Who were the heresy-hunters in 1983?

Submitted by martin on 22 June, 2018 - 10:24

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The WRP which launched the heresy-hunt in 1983 was the last sad chapter in a long history of political degeneration.

The earlier chapters were those of the most important revolutionary socialist organisation in Britain during the two decades of the great labour militancy, roughly from the mid 50s to the mid 70s. The forerunner of the WRP was the Healy group, from 1959 called the Socialist Labour League.

It is a matter of simple justice to remember the Healy of the late 1940s and early 50s as the man who had the courage and conviction to pull together what was left of the British Trotskyist movement during and after a general political and organisational collapse.

From the end of the 40s to the mid 70s, the Healy group dominated the world of revolutionary politics, overshadowing even sizeable organisations like the RSL/ Militant (now the Socialist Party, and Socialist Appeal) and the SWP (then called IS) and blocking the road of development for the tiny Workers’ Fight group, a forerunner of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty.

This was a time when it was probably possible for Marxists to make a real breakthrough in re-moulding the mass labour movement, or, failing that, to create a large revolutionary organisation linked organically to the mass labour movement.

No such breakthrough was made. The SLL became the “Workers’ Revolutionary Party” in 1973, and would finally break up in 1985. The fundamental responsibility for the failure of the left then has to be laid on the SLL and on its leader Gerry Healy.

Even when, in the 1950s, it did serious and constructive work in the labour movement, the Healy group was organisationally authoritarian and intellectually stultified. Healy dominated the organisation in an unchallengeable rule sustained by both ideological and (petty) physical violence against anybody who dared disagree with him — or with whatever political strand in the organisation’s leading layer he was, for the moment, backing. For example, the SLL “went Maoist” to support the Chinese “Cultural Revolution” in 1967.

In the 1960s the SLL progressively cut loose from the Labour Party — that is, from what was then the working-class movement in politics — and, though it remained in the trade unions, its activity there became more like Third Period Stalinism than serious work. It recruited and exploited — exploited is the word! — mainly raw youth.

Healy was a highly volatile fellow who tended to believe what he wanted to believe, and ever more so as he got old at the heart of an organisation where his every whim was law.

By 1968 the SLL was going on a 100,000-strong anti-Vietnam-war demonstration with leaflets explaining that it was “not marching” because the march was a conspiracy by the press to boost the march organisers at the expense of great Marxists like Healy. Yet the SLL machine survived, as an increasingly sealed-off youth-fuelled sect, and expanded. Not accidentally, its main “industrial” base by the early 1970s was among actors and other theatre people.

The SLL published a daily paper from 1969. But its own rigidly exclusive marches and theatrical pageants had become more important to the organisation than anything else.

A terrible panic seized Healy during the 1973-4 miners’ strike that led to the defeat of the Tory government in the election of 28 February. At one stage members of the organisation were instructed to hide their “documents” because a military coup was only days away.

Then he discovered that other Trotskyists who opposed him, such as Trotsky’s one-time secretary, the American, Joseph Hansen, were really secret “agents” of the US or Russian governments, or of both. A great barrage of lies and bizarre fantasies was poured out “exposing” them.

A vast world-wide campaign — the Healyites had small “children groups” in many countries — was launched to “explain” much of the tortured history of Trotskyism after Trotsky as a convoluted spy story. All of the world, and much of recent history, was reinterpreted as an affair of “agents” and double-agents.

By the mid-70s the organisation was in serious decline, financially over-extended, and threatened with collapse. At that point, Healy sold the organisation to Libya, Iraq and some of the Arab sheikhdoms as a propaganda outlet and as a jobbing agency for spying on Arab dissidents and prominent Jews (“Zionists”) in Britain.

Arab gold flowed into the shrunken and isolated organisation. Printing presses were bought, more modern than those on which the bourgeois papers were then printed. To get away from the London print unions, they were installed in Runcorn, Cheshire, anticipating by a decade Rupert Murdoch’s move from union-controlled Fleet Street to Wapping.

They churned out crude Arab-chauvinist propaganda lauding Saddam Hussein and Libya’s ruler Colonel Gaddafi and denouncing Israel and “Zionism.” Numerically still in serious and progressive decline, the organisation, nevertheless, built up a property empire of bookshops and “training centres” around Britain.

The final act came in October 1985. Healy, who had run the organisation by bullying, bluster, and the personal terror he inspired, was now 72, weakened by age and by a bad heart. Those who rule by personal forcefulness and emotional violation of others should not grow old. The WRP imploded.

Faced with continued decline and, despite the flow of Arab gold, a new financial crisis, the WRP apparatus divided. Healy himself was probably getting ready for a purge. He was suddenly denounced as a rapist of 20-something female comrades and expelled from the organisation. The WRP fell apart in a great outburst of long bottled-up hysteria.

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