First Published: RCL Briefing 2, 1988.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Sam Richards and Paul Saba
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Least we forget, from the very onset the context of the disintegration of the Workers Revolutionary Party should be established: while the break-up of the WRP was occasioned by the sex scandal that rocked the organisation in late autumn 1985, it was the result of the Miners Strike that had prepared the ground for the collapse that saw an effective end to the oldest trotskyist grouping operating on the Left.
The disintegration of the WRP was hastened by its membership exposure to class struggle in the raw and the contrast that could be drawn between that experience and what the leadership was telling them to believe.
The WRP’s uselessness to the working class generally was mercilessly demonstrated during the strike and its aftermath. The WRP refused to take part in the mass movement centred on the Miners Support Committees, forsaking this coalition approach to build “soviet type community councils” which of course only consisted of WRP members.
This sectarianism in practice was matched by a propaganda position that, even while ’Judas Willis ’ was undercutting TUC support for the miners, kept up the chant of “TUC Off Your Knees – Organise the General Strike!”. Far from exposing the inactivity of other trade unions, it only served to highlight the lack of contact with the reality of the trade union movement that pervaded the WRP’s ranks. Their pronouncements took on an uncritical line of support to all but their pet hate, the “stalinists” in the Communist Party of Great Britain.
WRP founder-leader Gerry Healy’s “ten thousand fighters for Trotskyism” were some what absent from the fray. Even the newest recruit could gauge the failure of the WRP to mount a political intervention in a movement of militant resistance to a combination of coalboard, police and government. The gulf between the reality and the pompous and absurd claims the WRP’s paper, News Line, had been making for years was too much even for Healy loyalists to suppress.
Healy’s assessment of the situation towards the end of the Miners Strike held fast to the certainties that he promoted:
...a return to work would be a catastrophic defeat for the working class and render fascism inevitable. – News Line October 30th 1985
When the WRP kicked out its founder-leader (Thomas) Gerry Healy in the autumn of 1985 the bourgeois media took great delight in covering the fratricidal convulsion of the WRP, with tabloid journalists seeking out the sexploits of the WRP “guru”. As a ’story’ it had all the right ingredients: the “loony left” to discredit, a dirty old man, famous film stars and betrayal and hypocrisy.
As with most of its dealings with the Left in this country, the establishment media did not seek to understanding or explain the issues at hand; it was content with providing its readers with an amusing spectacle. And the Workers Revolutionary Party was tailor made for that.
The main charge against Gerry Healy was “gross sexual abuse” of women party members over a twenty year period.
Now the discontent with the founder-leader that expressed itself after the revelation was not an over-night sentiment springing out of disgust at his conduct. The allegations provided the opportunity for internal critics to act “in the interest of the party” without any overt display of political opportunism and ambition.
WRP General Secretary, Mike Banda, explained at the time that he had known Gerry Healy for thirty-five years but had only recently found out about the misconduct. There had been theoretical arguments in the WRP in the past, “but the political differences were not sufficient to cause a split.” (Times 2.10.85)
So close had their political relationship seemed, that Banda was criticising Healy was described by one ex-member as “Jesus falling out with God.” Given the sexual abuses and bureaucratic regime in the WRP – which was admitted to date back to at least since 1963 – the pleas of innocence from Healy’s closest political collaborators was believed by few if any. The entire WRP leadership was implicated in the unsavoury political practices that the hardline Trotskyist organisation was engaged in throughout its history such as spying for Middle East governments and applauding the execution of progressive political activists. As Banda said, putting the anti-Healy opposition in its context, “the political differences were not sufficient to cause a split”.
When the charges against Healy were first aired in the WRP’s Political Committee it was the result of a letter sent on July 1st 1985 by Aileen Jennings. She had been Healy’s secretary for nineteen years.
She claimed that the WRP’s headquarters and Healy’s near-by flat in Clapham, south London, were being used in a completely opportunistic way for sexual liaisons with female members of the News Line staff and WRP. She named 26 women and pointed out that it was a potential security risk to the party.
After the scandal broke, a letter in which Healy agrees to end his liaisons and dated July was published by the Banda group to accusations of a “political frame-up” by Healy’s most publically identified defender, the actress and WRP leader Vanessa Redgrave.
The Political Committee voted not to reveal the contents of the Jennings letter to the WRP’s Central Committee. The manoeuvrings at the top of the WRP have not been fully explained, but from information leaked by both sides after the split became public property a reconstruction of the developing leadership crisis can be drawn up.
When we first confronted him, we told him that it had to stop. He was allowed to stay in the building and carry on his work.” The Daily Mail reports Mike Banda explaining, “Then I discovered it was still happening, in this office. When I spoke to him about it, we came to blows in his office. (Daily Mail 10.11.85)
In September, it seems that Healy agrees to “retire on the grounds of ill-health and age” after confronted by Banda and then assistant General Secretary, Shelia Torrance.
Healy fought back against the attempt to ease him out of the organisation with an honourable discharge and won Torrance over to his position. The ’Healyites’ constituted a majority on the WRP’s Political Committee and on the editorial board of the party’s daily newspaper News Line. Torrance change of position led to the retirement agreement being rescinded by the Political Committee.
This decision provoked a walk-out by Banda and his allies throughout the organisation. Healy’s fightback helped to focus a growing revolt in the leadership and party against what they saw as Healy’s autocratic reign. The bureaucratic attempt to stifle dissent could only succeed with a united leadership but there was majority support for Banda’s position on the Central Committee of the WRP.
At the October 12th Central Committee meeting the contents of Aileen Jennings letter and additional information was revealed to the C.C. members. On whether an investigation of the charges be undertaken and that Healy be faced with the charges was put to the vote: 25 voted to lay the charges, 11 voted against. The leadership was split.
The minority that defended Gerry Healy included Vanessa Redgrave, the actress, her brother Corin, Alex Mitchell, ex-Sunday Times and ’World in Action’ reporter, Claire Dixon, Young Socialist National Secretary and Sheila Torrance. They walked out of the meeting, in effect leaving the organisation in the control of Banda and Bradford University lecturer, Cliff Slaughter. In the absence of the C.C. minority, Banda and co. abandoned the previous strategy of covering up for Gerry Healy while simultaneously trying to unload him. There was an unanimous vote at the October 19th Central Committee meeting to expel the founder-leader of the WRP from the organisation.
For a brief period in November 1985, while both factions claimed to be the genuine WRP, two versions of News Line were on sale with their conflicting explanation of the crisis that racked the organisation, each warning of the circulation of the other’s bogus News Line. Their combined circulation must have been high as the novel mix of trotskyist invective, counter accusations, revelation and threats of litigation provided a brief distraction from serious politics.
Defenders of Gerry Healy charged Banda, who publically exposed the scandal at various news conference, with making ”slanderous, preposterous and outrageous attacks on Comrade Healy’s record”. They suggested that Banda’s paper should be called Newslime for its accusations “smears and slanders”, and proceeded to refer to the paper only by that name.
Banda continued to charge Healy with using his seniority and “frightening personality” to induce female party members to his bed.
Not all of the women were willing partners. He told them they would be disciplined by the Party if they did not do what he wanted. He gave them the impression that they could not have a political relationship unless they also went to bed with him.” (Daily Mail 1.11)
Alex Mitchell, before de-camping from Healy to return to his native Australia, defended Healy saying that they were dredging the depths, “throwing everything at him because they cannot defeat him politically.”
History is made in the class struggle and not in bed, and Gerry Healy fought the class struggle in the working class movement all his political life.” (Guardian 1.10.85)
Defenders of Healy dismissed any notion that sexist behaviour had any political consequence of note, and reinforced such a line of defence with that of incredibility: Mitchell said, “You’re talking about a 73 year-old man who is supposed to be doing these incredible athletic feats.”
Gerry Healy was ’unavailable’ for comment – “on holiday” – throughout all the exchanges, although he was quoted in his usual meiosis style as claiming that his present difficulties “cannot be separated from the brutal incarceration of Nelson Mandela, the Israeli Zionist bid to eliminate Yassir Arafat and the Tory state’s relentless attacks on Arthur Scargill.” (News Line 6.11.85)
The political bankruptcy of the Healyites was most vividly expressed in their dismissal of Healy’s reactionary male chauvinism as a “private matter”. Embroiled in an unprincipled defence of Healy, they made an artificial division between political behaviour and political substance. Healy’s political contribution as founder-leader of the WRP was not related, in their eyes, to the political style that Healy employed to build up the WRP. They argued that the issue of revolutionary morality should not be involved in assessing Healy’s position.
The WRP majority argued: “Healy’s sexual abuse was a reflection of his reactionary politics which came to dominate the WRP”. About three-quarters of the WRP’s membership of around a thousand supported the initial split from Healy. But the justified mistrust of the entire WRP leadership led to a haemorrhage of membership and organizational disintegration into different factions.
The reassessment of the development and experiences within the WRP raised many questions about its political practices and spread widespread despondency amongst its membership. Many used the opportunity to escape the clutches of membership.
The Redgrave grouping reconstituted themselves as ’The Marxist Party’.
Cliff Slaughter emerged as the leader of what was left of the WRP when Mike Banda (real name: Van der Poorten) left. The Sri Lankan-born activist established the ’Communist Study Group’ breaking with Trotskyism but adopting an uncritical defence of the Soviet Union with the same zeal once reserved for Healy.
Other splinters reconstituted themselves under grandiose titles.
The disintegration of the WRP bred new sects mirroring the errors of their parent body. Slaughter’s WRP sought to reform another Fourth International, and The Marxist Party discovered a closet Trotskyist in the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.
For many members of the WRP the expulsion of Gerry Healy was a dis-orientating experience reared, as they were, in the cult of his infallibility. He had been a leading member of the wartime Revolutionary Communist Party, a trotskyist “success” that spawned most of the leaders of post-war trotskyism – e.g. Militant’s Ted Grant, the SWP’s Tony Cliff.
With the break-up of the RCP, Healy’s organisation had benefitted from the desertion from the Communist Party of Great Britain in the wake of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956. He led an entryist grouping inside the Labour Party cultivating relations with its Bevanite members until expelled in 1959.
That year, Healy founded the Socialist Labour League which was constituted as the Workers Revolutionary Party in 1973. But the SLL was so sectarian that it had lost most of their (CP) recruits and was mostly a student membership in composition.
Like other organisations on the Left, the necessary task of seeking authority through propaganda and sustained communist participation in workers struggles was by-passed by the WRP pretending to be a mass party. It provided itself with the external trappings of such a party, like a daily paper, and kidded others into believing likewise.
For much of the WRP’s existence, Gerry Healy conjured up a vision of imminent revolution and the distinct possibility of either a fascist or military coup. Right up to his expulsion the WRP clung to the fiction of a revolutionary situation existing in Britain since 1976 at the least.
This leftist catastrophism placed great responsibility on members, the ceaseless exhortations to work harder because the final “crisis of capitalism” was (always) at hand. It required the maintenance of a level of commitment and activity seen in religious cults.
Recruits were kept busy: the apolitical youth marches and sales of the daily News Line and internal demands took its toll. The sectarianism of the WRP isolated members from other political influences, there was the teachings of Gerry Healy and the invocation of “dialectics” and “security” would keep members in line.
The WRP’s ’security fetish’ was evident in the much herald “Security and the ’Fourth International” programme that ran for years trying to prove that veteran American Trotskyist, Joseph Hansen was Stalin’s agent in the murder of Leon Trotsky.
Constant warnings about infiltrators and condemnation of political opponents and dissidents as “agents” create a climate of paranoia and ever present CIA/KGB/MI5 plotters that justified any twist in the leadership’s position. It provided a system of control of the WRP membership isolating comrades from each other and encouraging the reporting of any deviation.
The constant ravings about Bonapartism disorientated the WRP from real class forces and it took a major class battle like the Miners Strike for reality to penetrate the confusion sown by Healy’s crudely subjective and idealist teachings.
The unhealthy internal regime of the WRP was reflected at its top. An article in The Times described Gerry Healy as the “Iron-handed Messiah of the Ultra-Left”. It quoted un-named former members’ description of the man:
He would charm you one minute and grab you by the throat the next. He has been known to punch members of the Party’s Central Committee in the middle of a theoretical discussion.
He was a man who brooked no argument and created a messianic atmosphere into which young idealists would be drawn. However, many would leave within months, unable and unwilling to put up with the highly autocratic regime which seeks to become an all-pervading force in its members’ lives. (November lst, 1985)
Healy’s proud boast of “Ten thousand fighters for Trotskyism” could be taken to be referring to the turnover in membership of the WRP as it used and abused the political enthusiasm of young people, only to burn them out so they left the WRP alienated from organised Left politics. The responsibility for the maintenance of that political regime did not rest with Healy alone, nor was that autocratic method part of the indictment upon his expulsion from the WRP.
When reiterating the charges against Healy, the new Chairman of the WRP, Dave Temple, stated that Healy had been expelled in October 1985 “on three accounts: for acts of systematic sexual abuse against female comrades, for the regular use of political violence, and for political slander against his opponents.” (Workers Press 10.1.87)
In a thoroughly opportunist manner, the WRP sought financial support from Arab governments to maintain the facade of the “Ten thousand fighters for Trotskyism”. One of the splinters from the collapsed WRP – based in Sheffield but posing as the International Communist Party –reported that in 1979
...A WRP delegation which included Healy, Mitchell and Vanessa Redgrave flew off to the Gulf States for a money-raising jamboree of a politically-depraved character... Healy hob-nobbed with the feudalists and big bourgeois of Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Kuwait.
The article goes on to quote Healy’s own report that large sums of money were raised “from leading Kuwaitis including generous cheques from the Crown Prince, the Governor of Ahmadi”. (International Worker Special Supplement 1987”)
Other unsavoury episodes of political opportunism were given an airing in the wake of self-incriminating re-evaluation. Banda did attack the WRP’s support for the execution of twentyone Iraqi communists by the Ba’ath regime, the WRP’s surveillance of protestors at the Iraqi embassy in return, it is said, for cash payment but he shared complicity in these actions.
Cliff Slaughter explained the support for the executions: “The thinking put forward in justification of these actions by the WRP was, ’they were only stalinists’, they were only Ba’athists and so on. The practice behind it was an unprincipled financial and political dependence on the Iraqi bourgeoisie.” (News Line 20.11.85)
The WRP received £19,697 from Iraq. Involvement with Iraq ended in 1983 when the WRP followed Libya’s support for Iran in the Gulf War.
There was always a suspicion on the Left that the WRP received outside financing for its daily colour paper, News Line, and other enterprises such as the misnamed College of Marxist Education near Ashborne in Derbyshire, and the various bookshops the WRP maintained.
There were whispered accusations of “Libyan Gold”. A leaked document from opponents of Healy and Redgrave exposed an agreement, signed in April 1976, between a Tripoli government representative, Corin Redgrave and another unidentified WRP leader.
Between 1976 and 1984, the WRP received at least £542,267 from Libyan sources in return for information on prominent supporters of Israel in Britain. The information, the document states, was called from official and public sources, like the Jewish Chronicle, and that there was no real spying undertaken by WRP members.
Most of the money was used to subsidise the WRP daily News Line which rarely sold more than a thousand a day. There was investment in the party’s “youth centres” to train teenagers and to buy equipment needed for the revolution: motor cycles, lorries, printing presses and walkie-talkies.
Other sources of finance indicated in the leaked document were:
Abu Dhabi 25,000
The influence of such covert funding could be seen in the pages of News Line as the WRP leadership as a whole embarked upon “developing unprincipled relations with bourgeois nationalist leaders” to sustain their corrupt and rotten organisation.
After the irrevocable split in the WRP that dwindling band around the Slaughter grouping pointed out that:
Healy has never – either in the Party or publicly – denied the truth of these charges; nor has he seen fit to take action in the courts, remarkable for one who in the past has been far from slow in resorting to such means. (Workers Press 10.1.87)
In the immediate aftermath of Healy’s expulsion, Vanessa Redgrave went to the courts to get an order re-possessing some property she had lent the WRP, and after a court judgement in favour of Vanessa Redgrave Enterprise Ltd there was the compulsory winding up of Astmoor Litho Ltd, the WRP printing firm. The WRP re-launched Workers Press on December 21st 1985 replacing News Line after that judgement. Healy and Redgrave narrowly failed after months of court appearance in having the WRP’s publishing company forced into liquidation. The fifteen WRP full-timers who supported Healy unsuccessfully pursued cases in the Industrial Tribunals against their party employers. It seemed at the-time that an underhand strategy to bankrupt the organisation was being pursued by the C.C. minority.
The WRP did have a reputation for going to the bourgeois courts in defence of their r-r-revolutionary party and members reputation. Some Left opponents of this strategy saw a calculated attempt to silence criticism of the WRP through the use of the cheque book. For instance, in 1981, the WRP went to the courts in a libel suit against fellow Trotskyists led by Sean Matgaman: Socialist Organiser. The WRP chose not to contest the allegation that they had received material aid from Libya.
In a libel action in 1978, they contested a claim by actress Irene Gorst that she had been held and interrogated in 1975 at the College of Marxist Education by WRP members. A jury found that a newspaper article reporting the allegations had defamed them but their reputation had not been materially injured. Vanessa Redgrave and four other WRP members involved in the action had to pay costs. They also opened themselves up to some ridicule by the rest of the Left as they protested the peaceful nature of their politics as a defense in the court.
The recourse to the machinery of the state they were supposedly intent on overthrowing went further than simply defending their property rights. WRP Central Committee member, Phil Penn, was imprisoned for four months on charges of assault after the Redgrave group appeared as police witnesses in the case.
Ben Rudder, News Line journalist and five other members of the Redgrave group gave evidence on behalf of the police in a court case held in January 1987 charging Gary Hughes, a leading member of a small Trotskyist group, with causing actual bodily harm after a fracas at a News Line public meeting. Hughes was found not guilty.
Amidst the wreckage left by the implosion of the WRP, the Banda fragment underwent a public reassessment of his political career in the trotskyist twilight zone:
I was there at the beginning, in the period of the ’forties and I was there at the end, and I do mean the end. Because what we saw at the end of 1985 wasn’t just the explosion of the WRP, it was a terminal crisis, it was finished completely.
But one must question how far was Mike Banda’s rupture from the analytical methods of trotskyism when his re-assessment led to a 180% ideological conversion to support the Gorbachev led course in the Soviet Union?
Surveying the way the WRP operated under Banda and Healy, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the characteristics commonly ascribed to “Stalinist” organisations by trotskyists – bureaucratic manipulation, perversion of marxism and thuggery – were in fact WRP characteristics, those and more.
Along with these characteristics went the cultivation of a paranoid hostility towards contact with any other political trends and their ideas, which were represented as enemy agents etc., and the encouragement of leader worship and delusion of grandeur confirming the centrality of the WRP to the process of World Revolution.
In fact, the combination of these factors gave the WRP a strong resemblance to one of the more obscure religious cults whose practices, incidentally, also offer material for titillating material in the “gutter end” of the bourgeois press.
The shell of a political organisation was sustained, but the core was lacking. The WRP quasi-cult group was the antithesis of a political organisation.
It could be argued that the old WRP was such an idiosyncratic organisation that its experience can teach no-one anything. That is not true.
The WRP is not the only organisation to suffer from an exaggerated sense of its own importance – the trotskyist RCP does that too, on practically the same scale – but others have suffered the same difficulties in less acute form.
Neither is it the only organisation to be paranoid in its relationships to the rest of the Left – it was common in the past for MLs to see the trotskyists as an undifferentiated mass of counter-revolutionaries, even police agents, and it is common on the Left for people to be dismissive of all other organisations’ views, as though responses to them would inevitably corrupt, particularly where the ’innocent minds’ of new and junior members were concerned.
Personality cults – if not of an organisation’s own leader, then of leaders, present or past, of socialist countries or movements – are far from isolated phenomena.
The basic thing which the WRP’s experience emphasizes is the necessity of studying and practicing politics, and not of substituting religion for it. Religious organisations are sustained by an idealist core surrounded by symbols and practices – no wonder the WRP spent thousands on obtaining the death-mask of Leon Trotsky; it was the icon for national meetings.
Within the idealist core is the preaching of belief and reliance on a Superior Being. Their divine instructions regulate morality and many social practices (which, of course, as any materialist would point out, tend to reflect the existing needs of the society within which they develop, needs primarily established by those who dominate the power structures).
Religious observance and the physical structures of religion (temples, churches, mosques, synagogues etc.) buttress the core belief and sustain group identity. Marxism-Leninism should involve a fundamental break with such practises; our “faith” must be in human beings and their capabilities; our interpretation of the world must be rooted in material reality, not distorted by idealist impositions; our morality must be determined by a reverence for humanity and dedication to its total liberation.
A new society, free of exploitation, class, national and sexual oppression cannot be created by revolutionaries whose own minds are enslaved and perpetuate such oppressions. The lesson for our party-building endeavours to draw from the WRP experience is to be dialectical materialists, not idealists, and to avoid quasi-religious practices, in what ever guise, and follow the practice of putting politics in command.