The Workers Revolutionary Party was the largest group on the revolutionary left until the mid-1970s, and a sizeable force until it collapsed in 1985. Here, Richard Price, a former member of the WRP, reviews Come The Revolution: A Memoir, by Alex Mitchell. Mitchell was the editor of the WRP paper from the early 1970s until 1985. He quit politics without explanation in 1986, returned to his native Australia, and made a career in mainstream journalism. Now Mitchell has written an autobiography.
In October 1985 the Workers Revolutionary Party split explosively, amid allegations of sexual abuse of female members by its leader, Gerry Healy.
Healy had led his organisation in various guises (The Club, The Group, the Socialist Labour League, which became the WRP in 1973) for four decades. For a long period it had been the largest Trotskyist organisation in Britain, although it had been overtaken by the SWP in the 1970s and by Militant in the 1980s. Within a short period the WRP splintered into a number of warring groups, most of which are now extinct, and very few of its former members remain politically active.
As is the case with so many political memoirs, the most interesting parts are those covering the formative years. The first 200 pages are genuinely entertaining and engaging. As a seasoned news hound, Alex Mitchell knows how to tell a story, liberally sprinkled with witty and revealing anecdotes. They trace his life from his childhood in Townsville, Australia through his rapid ascent up the greasy pole of journalism, from cadet reporter on the Townsville Daily Bulletin and a posting to the Mount Isa Mail in a grim outback mining town to the Sydney Daily Mirror run by a young and surprisingly liberal Rupert Murdoch. By the age of 22 he was reporting from the parliamentary press gallery in Canberra, and three years later he took his chances and left for London, where he quickly found work with the Sunday Times — then at the height of its liberal investigative powers.
As a member of the Sunday Times’ prestigious Insight team, Mitchell helped break a number of high profile stories — an investigation of Kim Phiby, exposés of the original ‘bouncing Czech’ Robert Maxwell, assignments in revolutionary Paris and war-torn Biafra.
In 1970, he switched to Granada Television’s fledgling World In Action, where he exposed the dodgy financial dealings of Home Secretary Reginald Maudling, who resigned shortly afterwards. A second programme on Uganda led to a face-to-face interview with Idi Amin — then a darling of the Tory press.
Already an active opponent of the Vietnam War before he left Australia in 1967, Mitchell was becoming steadily radicalised in the London of the late 1960s. In 1968 he began attending private Friday night discussion meetings organised by prominent radicals in the media and theatre. Initially a small circle, it rapidly expanded to include the cream of left wing playwrights, producers and directors. From a kind of beauty contest between various left wing intellectuals, Gerry Healy rapidly became the dominant influence — a process subsequently immortalised in Trevor Griffiths’ play The Party, with Laurence Olivier playing the Healy figure at the National Theatre.
In May 1971 Mitchell resigned from World In Action and joined the editorial board of Healy’s shoestring daily, Workers Press. Within a short time, he had been fast tracked on to its Central and Political Committees, and became the paper’s editor.
For the next 15 years, he was one of Healy’s closest confidantes, and acted as the WRP’s roving Middle Eastern ambassador, conducting bilateral contacts with, among others, Yasser Arafat, Colonel Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein.
Anyone looking for major revelations from these years is going to be disappointed. There’s nothing new on the shooting of PC Yvonne Fletcher outside the Libyan Embassy in 1984. Mitchell does acknowledge a limited amount of “Arab gold” via Gaddafi and the PLO and some Gulf state funding of Vanessa Redgrave’s documentary The Palestinian, but in nothing like the quantities that have been widely alleged. But he also says that relations with the Iraqi Ba’athists had cooled in 1979 and ended in 1981 as a result of the Iraq/Iran War — although not before the WRP had published a sycophantic pamphlet entitled Iraq under the Leadership of the Arab Ba’ath Socialist Party.
By 1981, Gaddafi became more distant as a result of British government pressure. Certainly, the WRP had accumulated major financial problems by the time it split, and this has often been attributed to its Middle Eastern funding drying up. But if the Arab gold dried up four years before the WRP split, then this is hardly a convincing cause.
The truth is probably more prosaic. The WRP had been living beyond its means for some time, maintaining an HQ, a chain of bookshops, a school, a print shop, and a number of youth centres, as well as satisfying Healy’s obsession with acquiring expensive technology. By 1985 it employed — albeit on small wages — about 90 full timers. Despots don’t tend to like bad news, so the reality of the WRP’s financial crisis was kept from Healy, and he was fed grossly exaggerated membership figures by assistant general secretary Sheila Torrance. As the attendance at aggregate meetings during the split in October 1985 showed, the WRP had an active membership of barely 1,000.
As for the allegations of sexual abuse against Healy, Mitchell — perhaps truthfully — professes to knowing very little, but he is nevertheless soft on the old brute.
He rubbishes claims that Healy “raped dozens of women” and believes that only lower level abuse took place. This is complicated by the fact that the anti-Healy majority by-passed holding a control commission and went for a straight expulsion of Healy, only to conclude a year later that what had taken place was “not so much rape but ... sexual abuse by someone in a position of power and trust”.
Mitchell stands by the WRP’s widely discredited “Security and the Fourth International” investigation into Stalinist penetration of the Trotskyist movement, which charged veteran US Trotskyist leaders Joe Hansen and George Novack with being accomplices of both Soviet intelligence and the FBI. Although its central allegation was grotesque, Mitchell’s investigative skills did throw up new information on some key Soviet agents within the Trotskyist movement in the 1940s. This however only served as grist to the mill of Healy’s obsessive denunciation of his opponents on the left as agents.
In what he does say, Mitchell generally comes over as a fairly honest witness. He owns up to various doubts about the WRP’s internal regime and politics: ‘The trouble with the WRP was that internal discussion was confined to reaffirming the party line, not debating it, and certainly not challenging it.’ He hit a crisis in the middle of the miners’ strike, convinced that Healy’s line (that the strike would either end in a direct struggle for power or a military dictatorship) was completely out of sync with reality.
Mitchell seems to have forgotten the old newspaper adage that facts should be checked from two independent sources. The text is riddled with clumsy factual errors. He interviewed Daniel Cohn-Bendit, for the Sunday Times in 1968, and writes that he was “opposed to the terrorist violence which was then being conducted by the Baader-Meinhof group in West Germany”. This must have been clairvoyance on Cohn-Bendit’s part because the Baader-Meinhof group wasn’t formed until 1970, in a wave of disillusion with mass politics after the events of 1968!
He writes that Ted Knight was expelled from the Socialist Labour League in 1954 — five years before the SLL was launched. In fact, Knight was expelled from the Labour Party in 1954 for supporting Healy’s entry paper Socialist Outlook.
He claims the publication of former Sunday Times colleague David King’s Trotsky: A Documentary in 1972 “lifted Trotsky’s name from political obscurity”. Aside from the fact that Trotskyist groups across the world had published a large amount of Trotsky’s writings since 1968, it was surely Isaac Deutscher’s widely read three-volume biography which established Trotsky’s reputation among western intellectuals.
He credits the Queen Mother for dragging George VI away from appeasement, when history records she was an enthusiastic appeaser herself.
Bigger problems lie in what Mitchell doesn’t say. Internal repression in Iraq and Libya is only acknowledged in passing, as if it was a minor sub-plot of the global struggle against imperialism. The similarity with the method of Stalinist anti-fascism in the 1930s is striking. There are huge gaps in the narrative. The expulsion of up to 200 supporters of Alan Thornett in 1974, which destroyed a large part of the WRP’s industrial base, doesn’t rate a mention. A whole chapter is devoted to the WRP’s libel action against the Observer, but he doesn’t refer to its long-running litigation against Socialist Organiser. Apart from cursory references to the 1984-5 miners’ strike, the great industrial battles of the 1970s and 80s and the riots of 1981 and 1985 barely feature.
After Thornett’s expulsion, the WRP’s industrial work was chaotic. In truth, the WRP leadership instinctively feared organised trade union work because it might create a potential opposition to the party’s ultra-leftism.
It preferred working with impressionable actors, inexperienced youth and the permanently unemployed, while keeping a relationship with left-leaning trade union leaders.
In spite of official disinterest I succeeded in building the organisation’s most effective industrial group in London’s largest health authority. In the middle of the 1982 NHS dispute I gave an enthusiastic report in which I mentioned how the dispute had united many different types of people in the pyramid of nations that made up the NHS in those days. Mitchell moved a motion of censure on the grounds that there were no differences between the different groups and nationalities. They were all workers, and therefore my remarks were objectively racist!
Similarly, the WRP’s behind the scenes “alliances” with various nationalist movements could be a minefield for members. In 1979 I was put on the standing orders committee at the WRP Young Socialists conference and made the mistake of putting a fraternal speaker from Robert Mugabe’s ZANU on ahead of one from Joshua Nkomo’s ZAPU. Mitchell came up to me furiously and punched me on the arm for breaching etiquette.
Mitchell never had much grasp of either Marxism or Trotskyist history. Having been catapulted into the leadership, his relationship with Marxism was mediated through the person of Gerry Healy.
But having had a quarter of a century to reflect, he’s no better informed now, and doesn’t refer to Bob Pitt’s The Rise and Fall of Gerry Healy (freely available on the net), or to Al Richardson’s books on British Trotskyism.
The WRP was part cult, part sect, with the cultish elements often winning out. It shared many common features with the People’s Temple of Jim Jones, whose members committed mass suicide in the Guyanese jungle in 1978: support for progressive causes and anti-racism; puritanical self-denial alongside the leader’s “special needs”; ritualised self-criticism; the inflation of minor into major differences; the separation of members from family and friends.
Other parts of the WRP’s internal regime and politics were lifted wholesale from third-period Stalinism — leadership elections conducted by approving a recommended list en bloc; unanimous decision making; and the slogan of a workers’ revolutionary government.
Mitchell’s politics are full of contradictions. He derides work in the Labour Party in general and dismisses the Militant Tendency as “a clandestine project to burgle the Labour Party from within”. But he defends the WRP’s close relationship with Ken Livingstone and Ted Knight, and its clandestine Labour Herald operation, “because it extended the party’s influence into the heart of the anti-Thatcher mass movement”. He also boasts of running spies within the Communist Party.
Much of his analysis is questionable and reflects the fact that he divided his time between the hothouse atmosphere of the WRP’s Clapham HQ, addressing public meetings and jetting around the Middle East, but had little knowledge of the consciousness of workers or the state of the rank and file. According to Mitchell’s account, the WRP went from success to success “building and recruiting” in the 1970s and only hit serious problems in the 1980s. The truth is more complicated.
Although Mitchell briefly mentions reservations with the slogan of “the struggle for power” adopted in 1977, what he doesn’t mention is that from 1975 onwards the WRP campaigned to bring down the Labour government — and this with a resurgent Tory party under Thatcher waiting in the wings.
It was this policy more than any other which came close to wrecking the WRP in the 1970s. Even the most militant groups of trade unionists during the winter of discontent rejected it, knowing that it could only assist the Tories.
The WRP also abstained almost entirely from the struggle against the National Front, despite being the only far left group with a significant number of black members.
It carried out virtually no student work, and scorned women’s and gay liberation as diversions from the class struggle.
From a high point of 2-3,000 members in 1973, the WRP was reduced to a shell of a few hundred by 1979. Its 60 candidates in the 1979 general election polled a disastrous total of 12,631 votes. It cost the party £8 per vote.
With the Tories back in power, the WRP rowed back from the wilder shores of ultra-leftism and built close (and quite opportunist) relations with Labour left-wingers Ken Livingstone and Ted Knight. During the miners’ strike it was close to Arthur Scargill.
Access to such nationally known figures helped it grow slowly but steadily from 1981-4. The tactic adopted by a number of Labour councils of refusing to set a rate during the rate-capping crisis of 1985 was a policy made in Clapham. This was more success than Healy had experienced for some years.
What did for the WRP was a perfect storm involving several factors. The anti-imperialist alliances Healy thought he had built lay in tatters. With the end of the miners’ strike, morale plummeted and recent recruits dropped out. Following Scargill, Healy insisted that the miners were undefeated, but the reality was there for all to see. Neither a struggle for power nor a military government had materialised. Healy’s claim to infallibility began to be questioned. Allegations of sexual abuse and a financial crisis in an organisation that disapproved of “opportunist” personal relationships and regularly bled its members dry became the catalysts of an explosion. Like all great British scandals, it took in sex and money.
Mitchell, unlike both Vanessa Redgrave and Ken Livingstone, doesn’t claim that state agents orchestrated the split, although he does think they gave “a push to history”— which is possible, but he provides no evidence.
He correctly records that the anti-Healy majority carried out a wave of deranged violence, and points out that after the split many of Healy’s most vociferous opponents “simply evaporated, never to be seen in further political activity”.
With some honourable exceptions — Dot Gibson of the National Pensioners’ Convention and Andrew Burgin of the Stop the War Coalition spring to mind — few WRP members did much that was constructive in the labour movement after 1985. Some were traumatised, no doubt, although many on both sides claimed that they had taken part in an epoch-making struggle. For the bulk of ex-members, their allegiance had been primarily to a person rather than a programme or a set of ideas. Once their guru had fallen off his pedestal they were unable to reason independently and simply retired.
For all Healy’s toxic reputation, it’s worth remembering that he was not the only Trotskyist leader to have an exaggerated view of his own importance, surround himself with bodyguards and female admirers, and pursue insanely opportunist or sectarian policies. Over the years Healy had managed to recruit people of the calibre of Ken Loach, Stuart Hood, Des Warren, Peter Fryer, Bernie Grant, and a clutch of future Labour MPs, and several of our finest playwrights.
But if there are lessons to be drawn from the history of the WRP they are almost all negative and Mitchell is incapable of supplying them.