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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

Review of ‘The Battle For Trotskyism’

Reviewed by John Lister

(Reprinted from Socialist Press No 30, March 24th 1976).

The subject of this book is leadership, the fight for a revolutionary party able to mobilise and politically direct mass support within the working class in the struggle for power.

All of the issues of principle and programme, of party regime and of orientation towards the workers’ movement which emerge in the documents brought together in The Battle For Trotskyism are of decisive importance to all revolutionary socialists.

The “Battle” referred to in the title was as many now know the fight within the ranks of the Workers Revolutionary Party in the closing months of 1974 for a change in its sectarian political line and a return to the methods of the Trotskyist Transitional Programme.


It was a fight which began in the industrial base of the WRP in Cowley, Oxford, and was begun by Alan Thornett, who started to question what at first were only isolated aspects of the practice and perspectives of the WRP leadership headed by its General Secretary; Gerry Healy. As the account of the struggle in the Third Document tells us:

“ . . . differences over party perspectives began to emerge in Oxford from December 1973, These were over the three day week, the practice of the party leadership in drawing a mechanical connection between economics and politics, and, later, the perspectives advocated during the oil crisis, of military coups and police-military dictatorships”.
“Differences also emerged over the designation of reformist class collaborators as ‘corporatists’, the constitutional changes, the wrong positions of the leadership on nationalisation and workers’ control and, most important, the revision of the Transitional Programme – the founding document of the Fourth International”.

These were deep-going political differences – but within a truly democratic-centralist party they could have been freely and honestly discussed and a fight waged to change the leadership of the WRP itself.

The party had not crossed class lines to give support to the bourgeoisie, nor had it advocated unprincipled alliances with Stalinism or centrism.


It remained a party which for all its wrong positions contained a vital core of Trotskyism – though that core was continuously coming under threat from the liquidationist course of the leadership, a course which was accelerating rapidly.

But in September 1974, once Thornett’s opposition had begun to appear more distinctly, Healy demonstrated clearly that to achieve a full discussion within the WRP was virtually impossible. The September 14th Central Committee meeting was a set-piece political frame-up of Thornett designed to silence him within the movement:

“When the discussion started, Healy demanded a contribution from the Western Area and Alan Thornett spoke. He said that the working class had been on the offensive all of that year. The miners had forced the Tory government to resign; this offensive had continued through a wages movement, and now it looked as if the working class were going to replace the minority Labour government with a majority Labour government. He went on to say that such a government would come into power under conditions of great economic crisis and that the battles to be fought in the coming winter would be between the working class and the Labour government who would defend capitalism.”
“Cliff Slaughter then got up and altered completely what Thornett had said. Thornett, he said, was of the opinion that the working class would come into conflict, with capitalism through a Labour government . . . Alan Thornett vigorously protested that he had been misquoted, but this was brushed aside by Healy”.
(pp. 90-91).

From that time to this day, Thornett and those who supported his criticisms of the leadership have been on the strength of this incident cynically branded as “soft on social democracy” by Healy and others – though not a single shred of evidence from written sources has been produced to back up the allegation!

The book makes clear that Alan Thornett’s first reaction to this frame-up was a wrong one. He resigned next day from the WRP. Only further reflection on the political responsibility to fight for an understanding of Healy’s methods, combined with an undertaking by Healy that there would be full discussion on his differences with a Conference before the end of the year persuaded him to reverse this position.

Healy’s undertaking was of course never carried out – by the time of the Conference every WRP member ever suspected of supporting Alan Thornett had been expelled or excluded as a delegate!

As the third document shows, this only became Healy’s clear policy in the course of the fight, and was his response to the political strength of the opposition case.


Indeed at first, moves by Healy were not so much immediate expulsion but adaptation to Thornett’s position, seeking to head off a fight in order to keep hold of the WRP cadre of workers in Cowley. Thus after two Central Committee meetings on October 12th and 19th,when Thornett had spoken at length on the Party’s abandonment of the transitional demands in its election manifesto, Slaughter attempted to write in a lengthy section on “programme” to supplement the leadership’s original document.

This was to give the impression of moving closer to Thornett’s position, while at the same time, the Healy leadership viciously attacked Thornett himself, within the party ranks, in the hope of splitting off Thornett’s support in the Cowley factory branch.

It resulted in the edition of Workers Press dated October 26th 1974 which carried for the first time a front page including transitional demands, the day before the 5th Anniversary Rally at which Thornett was a platform speaker.

But at the Rally itself, Healy spoke at length without once mentioning the new programme!

By November 1st, Thornett had completed the First Document and submitted it for discussion on the Central Committee next day. The whole document, including the background reading had been worked up from tentative criticisms in only a matter of weeks.

This work of course threw up even further questions as to the roots of Healy’s wrong method and the broader implications of the sectarian degeneration of the WRP on the International Committee of the Fourth International which it dominated.

These points could not be brought into the first document, but clearly had to be answered if Healy was to be fought down the line on his politics.

In the course of the upheavals that had taken place in Oxford several comrades had begun to grasp the issues involved and to give support to Alan Thornett’s fight for an understanding of the Transitional Programme, contributing to the work for the First Document.

Further work immediately began to prepare additional material which would hopefully form a second document. When Healy challenged Thornett in front of a Western Area Aggregate meeting on 24th November, therefore, to answer a series of questions on the degeneration of the WRP, Thornett was able immediately to ask permission to produce a second document to do this.

It was Thornett’s readiness to tackle what Healy plainly thought were unanswerable questions which decided him to press ahead to immediate expulsions. The WRP’s Control Commission which had been working behind the scenes building up a fraudulent dossier of lying and slanderous allegations against Alan Thornett, was brought in as the means to expedite the expulsions:

“Healy organised a meeting of the Control Commission first thing the following morning, Monday 24th November, Nothing had happened between the end of the aggregate meeting and the Control Commission meeting, yet the decision was taken to overturn the decision taken by the Central Committee only two days earlier and expel Thornett forthwith”.
(pp. 108-109).

The first two political documents reproduced in this volume were therefore produced under these difficult material conditions: the need to develop nagging doubts, uncertainties, half-formulated objections into a coherent written form, probing the very method of the leadership on the one hand; and the harrying and manoeuvring of the WRP leadership added to the pressures from the need to maintain the local movement, and the continuity of the struggle in the factories on the other.

The documents are not masterpieces of prose or fully rounded theoretical statements. They are documents of struggle bearing at times the imprint of their hasty and complex preparation.


The nature of the WRP itself (and in particular its attitude towards international questions), is also a key factor in understanding) these documents.

While the general line of attack is almost always correct, major weaknesses of approach and areas of ignorance of the WRP membership show through.

This is true particularly in the section of the Second Document on the International Committee and most glaringly in the section on Ireland.

But in turning towards seriously working through these questions and turning in a practical way first of all to points of programme to advance the struggle of workers and peasants internationally the opposition made a conspicuous development beyond WRP positions in that document. It is a strength which continues today within the WSL.

In taking up the historical development of sectarianism within the Healy leadership, the opposition turned also to a study of the documents of the 1953 and 1963 splits within the Fourth International. It became plain to those involved in this as soon as we were able to look at this material objectively, that Healy had for years completely mis-educated the WRP cadres on their own history and created a completely distorted picture.

This was compounded in the publication of the selective documentary history Trotskyism v Revisionism by Cliff Slaughter’s lying Introduction, which claimed , in defiance of all the evidence that:

“The letters of G. Healy show how the British leadership entered the [1953] fight in an endeavour to carry forward the building of sections of the international and to educate its cadre in the struggle against liquidationism”.
(quoted page 34).

It was in struggling to understand this material, in the writing of the Second Document that several basic unresolved problems of the world movement began to come into focus, laying some of the groundwork for the WSL’s later International Perspectives document Fourth International – Problems and Tasks.


But, it must be stressed that the issues touched upon in the opposition documents were only seeds of change, by no means as developed as the current positions of the WSL.

It must also be remembered that the first two documents were written as internal discussion documents to change the wrong course of the WRP. There was nothing cynical in this approach, and those who worked on the documents made serious adjustments of tone and phrasing in order to create fewest barriers to objective discussion within the WRP. We held back consciously from use of abusive and denigratory terms in relation to the WRP leadership. For this reason also we were at pains to focus on the political roots of the organisational abuses coming into play against the opposition, rather than piece together a superficial catalogue of bureaucracy and internal corruption.

Of course the first two documents also reflect weaknesses. They fail adequately to come to grips with the WRP’s liquidation in the youth work, and they omit any mention of Healy’s complete and abject failure to put forward a perspective for the struggle for women’s rights. On both of these, issues the WSL now has sub-committees drafting perspectives documents.

The expulsion of the opposition was carried out in the beginning of December 1974 by Healy to cut short the very rapid strides that had been taken towards an all-round critique of the leadership, and to seal off any possibility of a threat to the old leadership which had kept the SLL / WRP in its grip since the mid 1950’s.

The Third Document, especially when taken together with the documents and letters in the Appendices to the book, details these expulsions and their scale. The entire WRP organisation in Oxford, Reading and Swindon was wound up, with only isolated individuals left supporting Healy.

Suddenly outside the party as a result of this were the trade union cadres developed over years of patient and principled struggle in the Cowley factories and in other unions in the Oxford area. The trade union penetration in Reading, Swindon and parts of Yorkshire achieved by the WRP was also thrown overboard in Healy’s subjective defence of bureaucratic power.


This immediately confronted the opposition comrades with a dilemma – either to immediately organise a centralised grouping, now inevitably outside the WRP, to ensure a continuity of the fight for leadership inside the working class – or engage first in lengthy haggling over abstract “perspectives” and “orientation” in the course of which the inherent strength of the movement and cohesion of its forces could be wasted away.

The decision taken was at once to draw together a provisional organisation – which took place the week after the 1st. Annual Conference of the WRP, and immediately to build up the necessary resources to launch an independent newspaper.

The growth and the proud record in struggle of the WSL from that day on has been a testimony to the correctness of those decisions. In its practice the WSL has established the possibilities opening up for a disciplined revolutionary leadership taking the method and demands of the transitional programme into the daily struggles of the working class.

While those small forces among those expelled by Healy who did not want to build an independent revolutionary leadership have left the movement in order to drift off into the quagmire of reformism, the WSL has gained all round in strength and programme. The Battle for Trotskyism shows the beginnings of our movement. We urge all our readers to study it.

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