My Expulsion from the Socialist Labour League

Submitted by dalcassian on 18 August, 2011 - 7:59

I was tried and expelled from the SLL in September 1963.

I received a letter in mid week from Gerry Healy, the group’s National Secretary, summoning me to appear the following Friday, two or three days later, before a committee of four people, set up by the group’s Executive Committee to hear and try the charges against me. I was, the letter told me, being charged under a clause in the constitution which Healy’s letter duly quoted in full, according to which disciplinary action should be taken against anyone who committed acts "contrary to the interests of the League and the working class". While quoting in full the constitutional clause under which I was to be tried, Healy’s letter contained not one word about what I was supposed to have done, or failed to do, that was "contrary to the interests of the League and the working class" He never would elucidate; he couldn’t.

A feeble attempt had been set in train to mount an accusation that I’d stolen group money: the centre denied I’d sent in money — in bank notes; I had no receipt — for papers sold: but nobody in the branch who knew me, would for a moment entertain the idea that I had the attitude to the group such a miserable action would imply. Healy abandoned it, and "went to trial" without any charges at all!

I was to be hit on the head with the statue book itself, not with specific allegations about how I’d breached it. There were no charges, no allegations — and therefore no possible defence.

There had been tensions and conflicts and there was a lot of dissatisfaction in the branch. I was to be the chopping block, made an example of to intimidate the others. That was how things were done in the League. I’d seen it happen, and the first time I’d witnessed it, at the 1961 conference, I had been thrown into a serious crisis of confidence in myself and everything else for shame that I’d sat through it without protesting. I understood what was happening, but I was not prepared to play my allotted part in the sado-masochistic ritual of accusation, confession and self-denigration typical of the SLL. The hard core of the Healy group was a selection of people able, eager or willing to play a part in such rituals.

I loathed that system, the relationships within it, the brutality that kept it dynamic and self-sustaining. For a long time after I’d first seen it in rather mild operation at the 1961 conference I’d had great difficulty forcing myself to stay in the organisation. But this was, I believed, the revolutionary organisation. And I? How much of my repulsion was a disguised excuse for my own political and organisational inadequacies? There was no alternative to the SLL that I could see. What could be done now for revolutionary socialism had to be done here. The alternative was to desert the cause of socialism as it actually was in my real world. The revolutionary who pits himself against the immense power of capitalism and yet cannot conceive that there are things more important than himself, his feelings, perceptions, experience, or even his continued existence, is a contradiction in terms… Classic dilemmas. Generations of CPers had faced them; generations of SLLers did too.

Between the ages of 15 and 18, I had made a long and tortuous journey to Trotskyism on my own from a deeply felt Catholicism entwined symbiotically with a sense of national identity which had structured the way I saw the world. This meant that I had a political axis of my own, distinct from my relationship to the League and, reading the books of the movement, enough independence to judge the League according to the politics and tradition it claimed as its own. In short, I had a political ‘hinterland’.

I had read and re-read Trotsky on Stalinism and the destruction of the Bolshevik Party, and I did not pretend to myself that the practices of the Healy regime were ‘Trotskyism’. It was known that I loathed the Healy system and, from his own point of view, there was therefore no incongruity in Healy — who must over the years have developed an instinct about people in relation to his system, about who could be reshaped and who could not — picking on me.

On the other hand, I believed in the League and what I thought it represented politically. I had spent nearly four of my 22 years in it. On one level, unpleasant though I find the idea, I even believed in Healy. I was a devoted SLLer — the victims in these rituals always were — and would remain an active supporter of the League for 14 months after these events.

I had tried to anticipate the charges that were not made by making a list of all possible faults, real and imaginary or concocted out of malice, that could be laid against me; and I tried to avoid disruption of sales of the weekly paper, The Newsletter, for which I was responsible by double checking in advance that pub-sales, with the new issue of the paper, would go ahead as planned: and then I went to the Crown and Anchor pub, where our branch met, to be tried by the leaders of the revolutionary organisation for unspecified "actions harmful to the League and the working class."

I bought a bottle of porter and, glass in hand, went upstairs. People normally took drinks to branch meetings; if I was exceptional it was in that I was still very much the adolescent ascetic, and rarely drank at all. I entered the meeting room and found the members of the court — Gerry Healy, Cliff Slaughter, Jack Gale and Jimmy Rand — already present, together with a good part of the branch, including most of the people I thought I’d organised to do the regular Friday night pub sale with the new paper that evening. Healy and Slaughter had thought the political education the comrades would receive from the events they would witness more important than routine branch work.

Eventually, almost the whole branch would be in attendance, sitting at one end of the room, slightly back from the big table around which the ‘court’ and I sat, like the audience in an American courtroom scene in a movie. When I appeared at the door, Healy, who was a tiny pudgy man with an enormous, high-coloured, disproportionately — or so it seemed — large head, with very sparse hair that looked like it had been drawn by an eyebrow pencil on his scalp, and tiny, always sore-looking eyes. He looked like a bad-tempered gnome some joking bad fairy had imprisoned incongruously in a lounge suit. He bristled — and he was very good at bristling — and pointed to the glass in my hand. He said: "Take that out of this room! We will not have drink in our meetings!"

I took it for what it was, a first bit of softening up and replied that people normally took drink into meetings. I forget what he said, but I went back downstairs. That mild but alerting taste of the intimidatory stuff, followed by a respite, was unintentionally helpful to me.

As the chair, Jimmy Rand called the meeting to order. I placed the body of my National Health-issue hearing-aid on the table in front of me — in a pocket it tended to pick up every rustle of clothes and magnify the noise, and I found it normally unusable — and went to put the ear-piece in my ear. Healy and everyone else in the room had seen me do this before. Partially deaf, and having tinnitus — permanent noise that increases and becomes even more obtrusive with higher levels of stress or tension — I sometimes could not follow what was going on in a meeting of any size. I’d taken to using this machine, cumbersome and useless though it usually was, for most of my needs, so that I could better follow the ebb and flow of discussion in a meeting.

Now, as I uncoiled the cord and raised the earpiece towards my head, Healy leaned forward, staring intently at me. "What is that?" he said very sternly. "Is that a tape recorder you have there?"

Certainly Healy had seen it before: being a sensitive fellow, he had made a joke about it from the platform of a meeting in Liverpool a couple of months earlier.

Alerted and stiffened by the earlier incident, I said: "You know very well what it is. I refuse to pretend that this is a serious question. But if you want to examine it, go ahead — here", and I held out the cream-coloured, oblong body of the little machine to him, sitting exactly across the table from me. He refused to take it, face and enormous bald head getting extremely red and angry looking, jigging slightly with fighting-cock energy on his seat, eyes and manner threatening.

"No! I want you to answer me: is it a tape recorder? We are entitled to ask such questions and have them answered." I again refused to treat it as a serious question: "This is just bullying". But, I repeated, that he could examine it if he liked. This exchange went on, back and forth, for a while, five minutes, perhaps ten, with Healy’s voice rising like his colour and his manner increasingly angry and suggestive of a man about to jump at me. He would glare at me with a fixed, angry stare and clenched little mouth in a very red face; and sometimes he would look histrionically at the audience down the room at the edge of the table as if to say — there, see what I have to put up with. I remember my friend Malcolm, very big and somewhat overweight, a Country and Western singer before he took up politics; in private he was far more critical than I was, and much less political about it. As a response to this meeting, he would go out of politics for a long time within a few weeks. He sat there silently wringing his hands, with a handkerchief clamped between them, afraid of being next in line for a psychological roughing-up and possibly afraid I would say something to "implicate" him.

Finally, I gave in. Trying to make my voice convey a continued denial that I took the question seriously, I said, enunciating with as much deliberate contempt as I could muster: "No, it is not a tape recorder." He said something in acknowledgement; possibly "Thank you". Evidently, he felt he had made his point. He made no attempt to examine the hearing-aid, which I then put in my ear. It had had nothing to do with "security" — or Healy’s ‘paranoia’. It was an exercise in intimidation and a demonstration of power and the "rights of the leadership" to the rest of the meeting, and a relegation of me to the status of suspicious outsider; no longer one of ‘us’.

Now the chair called on Prosecutor Healy to make the case against me. He delivered a strong, very heated and very angry, generalised diatribe — I was a critic by nature, resentful of authority, as they had seen already that evening, always suspicious of the leadership, and — I remember the phrase distinctly — therefore a "running sore" in the branch. I was "still fighting" my father. And so on. When Healy had finished, the Chair called on me to reply; everything was seemingly very democratic. So, formally, was the SLL constitution under which, or rather with which, I was charged.

These sorts of events were no revelation to me; I believed one had to be objective and impersonal about such things and that my experience could not be the measure of the League, still less of the purposes for which it existed.

I had no intention of ‘breaking’ with the organisation, even though I was not prepared to grovel or let myself be broken politically or play any of the set roles in the sado-masochistic ceremonies and rituals. Shaken by the force of the verbal assault — Healy was very good at what he did — I found it hard to reply to the general abuse, character assassination and condemnation; there had been no specific charges of any sort, nothing on the list I’d made, very little to catch hold of for a reply. And, of course, some of it was psychologically true. I knew better than Healy that I was still "fighting my father" — or rather, what Michael Bakunin had called the "God-father-state nexus". But it had little direct bearing on the SLL or my relationship to it.

I was a boy trying to grow up, trying to bring what I found in myself into alignment with what I wanted to do in the world. I had subordinated my instinctive need to fight the "God-father-state-nexus" to Marxist political reason. If I had not been governed by belief in the need for a "revolutionary party" and seen membership in the SLL as the necessary way to work for socialism, then I’d have acted on my first instinct after the 1961 conference and ‘run’.

I mumbled a very brief and ineffective but unapologetic reply, whose content I no longer recall. Then, according to the preordained ritual, other members of the ‘court’ and one or two of their partisans in the branch had a go at me, repeating and amplifying what Healy had said. That would have happened, even if I had not been "defiant". It was as much a part of the ceremony as the altar boy’s responses to the priest at the Mass. Only the tone would have varied.

In the course of this, recovering from the effects of Healy’s expert psychological working over, it occurred to me how I could best put the point to the "audience" — that the problem was not fundamentally one of my attitude but of the way the League leadership routinely behaved: the meeting so far was itself a very good illustration of it! So I put my hand up and in due course was called by the chair.

I cited the meeting so far, and the "trial" without charges, let alone notification in advance of the charges, to explain my ‘reserve’ — it had, all told, been not a great deal more politically developed than that — and revulsion against the "with-brutality-if-at-all-possible" practices and principles of the League leadership towards the membership. I’d said only a few sentences, enough to let Healy get my drift and register that I was still defiant and refusing to play my allotted role of penitent and self-accuser — and that I was trying to hit back at him. This was not the plan at all, not behaviour he wanted the assembled branch to see someone "get away with", thus learning the wrong lesson.

Healy leaned forward, face very red again and eyes glaring fixedly and fiercely, and started to pound the table with his fist. "Stop! Stop right there! I’m not going to allow you to continue." His banging and shouting made it impossible for me to continue, so I turned to Jimmy Rand, presiding as chair at the narrow end of the table, to my left, and appealed to him to protect my right to speak. If he had done that, he would himself have immediately become the target for Healy and for everyone else in the meeting who did not want to be a target. It was a narrow set of choices in the League! If he wanted to avoid that, he had to obey Healy. He refused to back me and instead made a memorable speech about ‘dialectical chairmanship’ — he didn’t use the phrase — denouncing ‘formal democracy’.

"We", he said, were "Marxists, not formal democrats." Dialecticians. We "allow our leadership to make whatever points they think necessary." He repeated Healy’s phrase that he would not allow me to continue. He then, having silenced me, called on Healy to speak. Healy delivered more abuse, ending with an order to me, backed by the chair, that I must "now leave the meeting" so "we can talk to our people".

I should have insisted that I had equal rights as a branch member and refused to leave. Perhaps physical intimidation — there was a strong atmosphere of latent, only just held back violence — was part of the reason, but I did not. It did not occur to me until long after. One of the things the League did to you was to more or less completely destroy the idea that you had any such a thing as personal rights vis-à-vis "the movement". It was one of the ways the spirit of devotion and selflessness necessary to our common enterprise was abused — and in vast numbers of people passing through Healy’s "machine for maiming militants" ultimately destroyed and, not infrequently, turned into its own grotesque petit-bourgeois opposite.

I went down to the pub and, for the first time in my life, bought whiskey, and drank it, movie-style, in one gulp! On one level I felt relief. That mystified me, because I had no intention of "breaking", and didn’t for over a year. I was not, I believed — and I was right to believe it — the measure of the revolutionary organisation, or Gerry Healy the measure of Trotskyism.

There is more to the story. I had no sense — despite Healy’s diatribe — of being politically or personally in the wrong, or that it was my political duty to accept their views without consent of my own reason, or to abandon my own ideas of right and wrong, and let them obliterate the hard-won sense of my own integrity. Healy was almost right: I was still fighting — the priests, but not anachronistically! With some accuracy, he might have called me a Protestant: but that would have carried an implied characterisation of what he was.

Politically, I was caught in murderous contradictions — believing in Healy’s ‘Church’ while claiming a right, denial of which was fundamental to Healy’s system, to form my own judgements. I understood very little, but I saw the SLL regime in the light of Trotsky’s manifold condemnations of the Stalinist Party and Communist International regimes.

I went to the branch meeting on the following Monday evening, still in a mood of moral and political righteousness, intending to fight back. I arrived early and found Healy, Slaughter and two or three branch members present. Healy and Slaughter were visibly surprised to see me and went into a huddle, heads close together. When they came out of it, Healy shouted across the room to me: "Do you know you’ve been expelled?" I said in reply: "How could I have been expelled? Who expelled me?" He replied that the Organisation Committee had met over the weekend and expelled me. Almost certainly, he was lying. Healy didn’t need committees, except as camouflage. I can’t remember whether or not I thought that then. I did, I think. He shouted across to me again: "If you want to continue working with the League, you must from now on do as I tell you. I’m telling you to leave the meeting — immediately." I did.

Though there was probably an element of physical intimidation in it, the fundamental thing was that I was politically still "League". I had every intention of remaining with the League politically and did. I learned later that when he proposed that the branch expel me Healy cited as one reason my "contemptuous attitude" in not turning up for this important meeting! No-one who had seen me — they included my friend who’d been wringing his hands — said a word to contradict him. A few days later I met one of the comrades — Ralph, who had a lurching limping walk, having been disabled in a car-crash, and as he came towards me he assailed me in his loud, hectoring, friendly, Welsh voice: "So, why didn’t you come to the branch meeting then, and put your case?" I told him I had. Without pausing for breath he said: "Well, Healy was right. Of course, he was right…"

What is to my mind an interesting and instructive sequel to this story occurred 11 years later. The chair of Healy’s "court hearing", Jimmy Rand, was part of a big political family which broke with the CP over Hungary and a number of them were for years in the SLL. They all broke in the mid-’60s.

One of Jimmy Rand’s brothers, John, joined Workers’ Fight. One evening, John Bloxam and I were in his house in Liverpool and, somehow, Jimmy Rand learned we were there and came round. Originally a bricklayer by trade, he had since gone to college and now lectured in English. He had moved a long way to the right and some of our comrades spoke of him as "almost" a "witch-hunter". I don’t know if he was. His first words as he entered the room where: "Where’s your hearing-aid?" Half-jeeringly, self-vindicating — no joke.

Yet he could not have believed Healy at the time, that there was anything ‘suspicious’ about my hearing aid. He could not but have known perfectly well what was happening. In the circumstances, no-one but a crank could have seen it as a "security" issue — and Jimmy was no crank. The point at issue was one of Healy’s rights and authority.

Rand had behaved very badly as chair, almost certainly — to judge by everything I ever saw of him, he was a thoughtful, decent fellow — against his own natural instincts. For peace of mind he had to rationalise. Healy controlled many League people thus: by making them complicit in his behaviour… That to me is the most interesting thing about this story. It was about intimidation and ‘processing’ members of the branch, not about ‘security’ and routine Gerry Healy paranoia.

In the more relaxed discussion that followed, Rand still thought Gerry Healy was Lenin — only now he didn’t like Lenin. He summed up the Healyites for me, referring to bad experience of his own: ‘Do you know what they are? They’re bullies!’ I’d noticed.

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