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Behind the Smokescreen

An analysis of the sectarian politics of the Workers Revolutionary Party

A collection of articles first printed in Socialist Press

Written: 1975 / 76.
First Published: June 1976.
Source: Published by Folrose Ltd. for the Workers Socialist League.
Transcription/HTML Markup: Sean Robertson for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

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Behind the Smokescreen

Healy Revises Marxist Philosophy

(Reprinted from Socialist Press No 4, March 20th 1975).

G. Healy, National Secretary of the Workers Revolutionary Party has written an 8-page attack on Alan Thornett’s “Second Document on Party Policy and Perspectives” (written while Thornett was still in the WRP and which was suppressed by the national leadership who expelled him and all those in agreement with his politics just before the first Annual Conference of the WRP).

Healy is only able to take up one aspect of the document – and only quotes one passage from it. This is torn out of its context and shorn of its content in the document, then distorted and finally made into a plank of Healy’s argument. We begin by showing the passage in its context – Healy’s quote is italicised:

“ . . . the International Committee is polemicising against the OCI making many correct points, but at no stage is the concrete brought into the discussion. At no point does the I.C. discuss programme (emphasis in original). Philosophy is transformed into its own field of debate [by the WRP and I.C.] divorced from the class struggle itself and divorced from practice.
All knowledge begins from the struggle of man against nature, now in the form of the class struggle – the conflict of revolutionary theory in the form of the party with spontaneity in the form of the class. That must be the starting point and central reference point in our polemic. That is not (emphasis in original) the starting point in theoretical education in our party [WRP]. The consequence of this is that cadres are not trained in Marxism. They are trained to repeat formulae of dialectical materialism and given some grounding in principled struggles which are the history of the WRP as a section of the International Committee. But, in living terms, no education takes place, because there is no real discussion or analysis within the party of the Party’s practice in the class struggle”.

Healy’s selective quote sidesteps the points being made. The conflict between man and nature and between the party and the class is stressed here by Thornett because the WRP’s propagandism and abstract approach to theory separates Marxism and the revolutionary party from the living movement which is its material base. He consciously avoids answering on the I.C.’s refusal to discuss programme, and dodges the other major points contained in the section on philosophy, which deal with the method of Trotsky’s Transitional Programme. In misquoting Thornett in this way Healy reveals an important aspect of his own revisions of Marxism.

Healy also willfully obscures the fact that the document is not intended as a full exposition of Marxism but is specifically replying to his own challenge to explain the “historical, philosophical, and class content of the degeneration” of the WRP.

The truth is always concrete, as the man who fell out of the skyscraper said. But to get to it one must often pass through a certain number of abstractions and – sometimes – of ‘philosophical’ hot air. The aim of Healy’s document “Some Notes Towards a Study of Thornett’s Philosophy”: 9th Feb, 1975, is to justify ‘philosophically’ (i.e. after the event) the suppression of the discussion opened by Alan Thornett in the WRP last year.

At the same time Healy’s document revises the fundamentals of dialectical materialism and is a qualitative ‘leap’ in the degeneration of the WRP under the pressure of the middle class.

In the struggle to develop a political consciousness in the working class going beyond the reformist trade union consciousness (which arises spontaneously from workers’ daily experiences), the philosophical method of Marxism is indispensable. It must therefore be defended and developed in opposition to all attempts to revise it. As Lenin wrote in What is to be Done?:

“ . . . to belittle the socialist ideology in any way, to turn aside from it in the slightest degree means to strengthen bourgeois ideology.”
[Collected Works, Volume 5, page 384].

One thing the ruling class fears above all, therefore, is the development of Marxist philosophy, a guide to action, within the workers movement. The essence of this philosophy is the method of dialectical materialism, which studies the world as matter in motion, which develops through the unity and conflict of opposites within it.

Dialectical materialism is the philosophy of revolution – it sees nothing as eternally fixed, but everything as in motion, in a continuing process of conflict. As a world-view, seeking in material reality and the struggle of classes the basis of all the ideas, moods and theories thrown up by social development, it forms the ‘sinews’ of the body of theory with which the revolutionary party struggles to win the conscious leadership of the working class, through the development of and fight for a programme which can establish the bridge between the as yet only trade union conscious masses of the organised working class and the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. Only by grasping all of the opposed forces at work, not just within the workers movement, but amongst all classes of society, can the revolutionary movement correctly defend principles and programme and put forward tactics which can assist the strategic aim of preparing the class for power.


The philosophy of Marxism, of dialectical materialism, therefore is unlike all previous philosophies. It is not just a body of ideas, to be argued by ‘theorists’ outside the day-to-day struggles of the working class. If placed outside these struggles it withers in to an abstract set of concepts, turning into its opposite – an obstacle to the political development of the working class.

One of the basic tasks therefore of the Workers Socialist League is to educate its members in the main ideas of dialectical materialism, to explain and discuss these ideas as clearly as possible, and always to encourage their use in developing a fuller, richer knowledge of political developments, We fight to defend dialectical materialism against all attempts to distort or revise it, or to take it out of the hands of workers and make it the sole preserve of intellectuals and theoreticians, It can only be developed by a party containing both intellectuals and workers and fighting on a program to lead the working class to power.

This is why we now challenge the leadership of the Workers Revolutionary Party on their revision of the central question of philosophy – Marxist dialectics – and its relation to the idealist dialectics of the German philosopher Hegel (1770 – 1831), from which Marx and Engels began their struggle for scientific socialism. One of the problems in taking up the wrong philosophical positions of Gerry Healy, National Secretary of the Workers Revolutionary Party, in the past is that he has put so little of his philosophy in writing, preferring to confine himself to lectures. We welcome therefore his venture into print with an 8 page pamphlet attacking the Workers Socialist League.


How does Healy revise Marxism? Like all reactionary thought his thinking reflects the world in a distorted form. The material world itself exists and moves through the unity and conflict of opposites – this is the kernel of dialectical materialism, manifesting itself in all areas of society and politics. The sharper the economic crisis, the more openly the working class and the capitalist class enter into conflict with one another, the louder do the apologists of capitalism preach class collaboration in order to head off, and ultimately to crush the struggle of the working class to overthrow capitalism.

ASTMS leader Clive Jenkins mounts a platform with Enoch Powell to campaign for ‘national unity’ against the Common Mark t. Jenkins himself becomes a puppet in the rearmament of the Tory Party to enforce political and moral ‘unity’ on society, preparing to use the scared middle-class as shock-troops against the trade unions. Wedgewood-Benn adds his efforts in the drive to ‘unite’ trade unions and employers in board-room class-collaboration under the Industry Bill linking with the ‘unity’ of the social contract.

It is precisely this pressure to which Healy succumbs when he writes on apparently abstract questions of philosophy. The philosophical core of his document centres on the unity and conflict of two essential opposites: man and nature; thought and being. It is this question we are concerned with here. In discussing this most general unity and struggle of opposites he is of necessity expressing his approach to development in all spheres: in nature, in society, and within the WRP itself. And on the key question he is devastatingly clear. He attacks Thornett (and with him, Lenin) precisely for insisting that the conflict of opposites is absolute, and that their unity exists only relatively to this conflict.

Let us look more closely at the quotation Healy uses from Thornett’s document:

“All knowledge begins from the struggle of man against nature, now in the form of the class struggle – the conflict of revolutionary theory in the form of the party with spontaneity in the form of the class. That must be the starting point and central reference point in our polemic”.

From this quotation he undertakes to prove that Thornett holds “a vulgar one-sided materialist conception of history, which in turn leads the author into the swamp of subjective idealism”. (Healy, p. 1).


As we shall show, the opposite is the case. Any reformist or empiricist will tell you that there are two sides to every question, but unless these two sides express the essence of the matter, and the conflict between them is grasped, thought will remain superficial, undialectical, unable to grasp the source of movement. Science evaporates and the question becomes merely which side the emphasis is placed on. This is exactly how Healy proceeds. He quotes a number of passages from Marx and Engels which minimise the conflict between man and nature, stressing instead ‘unity’, For instance: “Being, that is living man’s unity and dependence upon nature, determines all consciousness”. (Healy, p3; emphasis added).

Such quotations are interspersed with Healy’s own comments, which attempt to lead away from conflict by generalisations on the “Universal Movement of Matter” (capitals in original! Healy, p. 8).

Thus he states “Man is part of Nature as an integral part of the universal movement of matter” (emphasis added p. 3). Yet as it stands such a statement is the equivalent of saying, for instance, that the working class is an “integral part” of capitalism. On a certain level of abstraction this is true – capitalism needs the working class, and the working class is an oppressed class only because of capitalism – but for revolutionaries it diverts from the essential relationship, which is not one of unity but the harsh antagonism of opposites. Under the guise of philosophy Healy smuggles in exactly such a reactionary conception.


Worse – by blindly amalgamating together the development of the class struggle and the “universal movement of matter”, precisely the element of consciousness which differentiates man’s actions from those of animals and the unconscious movement of the objective world he confronts is eliminated. Healy thus reduces the class struggle to a mere ‘natural process’ and Marxist philosophy is turned into a contemplation of the “universal movement of matter”.

More fully, Healy sets out his position as follows:

“Man is part of nature and in conflict with it. That is the starting point of all knowledge and not Thornett’s one-sided assertion that knowledge begins ‘from the struggle of man against nature’.

[break in original text]

ure from the fundamental unity (emphasis added) of man with nature, thus destroying the dialectical relationship between the subjective (mens’ thoughts) and the objective material world”.

Healy then goes on: “He (Thornett) then transfers the source of consciousness to the brain as something separate from nature”.


This sentence is the incredible sleight of hand on which the whole of Healy’s case is then constructed. The assertion that Thornett “transfers the source of consciousness to the brain” – in other words starts from consciousness determining being – is nowhere contained in Thornett’s material. Let’s look at the quotation Healy uses from Thornett again and see what he actually says:

All knowledge begins from the struggle of man against nature (which is material) now in the form of the class struggle – (which is material) the conflict of revolutionary theory in the form of the party (not in his head) with spontaneity in the form of the class”. (Emphasis added).

Healy goes on:

“Here is the basis of all idealism, that it is consciousness which determines being and not being which determines consciousness. Having subjectively separated man’s struggle with nature from the unity (emphasis added) of this struggle with nature, Thornett can only start from the threadbare baggage of idealist reasoning which begins within his own head and is arbitrarily used to prove any argument which he thinks necessary to attack the Workers Revolutionary Party. That is why we designate his method that of subjective idealism”.
(Healy, p. 4).

The problem Healy has to contend with is that Lenin polemicised for precisely the opposite conception: that unity is relative and conflict absolute.

There is, as Lenin said “an absolute (i.e. the struggle of opposites) within the relative (i.e. their unity)” [Collected Works, Volume 38, p. 360]. Revolutionaries will, for example, enter into a (relative) unity with syndicalist workers, reformist bureaucrats, (and even centrists like Healy!), on a basic question of workers’ rights such as the release of the Shrewsbury Two. But within this unity there must be a struggle for the revolutionary leadership of the class. This is the ‘absolute’ question. The conflict of opposites itself conflicts with their unity. Only thus does the world change.

As Lenin puts it (crystallising his exposition of the world-view of Marxism in ‘On the Question of Dialectics’, Collected Works, Vol. 38 p. 360):

“The unity (coincidence, identity, equal action) of opposites is conditional, temporary, transitory, relative. The struggle of mutually exclusive opposites is absolute, just as development and motion are absolute.” (The passage in which Lenin repeats this fundamental point – in several ways – is on a page facing one of Healy’s own main quotations).

This passage is well known to Healy and the whole WRP leadership. In the International Committee booklet In Defence of Trotskyism, published in Feb. 1973 it is used as a basic plank in the theoretical argument against the French OCI. In fact it is the very passage quoted here which the IC correctly accuses the OCI of deliberately omitting in a quotation. At that time its omission was taken up sharply in these terms:

“As Forgontier [OCI theoretician] well knows – and here he must have decided quite consciously to obscure the point, since he had the text before him – it is precisely on this omitted paragraph (emphasis added) that the split in the International Committee turns! The relation between theory and practice, between party and class, is a relation of struggle. The relative unity of theory and practice is established, constantly re-established, only through the struggle of mutually exclusive opposites.”
“( . . . ) Forgontier ( . . . ), by his careful omission, [emphasis added] finds himself able to speak about unity and conflict of opposites as some sort of equally co-existing aspects [emphasis added], to be contemplated: ‘Lenin underlines at the same time that the conflict of opposites is inseparable from their unity’, he says.”
[In Defence of Trotskyism, pp. 20-21]

Yet the philosophical position put by the OCI theoretician then is almost identical to Healy’s position now. This indicates firstly the continuing theoretical degeneration of the WRP since 1973, and the subjectivism and incoherence to which the mass expulsions and the internal repressions continuing within the WRP have forced Healy, along with Banda and Slaughter. Secondly it indicates the flimsy theoretical base of understanding on which Healy split the International Committee in 1971. The WRP leadership is now repeating the very revisions of Marxism of the OCI, which supposedly caused the split. This is the slippery path down which must slither all those who abandon the principles of Bolshevism and the lessons of Trotsky’s struggles for the Fourth International.

This philosophical revisionism is reflected continuously now in the centrist practice of the WRP, While Healy ‘philosophically’ places unity on a par with conflict, Workers Press busily angles for ‘unity’ at the end of their Wigan building workers campaign on the Shrewsbury Two with fake-left Tribunite MP Sidney Bidwell. It trumpets a welcome for Bidwell’s support without mentioning that he voted for the Jenkins reactionary ‘Anti-terrorism Act’, which is already being used to jail trades unionists and Irish republicans! Truly, conflict is here subordinated to ‘unity’ with a vengeance.

Another aspect of Healy’s document must be dealt with. It deliberately sets out to befuddle and stampede WRP members who have not had the opportunity to study philosophy, and especially Hegel’s struggle for a dialectical world view. It was the main text which Lenin read during his work on philosophy in 1914; Lenin’s rough notes on it are published in his “Philosophical Notebooks”, Collected Works, Vol 38.

Healy has a long record of utilising snippets from Volume 38 out of context as virtual biblical references in order to give himself a bogus prestige as a “theoretician” whose word is law on philosophy. It is important to remember however that the book is not written in any form which can be simply read through and quotations pulled out. In many passages Lenin is merely paraphrasing the idealist philosophers Hegel and Kant, and not expounding Marxism at all.

Healy, however rooting round anxiously for material with which to hit Thornett, rummages through Volume 38, and in the last pages of his document (pp. 7-8) confusingly strings together a series of philosophical concepts (or categories) from the Science of Logic, without the slightest explanation of where they come from or what their content is: (Slaughter’s article in Workers Press of February 27th, supposedly a review of Marx-Engels Collected Works Vol. 1, does the same thing, but in an even more compressed form). In two pages (after having never written anything on them before) Healy skates through semblance, reflection, appearance, positing, existent object, essence, actuality, causality and effect, moment, the objective idea, the Notion and (last but not least) absolute truth (to list just some). From the whole jumble emerges, like a rabbit from a hat, the conclusion that ‘we again proceed to posit living perception (dialectical thought concepts) on our abstract idea (ideas). We do this not by contemplating the world but by changing it through the building of the Workers Revolutionary Party’.

We cannot begin to clear this jungle in a single newspaper article. (We intend to publish a lot of material on Healy’s philosophical revision). But three essential points must be made.

Firstly, it is evident that Healy has never read Lenin’s notes as they must be read – in parallel with the Science of Logic itself. (As Lenin put it, he was ‘trying to read Hegel materialistically’ (Vol 38, p. 104)). This is why Healy gets Hegel’s ‘categories’ in the wrong order (see the ‘Table of Contents’ to Science of Logic). In philosophy some ‘contemplating’ of books is necessary.

Secondly, for this reason Healy completely misses the essential point – that Hegel’s ‘categories’ all arise from the conflict (or contradiction) of previous ‘categories’. Healy simply unites them in a single process, and dishes up the whole caboodle as Marxism. What Marxism takes from Hegel’s philosophy is not its system of categories, but the dialectical method by which they arise from one another.

Most important of all, however, Healy’s document on Thornett is an insult to the intelligence of any comrade seriously struggling to train himself in dialectical materialism. The struggle for Marxism within the party, and for leadership within the class, has nothing to do with Healy’s superficial understanding of Hegelianism used subjectively to justify arbitrary expulsions. This of course is, as this article shows, the subjective idealist method.

The Workers Socialist League will take up the study of these philosophical questions, but in a way which springs from the concrete struggle and development of the party programme and leadership to develop a Marxist leadership for the working class, the only leadership which can lead the working class to power.

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