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John Sullivan on British Trotskyism

As Soon As This Pub Closes

John Sullivan

As Soon As This Pub Closes

Will the Real WRP Please Stand Up?

UNTIL August 1985, Gerry Healy was the most charismatic figure on the British left. Suddenly the Central Committee of the WRP, led by long-time Healy clone Mike Banda, announced that their founding father was being charged with the sexual abuse of dozens of female comrades, use of party funds for his own purposes, and complicity in the murder of opponents of the Iraqi government by selling information on Iraqi dissidents in Britain.

Knowledgeable WRP-watchers reacted by saying: ‘That’s as may be, but what has he done to annoy Mike Banda?’ James P. Cannon, the mentor of both Healy and Banda, used to say that in any split there was always two reasons: a good reason and the real reason. The real reason was that the petrodollars were drying up as the lords of the desert who were Healy’s bankers became sceptical about their franchisee’s ability to influence British politics. Furthermore, the paymasters were demanding more and more risky services, which if discovered would alarm the WRP cadres, most of whom were Equity members. Healy’s personal conduct with the youth section was becoming more and more bizarre and difficult to conceal from the members; one outraged father had physically attacked the venerable patriarch, and had to be persuaded to keep quiet. Financial bankruptcy would have led to the auditors examining the books and revealing God knows what. Worst of all, although Healy had relinquished the post of General Secretary to Banda, he was not giving up power. Banda was pushing 60 and feared that he might never inherit the throne. Banda conspired with Sheila Torrance, the WRP’s membership secretary, to force Healy to retire, but Torrance feared that Banda, who lacks Healy’s bluffs Irish good nature, would be an untrustworthy colleague, so she defected back to Healy, who also kept the allegiance of the actors, leaving Banda with most of the full-time organisers and the ‘red professors’, who had for many years provided Healy with theoretical justification when he required it.

However, a majority of the Central Committee agreed that Healy’s colourful lifestyle was grounds for expulsion. In the chill of dawn, the conspirators shivered at the enormity of what they had done. Killing the king would surely bring retribution. Banda tried to raise morale by describing the benefits which his reign would bring, but some old-timers feared that Caligula was replacing Tiberius. Once the deed was done, Banda’s coalition began to fall apart. Although Healy had started his rise to fame as a lackey of the American Socialist Workers Party, he had soon created his own myth of infallibility. Many WRP members, unable to face life without their all-wise leader, had mental breakdowns.

The first to desert Banda were a group of satellites of Healy’s American franchisee David North. North had fallen out with Healy over some interpretation of the dialectic, and had been promptly denounced as a CIA agent, Healy’s standard riposte to anyone who disagreed with him. North was forced into temporary alliance with Banda and his sidekick Cliff Slaughter, but their interests were so different that it could not last. Banda-Slaughter needed to attack Healy’s record and his claim that anyone who differed with him was an agent of the CIA, so they announced that they were withdrawing such charges, and even apologised to the victims. North could not go along with this, as for many years his group’s main political activity had been mounting a slander campaign against Healy’s former political accomplices in the American SWP, alleging that its leaders were drawing double salaries as agents of both the CIA and the KGB. North found British acolytes amongst a group of veteran Healyites who for many years had stood complacently by while Healy had screwed first their wives and then their daughters. By suddenly junking Healy’s record, Banda was asking them to accept that they had allowed their families to be abused by an elderly satyr for nothing.

In 1986, North’s British supporters formed the International Communist Party which, under its leader, an ersatz Healy, Dave Hyland, tries to have Healyism without the great man himself. As Hyland lacks Gerry’s charm, initiative, intelligence and dynamism, they don’t have good prospects. With only 60 members, all they can do is produce a monthly journal attacking their rivals. Banda himself was moving fast, ignoring Slaughter’s attempts to slow him down. He realised that, in spite of his Khrushchevian role in denouncing Healy, he had been playing the Beria part for so long that he was an obvious target for anyone seeking a scapegoat. The more critical comrades were bound to ask if things had begun to go wrong only in the past 10 years or at some other point in the 35-year Healy-Banda collaboration. After several months meditating in a Sri Lanka ashram, Banda came up with an answer whose audacity left his rivals gasping. The movement had been wrong since 1923: in other words Stalin, not Trotsky, had been right all along! So he, Banda, was not to blame for the present shambles. Nice one Mike! With a dozen supporters, he now publishes a journal called Communist Forum, but rumour has it that he is falling out with them too.

That was going too far for Slaughter, so his faction, once the Banda-Slaughter group, became the slaughter Banda group. The split took the usual form with minimal political discussion and mutual allegations of stealing party property. Slaughter was left with about 200 thoroughly demoralised people who could not face the prospect of winding up the party and admitting that it had all been a waste of time. He made a virtue of necessity, announcing that there would be a wide-ranging discussion aimed at a clarification and regroupment of the revolutionary movement. The only preconditions for the discussion would be an acceptance that the remaining WRP leaders were nice people who had not realised what Healy was up to.

The Slaughter WRP published a weekly journal, Workers Press, which immediately adopted the standard absurdities of the middle-class left on Gays, Women, Irish and Blacks which Healy’s plebeian acumen had rejected. The supply of petrodollars dried up, so the group had to settle for a very much reduced scale of operations. They realised that they needed an International, an essential device for filtering out reality on a world scale. A search for partners in the political marriage market unearthed one Nahuel Moreno, the caudillo of an Argentinean group named the MAS. Moreno’s political record was more bizarre than Healy’s personal life. Beggars can’t be choosers, but some WRPers blanched at bit at this piece of rough trade. When Moreno died at the end of 1986, former associates speculated on his motives, but he had removed one of the chief obstacles to the merger. The WRP’s leaders hastened to end the general political discussion which they had promised, much to the annoyance of the smaller left groups who had briefly been allowed to participate in the unity negotiations. The WRP seemed well on its way to recovery when the courts declared that it, not Healy, was the rightful owner of Trotsky’s death mask; the nearest to a splinter of the true cross anyone on the left possesses. However, it still needed a true heir to Healy, who tended, by eliminating rivals, to destroy successors. Several aspirants for that role, eager to give WRP members the lashing they so enjoy, and aware that none of the ‘red professors’ were up to the task, joined the party following Healy’s expulsion. Alas! In March 1988, just as things seemed to be looking up, the Slaughter WRP splintered into four different fragments, the victim of the Morenoites factional dexterity: a belated revenge for the Falklands War.

The Healy-Torrance rump took about 150 members from the parent group, insisting that yet another CIA/KGB attempt to destroy the revolutionary leadership had been foiled. The party’s trade union base, predominantly in Equity, remained firmly behind Healy, and by February 1986 the daily journal Newsline had been re-established, with the help of the leading Equity militants Vanessa and Corin Redgrave. However, the group’s leading propagandist, Alex Mitchell, defected to work for Murdoch in Australia, and Torrance came to the conclusion that although she could not expel Healy, he was clinically mad and should be promoted to an honorary capacity. This was unacceptable to the actors, who know a good performer when they see one, and at the end of 1986 about 40 of them broke away to form yet another group, which in July 1987 produced a journal, The Marxist, devoted mainly to an exchange of letters between Torrance and Healy’s supporters. In August 1987, Healy’s troupe officially launched their new production, the Marxist Party, at the Riverside Studio in Hammersmith. Many reviews said that the production was under-rehearsed, and some surprise was voiced at the sight of performers reading their lines in what was supposed to be a live performance, not a rehearsal. As a result of the poor reception given to the launch, plans for a provincial tour, leading up to a West End production, were postponed, some think for ever. We do not agree: Healy’s troupe may be small compared with the cast of Dynasty, but old-fashioned actor-managers trod the boards for years with smaller groups, bringing drama to the masses. In early 1987, a further split in the Torrance WRP produced the Workers International League, formed by some former full time apparatchiks. This group, about 30 strong, publishes a journal Workers News which has no political analysis whatever. Such a defection is more worrying for the dwindling ranks of the WRP than one based on political differences, as it shows a basic lack of confidence in the parent group’s survival.

Now that Gerry Healy has no political influence, it is possible to take a balanced view of a colourful and charismatic personality who does not really belong in our dull mundane world. Because we long for a world more marvellous and coherent than our own commonplace lives, we create Gerry Healys, just as the Christians created God. Healy realised early in his political career that many middle-class people desperately wanted to be abused and humiliated by a self-appointed representative of the proletariat. Perhaps he should be criticised for indulging them, but has he really done any more harm than Billy Graham or the Moonies? Healy had always resented the contempt in which he was held by the working-class leaders of the RCP in the 1940s, who saw him as a good organiser with no grasp of Marxism. The fact that he was appointed as the leader of British Trotskyism by the American leadership of the Fourth International, rather than getting there on his own merits, also rankled. Veterans of the RCP express some bewilderment at his rise to eminence. In fact, his theoretical weakness was an advantage in allowing his natural pragmatism to flourish. He compensated for his ignorance of economics and history by becoming a master of the dialectic. No one, apart from his acolytes, can make head nor tail of the gibberish he has written on this topic, but to be fair to Gerry, there is no evidence that he himself ever took it seriously. His followers, including the highly-educated ‘red professors’, wanted to believe in magic, and he was willing to oblige. Much the same can be said of the criticisms of his sex life, a lot of it prompted by jealousy of what seems a remarkable performance for a man of 75. These peccadilloes only started after many years of indulging the middle-class cadre in the ritual humiliation which they demanded. One was a logical enough continuation of the other, but it does seem hypocritical to blame it all on Healy, who is surely more of a victim than a monster. Now that he wanders like King Lear, deserted by almost everyone but his faithful Cordelia, Vanessa, one can surely hope that his defeat will evoke the compassion which would have been inappropriate in his years of triumph.

Note: Ken Livingstone of the GLC had given permission to erect a plaque at Hyde Park Corner to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the great man’s conversion from Stalinism to Trotskyism. Healy had been part of a group of YCL members who used to beat up Trotskyist paper-sellers until he saw the light. The conversion had been almost as dramatic as that of Paul on the road to Damascus.

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Last updated on 28.7.2007