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Chapter 7 (1965-1968) Young Socialists

HEALY’S DECISION to break his youth section from the Labour Party, and launch an independent Young Socialists, marked the end of an entry tactic which he had supported for fully two decades. As usual, this turn was implemented with the minimum of discussion and political clarity. In February 1965, just before the conference which formally launched the independent YS, Healy was still emphasising that this development had ‘not in any way altered our conception that it is necessary to build up a strong movement in the Labour Party to fight the right wing’.1

 

Such a combination of open and entry work would have enabled Healy to preserve his youth organisation in the face of expulsions by the bureaucracy, while at the same time intervening inside the party against the policies of Harold Wilson’s newly-elected Labour government. In practice, the new turn carried the Healyites in an increasingly sectarian direction. ‘Already we are a thousand times stronger than Foot, Mikado and company’, YS national secretary Dave Ashby boasted in January 1965.2 And although the independent YS conference the next month attracted no more than 1,000 youth, this did not prevent Ashby from hailing the gathering as ‘one of the most important events in the history of the British working class movement’.3

 

This mindless triumphalism, for which Healy himself undoubtedly bore primary responsibility, was combined with the usual exaggerated predictions. Tony Gard, who was elected to the YS National Committee at the February 1965 conference, recalls that the perspective presented to the youth was ‘that there was going to be a major economic crisis, which would lead to a break between the working class and the Labour government, and that we would be in a position to intervene as an independent leadership in that situation’.4

 

Gard remembers that during the conference Healy met with the new YS National Committee to instruct them on the organisation of a YS apprentices’ strike. Only a few months before, an apprentices’ committee based in the North West, and involving the Young Communist League, Ted Grant’s RSL and the SLL youth, had called a strike for better wages and conditions. The Healyites had denounced this as premature, withdrawn from the committee and effectively scabbed on the action. Yet Healy now believed that the YS wielded sufficient influence to launch a strike under its own banner. This was soon revealed for the self-delusion that it was, and the projected YS-led strike failed to materialise.

 

It was at this time that Healy began to concretise his proposal for a daily newspaper, which he had first broached in 1963. The purchase of expensive new equipment for this purpose was announced in June 1965 at the SLL annual conference, where Healy informed the delegates that the daily paper was ‘the whole essence of Leninism’. And he cited Lenin’s call in What Is To Be Done? for an all-Russian political newspaper – ignoring the fact that Lenin wasn’t proposing a specifically daily newspaper at all. ‘If we can launch that paper at the height of the crisis of leadership of the labour movement’, Healy assured his members, ‘we are set for a transformation. We can transform the SLL from the present organisation into a mass organisation.’5

 

Healy’s belief that the SLL was about to become a mass party was based on the delusion that the Labour Party was rapidly losing its influence over the working class. British social democracy, it was now confidently asserted, was ‘breaking up’, while Labour’s 1965 budget was described as ‘an epitaph for reformism in Britain’.6 Healy’s call to ‘bring down the Labour government’, which the WRP was to employ to such self-destructive effect in the 1970s, now made its first appearance. ‘They disgrace the name of socialism’, Healy declared, denouncing the Wilson government at an SLL public meeting in April 1965. ‘It is better that they should be brought down. They divide and weaken the working class.’7 That the SLL, whose membership barely reached four figures, could overthrow the government was obviously ridiculous. But Healy seems to have convinced himself that his organisation was now in a position to confront the Labour Party as direct ‘challengers and contenders for power’, or so he told the 1965 SLL conference.8

 

The SLL did continue to argue, correctly, that the task of revolutionaries was to ‘remove Wilson and Co from positions of leadership’ in the labour movement.9 However, any idea of building a fraction inside the Labour Party in order to further this objective was soon dropped in favour of an exclusive emphasis on independent work. Healy organised a 2,000-strong demonstration outside the 1965 Labour Party conference, yet the SLL didn’t have a single representative inside. The ‘real place’ to fight Wilson, Healy told an SLL rally afterwards, was not in the Labour Party but ‘in the factories through strong organisation, on the streets, and in the youth movement, to provide an alternative leadership to take this movement to power’.10

 

Healy’s sectarian stupidity reached its culmination during the Hull North by-election of February 1966, when Labour left-wingers were attacked for having ‘swallowed their principles and gone out canvassing’ for their party’s Wilsonite candidate.11 The by-election in fact produced a substantial swing to Labour, making nonsense of Healy’s firm prediction eight months earlier that it was ‘no secret that the Tories are on their way back’.12 Healy now executed a swift about-turn. Previously the Newsletter had informed its readers that ‘virtually nobody has any more illusions in the right-wing Wilson government’.13 Now, on the eve of the general election, it was forced to admit that ‘millions of workers will vote Labour, refusing to return to Toryism, but not yet understanding the extent to which the Wilson leadership betrays the interests of the working class’.14

 

Healy’s change of tack came too late to prevent his ‘Third Period’ line on reformism causing serious damage to the organisation. According to one account, following the abandonment of Labour Party work the Healyites proved ‘totally unable to recruit, despite enormous efforts on the part of the rank and file. Many rankers – and some leaders – resigned. Even full-time workers were displaced. And so, in the following months, tired of knocking their heads against brick walls, hundreds of demoralised youth left the YS and the SLL. Branches were closed down. By the time the Labour government was re-elected in March 1966, with a majority of nearly a hundred, the membership of the SLL was probably cut by half’.15

 

Healy met with no more success in his efforts at ‘Rebuilding the Fourth International’ – the title of an International Committee statement which was circulated in preparation for the IC’s Third World Congress. This repeated the familiar IC mythology about ‘Pabloite revisionism’, but did at least have the merit of recognising that the FI had been ‘destroyed’.16 When the congress met in London in April 1966, though, it was prevailed upon to accept an SLL amendment, moved by Mike Banda, putting the entirely contrary position that the FI had ‘successfully resisted and defeated the attempts ... to destroy it politically and organisationally’.17 The motive for this change was accurately identified by the French Voix Ouvrière group, who attended the congress as observers. ‘Anyone who says that the International has been destroyed’, they pointed out, ‘must analyse the causes of its destruction; this, however, would force the IC to submit its own past to a severe and painful criticism.’18 And this, of course, was something Healy refused to countenance.

 

Under Healy’s urging, the IC – which from its foundation in 1953 had seen itself as no more than a faction within the world Trotskyist movement – now suddenly proclaimed itself to be in effect the Fourth International. The adoption of Healy’s bogus theory of continuity did not stop the congress accepting another amendment, from Pierre Lambert’s French IC section, which declared that the International Committee was not a democratic centralist organisation and that its decisions should be based on the principle of unanimity.19 This was reflected in a congress resolution which defined the task of the IC as ‘working towards’ a centralised international leadership.20 How this could be squared with Healy’s assertion that the FI still existed ‘politically and organisationally’ was not explained. Indeed, Healy even turned down the suggestion, made to him privately by the Greek section’s leader Loukas Karliaftis, that the IC should elect a Secretariat in order to provide a collective leadership. Healy’s excuse was that differences between the SLL and the OCI made this impossible.21

 

The Third Congress turned out to be a complete shambles. The IC itself could muster only a handful of sections – apart from the British and French, delegates were present from Michel Varga’s Hungarian group and Karliaftis’s Greek organisation. There were also representatives from two ex-SWP groupings, led by Tim Wohlforth and James Robertson, between whom Healy was trying to organise a fusion. In order to make up numbers, observers were invited from Voix Ouvrière, from groups in Africa and Germany, and from a state capitalist tendency in Japan, along with individuals from USec sections in Ceylon and Denmark. The politically confused basis on which the congress was put together was indicated by Healy’s angry announcement, halfway through the proceedings, that he had no idea that Voix Ouvrière held a state capitalist position on China, and that if he had known he wouldn’t have invited them.22

 

The incoherence of the IC’s own position on the workers’ state question was brought out in a contribution by James Robertson, who criticised the SLL’s absurd analysis of the Castro regime as a capitalist government ruling on behalf of a ‘weak’ bourgeoisie. If the Cuban bourgeoisie was weak, Robertson commented sarcastically, this could only be because it was exhausted after its long swim to Miami, Florida!23 This was too much for Healy, who evidently decided that it was necessary to whip this insolent American into line. As one eyewitness recalls, Healy marched into the congress later that day ‘and he came up to Robertson, and started shouting and screaming at him and banging his fist and saying that Robertson was a petty bourgeois’.24 The latter’s crime was to have missed the session where his contribution had been attacked by SLL speakers, and Healy demanded that Robertson make a self-criticism before the congress. The purpose of this provocation was presumably to crush Robertson’s independence, compromise him politically and give Healy a hold over him.

 

After refusing to comply with Healy’s demand, Robertson recalls, he was ‘called into Healy’s room, with Banda in a shadowy corner, and Healy quite drunk, and he said, "Listen, Jim" – very friendly then, the sudden switch – "we can work this out. The fusion can go through. Just go and make a good act of contrition.... I care nothing for Wohlforth – you’ll go back home the leader".... And we got out of the room as fast as we could .... We got downstairs at the end, and Gerry was ... running around and he was visibly working himself up into a punchout ... it was Lambert who intervened to cool Healy off, and we got out of there’.25

 

Not only did Healy lose the majority of his projected US section, but he succeeded in thoroughly discrediting the IC in the eyes of everyone else at the congress. As one of the Ceylonese observers recalls, it was quite clear to them that Healy ‘had just brought together a whole group of disparate people who had no real political agreement. What made the thing bizarre was his behaviour.... Here at what was supposed to be a world congress, with so many different people present, we find the most senior person behaving in the most abominable manner .... And that was the thing that really finally broke it up, because it was obvious to everybody that there was not going to be a free and meaningful exchange of ideas’.26 Healy provided a further insight into his commitment to the free exchange of ideas a few months later, when USec supporter Ernest Tate tried to sell a pamphlet exposing the fraud of the Third World Congress outside an SLL public meeting. At Healy’s instigation, Tate was beaten up by a group of SLL stewards and hospitalised.27

 

* * * *

 

FROM LATE 1966, the Socialist Labour League began to recover from the decline which had followed Healy’s break from the Labour Party, and entered another period of sustained growth. Partly this was due to mounting disillusionment throughout the working class with the second Wilson government. Having been re-elected in March 1966 with a comfortable majority of 96 (as compared with four in 1964), Labour was now expected by many of its supporters to carry out measures in their interests. Instead, Wilson attempted to resolve the problems of British capitalism – which centred on a chronic balance of payments deficit and consequent pressure on the pound – at the expense of the working class. The Labour government fought viciously against the seamen’s strike of May-June 1966, denouncing it as communist-inspired, and then proceeded to impose a legally binding wage freeze. The SLL’s attacks on Wilson, which by the Newsletter’s own admission had earlier found little resonance in the class, now won the Healyites a hearing among militant workers.

 

Another reason for the SLL’s recovery was Healy’s retreat from the ultra-left excesses of the earlier period. This retreat, admittedly, was only partial. Predictions of an ever-deepening economic crisis continued unabated. And in September 1966 Healy was asserting that the most conscious sections of the bourgeoisie were convinced that ‘even a Tory government cannot extricate capitalism from its current crisis’ and were therefore ‘looking for a British Hitler’!28 However, calls for the overthrow of the Labour government and declarations that the SLL was an immediate contender for state power were temporarily shelved. Healy now conceded that even an open clash with the government like the seamen’s strike ‘did not mean that the question of political power is on the agenda’,29 and that it was ‘not a question of bringing down the Labour government’.30

 

Towards the end of 1966, following the formation of the Tribune Group of Labour MPs, Healy launched his campaign to ‘Make the left MPs fight’. This was a further indication of adjustment to political reality, since less than two years earlier the SLL/YS had believed itself to be ‘a thousand times stronger’ than these same Labour lefts. ‘The SLL’, Healy stated, explaining the new tactical turn to a special League conference in November 1966, ‘calls upon all those left MPs to fight inside the Parliamentary Labour Party in order to remove Wilson with the other right-wingers from the leadership, and replace them with MPs who will fight for socialist policies.’31 This campaign did have the merit of countering the syndicalist limitations of purely industrial struggle, and focusing militants’ attention on the need to fight the existing political leadership of the labour movement. Nevertheless, Healy’s tactic was seriously flawed in a number of respects.

 

First of all, it sowed the usual confusion about what exactly ‘socialist policies’ were. It was entirely correct to demand that the left MPs take up a fight against the Wilson leadership, but there wasn’t much sense in calling on them to form a government, based on a majority in the House of Commons, which would ‘introduce a policy of nationalisation of the major industries under workers’ control’ (i.e., carry out the complete expropriation of the big bourgeoisie). Nor was there much point in proposing that the left MPs should put down a motion in the PLP demanding Wilson’s resignation,32 given that the parliamentary party was overwhelmingly dominated by Wilson loyalists. Healy’s campaign could have had practical relevance only if it had been based on an opposition movement against Wilson within the ranks of the Labour Party. As it was, in the absence of any organised opposition, many party members expressed their anger at the Labour government’s betrayals by resigning, or lapsing into political inactivity, which only strengthened Wilson’s hold over the party.

 

But Healy refused to link the ‘Make the lefts fight’ slogan to any work inside the Labour Party. Ironically, he justified this position with the identical argument used by his opponents in the RCP back in the 1940s, when he himself had argued for entry into the Labour Party. Healy now defined entry as a short-term tactic, applicable only when there arose within social democracy ‘a left wing moving in a revolutionary direction’ – which, as he pointed out, was ‘not the case today’.33 All the evidence suggests that, despite having temporarily ditched the more extreme manifestations of sectarianism, Healy still held to an essentially ultra-left perspective. He believed that there was a pre-revolutionary situation in Britain, that the majority of workers had broken from right-wing reformism (hence the tactic of placing demands on the Labour lefts rather than on the Labour leadership) and that it only remained for the SLL to expose the left reformists in order to win the mass of the working class to an independent revolutionary party.

 

Not the least of the factors in the SLL’s late-1960s expansion, of course, was Healy’s own energy, hard work and organising ability. Tim Wohlforth, Healy’s US collaborator, recounts how Healy would typically snatch four or five hours’ sleep before being picked up at 7am to attend an editorial board meeting at eight. ‘Gerry then usually headed out of town to make a meeting with an important comrade in Oxford or Reading. He might return around two pm to check copy for the paper or for other meetings only to dash off again in the evening for a meeting in some other part of the country. He was not exaggerating much when he had written to me that he travelled 1,200 miles a week!’ The SLL leader’s approach, Wohlforth continues, was ‘personal and energetic. Healy was deeply involved in every aspect of party and youth work and he got to know almost every comrade pretty well, even when the movement had one thousand or more members. No man ever personally drove an organisation the way Healy did. Healy could claim quite rightly much of the credit personally for the growth and successes of the SLL in the 1960s’.34

 

This picture is confirmed by Alan Thornett, an ex-CP shop steward at the BMC car factory in Cowley, who joined the SLL in 1966 along with a group of fellow militants. Thornett describes how ‘the SLL set up a factory branch to organise our work. We met weekly with Healy in attendance. It was dramatically different from the CP, strongly organised and strongly political. Meetings always started with an up-to-date report and discussion, relating the work we were doing in the plant to the industry, and to national and world politics. They were very impressive meetings. Healy kept himself closely informed on the factory situation. He would want to know the tactics of the management, the situation in the unions, the details of current disputes and what the other political influences such as the CP were doing. It was very much what we were looking for’.35

 

That the SLL’s numerical gains were not greater, however, was due largely to Healy’s sectarian attitude towards the protest movement that developed against the Wilson government’s support for US imperialism’s war in Vietnam, and towards the youth radicalisation which arose from the movement. The SLL should have been well-placed to take advantage of this development, as the YS had pioneered demonstrations in 1965 against Wilson’s backing for US aggression, campaigning for ‘Victory to the Vietcong’. But the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, which brought together a broad-based coalition of left-wing forces opposed to US imperialism, was evidently regarded by Healy not as an arena in which to intervene but as a rival to his own organisation – which, in Healy’s mind, was the established revolutionary leadership to whom all others had to defer.

 

The SLL was involved in the VSC’s first major public meeting in August 1966, and was even able to put up Mike Banda as a platform speaker. But SLL contributions from the floor concentrated their fire on the crimes of Stalinism rather than on the need to oppose US imperialism, and the chairman – Bertrand Russell’s secretary Ralph Schoenman – prevented Healy from speaking and physically wrested the microphone from another SLLer.36 Healy then used this as an excuse to break off all relations with the VSC. ‘To Messrs Schoenman and Russell we say: To hell with your rotten "united front" of state capitalists, Pabloites, Stalinists and centrists’, Mike Banda wrote in the Newsletter. ‘Your campaign stinks.’37

 

While the VSC leadership probably held a rather opportunist conception of united front activity, according to which joint practical work precluded sharp criticism of rival political tendencies, it is difficult to see the SLL’s intervention as anything other than a provocation. The motive for Healy’s action, according to one leading participant in the VSC, was that the campaign was building a relationship with the Young Communist League – who rejected the official CP line of refusing to call for victory to the Vietnamese revolution – and Healy was intent on sabotaging this.38 The same rationale apparently lay behind Healy’s performance at a demonstration against US aggression in Vietnam at Liege in October 1966, which was organised by Ernest Mandel’s Belgian section of the United Secretariat. Here again, the organisers had built a united front with the Communist youth organisation, which was similarly in conflict with the adult party. And, once more, Healy launched a wrecking operation. He had the YS contingent raise a banner commemorating the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, which caused the Communist youth to withdraw from the march,39 as indeed was Healy’s purpose.

 

One thing is certain, Healy’s actions were not the product of any principled opposition to Stalinism as such. In early 1967, Mike Banda’s admiration for Maoism was allowed full rein in the Newsletter, which devoted several articles to enthusiastically supporting the Cultural Revolution and the Red Guards.40 A year later, in an editorial in the theoretical journal Fourth International, Banda delivered a eulogy to the guerrilla warfare strategy of Mao and Ho Chi-Minh.41 After protests by the Lambert group, a correction was pasted into the next issue of the journal, making the excuse that the article should have appeared under Banda’s byline and was not an editorial at all.42 But Healy failed to distance himself or his organisation from Banda’s views, or take up a struggle against them.

 

The biggest Vietnam demonstration, in London on 27 October 1968, which drew an estimated 75-100,000 people, was condemned as a diversion by the SLL. It refused to participate, and issued a leaflet headed ‘Why the Socialist Labour League is not marching’, which denounced the demonstration as no more than a publicity stunt hatched by the capitalist media in order to undermine the work of Healy’s own organisation.43 This conspiracy theory, which verged on clinical paranoia, was subsequently spelt out in detail by Cliff Slaughter. ‘The content of the October 27 demonstration’, he wrote, ‘the essential aim of the VSC and its political directors was ... the rallying together of some alternative to the building of the SLL as the revolutionary Marxist party.’44

 

A front-page article by Healy in the next issue of the Newsletter pursued this theme. The demonstration had only ‘encouraged confusion amongst students and young people around the all-important issue of the building of the revolutionary forces’, Healy asserted. He dismissed out of hand the idea of any joint work with other political tendencies on the left around the specific issue of the Vietnam war. And although he argued, correctly, that the mobilisation of British workers for a revolutionary struggle against their own ruling class was a vital part of the struggle against imperialism, according to Healy this could ‘only be done by the SLL, and not by middle class protest movements’.45

 

That the movement against the Vietnam war was a protest movement, and a largely middle class one at that, is not in dispute. But it was the elementary duty of a self-styled revolutionary grouping to intervene in such a movement – not to denounce it from the sidelines. Healy’s abstentionist and ultimatist attitude to the VSC denied the SLL the opportunity to recruit students and other middle class youth and turn them towards the working class. Tony Cliff’s state capitalist International Socialists, for their part, won over hundreds of students and grew into a significant organisation – as large as, if not larger than, the SLL. The British section of the United Secretariat, the International Marxist Group, also underwent a considerable expansion. The days when Healy could enjoy almost complete domination of the far left in Britain were now over.

 


Notes

 

1. Newsletter, 30 January 1965.

 

2. Keep Left, January 1965.

 

3. Ibid., March 1965.

 

4. Interview with Tony Gard, 10 May 1992.

 

5. Newsletter, 12 June 1965. ‘Healy put the cart squarely before the horse’, it has been pointed out. ‘The mass daily is the result of the winning of mass influence by the revolutionaries. It cannot create that influence for a small propaganda grouping.’ (Workers Power, February 1986.)

 

6. Newsletter, 13 February, 10 April, 1965. The quotations are from Robert Black and Tom Kemp respectively.

 

7. Ibid., 3 April 1965.

 

8. Ibid., 12 June 1965.

 

9. Ibid., 1 May 1965.

 

10. Ibid., 2 October 1965.

 

11. Ibid., 12 February 1966.

 

12. Ibid., 12 June 1965.

 

13. Ibid., 19 June 1965.

 

14. Ibid., 19 March 1966.

 

15. T. Whelan, The Credibility Gap: The Politics of the SLL, 1970, p.12.

 

16. Fourth International, August 1965.

 

17. C. Slaughter, ed., Trotskyism versus Revisionism, vol.5, 1974, pp.5-6.

 

18. J. Hansen, ed., Marxism Vs. Ultraleftism, 1974, p.99.

 

19. Ibid., p.85.

 

20. Slaughter, p.31.

 

21. Documents of the Workers Vanguard, 1979, p.72.

 

22. Marxism Vs. Ultraleftism, p.93.

 

23. Spartacist, Winter 1985-86, p.39.

 

24. Interview with Upali Cooray, 10 May 1992.

 

25. Spartacist, Winter 1985-86, p.23.

 

26. Interview with Upali Cooray.

 

27. Marxism Vs. Ultraleftism, p.108.

 

28. Newsletter, 3 September 1966.

 

29. Ibid., 4 June 1966.

 

30. Ibid., 10 December 1966.

 

31. Ibid.

 

32. Ibid., 3 December 1966.

 

33. Ibid., 1 April 1967.

 

34. T. Wohlforth, The Prophet's Children, 1994, pp.197-8.

 

35. A. Thornett, From Militancy to Marxism, 1987, p.82.

 

36. C. Slaughter, A Balance Sheet of Revisionism, 1969, p.6.

 

37. Newsletter, 3 September 1966.

 

38. Information from Al Richardson.

 

39. Spartacist, May-June 1967.

 

40. Newsletter, 21, 28 January 1967.

 

41. Fourth International, February 1968.

 

42. Ibid., August 1968.

 

43. The leaflet is reprinted in D. Widgery, The Left in Britain, 1976, p.349.

 

44. Slaughter, p.7.

 

45. Newsletter, 2 November 1968.