Source: Keith Gilbert and David Howell (eds), Dictionary of Labour Biography, Volume 12, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2005, copyright (c) Professor John McIlroy. Reproduced here with the permission of Professor John McIlroy. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.
Gerry Healy was born in Ballybane, County Galway, Ireland on 3 December 1913. His parents, Michael and Margaret Mary Healy, eked out a living as small farmers on the bleak west coast. His hard early years, his father’s desertion and his Catholic education marked him for life. When he was 14 he went to England with his sister and subsequently he became a seaman. His sister’s early death from tuberculosis led him to break with his past and around 1931 he joined the Young Communist League (YCL). His much publicised recollections of his father’s death at the hands of the Black and Tans, of acting as a Comintern courier and quitting the Communist Party (CPGB) after disputation with Harry Pollitt over the USSR’s role in Spain, have left no trace on the historical record. In a near-contemporary comment and letter, he states only that he had been a member of the YCL, that he had spent ‘several years in the CP’ and that his political development was ‘amateurish’ (Archer Papers, Militant Group Aggregate, 14 November 1937; MRC, Deane Papers, A41(11), Healy to J Deane, nd ).
Healy first enters history in 1936 as a member of the Westminster branch of the CPGB. The following year he was recruited by Jock Haston, who exercised a lasting influence on him, into the Militant Group, one of Britain’s three small Trotskyist organisations. In August 1937, nominated by Denzil Harber and seconded by John Archer, Healy became a member of the group’s Paddington branch. He was soon known for that combination of organisational energy and theoretical naïveté that would endure throughout his career, and he quickly experienced the first of the numerous splits that would stud his political trajectory. In the face of unsubstantiated allegations about his misappropriation of trade-union funds in his native South Africa, Ralph Lee led his supporters out of the Militant Group to establish the Workers’ International League (WIL). Healy joined the new organisation and endorsed its decision to remain outside the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL), the newly-unified Trotskyist organisation, and thus outside the Fourth International, founded in September 1938.
The WIL had only 50 members before the 1939-45 war. But its emphasis on activism, going directly to the workers and breaking with the propagandist traditions of earlier Trotskyist organisations, as well as the opportunities small-group politics offered, appealed strongly to Healy. He was a firm supporter of the WIL’s attempt to combine Labour Party entrism with work in the trade unions. And he approved of its increasing emphasis on the latter as Labour Party activism declined during the war. He was successively editor of the group’s duplicated journal, Searchlight, and the more sophisticated Youth for Socialism, and was briefly National Organiser and later Industrial Organiser.
In the late 1930s temporary work setting up advertisement displays, punctuated by periods of unemployment, enabled him to travel. His success in winning recruits to the WIL in Liverpool and Scotland was appreciated. But the same could not be said of his domineering, choleric temperament and self-centred Manichean view of the world, which were already observable by those who knew him in the 1930s. From the start Healy’s conspiratorial approach was far from comradely. As early as 1937 he was raising the question of police informers in the Trotskyist movement. He called the RSL, the WIL’s opposition, ‘swine... agents of the lowest order... a bastard organisation’. His competitor as the organising dynamo of the WIL, Millie Lee, was ‘a little intriguer... Jock licks her boots’. His puritanical fury at her liaison with Jock Haston contrasted with his own future tendencies; his use of the issue inside the group was indicative of his future methods (MRC, A40 (47), Healy to Deane, nd ; A41(2), Healy to Deane, nd [January 1941]).
No match politically for the WIL’s leaders – Haston, Lee, Andrew Scott and Ted Grant – and temperamentally incapable of working collectively with them, Healy was drawn to conflict and factionalism. When a section of the WIL leadership moved to Dublin in 1939 to avoid possible state suppression, Healy quarrelled with his comrades and was sent back to London. In 1940 he was removed as National Organiser for engaging in factional activity aimed at changing the group’s constitution. The following year, in his only alliance with Ted Grant, he attempted to organise young members of the WIL against Haston, who argued that the group’s line on the war, with its demands for workers’ self-organisation in the Army and Home Guard, was making concessions to patriotism. His early attempts at opposition were compromised by a series of impulsive resignations. In February 1943 he forfeited most of his credibility when he threatened to resign and join the ILP in the midst of a dispute over the establishment of a national rank-and-file movement. He was expelled from the WIL. Although he was later readmitted, he was excluded from its leading committees.
On 13 December 1941 Healy married Betty Russell, the 25-year-old daughter of a South London estate agent. Betty, who was working as a shorthand typist in the Ministry of Aircraft Production, had been expelled from the CPGB a year earlier because of differences over the war. She subsequently joined the WIL and acted as a leader of its fraction work in the ILP. During the war, Healy worked at the Hoover factory in Tottenham and the Park Royal Coachworks, part of the London Aircraft Production Consortium, as well as training briefly as a draughtsman. He was active in the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU). Surveillance reports from CPGB informants in the Trotskyist movement convincingly described him as: ‘An extreme individualist... Very vain, hot-headed and touchy... Good demagogic speaker... Has considerable personal following.’ (CP/CENT/ORG/12/1, NMLH)
The last comment was somewhat exaggerated. Healy, smarting at his demotion in the WIL, became in Haston’s words ‘a professional oppositionalist’. He was adept at exploiting the grievances and inexperience of those who were disaffected with the organisation. But he was distrusted by the majority and found it difficult to discover a compelling issue, given the WIL’s relative success in wartime conditions (A43(50), F Ward to Deane, 4 February 1943; A43(165), Haston to Deane, 11 November 1943). Hitherto a critic of James P Cannon, the leader of the American Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) which anchored the Fourth International, Healy now executed a volte face. He latched on to the International’s demand that the WIL reverse its ‘nationalist deviation’ of 1938 and fuse with the British section, the RSL, a demand he had long opposed. However in September 1943 the International accepted that the policy of a fused organisation would be decided by majority vote. This ensured the dominance of the WIL, whose membership now approached 400 and far exceeded that of the RSL. Healy was once more a factionalist without a platform.
The International leadership and Cannon’s man in Britain, the Time magazine correspondent Sherry Mangan, were determined to install leaders of their own choice in the new, 500-strong Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), launched in March 1944 as a result of the fusion of the two main Trotskyist groups, the WIL and the RSL. Cannon’s original pretender, John Lawrence, leader of the SWP-supported group in the RSL, preferred a full-time party post in Wales. The leadership of the Fourth International turned to Healy. They sponsored him to head a minority faction inside the RCP that challenged the policies of the party’s General Secretary, Jock Haston. For the next 15 years Healy’s enthusiasm for American popular music and films, as well as American Trotskyist literature, was complemented by hero-worship of Cannon – an Irish-American from Rosedale, Kansas, and veteran of the International Workers of the World and the Communist Party – and pedestrian emulation of his persona, politics, platform manner and writing style.
The RCP was initially largely united in predicting an impending capitalist collapse, revolutionary opportunity and thus the need for an open party. Postwar realities prompted rethinking. The Trotskyist movement worldwide was divided into those who attempted to comprehend economic and political change and those who clung to Trotsky’s catastrophic prewar predictions. Mentored by Cannon, Healy was conspicuously in the latter camp. As British capitalism revived, he claimed that it was hurtling towards oblivion. As the Labour government nationalised basic industries, he insisted that reforms were impossible. The coming cataclysm, he argued after a brief flirtation with the ILP, necessitated total entry into the Labour Party. There was no time to build an open party. The workers were turning to Labour in search of revolutionary solutions and a fermenting Labour left wing was already reaching beyond reformism.
Healy was backed not only by the SWP but also by the leaders of the International in Paris, Michel Pablo and Ernest Mandel, who brushed aside the arguments of the RCP leadership. The latter argued that capitalism was moving into a temporary boom, that the workers supported Labour’s reforms and that no organised left, still less a revolutionary current, was emerging in the constituencies. When the British leadership resisted the demand for total entry, Cannon and Pablo determined to remove it. In September 1947 the International leadership split the RCP, recognised two British sections and blessed the minority’s entry into the Labour Party.
Healy’s organisational acumen now came into its own. Using contacts made by members of the entrist organisation, ‘the Club’, inside the London Labour Party, he convinced Jack Stanley (General Secretary of the Constructional Engineering Union) and subsequently Tom Braddock (MP for Mitcham) to put money into the Labour Publishing Society, and later into a printing company, John Stafford Thomas, which from December 1948 brought out an entrist paper, Socialist Outlook. This was edited by Lawrence, who had belatedly joined the minority, and appeared first as a monthly then as a fortnightly. It drew on contributions from left-wing MPs such as Ronald Chamberlain, Harold Davies and Ellis Smith, and less frequently from Bessie Braddock, SO Davies, well-known party activists such as Fenner Brockway and Frank Allaun, and prominent trade unionists such as Jim Figgins, Bernard Dix and Ernie Roberts.
Further cover for the Club was provided by the Socialist Fellowship, which was launched by Ellis Smith MP, its first President, in June 1949. With Healy’s supporter Fred Emmett as Secretary, Braddock as Vice-President and Lawrence on its Executive, the Club animated Socialist Fellowship groups in the constituencies. But Socialist Outlook’s support for the Soviet Bloc in the Korean War ensured that most left-wing MPs and erstwhile supporters kept their distance. The Socialist Fellowship was now heavily dominated by Trotskyists and their presence and influence were more obvious. It was banned by the Labour Party Executive in April 1951, although Socialist Outlook initially escaped proscription.
The RCP collapsed in June 1949, squeezed out by the successes of Labour in Britain, Stalinism in Eastern Europe and China, and the CPGB’s Cold War left turn on the industrial front. Healy became the acknowledged leader of British Trotskyism. The 150 or so remaining RCP members were instructed to join the Club and enter the Labour Party. They outnumbered Healy’s supporters. But an atmosphere of triumphalism, intimidation and disdain for dissent among Club members, as well as demoralisation on the part of the newcomers, ensured that within months only a handful of the latter remained. The rest of the supporters of the RCP leadership retired from revolutionary politics or laid the foundations for the groups led by Tony Cliff and Ted Grant. Socialist Outlook developed as a deep entry paper. Its analysis was underpinned by predictions of economic catastrophe and world war. Centrally, it embraced the ‘two camps’ theory of the Cominform. In the decisive struggle between imperialism and Stalinism, it stood critically with the Soviet bloc, although the criticism was muted and oracular. This was sometimes justified by deference to Braddock and Stanley, who were to varying degrees idiosyncratic fellow-travellers of Stalinism. The attempt to ‘clarify’ Bevanism sometimes produced the optimistic verdict that this current was oscillating between reform and revolution: if pushed hard enough, Bevan and his followers would create socialism through parliamentary means. This in turn was justified by the need to talk the language of the left-wing constituency activist.
The irony was that the Club was now attempting to create the centrist current on whose prior existence its entry had originally been predicated. It attained influence in only a handful of constituencies and areas: St Pancras, Norwood, Streatham, Leeds and Salford. It had a vocal presence in Birmingham, Exeter, Leicester, Nottingham and Edinburgh. From 1948, Labour Party conferences were enlivened by the colourful contributions of Trotskyist delegates, whose numbers could run into double figures. Healy’s defence of Konni Zilliacus at the 1949 conference was particularly effective. But there were clear limits: Healy and Lawrence were both refused endorsement as parliamentary candidates. Only Karl Westwood at Richmond, Surrey, in 1950 and John Archer at Scarborough and Whitby in 1955 stood in general elections in the Labour and, surreptitiously, Trotskyist interest; the most the Club ever had in local government was nine Labour councillors.
With fewer than 100 members, this still represented a tremendous achievement. But nationally it was a drop in the ocean, attained by hyperactivity spurred on by the perceived imminence of a capitalist crisis, a practice that restricted recruitment. Although he described himself variously as a ‘journalist’ or ‘commercial agent’, from the late 1940s Healy was a full-time politician, paid by his members and the SWP. Directing operations from his home at 77 Sternhold Avenue, Streatham, he was immersed not only in the business and political affairs of the Club, but also in a wide range of time-consuming labour movement activities. He was Chair of the Streatham constituency party and his ward party, the constituency’s election agent in 1950 and 1951, a council candidate and a delegate to the party conference in 1949-51, as well as campaigning for adoption as a parliamentary candidate and playing an organisational role in the AEU. However in the spring of 1953 he was forced with the utmost reluctance to turn his attention to wider political horizons.
From 1950 both Healy and Cannon had accepted almost without question Pablo’s theorising of a coming war between the two camps, a war that, in conjunction with growing radicalism in the colonial world, would erupt into revolutions led by the Stalinist parties. They would produce societies in transition from capitalism to socialism, lasting for several centuries. At the World Congress of the Fourth International in August 1951, Healy had voted for this perspective. Given the strength of the Labour Party in Britain he had not had to confront its practical, for some unpalatable, implications: in countries with strong Communist parties, Trotskyists should enter them. When in 1952 Pablo had suspended the leadership of the French section for refusing to endorse this tactic, he had had Healy’s active support. Problems had only arisen when a group of Pablo’s American supporters, led by Bert Cochran and George Clarke, had taken issue with Cannon in the SWP.
Since the war, Healy had happily served two masters, Cannon and Pablo, while retaining practical autonomy on his own turf. Until 1953 he had been a Pabloite. Now he was faced with an unpleasant choice. Impelled by organisational considerations, Cannon confronted Pabloism which – he suddenly discovered – undermined the raison d'être for Trotskyist parties, except as cheerleaders for hitherto counter-revolutionary Stalinism. Under pressure Healy attempted prevarication and conciliation, registering no objections to Pablo’s document, The Rise and Fall of Stalinism, despite an understanding with the Americans that he would do so. He wanted to avoid a split. He openly sided with the SWP only when Pablo’s determination and sponsorship of an alternative leadership around Lawrence became threatening. His attitude towards Pablo passed in a few weeks from respect and liking to ‘physical revulsion’. His more intense and longstanding political, financial and personal dependence on Cannon won the day.
A messy factional fight followed. Lawrence and his supporters were expelled from the Club. Healy, who wanted an emergency World Congress to be held, was swept along by the SWP’s insistence on a split and the formation of a new International Committee of the Fourth International. Any clarification of the political issues was prevented by Healy’s bitter struggle with Lawrence and Braddock over ownership of the printing and publishing operation. Healy gained control of the paper and the printing press but his victory was pyrrhic. The affair had attracted unwelcome attention and Socialist Outlook was proscribed. Bevan, seconded by Richard Crossman, unsuccessfully moved the reference back of this decision at the Labour Party National Executive in July 1954. Despite widespread support from the Labour left and protests from 119 constituency parties, it ceased publication after the reference back of the Executive’s decision – moved with passion by Jennie Lee – was defeated by 4,474,000 votes to 1,596,000 at the 1954 Labour Party conference. The consequent expulsions from the party were largely limited to London. But divested of half its members, who had gone with Pablo, the Club was reduced to competing with Lawrence in writing for the Tribune and selling it.
Healy’s one success in this barren period lay in the trade-union field. Around 1950 the Club recruited a number of influential dockers in London and Merseyside, and established a rank-and-file paper, The Portworkers’ Clarion. Resentment against the Transport and General Workers Union and a desire to break away from it was strong in the Northern ports. Healy now provided leadership and organisation for the initiatives on Humberside and Merseyside, which resulted in thousands of dockers leaving the TGWU in the autumn of 1954 to join the National Amalgamated Stevedores and Dockers. His relations with the far from radical NASD leaders under Dickie Barratt were close and he even spoke at mass meetings of ‘the blue union’. His ambition to take the struggle of Bevanism into the industrial wing of the movement – the TGWU leaders under Arthur Deakin were amongst the Labour Party left’s most strident opponents – ignored hard facts, particularly the power that the TGWU wielded in the TUC and the latter’s visceral opposition to breakaways. The Trotskyists gained important positions in the NASD in Birkenhead, Liverpool and Manchester and played a significant role in developing the union’s strategy. But the result was a debacle. After the defeat of the NASD’s strike for recognition in May 1955, the union’s leaders broke with Healy. They subsequently attempted to return their new recruits to the TGWU, which even before the election of Frank Cousins as General Secretary in May 1956 was moving to the left. Among the results of the exercise were non-unionism on Merseyside, protracted litigation and the weakening of Healy’s base in the ports.
In contrast, the events of 1956, Khrushchev’s Secret Speech to the Twentieth Congress of the Russian Communist Party, the Soviet invasion of Hungary, and the consequent turmoil in the CPGB marked Healy’s finest hour. Backed by a new printing press and plates of Trotsky’s writings provided by the SWP, Healy travelled the country to hold intense and often convincing discussions with ex-CPGBers and dissident members. An early and indispensable collaborator was Peter Fryer, who had been the Daily Worker’s correspondent in Budapest. Fryer typified many of those who, disillusioned with Stalinism, had turned to the Trotskyists in search of a purer Leninism.
Together with Fryer, Healy intervened in the April 1957 CPGB Special Congress, producing a daily bulletin that became the Newsletter, edited by Fryer. It had a significant influence in the socialist forums that had been organised to discuss the crisis of ‘official communism’. For many, Healy’s critique of Stalinism was compelling. His attitude at that time was restrained, constructive, almost exemplary: ‘This is the season for reading books, not burning them... Let us have no label-sticking in advance... Let us get rid of demagogy. Don’t put anybody on a pedestal. Read and study. Examine every point of view.’ (Newsletter, 10 May 1957) The Labour Review, which Healy had produced infrequently in the early 1950s, was relaunched as a discussion journal and the result in terms of recruitment was impressive. Some 200 former CPGB members replenished the ranks of the Group, as the entrist organisation was now called.
It could not last, and Healy’s fundamentalism and impatience soon reasserted itself. The decline of Bevanism, the sobering aftermath of Labour’s second successive general election reverse in 1955 and the advent of Gaitskell as party leader intensified the unfavourable climate for Trotskyist permeation of the Labour left. On the other hand, a small increase in industrial action affirmed for Healy the possibility of economic cataclysm and revolution. The 1958 strike at the Shell-Mex site on London’s South Bank, in which the Group’s leading trade unionist, the experienced ex-CPGB activist Brian Behan, played a central role, paved the way for an impressive national rank-and-file conference, with some 500 delegates. Healy’s new delusions of grandeur were accompanied by demands from former CPGB militants for an open party that could relate directly to union activists, and by increased pressure from the Labour Party, with calls for the National Executive to investigate Healy’s activities in Streatham.
In February 1959 he formed the Socialist Labour League (SLL), an open organisation that grandiosely demanded the right to affiliate to the Labour Party. The consequences were predictable. The SLL and its newly-adopted paper, the Newsletter, were proscribed by the Labour Party Executive and experienced Trotskyists who had spent a decade building a presence in the Labour Party were unceremoniously bundled out. When the Streatham party refused to exclude Healy it was dissolved and reorganised. He received the news of his expulsion in a personal letter from Labour’s General Secretary, Morgan Phillips, in late 1959.
Healy railed against the Labour Party’s lack of democracy and its intolerance. Inside the SLL he replicated the expulsions. A dogmatist who was incapable of sustained, creative political thinking, he was now faced with people with minds of their own. While he sometimes showed surprising awareness of his own shortcomings as a political thinker and his reliance on others for political ideas – for many years he continued to take advice from his erstwhile bitter antagonist, Jock Haston – he was not prepared to allow parvenus to challenge his hard-won grip on the organisation. When challenged his vulnerability made him go for the jugular. If the primitive politics of eternal crisis could not ensure domination, Healy could draw on the administrative methods and personal manoeuvrings that were by now second nature to him. Between 1959 and 1961 Fryer, the translator and historian Brian Pearce, ‘the Stamford Faction’ which included CND pioneer Peter Cadogan, Ken Coates, the educationalist John Daniels, the faction led by Brian Behan incongruously supported by the philosopher Alasdair McIntyre, the group around the old Club member Bob Pennington and the brain surgeon Chris Pallis were all expelled.
The SLL emerged as a sect in which Healy was ascendant. Peter Fryer observed at the time that the SLL demonstrated ‘the rule of a clique, the General Secretary’s personal clique’. He noted that Healy ‘will not tolerate free discussion any more than John Gollan’. He remarked on Healy’s growing obsession with infiltration by the security services, which was used to justify his personal control and methods and was bred of lack of political confidence, and on his slandering and attempts to isolate those whom he saw as a threat: ‘I have enough on Pennington to get him sent down for seven years... [He] could be a police agent... Behan is a primitive Irish peasant... he is trying to take over... A is quite mad – he beats his wife.’ (Fryer, 1959, 11-12) Celia Behan criticised Healy’s ownership of the SLL’s assets and documented the growth of spy mania, threats of physical assault and Healy’s rages. There was ‘a whole hour during which Cde Healy shouted and raved... he kicked the wall and banged on it with his fist. He said I had no right to criticise him, that he had been 30 years in the movement.’ (Behan, 1960, 9)
In his relations with his members, Healy was capable of blending insight and understanding with bullying and intimidation. He was capable of circumscribing his crisis-mongering, as he did in his fight with Behan. There were minor achievements. The rank-and-file conference was followed by a National Assembly of Labour, which was less successful but still attracted prominent militants. Healy organised opposition to racist attacks on black workers in London and recruited a small group of Nigerians and black steelworkers. Initially he was able to take advantage of the CPGB’s opposition to unilateralism and the resolution on nuclear disarmament moved by Vivienne Mendelson at the 1957 conference, which had galvanised debate in the Labour Party, although the energy with which supporters sloganised ‘Ban the Bomb! Black the Bases’ was handicapped by Healy’s critical support of the Russian ‘Workers’ Bomb’.
In essence the theoretically impoverished SLL became the bearer of a messianic politics of anger and consolation in the face of revitalised capitalism, improved living standards, a debilitated left and the ideological weakness of orthodox Trotskyism. The fundamental problem that produced sectarianism and isolation was the contradiction between capitalist stability and active revolutionary politics. In boom-time Britain the SLL was sustained by the unevenness of prosperity, the lure that ‘apocalypse tomorrow’ briefly held for a small minority of young people, hyperactivity, temporary and relatively successful projects, the demonising of all competing left-wing tendencies, and the dependency on Healy of key activists who identified him as the only person capable of organising the members, raising funds and keeping the operation afloat. However, some claimed that ‘Healy’s heart... is not in socialism at all; but in his print-shop which he loves as a peasant lusts for land’ (Cadogan, 1960).
In the early 1960s his main concerns were work with young people and changing international alignments. The SLL’s membership, recorded as 600 at its foundation, had quickly halved. The launch of the resurrected Labour Party youth section changed matters. Healy’s supporters in the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS), organised around the paper Keep Left, brought a stream of recruits into the League. By 1963 the SLL controlled the LPYS Executive and its membership was heading towards the thousand mark. The new members were largely inexperienced workers who had been attracted to Keep Left by its socials, dances, football matches and demonstrations, its doomsday economics and its raw, rebellious élan. As the Labour leadership took counter-measures, Healy repeated his experience with the adult party, pulling out his supporters and establishing his own Young Socialists.
This final withdrawal from the Labour Party bolstered the SLL’s world of toy-town Bolshevism and its burn-out routines of countless meetings, serial demonstrations, relentless paper selling, remorseless recruitment targets and revivalist summer camps. The stern prohibition on joint initiatives, even fraternisation, with other political groups to avoid ‘contamination’ strengthened the SLL’s isolation from working-class institutions. This was reinforced by growing international seclusion. Since 1953 the International Committee of the Fourth International had marked time. There had been only one World Congress, held in Leeds in 1958. The approach had essentially been one of federalism and peaceful coexistence. Initially this had suited Healy and Cannon, as well as the French leader, Pierre Lambert: it had left each of them relatively unimpeded in their own national zone of influence. When the Committee had made some progress, as in Latin America, Healy had demonstrated little interest, failing to reply to correspondence or correctly remembering the names of Trotskyist caudillos in the faraway Andes.
Despite his persistent protestations of internationalism, Healy was politically Anglocentric and personally had little time for foreigners. But in New York internationalism was stirring. The discussions on unity between the Mandel-Pablo Fourth International and the SWP posed a new, if small, threat to his control of British Trotskyism. Disdaining unity with the tiny group of British ‘Pabloites’ and conquering his personal anxiety about a breach with the Americans, he did his best to derail the move for reconciliation. When the two organisations came together in 1963 to form the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, Healy was left out in the cold, with only the French and Hungarian sections for comfort. He demonised the new International and his imprecations against ‘Pabloite revisionism’ intensified as the years went by. Cannon washed his hands of Healy, and Healy became an even more coarse caricature of Cannon.
There were two consolations: a new headquarters in Clapham High Street and a new printing plant. The Healy who confronted the Wilson administration with the advice to ‘bring down the Labour government’ was becoming a distinctive, even mythic figure, familiar – if only by repute – to generations of labour movement activists. Five foot five inches tall, squat, bald and with the countenance and temperament of a bulldog, he glared suspiciously at a hostile world through black-rimmed glasses with what Brian Behan termed ‘the little sore eyes of a new-born pig’. He worked an 18-hour day and travelled over 1000 miles a week to supervise all aspects of his organisation. He devoured cakes and spy stories and his consumption of drink increased. Betty Healy, fully engaged in bringing up two children, was no longer politically active and the marriage was not happy. These years of the Young Socialists saw the growth of the sexual predatoriness that would finally bring about his downfall.
Politically, Healy produced old wine in new bottles. He fed his members on a diet of dogma – the SLL embodied the one true faith. As the economic boom peaked, Healy saw only impending slump, the death of reformism and the ripening of a pre-revolutionary situation. The SLL put forward the slogan, ‘Make the left MPs fight!’, but it had nobody left in the Labour Party to attempt the task. It boycotted the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign once it was clear that it would not be allowed to use it simply as a vehicle to denounce Stalinism. It distributed a leaflet at the October 1968 Grosvenor Square demonstration, explaining ‘Why the Socialist Labour League is not marching’. Walled off from new developments, the SLL ended the decade in internal triumph and splendid isolation. In 1969 the Workers Press, ‘the world’s first Trotskyist daily paper’, was unveiled. The SLL’s split with its French co-thinkers in 1971 – overtly over the revolutionary programme, the need to rebuild the Fourth International and the role of the Trotskyists in Bolivia, but fundamentally over the refusal by Healy and Lambert to qualify their autonomy – reduced Healy’s International Committee to a rump.
But he still had what were, or at least in the world of small-group politics, important successes. These were achieved by painstaking personal investment and brought in recruits who related to the General Secretary rather than the SLL. From 1967 he built a showcase industrial branch in the Cowley Assembly Plant of the British Motor Corporation (later British Leyland) in Oxford. This was based on a group of leading convenors and shop stewards politically nurtured by Healy and constituted an important bridgehead into industrial struggles. The following year the classes he conducted for actors, writers, producers and directors began to bear fruit. The classes were a tribute to Healy’s skills as propagandist, showman and exploiter of middle-class insecurities, and produced a flow of recruits and hard cash, plus entrée into Equity and the Association of Cinematograph, Television and Allied Technicians. Encouraged by the writer Jim Allen, a Club member in the 1950s, significant figures in the entertainment industry, including Stuart Hood, Tony Garnett, Ken Loach, David Mercer, Frances De La Tour and Corin Redgrave, entered the orbit of Healyism.
As Trotsky remarked, a clock that has stopped is still right twice a day. The waning of the economic boom and growing militancy in Britain suggested that at long last, at the eleventh hour, a recalcitrant world and its workers were aligning themselves with Healy’s persistent vision. Inspired by the collapse of the Bretton Woods agreement, international monetary problems and the big strikes of 1972, in November 1973 Healy transformed the SLL into the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP). For its leaders, the struggle for power now seemed to be firmly on the agenda. But the new organisation was far from a party. Although the WRP claimed 7000 adherents, the majority were paper members, activated only for the rallies, pageants and pop concerts that became a hallmark of the organisation. The life of real activists was dominated by the incessant demands of selling the daily paper, signing up new recruits, raising cash and organising party events. The WRP’s leverage in the labour movement was negligible. Its lack of political influence was illustrated by the derisory votes accorded its candidates in the 1974 and 1979 general elections. Its membership was increasingly middle class, as personified by the actress Vanessa Redgrave, who joined the party in 1973 and attributed all her subsequent political and artistic growth to Healy’s influence.
The WRP’s trade-union arm, the All Trade Unions Alliance, was little more than a party front. Healy’s national following in the unions was marginal, albeit highly visible and strident. In 1974 the WRP received a blow from which it never recovered when the Oxford car-workers, led by Alan Thornett, were expelled. In this dispute the issue of the WRP’s undemocratic internal regime was intertwined with criticism of the consequences of Healy’s intoxication with the oil crisis and his prognostication of a military dictatorship or ‘socialism now’. Finding this approach impossible to apply in the unions, the opposition urged a return to the more traditional fundamentalism of Trotsky’s 1938 transitional programme and a critical orientation towards workers’ support for a Labour government. The expulsion of more than 200 active members confirmed the nature of Healy’s tyrannical control. His use of violence, openly discussed on the left since the beating of an American SWP supporter, Ernie Tate, in 1966, an incident that finally snapped Isaac Deutscher’s always limited toleration of Healy, was now confirmed in relation to his own members.
Healy’s talents, organisational dynamism, oratory, ability to convince young people and dispense to his members both the brutal and the benign, had been the keys to his political control of his party. But he was now over 60 years of age and his powers were declining. His competitors, the International Socialists and the Militant Group, were surpassing him. Financial pressures were intensifying. As his energy dissipated he increasingly escaped into a world of gobbledygook, paranoia and political opportunism that transcended his earlier tendencies in this direction. As long ago as the 1940s, unable to answer Haston’s compelling factual analysis, Healy had accused him of ‘empiricism’. In the break with the French in 1971 he had conveniently insisted that the method of dialectical materialism, as opposed to some formal programme, constituted the heart of revolutionary politics. He now reinvented himself as a fully-fledged charlatan Professor of Philosophy, inducting WRP members at the party’s College of Marxist Education into quack dialectics. Those who had the patience to decipher Healy’s essays discovered much that was unintelligible and some that derived from Stalinist brochures on the subject, such as the Progress Publishers’ Dictionary of Philosophy, which was considerably indebted for its sensible sections to Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy.
In similar fashion, Healy’s earlier obsession with security – when Fryer had left the SLL, Healy had claimed he was having the ports watched – now blossomed into full-blown psychosis. In 1974 the leadership of the WRP’s American satellite, the Workers League, was purged on the ground that it had been infiltrated by CIA agents. The following year Healy initiated an investigation into Security and the Fourth International. This expensive operation concluded, on the most dubious evidence, that the veteran American Trotskyist Joseph Hansen was a long-term double-agent of the FBI-CIA and GPU-KGB, and that the current leadership of the SWP was made up of agents whose controllers had been recruited by Hansen when students at Carleton College, Minnesota.
When the WRP’s membership dropped to around 2000 the professionally printed Workers Press was closed down, to be replaced by the Newsline, produced by WRP members in Runcorn. But long-term solutions were necessary and Healy’s eyes turned to the Middle East. In 1975-76 he established contact with the PLO and the Libyan regime of Colonel Gaddafi. Healy visited Libya, Kuwait and the Gulf states, trading financial subventions for political advocacy. An incomplete accounting showed that between 1977 and 1983 the WRP received donations totalling more than £1 million, most of it from Libya, Kuwait, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, the PLO and Iraq. Together with tribute exacted from the WRP’s satellites in the International Committee, this kept Healy buoyant. The price was eulogistic political support for the despotic regimes of Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein and the Arab sheikhs.
The WRP leadership indulged in ostentatious expenditure, including the creation of an apparatus of more than 90 full-timers, lavish printing facilities, expensively produced videos, a chain of youth training centres and Healy’s opulent lifestyle. Despite the WRP’s disastrous election attempts, the membership was kept going on well-worn scenarios of general strikes and civil war, with the decisive choice between fascism and the WRP always lying just around the corner. Healy stepped down as General Secretary months before his sixty-fifth birthday to take charge of cadre training. He was replaced by his long-time lieutenant Mike Banda, but he still pulled the strings.
In January 1977 he achieved the remarkable feat of briefly uniting the warring tribes of Trotskyism. From all over Europe and America they gathered en masse in London unanimously to condemn Healy’s campaign against Hansen and the SWP. Shrugging off opprobrium from Trotskyists from Iceland to Venezuela, as well as CLR James, Tamara Deutscher, Raya Dunayevskaya and Ken Coates, for some at least, Healy stole the show with a typically dramatic entrance, although he was refused the right to speak. In 1978 the WRP attracted further unwelcome publicity when Healy became embroiled in a libel case against the Observer, arising from revelations by the actress Irene Gorst about her treatment at the College of Marxist Education, which had prompted a police raid on the college in 1975.
By 1983 financial problems were again looming. Healy suffered a serious heart attack and his vigour was sapped. Renewed intervention in the Labour Party through support for the Labour Herald and the left-wing local government opposition to the Thatcher government achieved little. The failure of the 1984-85 miners’ strike plunged the WRP into terminal crisis. For the first time in decades, organised dissatisfaction with Healy’s leadership developed as part of the widespread demoralisation among the members. There was a chain reaction. Revelations surfaced of Healy’s sexual abuse of at least 26 women members over a sustained period. On 19 October 1985 the 71-year-old Healy was expelled from the WRP by the unanimous vote of the Central Committee.
As the WRP fragmented and re-fragmented he spent his remaining years as the figurehead of the tiny Marxist Party established by the Redgraves. He had never been adept with a pen. Starting with the Americans George Novack and Sam Gordon in the 1950s, he had relied on ghost writers. Yet he continued to publish work on dialectics. He travelled to Greece and Spain, lecturing to a dwindling band of disciples. He also visited Russia, where he pronounced that Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms were the harbinger of Trotsky’s long-awaited political revolution. He died in St Thomas’ Hospital, Lambeth, London on 14 December 1989.
For four decades Healy was part of the furniture on the British left. He associated with its leading figures, ranging from Konni Zilliacus and the Bevanites to Ken Livingstone, an enduring admirer. His former followers were legion, indeed they came to challenge disillusioned Communists as the biggest party of the left. A philistine whose favourite television programmes were Dynasty and Dallas, he was portrayed in plays – Laurence Olivier played John Tagg, modelled on Healy, in Trevor Griffiths’ The Party at the National Theatre – and novels, for example as Frankie Hood in Tariq Ali’s Redemption. He was a powerful orator, a successful organiser, an accomplished showman and, for some, a compelling socialist propagandist. He remained a primitive Marxist, schooled only in dogma, which in times of trouble, and suitably cloaked in dubious philosophical formulations, he was pragmatically prepared to discard. Although he was capable of composed, meticulous political work, as in 1956-57, sooner or later he always surrendered to his impulsive, impatient temperament, his political short-termism and his drive for organisational control. To claim that he sustained an important political tradition in difficult times is to beg the essential political question of exactly what tradition he sustained. In his long journey from Stalinism to Trotskyism to cultism he abused his limited gifts and betrayed those who placed their trust in him. He did more than anybody else in Britain to discredit Trotskyism, as an alternative to Stalinism.
Articles in Youth for Socialism, The Torch (Dublin), Socialist Appeal, Socialist Outlook, Tribune and Newsletter
Pamphlets include The Way to Socialism in Britain (1952), Hands Off the Arab People (1956), Stop the Tory War – Throw Them Out (1956), Stalinism Unmasked: Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Hungary (1957), Workers’ Defence Squads for Notting Hill (1958), Our Answer to the Witch-Hunt and Our Policy For Labour (1959), After Scarborough, The Battle Begins (1960), Plan to Beat the Tories (1961), Problems of the Fourth International (1966), No Laws Against Trade Unions (1967), Studies in Dialectical Materialism (1982), Leninism 58 Years On (1982) and Materialist Dialectics and the Political Revolution (1990)
Deane Papers, Harber Papers, Purdie Papers, Tarbuck Papers, MRC, University of Warwick
Haston Papers, Harber Papers, University of Hull
Communist Party Archive, NMLH
P Fryer, ‘An Open Letter to Members of the SLL’, Internal Bulletin of the International Secretariat of the Fourth International, December 1959
C Behan, ‘Appeal Against Suspension From the Socialist Labour League’, SLL Internal Bulletin, 5 June 1960
Internal Bulletins of the Group, SLL and WRP, 1957-84 (in author’s possession)
T Polan, ‘The SLL: An Autopsy’, International Socialists internal document, 1970 (mimeo in author’s possession)
Solidarity, By Their Words Ye Shall Know Them (1960)
P Cadogan, ‘Has the Socialist Labour League a Future?’, Socialist Leader, 25 January 1960
Anonymous, ‘The Disunity of Theory and Practice: The Trotskyist Movement in Britain since 1945’, nd, c1964, reprinted in Revolutionary History, 6, 2/3 (Summer 1996)
B Behan, With Breast Expanded (1964)
E Mandel, Marxism vs Ultra-Leftism (1967)
T Whelan, The Credibility Gap: The Politics of the SLL (1970)
C Slaughter (ed), Trotskyism Versus Revisionism, six volumes (1974-75)
SWP (USA), International Secretariat Documents, 1951-1954, four volumes (New York, 1974)
T Griffiths, The Party (1974)
The Battle for Trotskyism: Documents of the Opposition Expelled from the Workers Revolutionary Party (1974)
D Widgery, The Left in Britain, 1956-1968 (Harmondsworth, 1976)
SWP (USA), Healy’s Big Lie: The Slander Campaign Against Joseph Hansen, George Novack and the Fourth International (New York, 1976)
M Jenkins, Bevanism: Labour’s High Tide (Nottingham, 1979)
WRP, Security and the Fourth International, Volume One: How the GPU Murdered Trotsky (1981)
J Callaghan, British Trotskyism: Theory and Practice (Oxford, 1984)
S Bornstein and A Richardson, Against the Stream: A History of the Trotskyist Movement in Britain, 1924-1938 (1986)
S Bornstein and A Richardson, War and the International: A History of the Trotskyist Movement in Britain, 1937-1949 (1986)
A Thornett, From Militancy to Marxism (1987)
E Shaw, Discipline and Discord in the Labour Party (Manchester, 1988)
T Ali, Redemption (1990)
D North, Gerry Healy and His Place in the Fourth International (Detroit, 1991)
B Pitt, ‘The Rise and Fall of Gerry Healy’, Workers News, series (1990-91)
V Redgrave, Vanessa Redgrave: An Autobiography (1991)
H Ratner, Reluctant Revolutionary: Memoirs of a Trotskyist, 1936-1960 (1994)
T Wohlforth, The Prophet’s Children: Travels on the American Left (New Jersey, 1994)
C Lotz and A Feldman, Gerry Healy: A Revolutionary Life (1994)
T Brotherstone and G Pilling (eds), History, Economic History and the Future of Marxism: Essays in Memory of Tom Kemp (1996)
B Hunter, Lifelong Apprenticeship: The Life and Times of a Revolutionary (1997)
J McIlroy, ‘Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned: The Trotskyists and the Trade Unions’, in J McIlroy, N Fishman and A Campbell (eds), British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics: The High Tide of Trade Unionism, 1964-79 (Aldershot, 1999)
Other information and papers from J Archer, B Behan, B Buitekant, D Gibson, B Hunter, A Jennings, B Pitt
Guardian, 18, 22, 28, 30 December 1989
Daily Telegraph, 19 December 1989
Independent, 21 December 1989
The Times, 23 December 1989