WE KNOW that Thomas Gerard Healy was born in Galway on 3 December 1913, the son of Margaret Mary Healy (formerly Rabbitte) and her husband Michael, whose profession was listed on the birth certificate as farmer. But the details of Gerry Healys early years remain obscure. According to Healy himself, he joined the Young Communist League in Britain in 1928, although this may be just another of the myths he cultivated about his own history, along with claims that his father was murdered by the Black and Tans and that he acted as a Comintern courier into Nazi Germany.1 By 1936, Healy was living in Belgrave Road, Pimlico, and was a member of the Communist Partys Westminster branch.2 He was then still a party loyalist and a fervent anti-Trotskyist to the extent that he became a regular member of a group of Stalinists who went to Hyde Park to argue with and, on occasions, physically assault Trotskyist speakers.
One regular victim of the attentions of Healy and his fellow Stalinists was Jock Haston, who was then a member of the Militant Group, a Trotskyist organisation led by Denzil Harber which worked in the Labour Party. In the course of their repeated arguments, Haston recalls, he succeeded in winning Healy over to Trotskyism.3 Healy would later claim that Haston recruited me to the movement after my expulsion from the Communist Party.4 According to Healy, he was expelled from the CP for questioning the supply of oil by the Soviet Union to fascist Italy.5 There is, however, no independent confirmation of this version of events.
The date of Healys break with Stalinism is uncertain. Healy himself for many years claimed that he joined the Trotskyists in 1936, although he later settled on January 1937.6 In the spring of that year he appeared in Yorkshire, where he had a job travelling round grocers shops setting up adverts for Sunlight soap.7 There he worked with John Archer, a leading Militant Group member in Leeds, helping to run open-air meetings for the group and sell its newspaper. According to Archer, Healy was almost entirely ignorant of Trotskys writings, but made a favourable impression with his energetic activity on behalf of the organisation.8 At the Militant Groups national conference in August 1937, on the proposal of Harber and Archer, Healy was formally accepted into membership and joined the groups Paddington branch.9
It was false allegations against another new recruit to the Paddington branch, Ralph Lee, concerning his past activities in the South African labour movement, which formed the basis of a split in the Militant Group within months of Healy joining. In December 1937 Lee walked out of the organisation in protest at his treatment, accompanied by seven supporters including Jock Haston, Millie Lee, Ted Grant and Healy. Although the Militant Groups leadership undoubtedly mishandled the situation, it seems likely that this served as a pretext for a split by young activists dissatisfied with what they saw as the conservatism of the older leaders. Lee and his supporters formed a new organisation, the Workers International League, and Gerry Healy became editor of its duplicated journal, Searchlight.10
When James P. Cannon of the US Socialist Workers Party intervened on behalf of the international Trotskyist movement to unite the British groups into the Revolutionary Socialist League, the WIL refused to join, arguing that the unification agreement which allowed those Trotskyists opposed to entry to engage in open work was a violation of democratic centralism. In 1938 the founding conference of the Fourth International recognised the RSL as the official British section and censured the WIL for having split over mere personal grievances. All purely national groupings, the official statement read, all those who reject international organisation, control and discipline, are in their essence reactionary.11 Healy, it should be noted, fully supported the WILs decision to reject the authority of the Fourth International and retain its autonomy. The subsequent fragmentation of the RSL he saw as a vindication of the WILs position. Comrade Cannon, Healy was fond of saying, came to Britain and unified four groups into seven.12
That the WIL itself managed to maintain its unity, however, was no thanks to Healy. For it became increasingly clear that Healys egotism, contempt for group discipline and subjective hostility to other leading comrades were not easily compatible with the requirements of a Bolshevik organisation. In 1939, when it was decided to change Youth for Socialism (successor to Searchlight) from a duplicated to a printed paper, Healy resigned from the WIL because he, as the nominal publisher, had not been consulted. Later that year, after the outbreak of war, Healy joined the group established by the WIL in Ireland in anticipation of illegalisation. There, as a result of a clash over minor tactical issues, he again resigned, declaring that he would join the Irish Labour Party to fight our organisation, and for this he was expelled from the Irish group. Only after an intervention by Jock Haston, who was anxious not to lose Healys organisational talents, was the expulsion rescinded.
Healy was sent back to Britain where he worked energetically for the WIL. But in 1940, when he was working as WIL organiser in Scotland, he used his position to build up factional support for his attempts to reframe the WIL constitution on a federal rather than a centralised basis. Not only had he failed to inform the leadership of his differences beforehand, but when his actions were criticised Healy failed to put up any defence whatsoever, but instead launched into a slanderous and personal attack upon two of the leading comrades in the centre and resigned from the organisation.13 That political differences in a small organisation like the WIL should become entangled with personal animosity is understandable, but Healys behaviour does suggest that he was temperamentally ill-equipped for the responsibilities of revolutionary leadership.
Nevertheless, despite these signs of personal instability, Healys energy and organisational talents were evidently a considerable asset to this small group of Trotskyists as they fought to overcome their isolation from the working class and build a revolutionary cadre. Even Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson scarcely paid-up members of the Gerry Healy appreciation society recognise that Healy made a real contribution in this early period.14 Nor is there any evidence that Healy had carried the ultra-left, sectarian politics of Third Period Stalinism with him into the Trotskyist movement, as has sometimes been suggested.15 In late 1940, when a minority tendency emerged in the WIL, arguing for the downgrading of Labour Party entry work and for the building of an independent organisation concentrating on agitation in industry, Healy argued forcefully against this view. The Labour Party, he wrote, is historically the political expression of the Trade Union movement, and our fraction work must accordingly be carried out in both organisations if we are to win the maximum support for our position. Moreover, an examination of working-class struggle both here and on the Continent shows that such struggle always commences on the economic field, that is, in the unions, and leads on to the political field in which the masses of the people have been drawn in behind the Labour and Social Democratic parties.16
What did remain a hangover from his Stalinist past and this was to remain a feature of Healys politics to the day he died was a contemptuous attitude towards the democratic component of democratic centralism. When the WIL minority raised the further objection that the League was controlled by a clique, Healy responded by advocating the bureaucratic-centralist method of organisation proposed by Lenin in What Is To Be Done?, on the grounds that this was necessary to defend the WIL against an imminent crackdown by the state. We are entering a period of illegality, Healy asserted, when it will be necessary to handle certain aspects of our work very carefully.... All these functions can only be properly carried out by people who give their full time to it.... In effect, in periods of illegality they would be in complete control of the whole group apparatus.... At this juncture I can hear some comrades protesting that this means bureaucracy, that it is an anti-democratic tendency, etc. Precisely the same arguments were levelled at Lenin.17 The difference was, of course, that Lenin put forward his organisational proposals under conditions of extreme repression in early twentieth century Russia, where his organisation really was illegal. What went for the Bolshevik Party in times of Czarist reaction, ignorance and backwardness, a supporter of the minority pointed out in reply to Healy, is not necessarily an unalterable guide for us.18
Another issue that became the subject of heated dispute in the WIL was its adoption of the Fourth Internationals Proletarian Military Policy, which attempted to drive a wedge between the defensist sentiments of the working class and the war aims of the bourgeoisie by demanding military training under trade union control. When a minority headed by Jock Haston criticised the WILs interpretation of the military policy as capitulating to patriotic sentiments in the working class, by portraying the British bourgeoisie as defeatists and the Trotskyists as the true advocates of military victory over Hitler, Healy vigorously defended the WILs political line. Trotskyists, he wrote, told the working class that we are not against the defence of the country, only the capitalists are not fighting to defend the country but only for profit and loot. Look what happened in France, etc. The task of the revolutionary party is to expose the real aims of the capitalists to the workers. Our Military Policy offers them a positive alternative, which separates their aims from the bosses and assures their class independence, when it says to fight Hitler you must take control into your own hands. Britain must be your Britain and not the Britain of the coal, steel and iron kings.19
All of this was virtually a paraphrase of Trotskys writings on the subject, and showed that Healy had an ability to present Trotskyist politics in a popular agitational form. When he tried to develop his own independent positions, however, Healys touch was not so sure. His argument that the Home Guard was potentially an embryonic workers militia was particularly ill-conceived, and drew a sharp response from Haston, who pointed out that the Home Guard had been used on behalf of employers as armed strike breakers.20 Whatever else, Healys contribution to this controversy further demolishes attempts to portray his political deviations as consistently ultra-left.
With activity in the Labour Party generally at a low level due to the wartime electoral truce, and with the Labour League of Youth in which the WIL carried out most of its fraction work rendered moribund by conscription, the League soon came to concentrate on intervention in the trade unions. Healy now emerged as the most enthusiastic proponent of this turn to industry, and in the post of WIL industrial organiser he played an important role in recruiting a new layer of militant trade unionists to the organisation. Indeed, by 1942 he was arguing the case for the primacy of industrial work in much more extreme terms that had the WIL minority faction two years earlier. The workers will come to us on the basis of our industrial programme, he now asserted. From there they will be won over to our political position.21
Towards the end of 1942, Healy yet again came into conflict with the WIL leadership, this time over his campaign to build a rank-and-file organisation in the trade unions, in co-operation with the Independent Labour Party and the anarchists. Healy evidently believed that the scabby role played by the pro-war Communist Party during a big strike at the Tyneside shipyards in October 1942 opened up an opportunity for anti-Stalinist militants in the trade unions.22 At the end of that month he met ILP leaders Fenner Brockway and Walter Padley to propose joint activity in industry. The defence of militants against the union bureaucracy and the CP, Healy wrote to Brockway at the end of October, would lay the basis for providing a revolutionary alternative for the growing number of militants who are moving towards the left, disgusted with the policies of the trade union leaders and the Stalinists.23
At a Central Committee meeting in November, however, Healys proposal that the WIL should use the base it had established in the Royal Ordnance Factories to launch a new national shop stewards organisation was voted down. Ted Grant and Jock Haston argued cogently that such a development would arise when workers themselves had tested out their existing organisation and recognised the need for an alternative rank-and-file movement. It was therefore necessary first of all to pursue the fight through the official machinery of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, rather than set up a paper organisation along the lines that Healy advocated. Healys proposal that a small organisation like the WIL should try and substitute its own initiatives for a real movement within the working class was, Grant asserted, ultra-left.24
Despite his rebuff by the CC, Healy went ahead with his plans. The formation on his initiative of the Committee to Co-ordinate Militant Activity in the Trade Unions, which was essentially a bloc between the Industrial Committees of the WIL and the ILP, was no doubt seen by Healy as an important achievement. The committee met weekly, held a public meeting in London early in 1943 and declared itself a great step forward towards the unification of the revolutionary left inside the trade unions.25 It did at any rate have the effect of provoking the AEU bureaucracy into expelling two of the committees leading members, Healy himself and ILPer Don McGregor, from the union.26
But Healy was effectively acting in defiance of the decision at the November CC. The WIL leadership argued that, instead of the loose joint body to coordinate activity on specific issues authorised by the CC, Healys committee was conducting public activities at variance with our perspectives, and which is duplicating the activities and wasting the energies of our members.27 Matters came to a head at a Central Committee meeting in February 1943 when, at the conclusion of his industrial report, Healy announced that he was resigning from the WIL to join the ILP, stating that his decision was not motivated by political differences but his personal inability to continue further work in our organisation in conjunction with J. Haston, M. Lee and E. Grant.28 If Healy hoped by this ultimatum to force the leadership to endorse his industrial policy, the attempt badly misfired. The Central Committee voted unanimously for his expulsion, and the Political Bureau issued a statement denouncing him to the membership.
THE LACK of seriousness in Healys resignation from the WIL is demonstrated by the fact that he almost immediately withdrew it and applied for readmittance to the organisation. Fortunately for him, the leadership agreed to rescind his expulsion and restored him to membership. (We always brought him back, because he was a good organiser, Ted Grant later remarked regretfully, although that was not sufficient reason to bring him back.29) If Healy anticipated a speedy return to the leadership, however, he was to be disappointed. Not only did he lose his position as industrial organiser, but he was also removed from the Political Bureau, the Central Committee and the editorial board of the WIL paper, Socialist Appeal.30 Healys demotion was not without its adverse effect on the group in his absence, the WILs industrial work was reduced to a chaotic condition31 but the Political Bureau took the view that Healy would have to undergo a testing period in the ranks before again being allowed to hold positions of responsibility.32
It is against this background that Healys emergence as a spokesman for the Fourth International, and its demand that the WIL should submit to international discipline, must be evaluated. In 1938, it will be remembered, the WIL had refused to unite with the other British Trotskyist groups to form the Revolutionary Socialist League, and for this it was censured and denied recognition by the founding conference of the Fourth International. Whatever merits the WILs rejection of unification may have had at a national level and the Leagues record in the class struggle over the following years was far more impressive than that of the official section, the RSL it was undeniably an evasion of international responsibilities. After all, if political differences concerning national policy were to take precedence over the need to establish the world Trotskyist movement on democratic centralist foundations, this was effectively an argument against the very formation of the Fourth International.
The WILs position outside the International undermined its claim to be the true representative of Trotskyism in Britain, and was used against it by both the RSL and the Independent Labour Party. This unofficial status also weakened the effect of WIL propaganda against Stalins dissolution of the Comintern in 1943. Although the June issue of Socialist Appeal carried the headline The Third International is Buried! Long Live the Fourth International!, this rang a little hollow given the WILs exclusively national existence. But the WIL leaders had made only token efforts to discuss unity with the RSL, apparently in the hope that the WILs growing influence in the working class, in contrast to the stagnation and fragmentation of the official section, would eventually force the International to recognise the WIL.
Within the WIL, there had been no more rigid opponent of unification than Gerry Healy. He rejected discussions with the RSL as completely futile, and the only approach to the Fourth International he would countenance was that of demanding unconditional recognition for the WIL. For these reasons, Healy refused to serve on a delegation to meet the RSL leadership. Convinced that everything in the official section was rotten, he dismissed as a waste of time the WILs efforts to win over the Trotskyist Opposition, a faction in the RSL led by John Lawrence. And when Lou Cooper of the Socialist Workers Party (USA) wrote an open letter to the WIL in March 1943, sharply criticising its refusal to unite with the RSL under the discipline of the Fourth International, Healy not only objected to the letter being circulated among the membership, but even found an excuse to absent himself from a London aggregate called to discuss the question.33
In August 1943, however, Healy performed a characteristic political somersault. In a document entitled Our Most Important Task, followed up by a letter to the Political Bureau, he adopted Coopers arguments as the basis for a polemic against the WIL leadership.34 Healy now argued that discussions with the RSL had not been pursued seriously, but were intended only to convince the International Secretariat of the Fourth International that the WIL had done its best to achieve unity. This was Bronx (i.e. petty-bourgeois) politics, Healy asserted. As for the WILs claim that it implemented the Trotskyist programme more consistently than the RSL, Healy pointed out that programmatic agreement with the Fourth International was insufficient unless the WIL also accepted the Internationals organisational discipline. Nor was it enough to build a strong group in Britain if the WIL did not participate in the construction of the World Party of Socialist Revolution, with sections in every country. The question of becoming the official British section of the Fourth International, which could be accomplished only through fusion with the RSL, was the most important question facing the WIL, Healy insisted.
But at this stage he was far from appearing as the unequivocal upholder of international democratic centralism beloved of Healyite mythology.35 Healy did not dispute that James P. Cannon might have acted bureaucratically when unifying the British Trotskyists in 1938, and he defended the WILs decision at that time to defy the Fourth International by refusing to join the RSL. With worker members being demoralised by the petty-bourgeois politics of the RSL leaders, Healy wrote, it had been necessary to take a sharp stand if proletarian elements were to be trained and protected from this type of politics. But Healy claimed that this had been only a short-term expedient. He accused the WIL leadership of turning it into a permanent principle, and of ignoring the fact that now, when the WILs numbers would guarantee it an overwhelming majority in a fused organisation, the opportunity for unification should be seized.
In reply, the Political Bureau argued that the WILs opposition to the 1938 unity agreement was not a temporary manoeuvre, but rather a political stand against the right of a minority to follow its own policy against a majority decision. Although readily admitting to a lack of enthusiasm for unity with the RSL, they declared their willingness to undergo a merger in order to join the Fourth International. But what would Healy say, the Political Bureau asked, if the International Secretariat demanded fusion on the same basis as in 1938? One pictures his face, red with rage, when Stuart made such a proposal less than 12 months ago.36
Indeed, the suddenness of Healys political turnaround could only raise suspicions as to its opportunist nature. Charging Healy with dishonesty in blaming them for a policy which he himself had taken an active part in formulating, the Political Bureau drew the conclusion that his abrupt change of line was motivated by the realisation that his removal from the leadership was not likely to be reversed for some considerable time. As for Healys accusation of Bronx politics, this received a scathing response. The distinguishing features of the petty bourgeoisie, the Political Bureau reminded Healy, included lack of continuity, impressionism and eclecticism, denial of and contradiction of all they swore by yesterday.... Need we hang a label around our critics neck?37
The WIL leaders arguments carried more weight than Healys new-found principles with the members, and although Healy established a solid base in his own South West London branch, elsewhere his support was restricted to Hilda Pratt and Ben Elsbury in East London and Bob and Mickie Shaw in West London,38 Healy was the only member of this group to be delegated to the WIL conference in October 1943. There his lack of political credibility among the WIL membership was demonstrated by his failure to gain any support for a South West London amendment to the resolution on international affiliation. The amendment, which proposed that the WIL should unite with the RSL on terms decided by the IS, had to be formally seconded for purposes of discussion, and received only one vote Healys own!39
However, the picture of Healy leading a bitter struggle for a united British section of the Fourth International against the intense opposition of the WIL leadership40 is just another Healyite myth. Shortly after the conference, a letter was received from the IS containing a series of proposals for unification, which included acceptance of the principle that the policies of the fused organisation would be determined on a democratic centralist basis, by majority vote at conference.41 This removed the major obstacle to fusion, and the WIL Central Committee immediately passed a resolution agreeing to unification with the RSL on those terms, thereby striking Healys main factional weapon from his hands.
Healys reaction was to shift his political ground yet again. Aligning himself firmly now with the IS, he declared that the WIL had been wrong to reject the 1938 unity agreement, and he demanded that the Leagues leaders should admit to their error and re-educate the membership on this basis.42 The Healy groups campaign was thus reduced to condemning the way in which fusion was being prepared by the WIL. While their identification of a nationalist element in the WIL leaders attitude to the Fourth International was not without foundation,43 this scarcely constituted an adequate political platform on which to organise a faction in opposition to the elected leadership, and in January 1944 the Central Committee not unreasonably refused minority rights to Healy and his supporters on these grounds.44
At the fusion conference of March 1944, which established the Revolutionary Communist Party as the new British section of the Fourth International, Healys minority still had not acquired any programmatic differences with the WIL leadership. On all the main issues debated at the conference the open party versus entry work, the Proletarian Military Policy, industrial strategy Healy and his supporters were in complete agreement with the WILs policies. Nevertheless, at the end of the conference, Healys group and the pro-IS Lawrence faction from the RSL (with whom Healy had been collaborating for some months) met with the Internationals representative, Sherry Mangan of the SWP, to discuss their future tactics in the RCP.45
If the Fourth International had acted responsibly towards the new party, it would have made every effort to work in co-operation with Jock Haston, Ted Grant and the other RCP leaders, building on their very real strengths and fighting to overcome their weaknesses in the course of joint political activity. Instead the IS (and the SWP on which it was then dependent) wrote off the British leadership as a nationalist clique, and set up their own faction in the party. It was a faction with no political basis other than loyalty to the international leadership, and headed by a man Gerry Healy whose transparently personal motives for opposing Haston and Grant must have severely damaged the confidence of the RCP rank and file in an International which saw fit to use him as its agent.
The events of 1943-44 were clearly crucial to the rise of Gerry Healy. At the beginning of this period he was in disgrace, reduced to the ranks for political indiscipline; at the end of it, he had been elevated to the position of the Fourth Internationals key man in Britain. By boosting Healys political fortunes in this way, it must be said, the IS/SWP showed serious political misjudgement. If Healy was to have made a positive contribution to the future of the Trotskyist movement, it could only have been as a member, and under the control, of a collective party leadership. Yet he was now given a free rein, beneath the banner of internationalism, to pursue a factional struggle against the RCP leaders. Over the following years, the endless unprincipled manoeuvring of Healys internationalist minority was to have a thoroughly destructive effect on the Fourth Internationals British section.
1. Marxist Monthly, February 1990.
2. Information from Arthur Shute, a contemporary of Healy in the Westminster CP who also broke with Stalinism and went over to the Trotskyists.
3. S. Bornstein and A. Richardson, Against the Stream, 1986, p.275.
4. C. Lotz and P. Feldman, Gerry Healy: A Revolutionary Life, 1994, p.345, emphasis added.
5. Marxist Monthly, February 1990.
6. The Marxist, December 1990/January 1991.
7. Information from John Archer.
8. J. and M. Archer, Some notes on Healys early years in the Trotskyist movement, Healys Big Lie, 1976, p.30.
9. Bornstein and Richardson, p.275.
10. S. Bornstein and A. Richardson, War and the International, 1986, pp.3-5.
11. Documents of the Fourth International, 1973, p.270.
12. WIL internal bulletin, 11 September 1943.
13. WIL internal document, February 1943.
14. Bornstein and Richardson, War and the International, p.7.
15. J. Hansen, ed., Marxism versus Ultraleftism, 1974, pp.62-3.
16. WIL internal document, n.d., but probably autumn 1940.
18. WIL internal document, 26 October 1940.
19. WIL internal bulletin, 19 May 1941.
20. WIL internal document 21 April 1941.
21. WIL Central Committee, 7 November 1942, minutes.
22. For the Tyneside strike, see S. Bornstein and A. Richardson, Two Steps Back, 1982, pp.105-6. It was at last possible, in the form of the Tyneside strike, ILP Industrial Committee member Bill Hunter wrote, for fifty thousand strikers themselves, and the masses throughout the country, to experience the policy of the Communist Party for precisely what it is: a policy of class-collaboration (Free Expression, October 1942).
23. Industrial Organisers report, 4 November 1942, WIL internal document.
24. WIL Central Committee, 7 November 1942, minutes. Two years before he died, Healy attacked Haston and Grant for having argued that a rank-and-file movement in the trade unions should be placed officially under the control of the pro-war Executive Council of the AEU (Lotz and Feldman, Gerry Healy, p.345).
25. New Leader, 27 February 1943.
26. AEU, Report of Proceedings of 24th Final Appeal Court, 1944, pp.43-5. While McGregors expulsion was reversed on appeal, Healys was confirmed on the grounds that he had made a false application in order to gain membership of the craft section of the AEU. (I am grateful to Al Richardson for this reference.)
27. Resolution adopted by Political Bureau and Industrial Committee, 14 February 1943, WIL internal document.
28. Statement of the Political Bureau on the expulsion from WIL of G. Healy at the Central Committee meeting of February 7 1942, WIL internal document.
29. Ted Grant, interviewed by Sam Bornstein, 22 August 1982. Transcript in Socialist Platform library.
30. Bornstein and Richardson, War and the International, p.101.
31. WIL industrial bulletin, May 1943.
32. WIL internal bulletin, 2 September 1943.
33. According to an account by the Political Bureau (WIL internal bulletin, 2 September 1943). This makes nonsense of Healys later claim that he rejoined the WIL specifically to fight for affiliation to the FI: see Lotz and Feldman, Gerry Healy, p.346.
34. WIL internal bulletin, 10 August 1943; G. Healy, letter to Political Bureau, 25 August 1943.
35. Cf. D. North, Gerry Healy and His Place in the History of the Fourth International, 1991, p.11.
36. Stuart was Sam Gordon of the SWP, the Fourth Internationals liaison man with the British Trotskyists.
37. WIL internal bulletin, 2 September 1943.
38. Based on signatories to WIL minority statement, 12 December 1943.
39. Bornstein and Richardson, War and the International, p.103; WIL Central Committee meeting, 15-16 January 1944, Report; M. Shaw, Fighter for Trotskyism, 1983, p.205.
40. North, p.12.
41. International Secretariat, letter to WIL, 3 October 1943.
42. WIL minority, political statement on reunification, December 1943.
43. For example, the Political Bureaus reference to the democratic centralist structure of the International as merely a formal connection (Bornstein and Richardson, War and the International, p.100). This attitude, the Healy minority pointed out, encouraged WIL members to look upon affiliation to the Fourth International as the acquirement of a "label" and not at all as the responsibilities of Bolsheviks towards a Bolshevik organisation.
44. Bornstein and Richardson, War and the International, p.103.
45. Ibid., pp.107-10.