Gerry Healy and British Trotskyism

Author: 

Sean Matgamna

DURING THE two decades of the great labour militancy, roughly from the mid-'50s to the mid-'70s, the most important revolutionary socialist organisation in Britain was the Socialist Labour League.

The fundamental responsibility for the failure of the left then has to be laid on the SLL and on its leader Gerry Healy. The SLL dominated the world of revolutionary politics during this period, overshadowing even sizable organisations like Militant (now the Socialist Party, and Socialist Appeal) and the SWP (then called IS) and blocking the road of development for the tiny "Workers' Fight" group, a forerunner of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty.

This was the time when it was probably possible for Marxists to make a real breakthrough in re-moulding the mass labour movement, or, failing that, to create a large revolutionary organisation linked organically to the mass labour movement.

No such breakthrough was made. Fuelled by the mass youth radicalisation of the late '60s, there was a wide diffusion amongst middle class youth of generally revolutionary ideas, but too often ideas of a populist, quasi-anarchist or diluted Maoist nature, hostile or contemptuous towards the real, the only existing, working class and it's movement. One variant of this politics of middle-class ambivalence and half-contempt for the real working class took the form of patronising lionisation of the "working-class heroes" when they engaged in militant action, and giving up on them when they didn't. Another, the SWP's, combines lionisation with an all-defining focus on "building the party" as a substitute for the working class.

Sects were built but no serious revolutionary organisation rooted in the working class was built; and the most important sect during the decisive period was the SLL. Tt became the "Workers' Revolutionary Party" in 1973.

Even when, in the 1950s, it did serious and constructive work in the labour movement, the Healy Group was organisationally authoritarian and, as a consequence, intellectually stultified. A further consequence of this was that there were widely disparate but underdeveloped and incoherent political currents within the organisation — the Banda brothers, for example, were always half-Maoist — held in balance by Healy acting as the organisation's Bonapartist dictator.

Official "Trotskyism" since Trotsky has been an unstable amalgam of Trotsky's hostility to Stalinism and reluctant endorsements of "revolutionary" Stalinists — Mao, Castro, Ho Chi Minh, Tito — and the Stalinist states they established as deformed expressions of "the world socialist revolution." Everywhere this "Trotskyism" has been inherently unstable. Every element in that self-contradictory "Trotskyism" existed in the Healy organisation in a latent or opcn state of conflict. The organisation learned to live with its incoherences by evolving an organisational dictator who was also the ideological court of last resort. That was Healy.

Healy's role here was a pre-condition for the survival of an organisation which had such enormous political contradictions as this "Orthodox Trotskyist" group had.

HEALY DOMINATED the organisation in an unchallengeable rule sustained by both ideological and (petty) physical terror against anybody who dared disagree with him — or with whatever political strand in the organisation's leading layer he was, for the moment, backing. For example, the SLL "went Maoist" to support the Chinese "Cultural Revolution" in 1967.

In the 1960s the SLL progressively cut loose from the Labour Party—that is, from what was then the working-class movement in politics — and, though it remained in the trade unions, its activity there became more like Third Period Stalinism than serious work (see the account of this in the Workers' Liberty pamphlet, New Problems, New Struggles). It recruited and exploited — exploited is the word! — mainly raw youth.

Healy was a highly volatile fellow who tended to believe what he wanted to believe, and ever more so as he got old at the heart of an organisation where his every whim was law. At the centre of a machine where no-one could make him take account of anything he wanted to ignore, Healy slowly went mad — or, if you like, retreated into such a childish me-centred solipsistic view of the world that it came to the same thing.

For example, by the late 1960s the SLL was going on 100,000-strong anti-Vietnam-war demonstrations with leaflets asserting that the march was a conspiracy by the press to boost the march organisers at the expense of great Marxists like Healy. Yet the SLL machine survived, as an increasingly sealed-off youth-fueled sect, and expanded. Not accidentally, its main "industrial" base by the early 1970s was among actors and other theatre people.

The SLL published a daily paper from 1969. But, more and more it inhabited an onanistic world where its own rigidly exclusive marches and theatrical pageants were more important to the organisation than anything else. One consequences was that by the early 1970s, the then saner IS/SWP had space to grow substantially. One disconcerting feature of the SWP today is that it grows more and more like the SLL of the'60s.

Healy was always, even in his best days, given to paranoid self-importance and paranoid fear of the State, and now his derangement got completely out of control. A terrible panic seized him during the 1974 miners' strike that led to the dismissal of the Tory Government by the electorate. At one stage members of the organisation were instructed to hide their "documents" because a military coup was only days away.

Then Healy "discovered" that other Trotskyists who opposed him, such as Trotsky's one-time secretary, the American, Joseph Hansen, were really secret "agents" of the US or Russian governments, or both. A great barrage of lies and bizarre fantasies was poured out "exposing" them.

A vast world-wide campaign — the Healyites had small "children groups" in many countries — was launched to "explain" much of the tortured history of Trotskyism as a convoluted spy story. All of the world, and much of recent history, was reinterpreted as an affair of "agents" and double-agents. Perhaps as part of the full-scale eruption of his paranoia, Healy now transmuted into a "philosopher."

LIVING THE life of a millionaire, if not a pasha, while members of the organisation often went short, and full-time organisers were sometimes going hungry, Healy concentrated more and more on expounding a pseudo-Marxist, pseudo-Hegelian goobledegook reminiscent, despite its verbiage about "dialectics" and so on, of nothing so much as L Ron Hubbard's dianetics, around which the Church of Scientology has been constructed. This stuff mixed oddly with his continuing "political" concerns and the lines were often crossed: it was not unknown for the WRP press to denounce someone as both a police agent and a "philosophical idealist."

By the late mid-'70s the organisation was in serious decline, financially over-extended, and threatened with collapse.

At this point, Healy sold the organisation to Libya, Iraq and some of the Arab sheikhdoms as a propaganda outlet and as a jobbing agency for spying on Arab dissidents and prominent Jews ("Zionists") in Britain! Arab gold flowed into the shrunken and isolated organisation. Printing presses were bought, more modern than those on which the bourgeois papers were then printed. To get away from the London print unions, they were installed in Runcorn, Cheshire, anticipating by a decade Rupert Murdoch's move from Fleet Street to Wapping.

They churned out crude Arab-chauvinist propaganda lauding Saddam Hussein and Libya's ruler Colonel Ghadafi and denouncing Israel and "Zionism." Numerically still in serious and progressive decline, the organisation, nevertheless, built up a property empire of bookshops and "training centres" around Britain. To earn their wages, they, still calling themselves Trotskyists, publicly justified Saddam Hussein's 1980 killing of Iraqi Communist Party members, and provided reports on London-based Arabs and on Jewish capitalists. This organisation, as we insisted at the time — paying-for our insistence with a costly libel case brought in the name of the actress Vanessa Redgrave — could not any longer be considered part of the labour movement. In fact it was still widely accepted as part of the labour movement, but that's another story. [See "The Last Time We Were Heresy Hunted", by this writer, in the Solidarity on-line archive.]

The final act came in October 1985. Healy, who had run the organisation by personal terror, was now 72, weakened by age and by a bad heart. He was suddenly denounced as a rapist of 20-something female comrades and expelled from the organisation! Exactly what happened is still not entirely clear, but, with Healy dithering on the margin between retirement and full guru-ship, the WRP imploded. Faced with continued decline and, despite the flowing Arab gold, a new financial crisis, the WRP apparatus divided. Healy himself was probably getting ready for a purge. The WRP fell apart in a great outburst of long bottled-up hysteria. The subgroups which Healy had kept in line fell on each other, and on Healy, who had exploited and then disappointed their political hopes.

People whom he had oppressed for many years, using them as whipping boys and demoralised dirty tools, allied with the quasi-Maoist Banda brothers, his lieutenants of 35 years, and drove Healy out. It was a satisfying but not a pleasant thing to see! With Vanessa Redgrave — a splendid actress politically short of more than a few of the pages necessary for a full shooting script — playing Cordelia to his Lear, Healy fled from the wrath of his political children. He died in December 1989 an enthusiastic Gorbachevite. Asserting to the end his right to believe what he wanted to believe, he imagined that he saw Gorbachev carrying out Trotsky's programme in the USSR. Thus the "Gerry Healy story" would have a happy ending!

At the end, and for a long time before the end, the "Gerry Healy story" was a series of episodes from the theatre of the grotesque, which is where Healy himself really belonged politically and personally.

HE CLAIMED Irish, Galway peasant, origins. The first time I talked to him, he told me that his father had been shot by the British terroristic occupation-force, the Black and Tans, in 1920. He spun out that story as from a repertoire, in a way that made me doubt it. Altogether too pat, it inadvertently suggested someone with only a broad big-events acquaintance with Ireland and Irish history, and Healy was a notorious liar. The story is repeated by Feldman. (For what it's worth, lrish Communist Party members whom I knew in the late 1950s said he originated in Liverpool: Healy was in the CP until the mid-'30s.)

Healy's leadership, first—in the'40s—of the Revolutionary Communist Party faction which favoured entry into the Labour Party, and then of the main British Trotskyist group, in the late '40s and through the '5Os, was that of a mere "branch manaper", local representative of the international Orthodox Trotskyist tendency led by the American Trotskyist James P Cannon and by Michel Pablo (Raptis) and Ernest Mandel in Europe.

Healy took most of his broader politics ready-made; even the articles and documents which appeared under his name were sometimes, perhaps mostly, written by others — Sam Gordon, George Novack, Michel Pablo.

When I joined the SLL, early in 1960, the Manchester organiser, Ted Knight, told me how impressed he had been — and I should be... — that Healy in late 1956 had produced a pamphlet on the Hungarian Revolution — and, indeed, a very good one — in one all-night session. The text had probably come in the post that morning!

(As the press-dubbed "Red Ted", leader of Lambeth Council just after Thatcher came to power, Knight, guided by Healy, would play Robin to Ken Livingstone's "Fake Left" Batman in the Local Government fiasco to which they led the Labour party in London.)

Healy came to play the role he played in British Trotskyism from the mid-'40s onwards not despite but because of his indifference to political ideas. An almost identical political type, Pierre Lambert, came to dominate much of French Trotskyism in the same period. Healy, like Lambert, came to the fore because he was a lightweight politically, not caring very much about the political ideas.

In the 1940s and '50s, the world posed big problems to old-stylc Trotskyists, and most of the political leaders of the movement collapsed in demoralisation, confusion, or perplexity. The Healys and the Lamberts became central because thcy cared about the ideas only for their immediate organisational consequences, and could propose what to do on the basis of short-term calculations without any political or intellectual qualms.

Healy backed Cannon in the Fourth International split of ¡953, when Cannon launched a war against "Pabloism", denouncing the FI leaders as "soft" on Stalinism, and launching what might be called "Orthodox Trotskyism Mark 2", fiercely but incoherently anti-Stalinist. After he split from Cannon in the early 1960s, asserting his political independence, Healy's politics were blatantly cut to fit organisational needs, rather than organisational questions being arranged according to politics.

If James Cannon, Healy's one-time mentor, was fond of saying, after Trotsky, "the programme creates the party", Healy reinterpreted this guiding principle to mean: arrange to have a "programme" that will maximise party growth; 'the organisational needs of the party create the programme.' Here Healy's most important disciple woulf be Tony Cliff...

IN APPEARANCE, Healy was extraordinary. Small — perhaps 5 feet 2-3 inches — and pudgy, he had an enormous, disproportionately large (or so it seemed), high-coloured head, with only thin strands of hair on it, looking like they had been painted on with an eyebrow pencil. His face was large and fleshy, with small features, the little eyes permanently red and sore-looking, reminiscent, as one-time associate Brian Behan wrote somewhere, of a young pig.

What he always called to my mind was Karl Marx's description, in The Civil War in France, of the politician Thiers, one of those who suppressed the Paris Commune: "a monstrous gnome."

He dominated his organisation by uninhibitedly brutal force of character, impervious alike to reason and to decency. The 'cadre' of the group, including almost all the other leaders, was the product of 'selection' — survival — through a never ending series of savage sado-masochistic rituals, involving at one time or another the pillorying, hounding, denouncing and self-prostrating of most of the hard core. In this way Healy built a machine that was essentially depoliticised, ready at his whim for any "turn." Here, it was a farcical caricature of Stalinism despite its verbal "Trotskyism."

That the SLL mutated like that was a great tragedy for working-class politics in Britain. Much of the history of that organisation is properly explained by the personality of Healy; the fact that the most important ostensibly revolutionary organisation in Britain took this form needs a broader and deeper explanation. But that is a major subject in itself.

Paul Feldman contributes to this book a rehash of the lying "history" churned out by the SLL/WRP in its last two decades. Corinna Lotz contributes a personal account of Healy's last four years, when she was his secretary/nurse.

Though she is badly informed politically — for example, she thinks Lenin was "secretary" of the Bolshevik Party — and naively believes in Healy (dollops of whose 'philosophical' gibberish, notes from his lectures, lace her text) Lotz gives a touching account of Healy in his last years as a charlatan-guru for rich and silly theatricals — Maharishi Guru Gerry, so to speak, and L Ron Healy, rolled into one — globe-trotting to interesting places with Vanessa Redgrave's name on his calling card.

Lotz paints a fanciful picture of a gallant old man struggling for his truth against strong enemies, including the unbeatable ones, old age and ill-health. She made me forget for a while, though I have indelible adolescent experiences to remind me, that this man spent 25 years bullying — politically, financially, emotionally, sexually — and exploiting young people who thought he represented the legacy of Leon Trotsky — towards which his real relationship was that of Cain to Abel.

When Lotz described Healy moaning to himself shortly before he lost consciousness and died, I felt what both humanity and convention say you should feel about such things, though Gerry Healy would have becn the first to scorn that sort of "weakness": "... He kept sighing, saying, 'Oh my God'..."

Then my real feelings about the old reptile came to the surface in involuntary speculation about the meaning of the guru's "last words."

Was this last-minute appeal to 'Oh my God' a prayer? Did the old purveyor of "dialectical" pidgin-religion get real, God-bothering, religion at the end? Or is the correct interpretation that it was something akin to Christ's despairing cry on the cross: 'My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?' Had he thought he had a special relationship with the Supreme Leadership in the sky?

If you exclude these possibilities, you are left with the sense of Edward G Robinson's dying words at the end of "Little Caesar" when, playing Rico the small-time gangster, he staggers around, shot through the chest, gasping out his astonishment that he is, after all, mortal: "Can this", he cries, "be the end of Rico?" And a miserable end Healy's was too — Thirty years too late.

*"Gerry Healy, A Revolutionary Life", by Corlona Lotz and Paul Feldman [Lupus Books, 1994]

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