Fryer, ‘An Open Letter to Members of the SLL and Other Marxists’, 19 September 1959.
24. Harry Ratner, interviewed by Sam Bornstein, 4 February 1987. Transcript courtesy of Socialist Platform.
25. ‘Deep Entryism’, p.28.
26. Fryer, Open Letter.
27. SLL internal bulletin, February 1960.
28. Labour Review, April-May 1959.
29. Healy Group internal document, quoted in News Chronicle, 13 November 1958.
30. Newsletter, 21 November 1959.
31. Ratner, p.239.
32. Labour Party Conference Report, 1959, p.104.
33. Guardian, 10 November 1959. When Fryer had been expelled from the CP, Healy had defended his right to criticise the party in a bourgeois newspaper. Yet he now condemned Fryer for having ‘run to the capitalist press’ (Newsletter, 28 November 1959).
34. Newsletter, 23 January 1960.
35. Ibid., 18 June 1960.
36. Ibid., 25 June 1960.
37. Ibid., 23 January 1960.
38. Ratner, p.239.
39. Interview with Ellis Hillman, 4 January 1991.
40. SLL Internal Bulletin No.5, June 1960.
41. Ibid; interview with Ken Weller, 17 April 1991.
42. By Their Words Ye Shall Know Them, Solidarity pamphlet No.4, 1960.