Duncan Hallas

Cult comes a cropper

(December 1985)

From Socialist Review, No.82, December 1985, p.25.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

IT IS A fair assumption that most members of the SWP have had little contact with members of the Workers Revolutionary Party. A fair assumption because in workplaces, in union organisations at local, district and national levels, on workplace and street sales, in colleges and universities, on demonstrations and so on, their presence. is very much the exception rather than the rule. Equity apart, of course.

Their claim, solemnly repeated in various organs of the capitalist press, to be “a party of 6,000 members” is manifestly absurd. Six hundred tolerably active members before their present split would be a generous estimate. Daily paper notwithstanding, their operation has been largely a bluff for many years.

It was not always so. Leaving aside membership claims, always difficult to check, there is no doubt that for about 20 years the WRP’s predecessor organisations (‘the Club’ till 1959 and then the Socialist Labour League) were the most influential Trotskyist organisations in Britain.

Their influence was, overall, an adverse one. They were our rivals and for a long time they overshadowed us. The political reasons for this state of affairs and its reversal from the early seventies onwards are worth a brief discussion.

Naturally, this is not what interests Fleet Street. Sex and sport and celebrities sell newspapers. Headlines like Randy Red Supremo Stole My Wife (News of the World, 3 Nov.) and Exit Left: The Two Redgraves (Daily Mail, 1 Nov.) indicate their concerns. Anyone who looks for further ‘revelations’ along these lines in this article will be disappointed.

Revolutionary situation

Whatever truth or lies are behind the various allegations and counter-allegations is not easily discoverable and, in any case, hardly explains the politics of the organisation.

The WRP’s forerunner emerged from the disintegrating British Trotskyist organisation in 1947. Its main characteristics were a fervent belief in an imminent economic crisis that would precipitate a revolutionary situation in Britain and internationally, a conviction that “there was no time” to build an open revolutionary party in the short space of time before the final crisis, and that therefore it was necessary to be in the Labour Party and, finally, a resolute refusal to accept that Trotsky’s pre-1940 analysis of Stalinism was in any way defective.

The argument about the Labour Party went like this: it is the traditional mass organisation of the working class and “when the crisis comes” the workers will flood into the wards “demanding solutions”. The Trotskyists, “correctly positioned” in these wards etc. would be able to give a correct lead to a postulated “mass centrist current” and so create a mass revolutionary party.

Two points about this. First, it was not a local aberration. The Healy group was energetically supported by the then leadership of the still-united Fourth International, including the figures who subsequently entered into the demonology of the WRP – Michel Pablo, Ernest Mandel and so on.

Second, although the perspective was absurdly wrong, it did give the group a confidence and coherence in the short term. The vastly more realistic perspective of the little group around Tony Cliff (and, indeed, of the little group around Ted Grant too) offered a long, hard slog. Healy seemed to offer the prospect of big successes in the near future. And his group grew on that basis.

They ran a paper, Socialist Outlook, jointly with some left Labour MPs and a few union officials, and it was a modest success. Success enough to bring a sharp reaction from the Labour Party’s leadership and the eventual banning of the paper in 1954. ‘The Club’ recruited on some scale in the Labour Party youth organization.

Of course, the oft-predicted crisis and mass radicalisation of Labour Party members did not appear. The long boom of the fifties and sixties was gathering strength.

However, “the Club” had the forces to intervene vigorously in the crisis in the Communist Party in 1956-57 (after the Hungarian revolution and Khruschev’s exposure of Stalin) and gained some significant recruits.

The politics were the same. When the SLL was founded in 1959 its paper, The Newsletter, declared: “If there is one word to describe the situation in which the SLL is born, that word is crisis.” In 1959!

Certain new elements, however, appeared, or at any rate . became more and more prominent, around this time. The first, an extreme voluntarism and grotesque exaggeration of the importance of the organisation. Second, the growth of a demonology.

What was holding back the growth of the revolutionary forces was, it appeared, ‘revisionism’ and especially ‘Pablo-ite revisionism’. The two things were obviously connected. The grandiose perspectives were not being realised. Why not? Obviously the perspective could not be wrong.

Therefore, the machinations of the villainous revisionist groups were to blame. Thus the International Socialists (our forerunners) were denounced, in a pamphlet called The Class Nature of the International Socialists, as “a specialised , counterrevolutionary detachment of the ruling class”!

Pabloism, by the way, meant the line of that section of the FT (Mandel’s) from which Healy’s group (together with the US SWP and the OCT in France) had split in 1953. The fact was that all these groups (IS included) were very weak at a the time and in no position – supposing (absurdly) that they wanted to – to prop up an allegedly crisis-ridden capitalism.

In short, by the early sixties the SLL had become a cult, increasingly remote from reality, increasingly a caricature of a revolutionary organisation, increasingly venomous and untruthful about rivals on the left. In 1964 the SLL-dominated Young Socialists were expelled from the Labour Party and maintained as an independent ‘mass’ organization with grandiose recruiting drives and a massive turnover of members.

In 1969 the long-heralded daily paper (Workers’ Press, now Newsline) was launched, a tribute to the organisational drive and self-sacrifice of the members, but a political stupidity because it had no real basis. So the members were forced to drive themselves to sell at the expense of practically everything else. In the same period the All Trades Union Alliance was launched – a paper organisation, another fiction, like Healy’s ‘International Committee of the Fourth International’.

One final ingredient became conspicuous from around 1970. Healy discovered ‘philosophy’. Its operational function – whatever may have been in the heads of Healy and his ‘expert’, Slaughter – was to give the cult a special esoteric ‘knowledge’ which ‘explained’ the gulf between the organisation’s real weakness and its grandiose claims and predictions.


From then on, the deterioration was rapid. The loving up to various dictators in the Middle East, the ‘imminent danger’ of bonapartist police dictatorship in Britain, the grotesque Security and the Fourth International campaign – aimed at the now deceased Joseph Hansen and the SWP US – and the combination of gross opportunism (uncritical support of Ted Knight and, until yesterday, Ken Livingstone) with ultra-left idiocies, the splits with various ‘renegades’ and so on. With all of this, both wings of the now split organization were completely associated. After all, Healy and Banda have been together since the fifties.

The WRP has visibly declined in the last decade and is now scarcely of even marginal significance. A tragic waste of the efforts and sacrifices of many well-intentioned revolutionaries and a most salutary warning about the dangers of mistaking wishes for reality, of false perspectives uncorrected by experience, of virulent sectarianism and political dishonesty.


Last updated on 9.11.2003