Chapter 10 (1975-1985) Gaddaffi
THE ELECTION of a majority Labour government in October 1974 posed a major challenge to Marxists. It wasn’t difficult to predict that the administration headed by Harold Wilson (and, after his resignation in 1976, by James Callaghan) would respond to the economic problems of British capitalism by attacking the working class. Nor did it require much foresight to recognise that these attacks would provoke resistance from a class which had achieved such a high level of organisation and militancy during the anti-Tory battles of 1970-74. What was necessary was to develop tactics and strategy which would take forward the political struggle against the Labour leadership. This was the challenge that Healy failed to grapple with.
The WRP’s political line towards the Labour government followed an identical course to the one the SLL had pursued after 1964. It was based on the same delusion that under the impact of social democratic betrayals workers would inevitably break from Labour and rally to an alternative revolutionary organisation. And in mid-1975, after the Wilson administration imposed a pay limit below the rate of inflation, Healy issued the same foolish call to bring down the Labour government. But whereas in the mid-1960s Healy had pulled the SLL back from this suicidal policy, he now plunged headlong into ultra-leftism. The WRP continued to repeat its mindless call for the overthrow of the Labour government right up to 1979, when the government was finally brought down – by the Tories.
This sectarianism towards the Labour Party made even less sense than it had a decade earlier. For, in the course of the fierce conflicts between the trade unions and the Heath government, Labour had recovered from its late-1960s decline and the Constituency Labour Parties had returned to political life. The row which erupted in 1975 over Newham CLP’s deselection of its right wing MP, Reg Prentice, was an opening shot in the battle over party democracy which was to be central to the rise of the Bennite movement. But Healy’s abstention from work inside the Labour Party meant that the WRP was unable to intervene effectively in these developments. The projected ‘mass party’ was reduced to a shrinking sect shouting ultra-left slogans from the sidelines.
The WRP’s failure to correct its self-destructive course was partly due to Healy’s own withdrawal from active organisational work. Though the Healyite tendency’s lack of internal democracy had always prevented the membership from critically evaluating its experiences in implementing the party line, Healy had to an extent been able to overcome this through his active involvement in the work of the branches. But the energetic, hands-on approach of the 1960s was now long past. These days Healy didn’t even bother to attend Central Committee meetings all the way through, often leaving before the reports from the regions had been heard. The expulsion of a whole layer of worker militants around Alan Thornett, and Healy’s increased reliance on middle class followers like the Redgraves, further removed him from actual developments in the working class.
Healy tried to extricate the WRP from its political isolation, and the consequent slump in membership and income, by closing down Workers Press in early 1976, pleading financial collapse. In fact his real purpose was to move operations to Runcorn, where the party had set up its own print shop and could replace printworkers on union rates with party members on subsistence wages. The daily paper was relaunched in May 1976 as the News Line. An attempt at a mass-circulation ‘popular’ tabloid, the new paper drew on the undoubted talents of former Sunday Times journalist Alex Mitchell. Its political level, however, marked a sharp decline even in comparison with its predecessor. True, the paper enabled the WRP to get a hearing from workers in struggle, notably during the long firefighters’ strike of 1977-8. But, having got a hearing, the party had nothing sensible to say to them.
In fact the WRP’s politics had by this stage become completely crazed. Having announced that a revolutionary situation had been ushered in by the Labour government’s attacks on the working class in 1975, Healy now proclaimed that the struggle for state power was directly engaged. ‘This is the end of a whole historical era of parliamentarianism and class compromise which began approximately in 1848’, he informed the membership at the end of 1977. ‘The struggle for power opens up ... the WRP has been emphasising this since the beginning of August – before the firemen’s strike.’1
In the face of this political idiocy the WRP’s numbers went on declining and the circulation of the new ‘mass paper’ stagnated, resulting in a chronic financial crisis. On 31 December 1977 a ‘special conference’ – in fact made up of leading party members selected by Healy himself – was called to deal with the deteriorating situation. After the assembled ‘delegates’ failed to come up with the required 25 per cent increase in News Line orders, Healy called a meeting of the Political Committee and got it to agree to the expulsion of nine leading members. ‘When, at 4.00am on the morning of the 2nd January 1978, the conference finally reassembled’, one participant recalled, ‘G. Healy claimed that it was clear that no one, apart from himself, was capable of defending the party in its crisis. He proposed that expulsions be rescinded only on the basis that he be given personal powers to expel whomsoever he saw fit from the party over the next period. The proposal was passed unanimously by the tired delegates.’2
In search of further scapegoats for the party’s difficulties, Healy then proceeded to carry out a purge of the News Line editorial board. This provoked resistance from one of the victims, Jack Gale, whose hitherto unquestioning loyalty to the organisation had resulted in him being used for years past as Healy’s whipping boy on the Central Committee. In an internal document, which was suppressed by the WRP leadership, Gale demolished Healy’s rantings about a revolutionary situation and an immediate struggle for power, and he savaged Healy’s use of ‘philosophy’ as a substitute for serious political analysis. ‘The party now starts not from a study of objective reality’, Gale wrote, ‘... but from an ironclad assumption that its analysis of the objective situation cannot be wrong and that any failure of real life to live up to the party’s expectations is the subjective fault of individual comrades which must be combatted by sackings, expulsions, hysterical denunciations and threats.’3
Healy was now able to use the WRP’s College of Marxist Education in Derbyshire to inflict his bogus and almost entirely incomprehensible version of dialectics on the membership. This full-time college was in fact well beyond the requirements of a group the WRP’s size, and new ‘members’ recruited on a minimal political basis were frequently pressured into attending courses there to make up numbers. Complaints by one of them – an actress named Irene Gorst – about the treatment she received were featured in a 1975 Observer article, and this was used as a pretext for a police raid on the college. The WRP subsequently sued the Observer for libel, and when the case came to court in 1978 the party’s witnesses (undoubtedly on Healy’s instructions) disgraced themselves by equivocating over revolutionary principles in a vain attempt to persuade the jury of the WRP’s respectability.
Convinced that he would soon be standing at head of a revolutionary government in Britain, Healy sought to build the international connections that would provide both the ‘resources’ for the struggle for power and also the alliances necessary to sustain the resulting socialist regime. A WRP delegation was reportedly sent to Libya in April 1976 to request money for a new printing press for the News Line, and Healy himself apparently visited in August 1977 in search of further financial assistance from the Libyan regime.4 Not surprisingly, adulatory articles about Colonel Gaddafi were one of the notable innovations of the new paper. News Line gave equally uncritical support to the Arafat leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and to the Ba’athist regime in Iraq. Healy’s new turn had its roots in the SLL’s position on the ‘Arab Revolution’ a decade before – if not earlier, in his uncritical support for Algerian nationalist leader Messali Hadj during the 1950s. But the new policy went well beyond this. In the late 1970s, Healy achieved a level of sycophancy towards ‘Third World’ nationalists which outdid anything the derided ‘Pabloites’ of the United Secretariat had ever managed.
Under these circumstances, political criticisms of the USec became increasingly difficult to sustain. Instead, Healy launched the ‘Security and the Fourth International’ campaign. This ‘investigation’, which was conducted by Alex Mitchell and American Healyite leader David North, began by charging US Socialist Workers Party veterans Joseph Hansen and George Novack with being ‘accomplices of the GPU’ because of their failure to counter Stalinist penetration of the Fourth International. It went on to denounce Hansen as a GPU/FBI double agent, and ended up by accusing the entire SWP leadership of working for the FBI – on sole basis that many of them once attended the same college! In 1977 a public meeting was held in London where representatives of virtually every other tendency claiming adherence to Trotskyism condemned this Stalinist-style frame-up.
Meanwhile, the Labour government lurched from crisis to crisis. In 1976, faced with a collapse in the value of sterling, it turned to the International Monetary Fund for a loan, and this was granted only after massive cuts in public spending had been agreed. With the trade union bureaucracy having imposed a policy of wage restraint in support of the Labour leadership, the working class suffered a sharp decline in living standards. The so-called ‘social contract’ collapsed with the ‘winter of discontent’ in 1978-9, during which the Callaghan government was assailed by successive industrial disputes. All this fell far short of a pre-revolutionary situation, never mind the full-blown revolutionary crisis of Healy’s imaginings. What it posed was not the struggle for power, but the necessity of a fight to remove the right-wing Labour leadership and the union bureaucrats who supported it.
In March 1979 the Callaghan government was defeated in a vote of confidence in the Commons, and a general election was called for May. The WRP put up 60 candidates, which strained the organisation’s resources to breaking point, in order to qualify for a five-minute television election broadcast. It began its campaign by condemning rival left groups for arguing that Labour represented any political alternative to the Tories. After all, according to Healy, the era of parliamentary politics was now over. ‘The stage is set in Britain for a general strike and a civil war, whoever wins the coming General Election’, News Line declared.5 However, where its own candidates were not standing, the WRP called on workers to vote Labour ‘in solidarity against the Tory enemy, but without any confidence in the class collaboration of the Labour leaders’.6
What this ignored was that workers did have at least some confidence even in the Labour Party’s reactionary leadership. In one of his more sober moments, Healy noted ‘the reluctance to break with Callaghan of the masses of the working people of this country. It is not that they believe Callaghan is going to make much difference. It is because they feel that what they have seen of him is more acceptable than a return to the years 1970-1974 of the Tory government of Heath’.7 But the WRP’s stupid ultra-leftism prevented it from addressing this problem. Indeed, the perspectives document for the party’s Fourth Congress, held on the eve of the general election, explicitly condemned calls for the expulsion of the Labour leadership as ‘reformist’!8
Support for the WRP’s candidates ranged from Roy Battersby’s 95 votes in Dundee to Simon Pirani’s 820 in Ormskirk – all of them, needless to say, lost their deposits. Healy dismissed this humiliation with the argument that the WRP wasn’t standing to get votes but to put forward its ‘revolutionary programme’, a rationalisation which ignored the fact that the votes the WRP got were a clear indication of its abject failure in winning workers to this programme. The defeat of Labour and the election of an extreme-right Tory government under Margaret Thatcher were also brushed aside by Healy. No need to be depressed, he told a London area aggregate immediately after the election, the arrival of a Tory administration would ‘blow away a few cobwebs’.9 During the coming years of vicious attacks on the labour movement, the Thatcher government would succeed in blowing away rather more than that.
* * * *
FROM THE end of the 1970s, Healy’s adaptation to bourgeois nationalist regimes and organisations in the Third World proceeded apace. After the Shah of Iran was overthrown in the 1979 revolution, the WRP soon gave up any attempt at Marxist analysis in favour of unconditional support for Khomeini’s Islamic regime, to the extent of endorsing its suppression of the Iranian USec group. In Zimbabwe the Popular Front, and in particular Joshua Nkomo’s ZAPU, were given uncritical backing. News Line notoriously justified the execution of Iraqi Communist Party members by the Ba’athist regime, and even published a glossy brochure extolling the glories of Iraq under the leadership of Saddam Hussein. Formal references to the permanent revolution still appeared occasionally in WRP and International Committee statements, but these served only as a cover for a political line which depicted Libya under Colonel Gaddafi as a society in transition to socialism, and renounced the fight to construct independent working class parties in those countries where Healy had established opportunist relations with the existing nationalist leaderships. Indeed, by the late 1970s Healy had abandoned any serious attempt to build his own ‘world party of socialist revolution’, the International Committee.
The IC by this time was in poor shape. In large part this was due to the destructive effects of the policies which its constituent organisations had adopted under the instructions of Healy and the WRP leadership. The Revolutionary Communist League of Sri Lanka was forced to renounce its initial support for an independent Tamil state, thus isolating itself from the Tamil national struggle. In Peru, the Communist League pursued the bogus ‘Security and the Fourth International’ campaign by attacking Hugo Blanco, the popular leader of the country’s USec section, as a supporter of CIA agents (i.e. the SWP leadership), which completely discredited the CL among militant workers. And the IC sections in Germany and Australia were required to imitate the WRP’s ultra-leftism towards the Labour Party, calling for their respective reformist governments to be brought down. The WRP leadership made no effort to analyse the specific situation in any of the countries where the IC was organising. Instead, the fantasy of a world-wide ‘revolutionary situation’ of uniform development was adopted. In any case, Healy had effectively lost interest in the small groups of the IC, except as a source of finance for the WRP. He now had more important international relations to cultivate.
Whether Healy succeeded in raising much cash from these relations is doubtful, however. The 1985 report on Healy’s financial shenanigans, compiled by David North and other representatives of the IC, indicated the receipt of over £1 million from Libya. But Dave Bruce, who oversaw much of the WRP’s commercial printing, argues that ‘of the thousands of pounds that came from the Libyans to the WRP’s printing company, most of it was for the printing of two newspapers. That was about £10,000 a month, £120,000 a year, which sounds an enormous amount of money. But of the £120,000 over half covered the cost of raw materials’. Further income came from a contract to print 250,000 copies of Gaddafi’s Green Book. In all these cases the contracts were won in competition with other printing companies, by quoting a low price, which was itself made possible by party members working extremely long hours for very low wages.
Regarding the daily paper, the production of which was commonly attributed to the WRP’s receipt of ‘Libyan gold’, Bruce argues that ‘the actual month-to-month running costs were covered by income from the sales of the News Line, the funds and the commercial printing. I have no evidence whatsoever – and I was a director of the company, so I got to know the books fairly well – that any Libyan money went towards the printing of the News Line. And the only evidence there is, is contained in a report produced by the author of Security and the Fourth International!’10
Indeed, by 1981 Healy was reduced to writing begging letters to Gaddafi (‘We greatly regret having to approach you with such matters, since you have so many more important affairs to contend with’), but with no apparent success.11 As for Iraq, it would seem that the Ba’athists were too astute to swallow Healy’s claims of mass political influence in Britain, and refused to put much money into a politically irrelevant sect like the WRP. Dave Bruce recalls hearing rumours to the effect that the Ba’athists were pressurised by Healy to give large sums of money to fund the newspaper, but ‘when they saw the results of the  election, where we stood 60 candidates, at that point they more or less decided that the WRP was a joke, and they backed off’.12 All in all, there is no question that Healy tried to sell himself to the Arab bourgeoisie. What is rather more doubtful is whether they thought it was worth paying very much for him.
It was significant that Healy’s betrayal of revolutionary principles, and his adoption of policies which only a few years earlier would have been denounced as ‘Pabloism’, produced so little opposition within the WRP or the IC. Mike Banda did raise a protest on the WRP Central Committee over News Line defending the Ba’athists' execution of Iraqi CP members, but got no support. It was not until 1984 that David North of the US Workers League challenged the WRP’s general line on bourgeois nationalism, and he found himself completely isolated. It was the same with the bogus dialectics. When North criticised Healy’s fraudulent ‘philosophy’, Cliff Slaughter and Mike Banda quickly withdrew their initial support and gave their backing to Healy. In both cases, North himself was eventually forced to bow the knee.
Not surprisingly, the power given to Healy in 1978 to discipline and expel committees and individual members on his own authority was confirmed unanimously (how else?) by subsequent party congresses. At the Fifth Congress, in February 1981, a resolution to this effect was moved by Slaughter and enthusiastically supported by other future leaders of the anti-Healy faction in the 1985 split, who would later claim that they were carrying out a ‘subterranean struggle’ for Marxism in the WRP during this period!13 The outcome was the formation of a ‘Central Committee Department’, consisting exclusively of Healy himself, which took decisions without reference to any of the WRP’s elected bodies. What this demonstrated conclusively was that the organisation was a rotten sect whose politics, theory and constitution were little more than props for a degenerate leader-cult.
Although Healy’s grovelling to bourgeois nationalist leaders was presented to the membership as a principled anti-imperialist stand, it was notable that he failed to take any such stand against British imperialism. When the Malvinas war broke out in 1982, Healy initially adopted a plague-on-both-your-houses position and refused to call for the defeat of his own ruling class. It was only after an intervention by Mike Banda that the WRP’s line was reversed. In the case of Ireland, Healy evidently feared that a firm defence of the liberation struggle would provoke state repression against the WRP, and the News Line indulged in increasingly shrill denunciations of the IRA which contrasted sharply with the paper’s soft attitude towards terrorism in the Middle East. One YS member, Rufus Boulting, had the courage to condemn the WRP’s double standards on this issue, only to find himself stitched up by Healy hatchet-man Simon Pirani.14
Healy’s galloping opportunism wasn’t restricted to international politics. During the 1980 steelworkers’ strike, the friendliest relations were established with steel union president Bill Sirs, as they were with the National Graphical Association bureaucracy in the Warrington print strike of 1983. Healy also cosied up to Labour lefts like Ken Livingstone and Ted Knight, leaders respectively of the Greater London and Lambeth Councils, and the WRP co-operated with them in publishing the left reformist paper Labour Herald.
Not that the WRP abandoned the sectarianism of 1970s. Healy remained convinced that reformism in Britain was finished, and he now called for the Tories to be overthrown and replaced by a ‘workers’ revolutionary government’. In the 1983 general election Healy’s ‘party’ continued its established policy of masquerading as a serious electoral alternative to Labour – with even less impact than before. (The best result achieved by the WRP’s 21 candidates was 417 votes for Stuart Carter in Salford East, while Corin Redgrave with 72 votes in Tooting was just edged out of last place by Peter Gibson with 71 in Lewisham East!) Combined with the feting of Livingstone and Knight, this sectarian ultra-leftism produced a schizophrenic political line embodied in the WRP’s call for ‘Community Councils’, which could be portrayed as embryonic organs of workers power while at the same time providing a useful platform for Healy’s left-reformist allies.
Hobnobbing with union bureaucrats and prominent Labour lefts no doubt gave Healy the illusion that he was wielding real political influence. But these relations ‘at the top’ were no substitute for building a rank-and-file movement in the unions or a Marxist tendency in the Labour Party. Healy’s ‘mass party’ was as far away as ever and, despite large-scale sports coverage and the use of new technology to bring in colour photography long before Fleet Street did so, there was a drastic fall in News Line sales. It was only with the outbreak of the year-long miners’ strike of 1984-5 that the WRP’s fortunes experienced a temporary upturn.
This historic and bitterly-fought episode in the class struggle rallied enormous support from the rank and file of the labour movement. But Healy responded to the resulting solidarity campaign with characteristic sectarianism, banning the WRP membership from participation in the miners’ support groups. These were held to be ‘largely controlled by regional TUCs comprising Stalinists, revisionists and reformists whose sole purpose is to de-politicise the miners’ strike and confine it to the level of baked-beans-some-cash-and-solidarity’.15 Healy preferred to build small and ineffective Community Councils, which could be dominated by the WRP, rather than fight it out politically as a minority within the real movement.
Although the daily paper gave the WRP an advantage in this situation of intense class conflict, the News Line provided no political lead to the miners. From mid-April 1984, the paper began calling continuously for the TUC to launch a general strike. This demand did have direct agitational relevance at some points during the miners’ strike, when the prospect arose of other workers taking industrial action. But the WRP reduced it to a general propaganda slogan which failed to relate to the actual course of the class struggle.
The WRP’s incessant call for a general strike was also based on a wild overestimation of the political situation. The beginning of the miners’ strike coincided with the Thatcher government’s banning of unions at GCHQ. This, and the massive police operation directed at picketing miners, was taken by the WRP as evidence that ‘the traditional system of capitalist rule through parliamentary democracy is a thing of the past. In its place is Bonapartism – a regime of crisis relying on the armed national police force, directly confronting the organised working class on the streets’.16 The WRP insisted that the miners’ strike could not be won outside the struggle for power, and that if the miners were defeated Thatcher would impose a police-military dictatorship. ‘If we don’t take the power we will have fascism’, Healy declared in February 1985, on the eve of the strike’s collapse. ‘Make no mistake, if we don’t do it, there will be fascism.’17 This hysterical ultra-leftism completely evaded the real political task – to bring down the Tory government and replace it with a Labour government under conditions which would have favoured a successful fight to remove the treacherous Kinnock leadership.
Behind the pseudo-revolutionary bombast, Healy was busily adapting to the NUM bureaucracy. While the WRP correctly argued that the miners could not defeat the Tory government on their own, NUM president Arthur Scargill was convinced that the strike could be won on a sectional basis. But the WRP, which had earlier attacked Scargill for his syndicalist, reformist and pro-Stalinist politics, now gave him the most unquestioning support. This was justified with the argument that the developing crisis would automatically resolve the problem of leadership. No matter if the miners’ leaders failed to call for a general strike and the struggle for power, the WRP’s Seventh Congress declared in December 1984 – ‘the logic of this revolutionary situation drives unalterably towards such a conflict’.18
When the NUM executive voted for a return to work in March 1985, a WRP Central Committee statement blithely denied that the miners had suffered a defeat (‘we insist and proudly proclaim that the miners were not defeated’19). And in a personal letter to Scargill the following month, Healy assured him that a ‘massive confrontation between the capitalist state and the working class, with the miners again in the forefront, is building up’.20 The struggle by Labour-controlled councils against the Thatcher government’s imposed ceiling on local government rates, which Healy had been convinced would bring other sections of the working class into action alongside the miners, was now seen as the battle which would inaugurate the British revolution.
In reality, not only had the miners’ strike been defeated, but the struggle against rate-capping was also crumbling. One by one Labour councils abandoned their defiance of the Tory government and voted to set a legal rate. The first to do so was the GLC, and News Line dishonestly covered up for Livingstone’s own role in the capitulation, blaming it on Labour right-wingers who ‘broke ranks to set a rate’.21 What is more, Healy worked to undermine efforts by the Labour left to hold the GLC leader to account for his action. Livingstone himself relates how, the day after he had survived a vote of censure on the Greater London Labour Party executive, he ‘went to a confidential meeting with a leading figure of the left to discuss the ramifications of the previous week. After long discussion we agreed that unless the rift was healed it could grow into a split which would weaken the left’.22
With the WRP’s perspectives in shreds and its members demoralised and disoriented, assistant general secretary Sheila Torrance had the idea of diverting attention from the party’s crisis by organising a march to demand the release of those miners imprisoned for their role in the strike. On the face of it, this was an impressive campaign, culminating in a rally of 4,000 at Alexandra Palace in June 1985. Healy delivered a speech along the usual lines, informing the audience that Thatcher wasn’t preparing to call a general election but to crush the organised labour movement. He repeated the standard call for a general strike which, he asserted, would launch a civil war and the struggle for power.23 Unfortunately for Healy, the only civil war that was in prospect was the one inside his own organisation.
1. WRP internal document, 31 December 1977.
2. N. Lewis, The Struggle for Revolutionary Leadership: Why the WRP Fails, 1981, p.4.
3. J. Gale, The WRP and the 'Revolutionary Situation', 1989, p.9.
4. International Committee Commission, Interim Report. This document was reprinted in Workers News, April 1988.
5. News Line, 7 April 1979.
6. Ibid., 17 April 1979.
7. Ibid., 28 April 1979.
8. WRP internal document.
9. Author’s recollection.
10. Interview with Dave Bruce, 5 October 1993.
11. D. North, Gerry Healy and his Place in the History of the Fourth International, 1991, pp.72-3.
12. Bruce interview.
13. North, pp.94-5.
14. Workers News, May 1987.
15. Resolutions Adopted by the Seventh Congress, 1, 2 and 3 December 1984, WRP internal document, p.75.
16. News Line, 29 March 1984.
17. Ibid., 4 February 1985.
18. Resolutions Adopted by the Seventh Congress, p.81.
19. News Line, 9 March 1985.
20. Fourth International, Summer 1986.
21. News Line, 11 March 1985.
22.newrh_content K. Livingstone, If Voting Changed Anything, They'd Abolish It, 1987, p.328. I am grateful to Ken Weller for this reference.
23. News Line, 1 July 1985.