Gerry Healy's Socialist Labour League: a Caricature of Trotskyism (1967)

Submitted by dalcassian on 24 August, 2010 - 4:10 Author: Sean Matgamna

Outside Caxton Hall, London, before a meeting organised by the Socialist Labour League to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Hungarian Commune, a number of people stood selling literature. Some Maoists, some sellers of the English Militant, and Ernie Tate, manager of Pioneer Book Services. Tate was selling the International Socialist Review and a pamphlet — HEALY "RECONSTRUCTS" THE FOURTH INTERNATIONAL. This reported on the weird, nightmarish experienoes of the delegates of the American SPARTACUS LEAGUE at the Third Conference of the International Committee of the Fourth International. In a NEWSLETTER [SLL weekly] review of the pamphlet, blusteringly evading a political reply to it, Gerry Healy, SLL General Secretary, had announced threateningly: "We shall not hesitate to deal appropriately with the handfull of United Secretariat agents who hawk it around the cynical fake left..."

Healy himself arrived and entered Caxton Hall: a moment later he re-emerged. And suddenly about six people, whose membership of the SLL has not been denied, set upon Tate. Unaided, he was beaten, knocked down, and kicked in the head, kidneys and genitals; he was so badly hurt that he had to be hospitalised. Tate says that Healy nodded to his supporters to start the beating. Healy denies this. But even he has not denied watching while members of his organisation savaged a fellow revolutionary.

Tate, the Marxist, naturally refused to go to the police for satisfaction against his assaillants. So he appealed, not to the cops, but to the labour movement. He circulated a letter to a number of leftist papers outlining the events as he had experienced them, and bluntly stating his opinion that Healy had directed the assault.

But within a week, two of the papers which had published the letter, PEACE NEWS and SOCIALIST LEADER [Independent Labour Party paper] appeared with humble retractions and apologies, similarly worded, prominently displayed. What had happened? Healy's lawyer had worked through Tate's letter and found material which was legally actionable: they then threatened Peace News and Socialist Leader with the law courts, and these immediately fell on their knees and offered Healy ten Guineas each to spare them!

Healy's solicitors also wrote to Tate demanding that he stop "slandering" their client. Tate has defied them and, significantly, Healy has not gone to court. The NEWSLETTER republished both retractsions - but made no attempt to explain politicarly what it was all about. Their excuse? It was - where they had put it - in the hands of the lawyers! Healy went to court — Tate didn't. And it is clear who comes out best in this sad tale.

Anybody with experience of the SLL will not doubt that Tate's version is the true one. As far as we are concerned only two questions arise: how on earth can such antics have come to be a feature of a self-proclaimed Trotskyists organisation? And what to do about it?

II

The SLL is the most hated organisation on the left, and that isn't altogether to their discredit, nor entirely due to incidents such as the ahove. But this sort of thing allows the fake left to avoid replying politically to many of the correct things the SLL says in general, and about themselves in particular. No doubt the soft Labour left is sincerely grateful that its most strident critic usually sounds shrill with hysteria: if Healy didn't exist all these Centrist-opportunist groups might have to invent him as a bogey. Their debt to him is incalculable. We want to dissociate ourselves entirely from this attitude to the SLL. But because we nave a common ground with the SLL on so many things we feel even more strongly a need to denounce incidents such as the above.

To understand the SLL and the malaise that affects it we must understand the general movement out of which it has crystalised: it is an overcompensation for all the fears, frustrations and cowardliness of the traditional British Left. A revolutionary organisation in an environment phlegmatic with the notorious sluggishness of the British Labour maovement conditioned also by a.quarter century of capitalist boom, which has seen the ever rightward drift of social democracy and the senile decay of the CPs. Between the two, a large variety of small groups, some of them 'Marxist', vegetate, with little hope, losing sight of the revolutionary Marxist perspectives for the future, and failing, above all, to prepare for thom.

The SLL's current phase began as a response to tho levelopment of an opportunist wing in Trotskyism, which it saw as mainly the result of a growing gap between the basic theory of the movement and the actul existance of its members, living in the sluggish and bureaucratic labour organisations. This had led to the abandonment of the struggle against the labour bureaucracies and in some cases, illusions in a.rovolutionar potential from all sorts of labour, Stalininist and even petit bourgeois groups. It is said that at one stage of the Bevan movement the SLL leaders were themselves amongst those who developed illusions in the centrists. Be that as it may. Once they shook out of it they correctly insisted that the solution to the problem was only to be found in practice, in a rejuvenated approach to the day to day work, keeping the task of organising an alternative leadership, a revolutionary party, as the guide-line for all practical work. After Hungary they absorbed a number of potentially healthy streams from the CP. ..

But for tiny organisations it is easy to fall prey to delusions, to sutstitute auto-suggested wish enactment for reality; the revolutionary subjectivism of the SLL leadership led them to caricature their own initially healthy rejection of pseudo- Marxist fatalism in favour of Bolshevik activism. Soon they wound up, in practice, insisting that it was all a matter of will. The real world bagan to be faded out of the picture — their miscalculations, the false pride engendered by modest successes, internal clique rule arising from an essential conception of "the doctrine" as holy writ which must be protected from rough hands, all combined to hustle the SLL into a sectarian corner. A nationally isolated organisation (its FI is largely one more projection of its own wishes) it ignores the world situation of capitalism entirely and convinces itself that the present period in Britain is a "directly pre-revolutionary period. To underline the absurdity of this position, the fact remains that there can never be a mechanically revolutionary situation apart fram the preparedness of the working class.

They are forced to explain the lack of mass interest in their slogans, and their own virtual isolation in this "pre-revolutionary situation'' by evolving absurd theories, sanctified even in their conference statements (see NEWSLETTER report of their 1965 Conference) about some super-revolutionary qualities in youth under 20! They concentrate almost completely on youth — where they have some influence initially gained in saner days — and are entirely cut off from the labour movement,

Even when what they say is correct their practice reders them impotent in their abstract correctness. In the Seamen's strike, for instance, their ancalysis was currect, but their sectarian frustration at their own lack of influence led to their stupid attempts to artificially parachute their "super-revolutionaly" youth into the struggle, and thus they alienated the very seamen that their 'correct' analysis should have drawn to them, to the benefit of both.

A revolutionary organisation is either revolutionary and capable of integrating with the working class as it actually exists, without sacrificing its own identity - or it is impotent. The sharpness of the SLL is achieved at the price of divorcement from the class: it is impotent because its day to day practice is not an attempt to build up organically with the class. It has turned full circle and its activities are as irrelevant to genuinely revolutionary politics as those of the right opporturists it began by denouncing. It is reduced to a single catch-cry for all occasions - "the crisis of leadership" - but its antics cut it off from any possibility of solving that crisis.Its Marxism is Holy Writ, worshipped rather than used as a tool.

But at the same time its militancy and evocation of the heroic period of Bolshevism attracts enough people to turn the organisationa seriousness and atility of the leadership into the nucleus of a sizeable sect. Its strength as a sect — recipees to impse on history, narrowness, leader-cult, vicious hostility towards divergencies — cuts it off from the masses, and sets a sharp limit on its potential development.

This is the background to the SLL's stifling internal regime, its continual state of siege and crisis, devil-hunting and witch-burning, (internally and in the Newsletter) and the mentality and 'incidents' which arise from these.

III

There is usually a big demand for sticks with which to beat the SLL: that is why it is important to approach the present case carefully. The problem of how to react to the SLL is permanently with the other left groups: thuggery and threats of it are not confined to Ernie Tate - but his is a more serious case, of a man isolated from his comrades and defenceless against half a dozen thugs.

The right of free speech is a prerequisite of a civilised working class democracy. Its suppression by violence is always the expression of a deep malaise. With the Social-Democrat butchers of Communists after WWI in Eastern and Central Europe, it signified their open enlistment as hourgeois mercenaries, and with the Stalinists it signified their growing antagonism to tne working class ana all honest Marxists. That was Lenin's view. In 1923 he broke off relations with a personal friend, Ordjonikidse, and demanded that he be tried and expelled by the Party, because he had resorted to personal violence in a political dispute with a Georgian Bolshevik. Lenin appreciated that it was a symptom of a deep disorder - this time of the bureaucratic handling of the national question. With the SIL it signals the gap between their activities and reality and the sectarianism which drives the leadership to acts which they know are indefensible before the labour movement.

How to deal with the SLL? The IWG is far from disagreeing with many of the comments of the SLL on the Left groups - but we are even further from accepting their right to terrorise working class political opponents. The SLL yet remains a tendency within the left, and it is our job to control it. Two years ago certain LP 'Marxists' allowed themselves to unite with the LP bureaucrats and the police and expel from the Labour Party SLL members who were allegedly threatening a disturbance in a YS branch. This, we feel, is an example of how not to fight the SLL, It means crossing the line and committing a crime far bigger than the SLL's. Self reliance is the only approach. There are sufficient forces on the left in the broader sense to ensure its own democratic freedom of discussion, without lining up with the direct agents of the class enemy. In the thirties, Trotskyist rights to distribute anti-stalinist literature was defended from stalinist thugs by W0RKERS' DEFENCE SQUADS FOR DEMOCRACY.

There is no other way to deal wqth the SLL. They must not be suppressed, but neither can they be allowed to suppress their critics and opponents. The Left must take steps to ensure its own democracy; if it doesn't it deserves a situation where the bully boys have things all their own way.

Workers' Republic, Irish Workers' Group magazine
No 17
Spring 1967.

Comments

Submitted by guenter on Wed, 08/25/2010 - 01:45

an article full of insight. as an young man, comrade matgamma foresaw the strange developement of the healy-ites.
but what shocked him so in 1967, that 1 trotskyte was beaten up by trots of another tendency, didnt remain the only incident like this. not to mention how often such things happened among all the other left groups till today. i always wondered, why none of those intelligent(?) people seemed 2 understand a simple thing: if "ordinary" people or workers watch lefties from different groups beating up each other, then NONE of all these groups will ever win a significant number, and ALL our politics is in vain. how can it be so difficult 2 understand this and 2 act more human and less hostile with comrades from other groups?