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Chapter 4 (1955-1958) Pabloism

AT THE END of 1955, Gerry Healy’s political fortunes were at a low ebb. The split with John Lawrence two years earlier had cost Healy half his membership, including leading trade unionists and most of the youth.1 His submission to the Labour right wing’s ban on Socialist Outlook had left him without a public organ, while the Group’s press had been bankrupted by a libel action, forcing it into liquidation. The Bevanite movement, on which Healy had pinned his political strategy, was in decline after Labour’s defeat in the May 1955 general election. And his attempt to win an industrial base by organising the Blue Union breakaway on the docks had ended in failure. Healy’s only success that year was the recruitment of the ‘Marxist Group’ from the Labour Party League of Youth. One of its members, Ellis Hillman, recalls that by early 1956 Healy had become ‘very, very demoralised. There were points at which one began to wonder whether Gerry was thinking of chucking the whole thing in. I clearly remember him looking through the window at Sternhold Avenue and desperately asking his Executive Committee: “What the hell are we doing here? None of you are prepared to take any initiative whatsoever. I have to do everything!” It was a genuine cry of despair’.2

Healy was saved by the crisis which broke out in the Stalinist movement in 1956. The CPSU 20th Congress in February, and the subsequent leaking of Khruschev’s ‘secret speech’ denouncing Stalin’s crimes, was followed in November by the bloody suppression of the Hungarian revolution, an action fully supported by the British CP leaders. As a result, the Communist Party of Great Britain lost about a third of its 30,000 members. While most of these ex-CPers renounced Marxism or abandoned politics altogether, Healy was able to win a number of important recruits (perhaps as many as 200) to the Group. Two of them – Cliff Slaughter and Tom Kemp – were to remain with Healy until his expulsion from the WRP almost 30 years later.

It is necessary, however, to demolish the myth that Healy’s successful intervention in the CPGB was made possible ‘on the basis of the 1953 split’ in the Fourth International, or by ‘the clarification which had been achieved through the struggle against Pabloite revisionism’.3 In fact, Healy’s initial response to the 20th Congress was the purest ‘Pabloism’. Basing himself on Mikoyan’s speech to the Congress attacking the ‘cult of the personality’, Healy announced to a stunned London area aggregate of the Group that the political revolution had now begun in the Soviet Union and that Anastas Mikoyan represented the Reiss (i.e. the revolutionary) tendency in the bureaucracy!4 Healy quickly retreated from this position. But his only published reaction to the 1956 Congress, while emphasising that the restoration of democratic rights in the Soviet Union required ‘a successful struggle against the bureaucracy’, stopped short of spelling out the need for a political revolution to overthrow the Stalinist regime.5

The Group’s impact on the CPGB crisis was the product not of any political clarity on Stalinism, but of Healy’s considerable organisational skills. His ability to spot a political opportunity and go for it with everything he had, which in other situations led to grossly opportunist results (if not outright betrayals), in this case enabled real political gains to be made. With characteristic energy and pugnacity, Healy now directed all the Group’s resources towards the CP. Labour Party work was temporarily put on the back burner and Group members who had spent the best part of a decade pretending to be left social democrats found themselves agitating openly as Trotskyists at CP meetings. ‘I don’t think there can be any doubt about this’, Hillman states. ‘It was Healy’s attack that broke the morale of the CP after the 1956 Congress.’6

An early recruit to the Group was Nottingham CPer John Daniels who wrote in to Tribune explaining that he had begun a ‘fundamental criticism’ of Stalinism and offering like-minded comrades a suggested reading list which ranged from Arthur Koestler to Leon Trotsky.7 John Archer immediately replied on behalf of the Group, steering Daniels away from anti-Communist writers and towards the revolutionary critique of Stalinism contained in The Revolution Betrayed.8 This exchange led to Daniels visiting Archer in Leeds for a discussion, and soon after he became a member of the Group.9 Healy himself was to make a particularly effective use of literature in his political assault on the Stalinist movement. In the following period he would visit hundreds of CP dissidents, providing them with a basic reading course in Trotskyist writings.10

In the course of 1956 Healy managed to raise the finance for a new printing press.11 These facilities, modest though they were, played a crucial role in cementing political relations with Peter Fryer, the Daily Worker correspondent in Hungary during the revolution. Having returned to Britain to find that his sympathetic reports on the workers’ uprising had been spiked, Fryer turned to the capitalist press to publicise his story and this was used by the CP leadership to justify his expulsion from the party. Healy arranged a meeting with Fryer and offered to print his appeal against expulsion, an offer which Fryer gratefully accepted. Healy also organised a series of meetings for Fryer to explain his case to the labour movement.12

With the new press, in January 1957 Healy was able to relaunch the journal Labour Review in a new, larger format explicitly aimed at the Communist Party milieu, with John Daniels and veteran Healyite Bob Shaw as co-editors. The journal was instrumental in attracting further CP rebels to the Group, notably the historian Brian Pearce,13 who was able to contribute a number of pioneering articles on the Stalinist degeneration of the CPGB.

In his pamphlet Revolution and Counter Revolution in Hungary, Healy urged dissident CPers to ‘immediately demand a special Congress to repudiate the leadership’s line on Hungary. STAY IN THE COMMUNIST PARTY AND FIGHT IT OUT’.14 This, indeed, was the approach adopted by the CP oppositionists, and in April 1957 a special party congress, the first in the CPGB’s history, was held in Hammersmith. Healy organised a major intervention. Fryer’s appeal, published in pamphlet form as Hungary and the Communist Party: An Appeal Against Expulsion, was distributed at the door, while inside the congress Brian Behan, a militant building worker who had joined the Group, acted as one of the main spokesmen for the anti-Stalinist opposition. Fryer, meanwhile, laboured through the night to produce a daily bulletin reporting and commenting on the congress proceedings.15

The congress was packed so efficiently by the CP leadership that on all the disputed issues – Hungary, inner-party democracy and Fryer’s expulsion – the opposition was overwhelmingly defeated.16 But the political ferment in the CP did not abate. A week after the Hammersmith congress, the Socialist Forum movement – launched by CP dissidents to provide an organisational framework for political discussion – held a national conference at Wortley Hall in Yorkshire. Here Healy, who attended with a small delegation from the Group, demonstrated an admirable degree of tactical subtlety. Instead of crowing over the Stalinists’ crisis and proclaiming that Trotskyism had been vindicated, as many there no doubt expected him to do, Healy advised the conference: ‘This is the season for reading books, not burning them. Read and study. Examine every point of view.’17 He left it to Brian Pearce to put forward a Trotskyist historical analysis of the ‘Lessons of the Stalin era’.18 Given Pearce’s reputation as a CP historian, this obviously made a much greater impact on the conference than a lecture from a known Trotskyist would have done.

Impressed by Fryer’s work on the Hammersmith bulletin, Healy took him on as a full-timer to produce a weekly paper for the Group. This appeared in May 1957 as the Newsletter. The paper claimed editorially that it had ‘no sectional axe to grind’,19 but its real purpose, as Healy explained to Fryer, was to provide a pole of attraction for CP dissidents ‘so that we can catch them for our movement’.20 Healy allowed a fairly free hand to Fryer whose journalistic talents guaranteed a high standard of partisan working class reporting. As usual with Healy, there was undoubtedly a strong opportunist element in all this. Nevertheless, along with the theoretical work in the bi-monthly Labour Review, the Newsletter enabled the Group to become the focal point for both intellectuals and militant workers breaking with Stalinism. By contrast, the small ex-RCP groups led by Ted Grant and Tony Cliff were able to make virtually no gains from the CP crisis, having been completely outmanoeuvred by Healy.

However, although Healy employed the literary heritage of Trotskyism to good effect in recruiting from the CP, there was an evident gulf between the revolutionary content of Trotsky’s classic writings and the actual practice of the Group, buried as it was deep in the Labour Party. One former CPer, in a contribution to the internal bulletin, while putting forward an ultra-left argument against Labour Party work, nonetheless made some telling points against the Healyites’ promotion of Tribune. This he characterised, not inaccurately, as ‘feeding mass illusions to the workers by the mass sale of reformist literature’. He dismissed the prospect of an imminent split in the Labour Party, which Healy in 1956 had apparently predicted within six months, and rejected Bevan’s credentials as a leader of the left.21

In reply, Healy accepted that Bevan was a parliamentary reformist incapable of providing the working class with revolutionary leadership. ‘Tribune, however’, Healy assured his critic, ‘is different’! Indeed, according to Healy, pressure from the Tribunites had forced Bevan ‘further and further to the left’.22 This judgement was to be falsified within a matter of months. At the 1957 Labour Party conference, when Group member Vivienne Mendelson moved a resolution from Norwood CLP in favour of unilateral nuclear disarmament, it was the ‘leftward moving’ Bevan himself who put his rhetorical powers at the service of the right wing in order to secure the defeat of what he condemned as ‘an emotional spasm’.23

If Healy’s approach to social democracy was at odds with the principles Trotsky had fought for, his attitude to internationalism was no less so. The withdrawal into ‘national Trotskyism’, inherent in the federal structure of the IC, is confirmed by Ellis Hillman’s experiences on joining Healy’s organisation in 1955. ‘I do recall continuous denunciations of Pabloism’, he states. ‘But I cannot recall a single report from any of the so-called sections of the International Committee. It appeared to be a totally insular group.’24 The numerical and political strengthening of Healy’s organisation during 1956-7, due to the influx of former CPers, only reinforced this nationalist outlook.

It never seemed to have occurred to Healy that the expanded resources of the Group might be used to build up the IC, whose effectiveness as an international leadership may be gauged by the fact that it had failed even to issue a statement on the CPSU’s 20th Congress.25 Healy’s main concern was that his organisation in Britain should no longer be regarded as the poor relation of the SWP, but recognised as an equal partner. As he explained to Cannon, whereas in the past the British section had been politically dependent on the US Trotskyists, it was now ‘reaching a position where we can help our American comrades’.26 Peng Shuzi commented irately that Healy’s offers of assistance would be better directed towards the weak IC sections in France and Italy, where Stalinist parties of much greater size and political significance than the CPGB were also in crisis. Yet, despite repeated requests from Peng, Healy failed even to stump up the finance for the Italian group to send a delegate to IC meetings.27 And this was the man, it will be recalled, who in the 1940s had broken up the British section in the course of a vicious factional struggle waged under the banner of ‘internationalism’!

* * * *

THE 1956 HUNGARIAN revolution, which had enabled Healy to replenish the depleted forces of the Group with recruits from the CP, also put him under increased pressure at an international level. For the apparently ‘orthodox’ response to Hungary by the International Secretariat, who unequivocally demanded the withdrawal of Soviet troops, encouraged the Socialist Workers Party leadership to look more favourably on the prospect of reunification with the Pabloites. The split between the IS and its American supporters, followed by the effective dissolution of the Cochran-Clarke group as a rival political organisation, had in any case removed ‘Pabloism’ as a threat in the USA. If he could be given guarantees of non-interference by Pablo in the SWP, James P. Cannon could no longer see any major obstacle to unity with the IS.

Healy, however, was in a different position. After being deserted by the Lawrence group, who had broken with the FI in 1954, Pablo had collaborated with Ted Grant, Sam Bornstein and other former members of the RCP majority in forming a new IS section, the Revolutionary Socialist League, which held it founding conference in 1957. A merger between the International Committee and the IS would therefore have required Healy to unite with political opponents he had driven out of the movement back in 1950, who would undoubtedly have formed a faction against him. It seems evident that such narrowly national concerns, rather than any desire to uphold the ‘principles’ of the 1953 split, determined Healy’s resistance to international reunification.

Not that Healy argued his position openly and honestly. Instead, he declared his agreement with Cannon – ‘it is worth doing everything possible to get one world organisation’28 – urging only that reunification should be preceded by political discussion, while at the same time manoeuvring to sabotage progress towards unity. In June 1957, in a move which Cannon condemned as ‘factional ultimatism’,29 Healy informed Grant’s group that before negotiations could begin in Britain the RSL would have to abandon ‘open’ work and, furthermore, repudiate ‘The Decline and Fall of Stalinism’, Ernest Mandel’s draft resolution for the forthcoming FI Fifth World Congress.30

A month earlier, Bill Hunter had written a polemic against Mandel’s document, entitled ‘Under a Stolen Flag’. This – the first critique of the International Secretariat’s politics produced by the Group since the beginning of Healy’s conflict with the FI leadership four years before! – sought to demonstrate that ‘the gulf between Pabloite revisionism and ourselves grows wider and wider’.31 Not only did Hunter fail to prove this assertion, but his legitimate criticisms of the IS document, with its emphasis on the role a ‘revolutionary’ wing of the Stalinist bureaucracy would play in the political revolution, were undermined by his misrepresentations of Mandel’s arguments.

Healy’s denunciations of the pro-Stalinist politics of the IS did not prevent him from turning a blind eye to his protégé Mike Banda’s sympathies for Maoism. A Labour Review article by Banda depicting bureaucratisation as only a potential threat under the Chinese Stalinist regime32 was criticised by Ellis Hillman,33 but neither Healy nor Hunter took a stand against Banda’s thoroughly ‘Pabloite’ position on China. This showed quite clearly, as Hillman points out, that Healy’s intransigence towards Pablo and Mandel was not based on any principled analysis of Stalinism, or of the problems of the political revolution, but was rather motivated by purely factional considerations.34

Healy’s real commitment to a discussion of the issues underlying the 1953 split is illustrated by the case of Harry Ratner, the Group’s industrial organiser, who resigned in 1957, unable to swallow Healy’s Stalinist-style demand that members should unquestioningly accept the leadership’s line on ‘Pabloism’. After six weeks, having reconsidered his position, Ratner applied to rejoin. Summoned before the Executive Committee, he was told that it was not enough to publicly defend the Group’s policies, but that he must also withdraw his reservations concerning the official line on Pablo. As Ratner recalls: ‘I replied that this was ridiculous. “You know damn well I’ve got reservations." They insisted: "You must drop them if you want to be readmitted." At one stage Mike Banda said, "Soon, in the revolution, we shall be shooting Pabloites. So you’d better be clear.” All the committee – Healy, the Banda brothers, Bill Hunter – kept on repeating this ultimatum.... Eventually, Healy said, "You’d better make up your mind or you’re out!"’ Faced with this ultimatum, Ratner was forced to state that he no longer had any reservations.35

Healy’s opposition to the Pabloite IS shaded over into hostility towards a centralised International as such. He was determined, he told Cannon, that there should be no return to the pre-1953 FI, with its ‘constant spate of meetings in Paris which meant sections raising funds to send representatives’.36 But the weakness of the International Committee obviously strengthened the hand of those advocating unity with Pablo and Mandel. From 1957, therefore, Healy tried to give the IC some semblance of political life by pushing for an international congress, which he attempted to dub the ‘Fourth World Congress’ of the FI until being dissuaded by the SWP.37 When the congress met in Leeds in June 1958, it not only failed to give any direction to the work of the sections, but even passed a resolution denying the IC the authority to intervene in its constituent national groups.38

In Britain, Healy was faced with the task of integrating former CPers, both intellectuals and militant workers, into the Group. ‘With the new recruits Healy was like a young lover in the first flush of his infatuation’, Harry Ratner remembers. ‘Behan could do no wrong. John Daniels could do no wrong. Peter Fryer could do no wrong. When sometimes some of us would make some criticism of these people Gerry would say you had to be tolerant, they had a lot to unlearn from their period in the CP.’39 But the more liberal regime that resulted did not represent a move towards genuinely democratic-centralist methods. Rather, Healy seems to have played a mini-Bonapartist role within the organisation, maintaining his dominance by balancing between the various groupings.

The intellectuals were encouraged to pursue their theoretical work through Labour Review, which stressed that it was ‘not a sectional Trotskyist journal’, and opened its pages to ‘all who wish to put a point of view on how Marxist science is to be evolved’.40 There was nothing wrong in principle with this approach, which had an obvious appeal to intellectuals breaking from the stultifying atmosphere of Stalinism. But what was more urgently needed was a thorough reassessment of the post-war crisis of the FI, which a number of recruits from the CP were theoretically equipped to carry out. At one point, indeed, Healy did propose to undertake an ‘objective study’ of the development of the world Trotskyist movement since 1945.41 But there were too many skeletons in the closet for Healy to risk such an enterprise. Not surprisingly, the ‘objective study’ failed to materialise.

The ‘old Healyites’ of pre-1956 vintage continued their established practice of ‘deep entry’ in the Labour Party. But the Labour left was in a demoralised state after Bevan’s renegacy at the 1957 annual conference. By contrast, there was an upsurge of activity in the trade unions. Healy therefore empirically shifted the Group’s efforts towards intervention in industrial struggles, with the Newsletter producing a series of strike bulletins in which rank-and-file trade unionists were given space to put their case.

Healy was able to use the extensive network of contacts, particularly in the building industry, which Brian Behan had brought with him from the CP. Behan himself played a prominent role in the 1958 dispute at McAlpine’s Shell-Mex site on London’s South Bank, where pickets were subjected to police violence and numerous arrests were made, with Behan himself receiving a six-week jail sentence.42 Characteristically, Healy went completely overboard on this. ‘We’ve got the bourgeoisie by the throat!’ he informed one London aggregate, ignoring the fact that the dispute, bitter though it was, was limited to a single building site. ‘But this was part of the apocalyptic concept Gerry had’, Hillman observes. ‘There it was – the final showdown! And everything had to be poured into support for it.’43

Ken Weller, who was active in the Group’s AEU faction, argues that a real ‘window of opportunity’ had opened up for revolutionaries in the trade unions in this period, when a whole layer of militants, disillusioned with the CP, were looking for a new direction. But Healy blew his chance to build an effective industrial base. As Weller explains: ‘One of the consequences of this “crisis-ology” of Healy’s was that every five minutes everything had to be dropped ... and we had to do something else. We were being rushed off our feet every night of the week ... working in the print shop, doing this, doing that, never being able to do any systematic work. And of course what happens is that people begin to drift away.... So that by the time I left, when I was expelled in 1960, that window of opportunity had closed.’44

The potential for building a revolutionary organisation in industry, and Healy’s failure to capitalise on this, were both demonstrated at the Rank and File Conference of November 1958. The gathering, organised by the Group, drew an audience of between five and six hundred, ‘the bulk of them representing workers on the shop floor’, according to a report in the Times.45 Yet, even though Labour Review had earlier advocated the formation of ‘a national network of rank-and-file bodies, with efficient liaison and a central organ’,46 Peter Fryer announced after the conference that there was ‘no plan for a permanent organisation’.47 Fearing that a mass rank-and-file movement might escape his personal control, it seems, Healy preferred to use the conference to impress attending militants and recruit a few of them to a small sect where his domination was secure.48

Nor did the conference arm workers with a Marxist political strategy. The Charter of Workers’ Demands it adopted did correctly call on industrial militants to take up a political fight against the Labour Party’s Gaitskellite leadership. But this was presented in reformist terms familiar from the days of the Socialist Fellowship, workers being urged to ‘bring the party back to its original purpose and restore the socialist vision and energy of the pioneers of our movement’. Adaptation to Labourite illusions was combined with the usual catastrophist predictions. Fryer declared that the capitalist class aimed to ‘smash us and break us and drive us back to the hungry Thirties’, while Behan warned of the danger of the unemployed being won over to fascism.49 Although Healy himself did not address the conference, the perspectives outlined here were distinctively his own.

Healy’s low profile was probably due to the witch-hunt launched by the capitalist press in the run-up to the conference. A front-page exposé appeared in the News Chronicle, which sent a reporter to Healy’s home in Streatham to interview the evil genius behind the ‘Red Club’. (Healy refused to co-operate. ‘Print what you like. It’s a free press, isn’t it?’50) The campaign no doubt boosted Healy’s sense of his own importance, but it was based on a somewhat exaggerated view of the Group’s influence. A more sober assessment was made in a Times editorial, which pointed out that a conference which failed to set up a permanent organisation posed no serious threat to the established order. As for the ‘Red Club’ itself, the Times noted presciently that ‘the composition of the group is so diverse that it would be surprising if they were to cohere for long’.51


Notes

1. ‘When we finished fighting with Pablo’, Healy later recalled, ‘... we had 24 members in London and 23 in the provinces’ (SLL internal document, 1964).

2. Interview with Ellis Hillman, 28 December 1990. Executive and National Committee meetings were held at Healy’s house in Sternhold Avenue, Streatham.

3. G. Pilling et al., in Tasks of the Fourth International, May 1990; D. North, Gerry Healy and His Place in the History of the Fourth International, 1991, p.28. These writers merely echo Healy’s own fraudulent claim: cf. How Pablo and Healy Blocked Reunification, 1978, p.34.

4. Hillman interview. ‘The reaction of the comrades was a mixture of amazement and bafflement’, Hillman recounts. ‘Even Mike Banda looked a bit astonished!’

5. Tribune, 9 March 1956. With unconscious irony, Healy noted that the congress decisions were ‘unanimous and unopposed – a method sharply in contrast with the tradition of Lenin’.

6. Ellis Hillman, interviewed by Al Richardson and Sam Bornstein, 19 June 1978. Transcript courtesy of Socialist Platform.

7. Tribune, 22 June 1956.

8. Ibid., 29 June 1956.

9. Information from John Archer.

10. D. Widgery, The Left in Britain, 1956-68, 1976, pp.60-1; Peter Fryer, interviewed in Workers Press, 13 September 1986.

11. Anon., ‘The disunity of theory and practice: the Trotskyist movement in Great Britain since 1945’, Revolutionary History, vol.6, nos.2/3, 1996. According to this account, Mike and Tony Banda were a major source of finance for the new press.

12. Fryer interview.

13. Brian Pearce interviewed in Workers Press, 6 December 1986.

14. G. Healy, Revolution and Counter Revolution in Hungary, 1957, p.14.

15. Fryer interview.

16. Daily Worker, 22-23 April 1957.

17. Newsletter, 10 May 1957.

18. Pearce interview. The speech is summarised in the Newsletter report, but Pearce is not named because he was still a CP member.

19. Newsletter, 10 May 1957.

20. Fryer interview.

21. Forum, February 1957.

22. Ibid.

23. Labour Party Conference Report, 1957, pp.165-6, 181.

24. Hillman interview, December 1990.

25. How Healy and Pablo Blocked Reunification, p.77.

26. Ibid., p.34.

27. Ibid., pp.77, 79.

28. Ibid., p.32.

29. Ibid., p.62.

30. Ibid., p.40. The RSL was an ‘open’ organisation in that, unlike Healy’s Group, it had a name, organised public meetings and published an avowedly Trotskyist journal, Workers International Review.

31. Ibid., p.41.

32. Labour Review, July-August 1957.

33. Ibid., September-October 1957.

34. Interview with Ellis Hillman, 28 December 1990.

35. H. Ratner, Reluctant Revolutionary, 1994, pp.218-9.

36. How Healy and Pablo Blocked Reunification, p.34.

37. ‘Deep Entryism’ and Pablo’s Anti-Unity Offensive, 1978, p.7.

38. Ibid., p.10.

39. Harry Ratner, interviewed by Sam Bornstein, 4 February 1987. Transcript courtesy of Socialist Platform.

40. Quoted by J. Callaghan, British Trotskyism, 1984, p.223.

41. How Healy and Pablo Blocked Reunification, p.33.

42. See Bob Pennington’s account in Labour Review, October-November 1959.

43. Interview with Ellis Hillman, 4 January 1991.

44. Interview with Ken Weller, 17 April 1991.

45. The Times, 17 November 1958.

46. Quoted by M. Hoskisson and D. Stocking, ‘The rise and fall of the SLL’, Workers Power, February 1986.

47. The Times, 17 November 1958.

48. Cf. anon., ‘The disunity of theory and practice’. This makes the point that the organisation’s growth was always obstructed by the domination of the ‘Healy clique’, because ‘the bigger becomes the group, the greater the potential danger that control will slip out of the clique’s hands. Ex-members assert that this is the reason why no permanent continuing body emerged from the rank-and-file conference’.

49. Newsletter, 22 November 1958.

50. News Chronicle, 13 November 1958.

51. The Times, 17 November 1958.