On Healy’s Background

Draft of an article or speech in JA's files.MS amendments are indicated by italics. There is no indication from the files as to whether it was ever published. JJP

The Labour Movement in Britain, to which Gerry Healy came as a youth at some un-recorded date around the end of the 1920's, must have seemed strange and hard to understand. The usual daily experience of the Irish emigrant workers was hard and often dangerous work in the construction industries, with the employers relatively strengthened by the defeats of the workers' mass organisations in 1926 and 1931.

In this early period of his experience, Healy was doubly mis-educated. First, by the Communist Party during the "Third Period", the damaging effects of which, after this distance of time, are too imperfectly studied and understood. The "party" inculcated into him that combination of objectivist "uItra-left-ism" with opportunistic manoeuvre as the means by which to neutralise its baleful effects. In later years, as many of us had occasion to witness, these essential political characteristics caused him intense difficulty, the final solution for which he sought in the creation of an apparatus, wholly subordinate to him, at the top of which he could stand as the chief beyond criticism or error.

Secondly, he was mis-educated influenced by the Workers' International League, which provided political conditions of work that encouraged his general propensity to activism, factionalism and economy with the truth, features which the W.I.L. revealed for all time in its mid-war document "To Inform Our Members", and against which Trotsky had already warned us in the 1930's.

It is a tribute to his remarkable abilities that he could succeed in 1949 - 50 in drawing together those survivors of the R.C.P. who wanted to continue to fight for Trotsky's Fourth International through all its difficulties, and specifically in Britain to do so by deepening and developing their experience of the "entry" tactic, through the Socialist Fellowship, as the means to lay the foundation for the future revolutionary workers' party in Britain.

The "Club" was itself drew in former activists from the RSL on the basis that "the past is passed" we wanted to put behind us, or, at any rate, to defer settlement of the awful controversies of the preceding twelve years. (I was as responsible as anyone else for this "moratorium".) It may, indeed, be asked whether we could have founded the "Club" and developed it otherwise. Mary and I brought in our handful of contacts in the North of England, and were disconcerted when, later in the decade, we found Gerry going around peddling an increasingly spurious account of the history of our movement in the 1930s in Britain, placing himself personally at its centre and writing out of history the whole experience of the R.S.L. and of James' "Marxist Group" and the struggle over "entry" and its perspectives. In those days we commanded neither the documentary evidence nor the necessary political ideas to challenge him.

Moreover, the masterly way in which Gerry brought together the militant dockers and won their leadership, followed by the effective intervention in the crisis of the Communist Party in 1956 - 57, the Shell-Mex Strike in 1958 and the struggle which led up to the National Assembly of Labour, all presented us with un-exampled opportunities to take part in the class-struggle and to widen our own experience, under his leadership.

However, I advance here the hypothesis that the most important specific characteristics of the workers' movement this side of the Irish Sea in the 1930s can be traced in terms of the evolving attitudes of the mass movement towards the Labour Party and its leadership, as refracted through the several currents on the Left however imperfectly.

I suggest that we should start from what Trotsky wrote, in 1924, in "Where is Britain Going?", (before the General Strike, of course), posing the theoretical possibility that the Communist Party - if it found the right way to destroy the influence of the reformists, and warning against the dangers of capitulation to them which could arise from the Anglo-Russian Joint Trade Union Committee - could come to the leadership of the Labour Party. But, in my opinion, this theoretical possibility - which he carefully warned us NOT to take as an "astronomical" prediction – became much less probable when the defeat of the General Strike and that of the coal miners reinforced the grip of the reformist right on the apparatus of the trade unions and the Labour Party.

The next two years, 1927 - 1929, were marked by a turn away from using "the industrial weapon" to "using the political weapon", in other words, to efforts to ensure that a Labour Government would be elected in the next General Election, which came in summer 1929. (in this election the Communist Party stood 26 candidates against Labour candidates, and got 52,000 votes overall).

The second Labour Government, headed by Ramsey MacDonald, was the largest single party in the House of Commons, but relied for an overall majority on Liberal support. However, it proved completely unable to defend the working class against the impact on the British economy of the world economic crisis which the Wall Street Crash of autumn 1929 had announced. The bourgeoisie were able to disrupt it on the question of how great the burdens to be imposed on the working class were to be. In the General Election of autumn 1931, a relatively small shift in votes resulted in a heavy loss of seats in Parliament by the Labour Party and in the installation of a government, at first disguised as a "National" Coalition, which enabled the Conservative Party to rule for the next fourteen years.

The most important feature of the next few years was, in my opinion, the long, patient struggle to build the trade unions of the work force in the "new" industries, light engineering, chemicals, road transport and construction, to enforce trade union recognition and "the rule book", generally under the eye of the leading bureaucrats of the growing semi-killed "general workers'" unions.

In the same period, among the more politically aware layers of the class, the principal tendency was to seek, consistently with its past experience and traditions, to subject the mass political organisation which they had created to their control and to test to the limit how far it could serve their needs, that is, in the given circumstances, to struggle for independence by that road.

Of course, the disappointment of expectations which the Communist Party had earlier raised, the self-destructive "Third Period", combined with the illusions in Stalinism mixed up with the genuine recognition of the historical significance of the October 1917 revolution, all contributed on the one hand to a remarkable rise in rank and file activity in the Labour Party (especially the Labour Party League of Youth, among young workers whose fathers had experienced World War I) and to Labour victories in local council elections (Labour won control of the London County Council for the first time in 1934). On the other hand it produced a confused, heterogeneous reformist and centrist left, wide open to Stalinist penetration.

We can trade several threads in the political thinking of the left-ward-moving rank and file which began to reveal itself in the series of Labour victories in Parliamentary elections in 1933 (and which L.T. had forecast in a letter to the Groves group late in 1931). First, they sought the means to devise a programme for the Labour Party, which would present proposals to meet the felt needs of the working class and on the basis of which the workers could be rallied to ensure that a Labour Government based on a clear majority in Parliament could displace the Conservatives.

Secondly, they wanted an independent class line by means of which to avert the dangers of fascism and war, a natural feature of their general aim.

Thirdly, they found that they needed to seek the means to subject the Labour Party leadership to the control of the rank and file of the party, and more specifically to break the grip on it of the small circle of the leaders of the large unions. This was necessary in order to get such a programme accepted officially as Labour Party policy and presented as such by the leadership in the General Election.

Fourthly, it meant finding the means to subject a future Labour government to the control of the party in order to make sure that the future Labour Government would actually carry out the programme on which it had been elected, in the face of the crisis which the right was certain to provoke in order to de-stabilise it.

Underlying all the groping efforts to advance towards these aims, the yearning for unity was very clear. In these years, the Stalinists were nothing but an obstacle, not least in their appropriation of the slogan of workers' unity for their own purposes, to subordinate the left to the right, and to subordinate the working-class as a whole to the purposes of British imperialism, provided that the latter could be induced to join in defending the existing frontiers (set up by the victor powers of 1918) in Central and Eastern Europe.

Neither the Stalinists themselves, nor those whom they heavily influenced, could ever identify themselves with the fundamental aims of the workers' movement.

From mid-1937 onwards, moreover, there hung over the whole movement the disappointment of the hopes placed in the French and Spanish Popular Front governments as possible barriers against fascism and war. The approach of war seemed irresistible, despite all the efforts to avert it.

This would in any case have been a situation in which a cadre of experienced Bolsheviks would have had difficulties. But the Trotskyists were by no means experienced Bolsheviks. They attracted a few former militants from the Communist Party's earlier days, but most of that older generation were already sickened by what they had discovered to be going on in the USSR and in the Communist Party itself. Most of the Trotskyists were necessarily young and inexperienced and far away from the experience of Bolshevism or of the first five years of the Communist International, which formally were their political basis, like that of the rest of the International Left Opposition.

We young ones lacked political and material resources alike. We all faced the problem of the gulf, which separated us from the general movement of the class in which we sought to play our part. The agenda was always set by our opponents: we could not fight the social-patriots without at the same time having the fight the Moscow Trials. At every step into the workers' movement we came under the pressures of reformists and the counter pressures of ultra-leftism.

It can hardly be a matter of wonder or of criticism that we were divided on fundamentally political differences, and that the discussion of these differences was complicated by intense personal antagonisms.

My thesis was intended to offer a starting-point for the study of the various ways in which we tried to overcome our isolation. I have tried, for better or for worse, throughout to concentrate on establishing who did or said what, when and where. Then, if possible, I have asked, what did they think they were doing? What was their political aim?

John Archer

September 1994