Mike Banda: The Death of a Political Gangster

Submitted by Matthew on 17 September, 2014 - 3:43 Author: Sean Matgamna

Michael Banda (Michael van den Poorten), who died recently, had for nearly three decades been a retired political gangster.

For much of the previous three decades he had been an all-too-active political gangster, as one of the two or three central leaders of the Healy organisation known variously as the Newsletter group, the Socialist Labour League, and the Workers’ Revolutionary Party.

He was known in the organisation during the 1950s and early 60s as “Mike the Knife”, after he pulled a knife on a man who had grabbed Gerry Healy by the coat collar in a factional row.

He also played “Mike the Knife” at the demise of the organisation in 1985-6. That time, the knife was political, and its target was Healy, whose political lieutenant Banda had been for the previous three decades.

The old Healyite organisation came to an abrupt end, shattered into pieces. One of the pieces was led, or spearheaded, by Banda. The attitude of the Banda brothers, Mike and Tony, was probably decisive in determining what happened in the WRP at that time.

Serious socialists owe him a debt of gratitude for the long-overdue demise of an organisation that had, for its last decade of existence, been a pensionary of Middle East dictators Gadaffi of Libya, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, and some of the sheikhdoms.

How much money the WRP received cannot, by the nature of the operation, be precisely known now. It was certainly well over one million pounds and perhaps a great deal more. The alluvial flood of petrodollars allowed the WRP, though it was in prolonged and steep organisational decline, to buy printing presses more modern than those the mainstream papers were printed on, and to acquire bookshops and other property in a number of cities.

To earn their wages, the Healy-Banda gang sent their paymasters spy reports on dissident Arabs in Britain and on prominent Jews. They justified the killing of Communist Party members by the Iraqi state. In 1980, Banda wrote an explanation to the readers of the WRP’s daily paper Newsline that the CPers had tried to subvert the Iraqi army - and everyone knew what happened to people who did that, didn’t they?

The Healyites spread political corruption into those areas of the labour movement which they could reach by testifying that Gadaffism was authentic socialism: Michael Banda was frequently the boldest and most shameless in such work.

In the early 1980s he told a big meeting at the Conway Hall, called to denounce and condemn Solidarity’s predecessor, Socialist Organiser, that the Islamic-green Libya was like a melon — green on the outside but red on the inside! That satisfactorily solved that little difficulty...

In the period before it imploded in late 1985, the WRP activated or reconnected with still-loyal former or secret members such as “Red Ted” Knight, the leader of Lambeth’s Labour council and “close comrade in arms” of Ken Livingstone in the leadership of the local government left of the time.

That local government left became both prominent and powerful as Thatcher’s Tories struggled to set themselves firmly in the saddle so that they could smash up the labour movement.

What did the WRP do with its reclaimed allies? Politically, emotionally, and intellectually, they encouraged the local government leaders to run away from the necessary fight with the Tories, for which positions in local government should have become a base. And they set up a weekly paper for them, Labour Herald, edited in fact by a WRP Central Committee member, Steven Miller, though nominally by Livingstone, Knight, and another Lambeth councillor.

The local government leaders had promised to make local government a base for fighting the Tories, but Ken Livingstone was always a political cynic and a devoutly self-promoting careerist. By contrast, Knight had serious and long-standing roots in revolutionary socialist politics, and might have chosen a different course if the WRP leaders hadn’t been there to whisper right-wing advice and rationalisations in his ear. (After the miners’ defeat, Knight would blunder into a semi-confrontation, and be legally disqualified as a councillor).

One of the services which the Healyites tried to provide for the local government left leaders who were reneging on their public promises to use Labour-controlled local government to mobilise against the Tories, was to try to cripple or destroy Socialist Organiser. Livingstone, Knight and others had worked closely with us up to the point that they bottled out of confrontation with early Thatcherism and we turned on them.

Early in 1981, the WRP - in the improbable person of the actress Vanessa Redgrave - started a libel action in response to a very understated summary account of the WRP which the present writer published in Socialist Organiser. I was sued for what I’d written - for comparing the WRP to the Moonies, but not for referring to the evidence of funding from Arab despots - and John Bloxam was sued for repeating some of it in a circular letter to Socialist Organiser supporters.

We decided to fight the case in preference to publishing a tongue-in-cheek retraction of what we knew to be true, making a hypocritical apology.

That expensive libel action - we wouldn’t have been able to fight it if some friendly lawyers hadn’t worked with us without payment - dragged on for the five years that remained in the life of the WRP, until its 1985 implosion made it impossible for Redgrave to go on.

Michael Banda played a central role in that and other political-gangster activities. In its later period, there was always an atmosphere of intimidation and real or incipient thuggery around the affairs of the WRP. Banda was central to that, too.

It would be senseless to discuss which of the political and other crimes of Healy, Banda, and the other leaders of their organisation was “the worst”. What they did with anti-semitism would, however, rank very high in the list.

As part of the deal with their various Arab patrons they provided private reports on dissident Arabs in Britain and on the activities of prominent British Jews. Publicly they ran a campaign against “Zionists” in British politics, businesses, and other public affairs. “Zionist” was the thinnest of disguise for “Jew”.

It reached the stage that they wrote about “The Zionist Connection” in terms very close to the craziest anti-Semites who saw conspiracy by world Jewry everywhere and in everything they disliked. The WRP published an editorial in 1985 that raved about a gigantic “Zionist connection” that extended from the editorial board of Socialist Organiser through Thatcher’s Cabinet all the way to Reagan’s White House.

By that stage Healy was, arguably, clinically mad. Banda wasn’t.

The end came for the WRP when it lurched into financial crisis on an unprecedented scale. With a few hundred members, the organisation was vastly overextended. It had expenditure and commitments which it could not sustain even with help from the in-flowing wads of petrodollars.

A great head of political frustration had built up in the organisation, and of hatred between layers of the party bureaucracy. For example, older leaders resented having been pushed aside by Healy to make way for such as the Redgrave siblings, Corin and Vanessa.

Above all, political events made it increasingly difficult to evade the fact that all of Healy’s promises to “build a mass revolutionary party” had failed entirely.

Healy had always played the role of a bonaparte in the WRP, balancing, controlling, and acting as court of last resort for political differences and in disputes. But he was 73, and no longer the formidable political thug that he once was. There was some evidence that he was getting ready to purge the WRP leadership.

So they fell on each other, gouging and spitting and ripping. The hysteria that engulfed the leading layer had been building up for years. Cliff Slaughter, an academic and hack theoretician for Healy over many years, suddenly discovered and proclaimed that Healy’s inner group (the Redgraves, etc.) were no less than “fascists”.

Michael Banda and his brother Tony had learned no-holds-barred political rough-housing from Healy. Good pupils, they denounced Healy as a serial rapist of young female comrades. (If that had, as they charged, gone on for years, then they too, knowing it, were guilty). The press had much merriment, reporting on Healy, “the Red in the Bed”.

Healy had lived the life of a sheikh or a Hollywood mogul while members of the organisation struggled to raise money, and ordinary full-timers often went unpaid. Now the backlash licensed by Banda convulsed the organisation. Old scandals came pouring out.

Healy, the life-long bully — organisational, physical,emotional and sexual — refused to face his accusers. I remember the gleeful satisfaction with which one of the leading WRPers, Geoff Pilling, who hadn’t spoken to me in many years, accosted me one night in a pub near Conway Hall to tell me that. “He didn’t dare to face us”.

Someone commented that Machiavelli would have summed up the lesson in power politics for Healy thus: “He who rules by personal force and the ability to terrify his followers should not grow old”.

Michael Banda disappeared from politics soon after that. He came to a meeting I did a dozen years ago and we talked afterwards.

He said Healy was a paranoiac, citing the opinion of Chris Pallas, a neurosurgeon who had parted company with the organisation as long as 25 years before Banda turned on Healy.

He said: “He died on the job, you know”. He told that story as if he and others had not plausibly branded Healy as a serial rapist - indeed, I thought, with an edge of proprietorial, even filial, pride.

I asked him how he named himself politically. “I’m not a Trotskyist. I’m a realist now”. God knows what that meant. It could, of course, mean anything he wanted it to mean

He managed to sustain the ebullient manner that had always been his front in politics. In fact, politically he was dead - by that time, long dead.

You have to stand back from the mountain of political atrocities, against the working class, against young and vulnerable members of “his” organisation, against Marxism, and against Trotskyism, which Banda perpetrated or helped Healy perpetrate over decades, to see the personal tragedy of Michael Banda, of his brother Tony, who died a decade ago. And of so many others.

These were two young men, of well-off Sri Lankan background, who came to England in 1951 or 52. This was a race-conscious England not over-friendly to brown-skinned incomers like the Banda brothers. They were already Trotskyists, and presented themselves to Gerry Healy as fully-grown political activists, “reporting for duty”, so to speak.

Healy’s account of it was that they came, and he questioned them about their politics and what they’d read. Have they read Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed? Oh yes. The Permanent Revolution? Yes, of course. In Defence of Marxism? They had.

Healy’s affectionate story about how little of “big” politics he had had to teach them was also, of course, a portrait of his own level of political development. He taught them other things... things they would never find in the writings of Leon Trotsky.

They went to work for the organisation. Michael Banda worked on the printing press for many years, running a small commercial department to ensure some extra income for the poverty-crippled organisation.

When the “orthodox Trotskyist” Fourth International split in 1953, Healy sided with the SWP-USA Cannon faction, the “International Committee of the Fourth International”, against the “soft-on-Stalinism” Pablo-Mandel “International Secretariat of the Fourth International”. The man the young Michael Banda pulled a knife on was the leader of the Pablo-Mandel faction in Britain, John Lawrence, who very quickly went over to the Communist Party.

The issues implicitly posed in the 1953 split concerned the whole political trajectory of the “orthodox Trotskyists” after Trotsky’s death - their analysis of Stalinism and their politics towards the expanding Stalinist empire. They were never posed explicitly. “Pabloism” became an empty term of abuse against other post-Trotsky Trotskyists.

When the SWP-USA moved towards reunification with the Mandel Fourth International (now minus Pablo), the Healy-Banda group fumed and raged about “Pabloism” and kept their distance. Indeed, with much polemic, and much of it dishonest, they increased their distance.

Then, suddenly, early in 1967, Healy and Banda came out for the Mao-controlled Cultural Revolution and the Red Guards. They paraded in London, with placards and banners and red bunting, to glorify and support it.

This was an ultra-Pabloite outdoing of the “Pabloites”. The Mandel Fourth International made the necessary criticisms and condemnations of the Cultural Revolution.

The Bandas were central to the Healy strain of terminal political confusion. Michael Banda had the reputation that he was not far off being a Maoist.

Out of all that political confusion, and what it licensed Healy-Banda to do or not do, came the political collapse of the Healy-Banda organisation, long before the organisational collapse of 1985.

It collapsed into various manifestations of ultra-left craziness. For instance, it spent years proclaiming an imminent military coup in Britain.

When in August 1969 British troops were deployed in Northern Ireland to stop Catholic-Protestant fighting, all Healy and Banda could see was that these were soldiers and therefore evidently part of a creeping military coup. They were too excited to notice that the troops were under the political and operational control of the Wilson Labour government.

In a welter of polemic, demagogy, say-anything-for-effect, take-any-line-you-think-will-serve, the whole group, shedding people constantly, slithered down the long decline until Healy would sell its services to Libya.

It was not possible for “ordinary” members of the group, even if they could escape the collective hysteria long enough, to question any of these things. Banda could have questioned them. He bore a great share in the responsibility for what happened to a once-serious and once-valuable organisation.

Michael Banda himself, a talented and in his own way devoted man, was destroyed too.

Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty have our own distant political roots in the Cannonite “orthodox Trotskyist” tendency. We have had to reorient and rethink the whole history of the Trotskyist movement, back to 1940 and beyond.

We concluded that two fundamental tendencies emerged from the Trotskyism of Trotsky at his death - the Shachtman and Cannon tendencies. The Shachtman tendency was a rational current that responded to events as they unfolded and named such things as Russian imperialism for what they were. The other, the Cannon tendency, including the ICFI faction of 1953, was a blind alley.

The fate of Michael Banda should remind us all of that.