Gerry Healy and the Failure of the Old British Trotskyist Movement

Author: 

Sean Matgamna

DURING THE two decades of the great labour militancy, roughly from the mid-'50s to the late '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 sizeable organisations like Militant 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 remoulding 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 sort, hostile or contemptuous towards the actually existing working class. 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, combined lionisation of individual workers with "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. It became the "Workers' Revolutionary Party" in 1973.

Even when, in the 1950s, it did serious and constructive work in the labour movement, the Healy organisation 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 with other trends by Healy acting as the balancing and arbitrating Bonapartist dictator of the organisation.

Official "Trotskyism" since Trotsky has been an unstable amalgam of Trotsky's hostility to Stalinism and reluctant endorsements of Mao, Castro, Ho Chi Minh, and Tito's versions of Stalinism as deformed expressions of "the world socialist revolution." Everywhere this "Trotskyism" has been inherently unstable. Every element in this self-contradictory "Trotskyism" existed in the Healy organisation in a latent or open 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 was a pre-condition for the survival of an organisation which had such political contradictions.

HEALY DOMINATED the organisation in an unchallengeable rule sustained by both ideological and 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 organisation "went Maoist" to support the Chinese "Cultural Revolution" in 1967.

In the 1960s the SLL progressively cut loose from the Labour Party - that is, then, from 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 - and 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 turning up at 100,000-strong anti-Vietnam-war demonstrations with leaflets asserting that the marches were 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-fuelled sect, and expanded. Not accidentally, its main "industrial" base by the early 1970s was among actors. (The pioneering trail here was made, I understand, by the playwright Jim Allen.)

They published a daily paper from September 1969. But the SLL more and more inhabited an onanistic world where is own rigidly exclusive marches and theatrical projects were more important than anything else. For instance, their summer camp in July 1972 happened to coincide with the crisis around the jailing of 5 dockworker pickets, the rank and file industrial action it triggered and the TUC's decision to call a one-day general strike - in face of that threat the `Tory government capitulated and released the 5 dockers - and what did the SLL do? They decided to continue with their summer-camp! One consequence of the madness of the SLL was that by the early 1970s, the then saner IS/SWP had space to grow substantially.

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, on February 28th, 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 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.

A vast world-wide campaign - the Healyites had small 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 eruption of his paranoia, Healy now transmuted into a "philosopher."

LIVING THE life of a millionaire if not a pasha, while members of the SLL/WRP often went short so that they could finance the organisation, and it was not unknown for full-time workers for the organisation to go hungry, Healy concentrated more and more on expounding a pseudo-Marxist, pseudo-Hegelian gobbledegook 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 mid-1970s 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 sheikhdoms as a propaganda outlet and as a jobbing agency for spying on Arab dissidents and 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 printed. To get away from the London print unions, they were installed in Runcorn, Cheshire anticipating by a decade Murdoch's move from Fleet Street to Wapping.

They churned out crude Arab-chauvinist propaganda lauding Saddam Hussein and Libya's ruler Colonel Gaddafi 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. The organisation, as Socialist Organiser insisted at the time - paying-for our insistence with a costly libel case - could now no 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.

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 guruship, the WRP imploded. Faced with continued decline and, despite the Arab gold, a new financial crisis, the WRP apparatus divided. Healy himself was probably getting ready for a purge. The organisation fell apart in a great outburst of hysteria. The subgroups which Healy had kept in line fell on each other, and on Healy, who had 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. 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, by now an enthusiastic supporter of Russia's reforming Stalinist Tzar, Gorbachev. 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 origins, that he was a Galway peasant. But his story, which he spun out as from a repertoire the first time I talked to him, that his father was shot in Galway by the Black and Tans, made me - a town prole from 30 miles or so south of Galway - doubt it. The story is repeated by his pious biographer Paul Feldman. 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. (For what it's worth, Irish Communist Party members whom I knew in the late 1950s said he originated in Liverpool: Healy was in the CP until the mid-'30s.)

His leadership, first - in the 1940s - 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 "branch manager" of the international tendency led by the Irish-American Trotskyist James P Cannon and by Michel Pablo (Raptis) in Europe.

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

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 ideas of the movement, and the problems posed for adherents of those ideas by the events of the Second World War - in which Stalinist Russia, far from collapsing, as Trotsky had expected, survived and seized a vast empire in Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

In the 1940s and '50s, the world posed big problems to old-style Trotskyists, and most of the political leaders of the movement collapsed in demoralisation, confusion, or perplexity. The Healys and the Lamberts became central because they 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. Building the organisation became for them more or less a self-sufficient activity, politics relegated to second place, subordinate to organisational exigencies.

After he asserted his political independence from Cannon, in the early 1960s, 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 came to determine the party’s programme.

IN APPEARANCE, Healy was extraordinary. Small - perhaps 5 feet 2, or 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, 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 uninhibited brute force. The 'cadre' of the group came to be the product of 'selection' - survival - through a never-ending serious of savage sado-masochistic rituals, involving the pillorying, hounding, denouncing, then self-denouncing and self-prostrating at one time or another of most of the hard core. In this way Healy built a machine that was essentially depoliticised, ready like the Stalinist parties for any "turn." 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 subject in itself.

Paul Feldman contributes to this book a rehash of all the lying history the SLL/WRP put out 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 very badly informed politically - she thinks Lenin was "secretary" of the Bolshevik Party, for example - 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 been the first to scorn that sort of "weakness". Lotz: "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 his "last words."

Was this last-minute appeal to 'Oh my God' a prayer? Did the old purveyor of pidgin-religion get real religion at the end? Or is the correct interpretation 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: "Can this", he gasps, "be the end of Rico?" And a miserable end Healy's was too. 30 years too late.
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[A review of "Gerry Healy, A Revolutionary Life", by Corinna Lotz and Paul Feldman.

From Socialist Organiser 1994]