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Chapter 11 (1985) Falling Apart

IN 1985 THE WRP plunged into terminal crisis. Within a matter of months, this most monolithic of far-left groups split into two rival organisations which themselves promptly broke up into further fragments, with the WRP’s International Committee fracturing along similar lines. Healy himself, whose domination of the organisation had seemed total, swiftly found himself isolated and politically discredited, as the majority of his hitherto loyal followers demanded his expulsion. What caused this sudden disintegration of the Healyite movement?

 

One factor was the shattering of the WRP’s perspectives with the defeat of the miners’ strike. Of course, this was not exactly the first time that Healy’s fantasies had wrecked themselves against reality. But now, perhaps because of old age – he was showing distinct signs of senility – he had lost his old ability to pragmatically shift his political line, and was unable to reorient his demoralised followers.1 Indeed, beneath the pseudo-revolutionary bombast Healy seems to have become thoroughly demoralised himself. Convinced that police-military dictatorship was imminent, he had £20,000 in cash and a BMW car secretly stashed away in order to flee the country in the event of a fascist coup!2

 

On top of this, the WRP was faced with a massive financial crisis, the primary cause of which was Healy’s megalomaniac insistence that the organisation should behave as though it were a mass party. Not only had he purchased huge quantities of printing and other equipment, far in excess of the WRP’s needs, but he had also acquired a bloated apparatus of some 90 full-timers – in a ‘party’ whose active membership didn’t even reach four figures. The situation was aggravated by a severe reduction in the WRP’s income resulting from the slump in News Line sales which followed the miners’ defeat. Healy’s own refusal to consider any evidence that contradicted claims about the party’s growing size and influence prevented the deteriorating situation being addressed by the WRP leadership until the organisation was on the point of bankruptcy.

 

The final nail in Healy’s political coffin was the eruption of a sexual scandal centring on his corrupt relations with women comrades. Again, there was nothing new in this. Back in the early 1950s, Healy had been in trouble after propositioning of daughter of a prominent figure in the Fourth International.3 In 1964 an SLL control commission had been held over Healy’s relationship with a leader of the Young Socialists.4 And one of the background issues to the 1974 split in the WRP was the rejection of Healy’s advances by a woman supporter of Thornett.5 All of this, however, had been kept from the membership, the majority of whom reacted with shock and outrage after Healy’s corruption was exposed in a letter by his longtime secretary Aileen Jennings.

 

What was the character of this sexual abuse? It was later stated that the women Healy pressurised into having sexual relations with him ‘mistakenly believed that the revolution – in the form of the "greatest" leader demanded this, the most personal sacrifice of all. They were not coerced ... physically, but every pressure was brought to bear on them as revolutionaries’. The situation was ‘not so much rape but ... sexual abuse by someone in a position of power and trust’.6 It was, Dave Bruce comments, ‘wholesale sexual corruption in a manner analogous to these religious sects. There’s a very close parallel’.7

 

The initial form the WRP’s crisis took was the outbreak in the spring of 1985 of a fierce conflict between Healy and WRP assistant general secretary Sheila Torrance. In contrast to Healy’s deeply pessimistic conclusions concerning the outcome of the miners’ strike, Torrance clung to the view that the miners were undefeated and that Britain was on the verge of a revolution. As Richard Price points out: ‘Both these were different sides of the came coin basically, which were frequently deployed throughout the WRP’s history, either to scare people into greater activism – "if you don’t recruit that many members or sell that many papers, then the military coup is round the corner" – or, on the other hand, the onward and upward side was that the struggle goes on and achieves new profound, dialectical heights, etc, etc. So naturally these two positions came into conflict, even if they were linked. Specifically, Healy in this frame of mind would be looking for scapegoats to blame for the failure of the perspective. And that in the first instance was Torrance, because she was chief organiser, and other elements ... who had some connection with her, which included the youth leadership ... and the London district committee leadership.’8 To which it might be added that Torrance, with her falsified News Line circulation figures and empty claims of 10,000 members, made herself an obvious target.

 

Healy threatened to have Torrance suspended or moved to the provinces, and viciously attacked those among the party activists and the youth who defended her. Stuart Carter, a CC member from Manchester who opposed the witch-hunt against Torrance, was beaten up by Healy at a Central Committee meeting on 27 April and subsequently expelled. Richard Price, the secretary of London district committee, which Healy considered to be a nest of Torrance supporters, was publicly denounced by Healy while chairing the WRP’s May Day rally.9

 

For a while, the situation seemed to be heading for a split. Torrance was overheard screaming at Healy before a Political Committee meeting in June: ‘You’re twisted, this time you’re going to come unstuck, I’ll take it to conference and then you’ll see.’10 At the same time, an opposition grouping had developed at the party centre in Clapham. As Dave Bruce recalls: ‘There was Dot Gibson, myself, Robert Harris became involved in it, Charlie Brandt, Torrance for a while, although she didn’t half rat on us in the end.... There were four or five of us who quite consciously were organising in opposition to Healy.... Every letter Healy got was opened, photocopied and passed on to us before Healy ever got it, and re-sealed. Then we bugged his premises so we knew what he was doing.... We felt that, if you couldn’t fight corruption in your own movement, why call yourself a Trot?’11 It was at the instigation of this group that Aileen Jennings – who was about to leave the party and disappear – wrote her letter exposing Healy’s sexual activities and naming 26 of the women involved. This bombshell was consciously timed to go off when it would be least expected – the day after the apparently successful rally at the end of the march to free the jailed miners. ‘It was also bloody obvious that if we didn’t do something we’d be expelled’, Bruce points out, ‘because that had happened to everybody else. We’d studied the Thornett experience, and the mistakes that Thornett made, and how he got outmanoeuvred, so we weren’t going to make the same mistakes.’12

 

When Jennings’ letter was read to a Political Committee meeting on 1 July, it produced the anticipated explosion. ‘Vanessa Redgrave was screeching at the top of her voice that this was the work of the Black Hundreds’, Richard Price recounts. ‘That’s a memory I cherish. And Banda gave this bizarre, rambling speech about how all sorts of great leaders had had little vices ... that Tito had been a bit of a womaniser and Mao as well.... You had one wing of the Healyites saying this is lies, lies, lies, and another wing – Banda in particular, and to some extent Mitchell – working out excuses. And the weirdest thing of all was Healy himself, because at one point he was saying "This is a provocation", and at another point, like a harpooned whale, he spread his hands and said, "Well, I have many friends"!’13

 

Although Torrance was among the PC majority who voted for a resolution rejecting the Jennings letter as a provocation (there were three votes against and two abstentions),14 she was not averse to using the situation to undermine Healy. A week later, at her insistence, Healy was forced to sign an agreement to ‘cease immediately my personel [sic] relations with the youth’.15 Price argues that ‘this was a body blow Healy never recovered from. He tried to keep up the pretence of being in charge, but effectively he’d been holed below the water-line. But this was carried out as a PC manoeuvre, behind the back of the CC. Of course, this was in fact how the WRP had always operated. The CC was always subordinate to the PC, never mind what it said in the constitution.... The deal was struck behind the scenes.... Clearly what was envisaged was that there would be a bloodless transfer of power to Banda and Torrance, who would be the new leadership’.16

 

Mike Banda’s initial support for Healy quickly crumbled, Price recalls: ‘Initially what he did was he decamped to the provinces, and toured around lining up everyone against this Clapham-based opposition. It seems that he switched sides having had discussions with parents of some of the youth mentioned in Aileen Jennings’ letter. But I can’t be authoritative about that. All I know is that he completely flipped from one side to the other within a short period of time. Even at that [1 July] PC meeting – knowing how aggressive and hot-tempered he could be – already he seemed punctured. After all, Banda had spent a lot of the miners’ strike in the coalfields. I think probably he knew deep down that the line that had been peddled was nonsense. Or at least this was coming home to him. I think Banda over a whole period of time had consciously covered up for Healy, on many fronts, including his relations with women. There was an element of political shipwreck and of remorse.’17

 

Throughout this period, there had been increasing demands by the YS leadership and Dave Hyland, a full-timer in Yorkshire, for a control commission into Healy’s sexual abuse. Banda apparently tried to pressurise the parents of Healy’s victims into withdrawing this demand, while Torrance used the WRP’s warped version of democratic centralism to obstruct discussion of the subject outside of the PC.18 In an attempt to deflect calls for a control commission, Banda and Torrance decided to retire Healy, supposedly on the grounds of age and ill-health, although he would be allowed to attend CC and PC meetings in an ‘advisory’ capacity. The agreement they reached with Healy in early September was that his retirement would not reflect adversely on his 49 years in the movement. Indeed, it was intended to hold a public meeting to celebrate his political career.19 ‘Torrance really believed that they would have the bloodless transfer of power’, Price observes. ‘Banda would be able to speechify, but essentially she would run the show, and would inherit the mantle of Healy. She thought this heritage had great stock.... What about her attitude to Healy’s abuse of women? Well I would say Torrance probably did want it to stop, but only really because she knew it had gone too far. Because I’m convinced through having talked to people subsequently that she knew all about this anyway, for years and years and years. So you can see why on the one hand she wanted to ease him aside, but on the other hand she didn’t want Pandora’s box opened.... She wanted a kind of tamed Healy.’20

 

Meanwhile, a sharp discussion had developed over the WRP’s political line. Torrance herself was critical of Healy’s relations with trade union bureaucrats and Labour lefts, and even began to develop the theory that there had been a political degeneration, albeit of recent origin, in the WRP. At a CC meeting in August she, Price and Bruce attacked the party’s cover-up for Ken Livingstone.21 However, while she could criticise the party’s opportunism, Torrance was entirely uncritical of its ultra-leftism.

 

It was Dave Bruce, in a discussion document presented to the CC in late August, who launched an attack on the WRP’s sectarianism. Rejecting the view that the working class had broken with its existing reformist leadership, Bruce emphasised that the WRP had to pursue united front tactics in order to win the majority of the class. The weakness of Bruce’s document was its failure to break sufficiently from the established ultra-leftist line. It upheld the view that the Thatcher government had ‘failed to inflict a single decisive defeat on any section of the organised working class’, and put forward the slogan ‘Demand the TUC organise the general strike’.22

 

For Torrance, however, this represented a right-opportunist deviation of monstrous proportions! A document replying to Bruce, which appeared on 21 September in Torrance’s name but was probably written by her partner Paddy O’Regan, was an exercise in pure Healyite gibberish. According to Torrance, Britain was in a ‘revolutionary situation ... which is deepening continually’. Healy’s retirement, she asserted, had given the green light to ‘conservative, unprepared and sceptical sections of the party leadership’, who ‘have become intense focal points of bourgeois pressure, are turning towards Left Reformism and are in a frenzy to turn the party to the Right’. Significantly, Torrance’s document also featured a fervent tribute to Healy, claiming that his ‘greatest contribution to the building of the party has been to pioneer the struggle for dialectical logic, the dialectical method and to emphasise the importance of abstract thought’!23

 

* * * *

 

AS WITH MOST other decisive episodes in his political career, in order to give an accurate account of Healy’s expulsion from the WRP it is necessary to separate reality from myth. At the time, because of the well-deserved contempt in which Healy was held by most of the left, few questioned the story that a heroic band of anti-Healyites had suddenly risen up to throw out the old tyrant along with what were commonly dismissed as ‘his most mindless followers’.24 The truth, however, is rather more complex. In fact the October 1985 split in the WRP was the messy outcome of a confused factional struggle which developed over a period of months and was characterised by a number of unstable and shifting alliances.

 

The loose alignment of anti-Healy oppositionists that had appeared in the early summer – the Clapham-based grouping around Dave Bruce, Dot Gibson and others, together with Sheila Torrance and her allies in the London District Committee and YS leadership – soon broke up. Torrance’s obstruction of the demand for a control commission into the allegations against Healy had the effect of losing her the backing of both the youth and a substantial section of the LDC. Indeed, in the course of September, and behind the backs of her own supporters, Torrance mended her fences with Healy and his personal clique, of which the Redgraves and Alex Mitchell were the most prominent representatives.

 

Torrance and the Healyites now established a new bloc, with the avowed objective of defending the WRP’s Seventh Congress perspectives, which called for the overthrow of ‘Thatcher’s Bonapartist regime’ through ‘the organisation of the General Strike and the creation of a Workers’ Revolutionary Government’.25 The campaign against Healy, they argued, was merely a cover for a right-wing liquidationist tendency in the WRP which wanted to overturn these ‘revolutionary’ perspectives.

 

Meanwhile, Healy’s erstwhile lieutenant Mike Banda, whose politics were oscillating wildly, had turned into Healy’s most vitriolic opponent. And Cliff Slaughter, who at the August CC meeting had staunchly defended the WRP’s cover-up for Ken Livingstone, returned in late September from a holiday in Greece to become another born-again anti-Healyite. These two men, themselves deeply compromised by their long history of support for Healy – which had involved framing, expelling and, on occasion, beating up his opponents – emerged as the new leadership of the anti-Healy forces. As details of the allegations against Healy gradually leaked out, increasing numbers of the WRP membership, quite rightly appalled by these revelations, rallied behind Banda and Slaughter. In their insistence on calling Healy to account for his abuse of women, and their recognition that his sectarian ultra-leftism had led the organisation into a blind alley, these comrades were undoubtedly correct. The question remains as to why so many other WRP members refused to go along with this. The assertion that the majority of them were motivated by the desire to defend ‘their idol’26 will satisfy only those who have renounced political honesty in favour of self-justifying fairy tales.

 

The low esteem in which both Banda and Slaughter were held by many party activists was one important factor in their failure to attract more support. Banda was regarded by some as a bit of a windbag, Slaughter as a supercilious academic who refused to soil his hands with any practical work – Torrance, by contrast, had won respect among the party rank and file as a hardworking and effective organiser. Another factor was that, within the wild ultra-leftist perspectives, there was an grain of truth to some of Torrance’s accusations against the Banda-Slaughter camp. Richard Price argues that, as far as Banda was concerned, ‘there were some indications, from my experience, that the guy was finally – elements of this had always been present – but he was finally heading off to a left-Stalinist position. I don’t say he’d arrived at it, but he was heading that way. I remember he said, and my jaw dropped, that he’d learned far more from Mao Zedong – on philosophy, I think – than he’d ever learned from Trotsky’. Torrance was therefore able to point to some of the leaders of the anti-Healy faction and say that they were breaking from Trotskyism. ‘That’s undoubtedly true’, Price points out. ‘Some did become Stalinists.’27

 

The obvious solution to the WRP’s crisis was to set up a control commission into Healy, and to pursue a systematic discussion over political perspectives. This, in fact, was the course that Torrance herself came to advocate. At the first of two CC meetings in September, which confirmed the decision to retire Healy, Price recalls that ‘Mickie Shaw appeared – Aileen Jennings’ mother – appealing for the CC to find the whereabouts of her daughter, and calling for a control commission.... Torrance was very sarcastic with her, implying that she knew perfectly well where Aileen was and that this was a load of hogwash. But I remember her saying words to the effect of "Well, if you want your control commission, have one". And there was actually a vote formally taken that the next CC meeting would set it in motion. But the next CC didn’t discuss the question of the control commission at all. It was devoted to a political discussion which was in fact a showdown between the returned Slaughter and various others, and Torrance, in which Torrance was attacked for her mindless ultra-leftism’.28 In fact it was at Mike Banda’s insistence that the question of the control commission was deferred until the next CC meeting, due on 12 October.29

 

At this stage, it still seemed possible that the related issues of the party’s political perspectives and Healy’s sexual corruption could be resolved without a split. On 2 October, however, Healy entered the party’s Clapham headquarters in what was apparently an attempt to reassert his position within the organisation. A meeting of the Political Committee held that he was in breach of the terms of his retirement and banned him from the premises. But at the next PC meeting on 9 October the ban was overturned, causing Banda and his supporters to walk out in protest. On his own authority and without waiting for the CC to meet (although a majority of the CC subsequently endorsed his actions), Banda then instructed the Runcorn print plant to halt production of the News Line, and called staff at the Clapham centre, the WRP’s bookshops and the College of Marxist Education out on strike. This coup, it should be noted, was accompanied by considerable political violence.

 

In the course of this developing crisis some truly mindless followers of Healy had turned almost overnight into his hysterical enemies. ‘There were some quite remarkable conversion experiences’, Price recalls, ‘from people who’d been absolute toadies in the past. Some of these were quite wondrous to behold.’ Members of Healy’s ‘security department’, who had happily burgled other left groups’ premises for him, now transformed themselves into self-righteous defenders of ‘revolutionary morality’ – the slogan around which the Slaughter-Banda faction launched their bid for control of the organisation. And when the definitive Healyite apparatchik Simon Pirani ended up on the anti-Healy side of the split, even members of his own faction were left scratching their heads in astonishment. The use and justification of violence by the Banda-Slaughter grouping against their opponents in the party is perhaps to be explained by the fact that, in many cases, this somersault in political allegiance was not accompanied by any fundamental change in political method.

 

For example, Ian Harrison – then a rank-and-file WRP member – recalls a morning in September 1985, towards the end of a night’s guard duty at the Clapham headquarters, when Healy had suddenly appeared, accompanied by his driver Phil Penn. Healy was ‘looking very white ... very nervous, and he shook Phil Penn like Penn was his older brother saying "Tell him, Phil, you tell him". And Penn pointed a finger at me and said, "You’re withholding Gerry Healy’s mail. We want all his mail".’ Ignoring Harrison’s assurances that Healy’s own mail had already been sorted and sent up to his office, Penn then pushed into the guardhouse and scooped up letters which were addressed to the WRP’s various companies along with obvious business circulars. ‘And he pointed his finger at me ... saying "I’ll break your legs if you take Gerry’s mail".’ When Harrison next went to the centre for guard duty a few weeks later, after Healy had been banned, he was summoned to see Penn, who launched into a tirade against Healy, and concluded: ‘If you let that bastard through the gates, I’ll break your legs’!30

 

A further irony of these new factional alignments, Richard Price points out, was that while many of Healy’s toadies had flip-flopped, most of the Torrance-Healy faction on the Central Committee (with the obvious exception of the Redgraves and Mitchell) ‘weren’t really Healy’s people, in terms of his intimate set. These were Ben Rudder, Simon Vevers, Ray Athow, Dave Oatley, Frank Sweeney – these were not the inner circle. These were people basically who wanted to maintain the existing line’. They justified their refusal to back the campaign against Healy with the argument ‘that there was the personal and the political, and while the personal had been pretty shocking, dire and everything else, there were nonetheless politics to be fought out, and on these things these people [the Banda-Slaughter faction] were wrong. This was the psychology of the ordinary Torranceites – those without some big stake in covering things up. Of course, there were other people who had a stake in covering lots of things up – people like Mitchell and the Redgraves’.

 

Price adds that the use of violence against the minority can’t be condoned ‘because a lot of these people who went with Torrance ... were basically ordinary, honest people – that was no way to educate them. However, you can entirely understand it. And of course we were totally wrong, really, politically and in many other ways – and of course over the control commission business, and this warped democratic centralism’.31

 

When members of the Torrance-Healy faction arrived at the Central Committee meeting on 12 October, they found themselves confronted by a mass lobby of Banda-Slaughter supporters. Although this was presented as an exercise of democratic rights by the WRP rank and file, given that only supporters of one faction were present it really amounted to organised intimidation of their political opponents. In the CC meeting itself, Price recounts, ‘there was a kind of lynch atmosphere. People were jumping up and down volunteering to get Healy, bring him here and deal with him now. Tony Banda was screaming at the top of his voice "We are now a military faction". This sort of stuff.... It was extremely difficult for anyone who wasn’t with the majority to speak – I mean, they were allowed to speak, but they were heckled, interrupted, there was a very, very hostile atmosphere.... People like Ben Rudder and Athow spoke in quite a reasoned way – this was one of the peculiar things about it. Of course the politics were completely out of the window. But the other side had no coherent line at all. There were people like Dave Hyland saying that there never had been a Trotskyist movement in Britain, and I think Peter Jones had a similar kind of position. Well this meant ... that really it had all been a complete waste of time, this is what it felt like. So you can see a bit of the psychology of why people would react against that’.32

 

The meeting opened with a 90-minute contribution by Mike Banda, the major part of which was devoted to his own rambling personal reminiscences, suggesting that he was in the throes of a breakdown. Banda’s speech also featured an account of Healy’s coercive relations with women comrades going back many years, and in such detail as to indicate that Banda must have known about this all along. The meeting lasted some 12 hours. When it reconvened the following day, however, the majority guillotined the debate, arguing that the tension – which they themselves were of course primarily responsible for creating – made further discussion impossible. The CC then voted by 25 to 11 to charge Healy for expulsion on the grounds of violence, slander and abuse of women members. It also decided to sack three full-timers – Torrance, Price and Corin Redgrave – for the crime of backing the opposition. Counter-proposals by the minority to resume publication of the News Line, and to charge Banda with assaulting Healy supporter Corinna Lotz, were voted down by a similar margin.33

 

* * * *

 

ONE POINT WHICH needs to be emphasised in any account of the breakup of the WRP is that there was a right side and a wrong side to the split in October 1985, and those who opposed Healy’s expulsion were unquestionably on the wrong side. But this doesn’t absolve the anti-Healy majority faction of responsibility for carrying out the split so abruptly, and under conditions of such political and organisational chaos, that many honest WRP members, some of them far from uncritical of Healy, ended up with the minority.

 

From the standpoint of politically educating the membership, the Central Committee’s 13 October decision to begin expulsion proceedings against Healy was decidedly premature. Although the CC had already agreed to set up a control commission into Healy, it now charged him with the very crimes that the commission was supposed to be investigating – before the commission had even begun its work! The decision was then presented to the membership as a fait accompli, and those who refused to endorse the CC’s action were denounced as supporters of rape – a thoroughly dubious characterisation of Healy’s sexual abuse which the majority itself would later reject.34 Dave Bruce observes that many rank-and-file supporters of the minority simply ‘didn’t believe the charges against Healy, they found it unbelievable, and I don’t think that we satisfactorily proved it to them.... So they didn’t support rape, it’s absurd to say that, but they didn’t believe the charge, and they believed Healy – or rather Torrance – that we were a right-wing group’.35

 

This latter accusation, though almost entirely false, wasn’t effectively refuted either. The document Bruce had presented to the CC at the end of August had outlined an essentially correct position on the united front which Torrance/O’Regan had proved unable to answer. And this exchange had been followed up by a surprisingly good contribution from Simon Pirani, defending Bruce and demolishing Torrance’s and Healy’s ultra-left sectarianism. Further documents attacking Healy’s philosophy and politics, written by US Workers League leader David North in 1982 and 1984, were selectively issued by the majority shortly before the split. But little of this material had been widely circulated in the party and none of it properly discussed by the membership.

 

As a result, the specifically political origins of the party crisis were barely touched upon before the organisation split. Indeed, the majority subsequently declared that the WRP had broken apart ‘not on tactical and programmatic issues, but on the most basic questions of revolutionary morality’ – in other words, solely over the issue of Healy’s sexual abuse.36 Under these circumstances, as Gerry Downing has pointed out, ‘Torrance’s assertion that the "sex thing" was being used to move the party rightward was obviously believed by many members, who were required to make up their minds on whose side they were on in the midst of very highly charged emotional appeals and very little political debate. The side many took was decided by accident, where they lived and who their friends were rather than any political assessment.’37

 

During the week following the October 12-13 CC, area aggregates were held throughout the country to discuss the crisis in the WRP. In London two meetings were held at the party’s Clapham headquarters, the first of which, on 14 October, was notable for a particularly disgraceful contribution from Corin Redgrave. Rejecting point blank any disciplinary action against the WRP’s glorious leader (who was by this time in hiding from the WRP membership), Redgrave declared: ‘We are neither for or against corruption, we are for the socialist revolution.’38 With Healy’s victims and their relatives present at the meeting, this remark can only be seen as a conscious provocation. It produced understandable fury among majority supporters, and Redgrave only narrowly escaped being physically assaulted. Yet such was the confusion caused by the lack of political preparation for Healy’s expulsion that at this first aggregate the Torrance-Healy faction was able to win a narrow majority. After the meeting, a frustrated Mike Banda reportedly stamped around the yard at the Clapham centre shouting: ‘Everyone in the country supports me except this rubbish in London.’39

 

A second London aggregate was set for 18 October, however, and here the Banda-Slaughter group succeeded in imposing its control. ‘They’d been bringing in more people from outside London’, minority supporter Ian Harrison recalls. ‘They had people who had been out of membership for a long time.... There was no proper credentials check on the door as people went into the aggregate, and in fact they had a lot of their very heavy people lining the corridors as you went into the warehouse, so there was a very intimidating atmosphere.’ A large brazier which was permanently blazing in the yard cast a pall of smoke over the centre, giving an appropriately apocalyptic air to the proceedings. Harrison recalls commenting to Corin Redgrave on the pervasive smell of burning. ‘Those are the fires of the Spanish Inquisition’, Redgrave replied!40

 

In the course of this second aggregate, Banda went completely to pieces and it was left to Cliff Slaughter to make the main speech for the CC majority. In relation to Healy’s sexual abuse, Slaughter quoted an extremely backward comment attributed to Lenin by Clara Zetkin, which referred to a woman with many sexual partners as ‘a glass greased by many lips’. Torrance shouted out that this was ‘bourgeois ideology’, and was flummoxed when Slaughter revealed the origin of the quotation.41 But she nevertheless had a point, and her dismissal of the majority as ‘a lot of Mary Whitehouses’, wrong though it was, gained some credibility. Slaughter’s speech also contained the shocking allegation that the WRP had provided the Iraqi embassy with photographs of anti-Ba’athist protestors, enabling it to identify opponents of the regime, although even this was unproven – one News Line photographer, strongly backed by Alex Mitchell, claimed that the demonstrators’ faces had all been blacked out before the photographs were handed over.42

 

Borrowing his political and theoretical points against the Torrance-Healy minority almost entirely from David North’s documents, Slaughter attacked Healy’s philosophy as a form of Hegelianism and the WRP’s politics as ‘Pabloite revisionism’. But instead of trying to calm down the atmosphere in order to facilitate discussion of the political issues, Slaughter chose to raise the factional heat even higher. Picking on Corin Redgrave’s provocative statement at the first aggregate about being neutral on the question of Healy’s sexual corruption, Slaughter declared that, by defending the rapist Healy, the minority stood for ‘the imposition of a near-fascist ideology in our movement’.43

 

‘When Slaughter called Corin Redgrave a fascist’, Bruce comments, ‘of course it cut the discussion off, as it was bound to ... because you can’t discuss with fascists politically, can you? It’s not possible. So he shut the discussion down. We didn’t see it that way at the time, but I think Gerry Downing pointed it out and he was absolutely right. I think that with hindsight Slaughter’s aim was to cut off the discussion, to cut and run, because it was getting too difficult, and he had to be on the side of the angels.’ Between them, Slaughter and Redgrave thus succeeded in irrevocably polarising the situation and stampeding the party into a split.44

 

This second aggregate swiftly descended into total hysteria. As Harrison recalls: ‘At the back, and in the main alleyway, there was Geoff Pilling, Matthew Nugent, John Simmance, and about half a dozen others, and they would constantly heckle throughout the entire meeting, "Rape! Rapists! Pol Pot!" over and over, and all of them were red in the face, they were wild .... The only person who was trying to calm the Banda group was Richard Goldstein. He clearly wished to have some more serious reckoning. But it was clear that by then they had decided there was absolutely going to be no discussion. They were going to prevent all the people who were getting up and opposing them, whether it was Mitchell or Corin Redgrave, they were going to prevent all of them from speaking.’45

 

By dismissing the minority as one reactionary mass, fit only to be denounced and hounded out of the party, Slaughter and Banda destroyed any chance of opening up the contradictions that existed in the Torrance-Healy camp, which was essentially a bloc between two groupings who sought to defend the WRP’s existing programme. In fact many of Torrance’s supporters (as distinct from the real gung-ho Healyites) did not in principle reject disciplinary action against Healy. A resolution adopted by the minorityite Islington WRP branch after the first London aggregate, while containing its fair share of political nonsense, nonetheless insisted that ‘we are not defenders of rape’ and called for a control commission into Healy.46 Ian Harrison was mandated to put this position to the second aggregate, but he couldn’t get to speak.

 

Harrison concedes that if rank-and-file minority supporters had been allowed to participate in a free discussion ‘we would have been saying things like, this is the immediacy of the struggle for power, you lot are turning away from the class ... you’ve got to restore the News Line, the News Line is the decisive paper, we’d have been saying all these kinds of things.... But even if what we had to say was wrong, and handicapped by all of our sectarian training, ultimately if we’d continued with comradely political discussion, things would have started to flow’. Harrison believes that the arguments put forward in majority documents like Dave Bruce’s would have had an impact on many minority supporters.47 As it was, hardly anyone was given the chance to consider these arguments before the organisation split.

 

The next CC meeting on 19 October formally expelled Healy, on the grounds that he hadn’t appeared to answer the charges against him, and then agreed to hold a special congress on the weekend of 26-27 October. The CC thereby preempted any decision the congress itself might take regarding Healy’s expulsion. There was a certain poetic justice in this for, as the historian John Callaghan has pointed out, Healy himself traditionally expelled his own opponents on the eve of party congresses.48 But it also shows how the fight against Healy was carried out using some essentially Healyite methods.

 

Demonised as near-fascist defenders of rape by the majority, and howled down when they attempted to argue their political positions, the minority refused to attend the 19 October CC meeting because they feared violence would be used against them. They boycotted the majority’s special congress, organised their own alternative conference and declared themselves a separate party. The Slaughter-Banda congress, for its part, went on to endorse Healy’s expulsion. The forces mobilised by the rival factions nationally have been estimated at 450 for the majority and 320 for the Torrance-Healy minority.49 Healy’s ‘party’, with its claimed membership of 9-10,000, was revealed for the fraud that it was.

 

Almost immediately after the split, the Banda-Slaughter grouping itself began to fragment. In February 1986 supporters of David North, led by Dave Hyland, were kicked out with all the WRP’s usual contempt for democratic procedure. Adopting the name of the International Communist Party, the Northites quickly relapsed into sectarian ultra-leftism, adopting the Bordigist position that the trade unions are no longer workers’ organisations having been entirely incorporated into the capitalist state. Mike Banda and his supporters soon decided that the WRP’s collapse was due to fundamental flaws not in Healy’s politics but in Trotsky’s, and in Banda’s case subsequently evolved towards support for left Stalinism and ‘third world’ nationalism.

 

As for the Slaughter-led WRP, under Dave Bruce’s editorship its paper Workers Press did for a while become a forum for serious political discussion, and the organisation briefly showed at least the potential to reassess its own past and make some positive developments. Any such potential was destroyed, however, as longstanding Healyite hacks like Pilling and Slaughter reasserted their domination over the group. The WRP/Workers Press soon reverted to proclaiming itself and its co-thinkers to be the sole legitimate continuation of the Fourth International, publishing fatuous contributions concerning ‘the struggle against Pabloism’, answering its critics with slanderous attacks and demonstrating general contempt for Trotskyism’s basic political positions – Healyism, in short, without Healy. Having arrived at this sectarian dead end, in late 1996 the ‘party’ ceased publication of Workers Press and formally wound itself up.

 

Could things have turned out any differently? It is doubtful. The organisation Healy had built possessed no tradition of internal democracy – oppositional minorities were simply anathematised and driven out. Consequently, nobody in the WRP had the slightest experience of conducting a principled factional struggle. And the party’s actual politics were so far removed from Marxism that informed political debate was virtually impossible. Indeed, the Healyite movement was so rotten that there was no real prospect of the organisation as a whole being regenerated. The most that could be hoped for was that some elements might emerge from the wreckage and evolve in a politically healthy direction. They proved to be painfully few.

 


Notes

 

1. ‘Healy ... remains very much a pragmatist’, it was pointed out years earlier. ‘He is every inch a sectarian, but he is quite willing to use any means to build up his organisation. Were it not for Healy’s periodic adjustments, the SLL would long ago have cracked up’ (IMG internal document, 1968).

 

2. Workers Press, 4 January 1986.

 

3. Information from Al Richardson.

 

4. This was revealed in Aileen Jennings’ letter, later published in News Line, 30 October 1985.

 

5. T. Wohlforth, The Prophet's Children, 1994, pp.265-6.

 

6. Workers Press, 6 December 1986.

 

7. Interview with Dave Bruce, 6 October 1993.

 

8. Interview with Richard Price, 22 November 1993.

 

9. Workers News, April 1987.

 

10. News Line, 8 November 1985.

 

11. Bruce interview.

 

12. Ibid.

 

13. Price interview.

 

14. Extracts from WRP Political Committee minutes, unpublished document. A proposal for a control commission into the allegations against Healy was voted down by 12 to 4 with one abstention.

 

15. News Line, 31 October 1985. Healy cynically complained that the term ‘youth’ was too vague. ‘It should say "Under 25". As it is it’ll ruin my lifestyle’ (News Line, 6 November 1985).

 

16. Price interview.

 

17. Ibid.

 

18. Gerry Downing, WRP Explosion, 1991, p.5; Price interview.

 

19. Workers News, April 1987; Downing, p.6.

 

20. Price interview.

 

21. Ibid; Downing, p.5.

 

22. News Line, 31 October, 1 November 1985.

 

23. Ibid., 4 November 1985.

 

24. Alan Thornett and John Lister in Workers Press, 22 February 1986.

 

25. Resolutions Adopted by the Seventh Congress, WRP internal document, pp.64, 82.

 

26. Charlie Pottins in Workers Press, 25 September 1993.

 

27. Price interview.

 

28. Ibid.

 

29. Workers News, April 1987.

 

30. Harrison interview.

 

31. Price interview.

 

32. Ibid.

 

33. An account of the October 12-13 CC meeting can be found in Workers News, April 1987.

 

34. The WRP Women’s Commission later argued that Healy’s abuse was a form of incest. To accuse Healy of criminal rape, one of his victims pointed out, was ‘to denigrate and patronise the large number of women cadres ... who were persistently sexually abused by Healy. It is to say they accepted being raped – some for 20 and more years’ (Workers Press, 7 March 1987).

 

35. Dave Bruce interview.

 

36. News Line, 2 November 1985.

 

37. Downing, p.7.

 

38. News Line, 16 November 1985.

 

39. Marxist Review, September 1986.

 

40. Harrison interview.

 

41. News Line, 16 November 1985.

 

42. Harrison interview.

 

43. News Line, 16 November 1985.

 

44. Bruce interview. For Downing’s view, see WRP Explosion, pp.6-7.

 

45. Harrison interview.

 

46. Islington WRP branch resolution.

 

47. Harrison interview.

 

48. J. Callaghan, British Trotskyism, 1984, p.83.

 

49. Workers News, April 1987. These figures are based on the numbers attending area aggregates around the country, with some allowance for those unable to attend.