Might-have-been-man: Cliff Slaughter

Submitted by AWL on 18 May, 2021 - 6:36 Author: Sean Matgamna
Cliff Slaughter

Memories of Cliff Slaughter, who has died at the age of 93:

1: A school of the Socialist Labour League (SLL), Manchester, 1961 or 62. Slaughter is a leading writer of the SLL. He has written a couple of articles on the theory of the revolutionary party, which many people (me included) think very highly of. He has been talking about the iniquities of the Stalinist movement, in which he had spent over a decade of his youth. Someone asks him how he could have failed for so long to see through Stalinism. He explains it as his failure to think through his sometimes critical ideas to the necessary conclusion.

2: A Sunday morning, early in 1963, a meeting of the Manchester SLL branch committee, which includes Slaughter, in the front room of the Povah family home in Salford. A car rolls up — in my memory, it is a red car — and parks outside the house. We can see the street, and the narrow footpath plainly through the front window, and the car attracts our attention.

The car door opens, Gerry Healy steps out, comes across the pavement and seems to loom outside the window. He waddles in, a very short, pudgy-rotund man, with a large bald head, features disproportionately small in the big head.

When we see Healy get out of the car, Cliff Slaughter turns very white. The blood drains out of his face. For a moment, I think he is going to faint.

Healy likes the effect he is producing and the tension. He scowls at everyone and sits down, immediately taking over the meeting.

It is early in the Profumo affair. The press and TV are wallowing in the scandal that a Russian embassy attaché and a British Tory minister had a paid lover in common. Healy says, very quietly, “Whaddaya think, Cliff”? Slaughter hastily says it is very like a scandal in Italy, I can’t recall which one. Healy nods his satisfaction to Slaughter.

3: Seven years later, 1970. Slaughter has recently written a 12-episode series of articles analysing a wodge of IS minutes which the SLL have got hold of: Who are the International Socialists? (IS, forerunner of the SWP) They have been collected into a sizeable pamphlet.

It is low-grade political hackery, what the Americans call grunt work — not work for a self-respecting political grown-up. Slaughter’s name on it gives it some weight.

A couple of instalments deal with the Trotskyist Tendency inside IS, predecessor of Workers’ Liberty. A picture showing a Northern Ireland civilian with his hands up being searched at gunpoint by British soldiers has a caption on it that makes IS, the Trotskyist Tendency, and me, by name, responsible for it.

At a public meeting in Teesside, Phil Semp, who had been Slaughter’s pupil at Leeds University, demands an explanation for that bit of political excrescence. Oh, Slaughter tells the meeting, he himself wasn’t responsible, not at all. No. It was “a cock up in the printshop”.

He was never “responsible”. He surrendered his political responsibilities and his political soul to Healy and the Banda brothers.

4: It is 1986, a quarter of a century after the Manchester school of 1961-2. Through those 25 years Slaughter has been a supporter and enabler of Gerry Healy in the SLL (now called WRP), an intellectual hack-scribbler, working to order.

The WRP has imploded. Gerry Healy has been exposed as a coercive predator on women comrades. Slaughter has sided against Healy, perhaps for the first time ever. Writing in Workers’ Press, paper of one of the subgroups produced in the scatterings of the WRP, Slaughter needs to explain his long political and intellectual subservience as a political bag-carrier for Gerry Healy.

His fault, says Slaughter, lay in a failure to think through his critical ideas to the necessary, logical, conclusions….

2—

There is no shortage of tragedies of varying sorts in the 20th century left and ostensible left. Slaughter’s political fate was the tragedy of a politically educated Marxist who was committed to the war for working-class emancipation from wage slavery and capitalism, and tried to work for it, but who in his teens got drawn into the Young Communist League and the Communist Party, in the wake of his father, Fred Slaughter.

Breaking out of that in his late 20s, he let himself get trapped in a vicious little cult. He spent the best years of his life, over 25 years, helping to poison parts of the labour movement and the ostensibly Trotskyist movement with lies and the habit of lies, political craziness and the habit of tolerating craziness and smothering unreason.

But the story is not only a story of Cliff Slaughter’s personal tragedy. It is also a story of his crimes in backing and boosting Healy. Slaughter was an academic sociologist with a high reputation. He co-authored a famous study of miners, Coal is Our Lives. He put that academic reputation at the service of Healy.

Healy surrounded himself with a group of enablers, protectors, heralds and sycophants. Slaughter was one of those. Without them, Healy could not have functioned and survived. Without them he could not have committed his personal-political crimes against his comrades and his political crimes against the working class and the Marxist movement.

The WRP imploded when it did (1985) because the Healy apparatus split. Healy, in his 70s, with his health broken down, could no longer rule by personal force and the terror he had been able to inspire.

The organisation was going bankrupt. The mercenary alliances and the get-rich-quick projects to “build the party” had failed, and failed badly. The organisation had become dependent on money from Libya — Healy got over a million pounds from Gaddafi — and other Arab regimes

Slaughter could not but have known that Libya and other states were financing the WRP. He would have read in its paper the WRP supporting and justifying the killing of Iraqi Communist Party members by the Saddam Hussein regime, with which at that point the WRP was also involved.

On a visit to Libya, Slaughter was repelled by the “anti-imperialist” Islamic mumbo-jumbo of Gaddafi. In an interview available on the Splits and Fusions website he tells a story about a WRP delegation to Libya:

“To my shame, I was almost silent. The relationship with Saddam was for money, also Gaddafi. I went to a Tripoli conference on Gaddafi’s ‘Green Book’ and took a plane back after a day and a half, unable to stomach any more.”

Almost? Disgusted, he left early. And then what did he do?

Give others who were following Healy in his mercenary lunacies about Libya, Iraq and other Middle East powers, the benefit of his own understanding? Start a fight against Healy, Corin and Vanessa Redgrave, and the Banda brothers, inside the organisation? Or, when they expelled him, as they surely would, raise a hue and cry outside the organisation?

He didn’t do any of that. Again, Cliff Slaughter was “not responsible”. Clare Cowen quotes Slaughter making a good speech in support of the anti-Healy wing when the WRP was breaking-up in 1985. But he waited until the central apparatus split, until the Bandas struck at Healy.

Slaughter said in the same interview that the philosopher Healy “knew nothing about philosophy”. Yet Slaughter the prestigious academic for decades buttressed Healy’s claim to be a Marxist philosopher, and a great one. He lent his endorsement, tacit or vocal, to Healy’s ridiculous “dialectical” rigamaroles. He helped Healy back up his claims to knowledge that Slaughter knew he didn’t have, and he recommended Healy’s gobbledegook as good Marxism to people who wouldn’t know any better.

3—

Slaughter went to work full time for the SLL in 1965. They made a fuss about it. Slaughter wrote that now was not the time to cling to “soft jobs”. He lasted maybe a year. Then he went back to academe, at Bradford University, up the road from Leeds, which he had left to be a serious revolutionary.

Slaughter tried many times in his SLL-WRP years to run away from the Healy group. Healy always caught up with him and got him to come back. Slaughter was one of a number of national leaders frequently pilloried, insulted, denounced. There was a layer of such people: Cyril Smith, Jack Gale, Bill Hunter, Geoff Pilling, Robin Blick, Bob Shaw, Tom Kemp, Cliff Slaughter...

The Healy organisation was, at its core, a sado-masochistic cult with its own rites and rituals of accusation, denunciation and chastisement, followed by public self-abasement, abject confession, sometimes tearful, and then, submissive reconciliation and last-minute reprieves on earlier threats of expulsion. Everything was a matter of right and wrong, of sinfulness or being in a state of revolutionary virtue. Healy decided which; he had the power to loose and bind, exclude, damn or absolve.

The audience at such things was made complicit in it by approval, support for Healy or ashamed silence. The audience for it was part of the ceremony.

This is a typical scene at the WRP HQ, as recorded by a witness who doesn't want to be named:

X: "My abiding memory of her is of her being clustered round the main office door at the Centre along with the full-time 'sisterhood' there – Sheila Torrance, Linda Blend, Dany Sylveire, Maureen Bambrick, and Dot Gibson (but not Aileen Jennings or Janet Sutton) – earwigging while Cyril Smith, Tom Kemp, John Simmance, Bill Hunter, John Edwards, Cliff Slaughter or some such was getting the full Healy screaming tantrum in his office above, obviously (and perversely) relishing Healy’s verbal and sometimes non-verbal thuggery". I need to add that the ''sisterhood'' was available to the Ayatollah Healy as a harem.

On one level, it was, though gruesome, laughable, like the hammy pseudo-dramas that wrestling matches project — good guys and bad guys, virtue and vice. But it was not laughable to those, especially the young people, caught up in it, believing that the Healyites embodied Marxism and Bolshevism and socialism.

It was not laughable for youngsters who internalised the signals and compulsions towards conformity, learning that it was a revolutionary duty to submit, learning to see “the party” (in fact Gerry Healy) as everything and themselves as nothing. Who internalised the fear of heresy and ideological sinfulness, identifying it with speaking out of turn; of using their own mind and judgement, of getting something wrong, of thinking for themselves. Learning that “the leadership” is always right: don’t think, don’t question “The Party” and “The Cause” embodied in the leader.

4—

Slaughter spent over a quarter of a century in that game as target, supporter, and ammunition-boy for Healy, sometimes hammer and sometimes anvil. The man who let that happen to himself, who took part in Healy’s brutal rituals for 25 years, must have had in him a fearsome load of self-doubt, guilt and self-hatred.

Someone, E P Thompson maybe, described Healy’s system as “a machine for maiming militants”. That was to understate it. Slaughter was both its victim and an auxiliary victimiser.

The Healy group sued me in 1981 for publishing this description of their system: “The WRP is no laughing matter. It is a pseudo-Marxist gobbledegook-spouting cross between the Moonies, the Scientologists, and the Jones Cult (which committed mass suicide in the Guyana jungle three years ago). It recruits and exploits mainly raw, inexperienced, politically, socially and psychologically defenceless young people. It employs psychological terror and physical violence against its own members (and occasionally against others)”.

5—

Slaughter was in his mid 50s when the WRP collapsed. What did he do afterwards? Politically, very little. He wrote a few texts, amongst them a small book a few years ago entitled Bonfire of the Certainties. In that he adapted the title of a novel of the 1990s, derived from an event in Florence in the mid 15th century when, under the influence of a religious lunatic, Girolamo Savonarola, people threw books and things that were important or comforting or satisfying, or precious to them, on a public “bonfire of the vanities”.

In fact, the original title would have fitted Slaughter and his story almost perfectly. Most of what the Healyites did in Slaughter’s day was pointless, worthless, harmful, diversionary, a cul de sac in relation to socialism. The daily paper with its miniscule readership, the maintenance of which ate up the lives of the members of the organisation. The raving polemics empty of real, not to speak of worthwhile, content. The colourful pageants, and the big rallies, mostly of kids persuaded to attend, almost all of whom would go away and soon forget it all. The theorising that sanctified whatever the party leader decided to do. The sacrifice of basic socialist propaganda and education to free-wheeling shallow “party-building’’ agitation.

For Gerry Healy’s organisation in most of its existence, “all was vanity, vanity”

Watching what they did to the young people they involved, and the way they polluted and poisoned the political world in which we all lived, I grew to have a bitter hatred of the leaders of the SLL and the WRP, but I could never build up a real head of hostility against Cliff Slaughter. It was a bit like Queen Victoria. I had loathed her as the “Famine Queen”, who had presided over the murder of over a million people in Ireland by avoidable famine and cholera, and as one whose name meant 19th century sexual repressions, small children in factories and child brothels, and all the other “Victorian” horrors, brutalities and moral hypocrisies. Then I read in a review what the 20 year old Victoria wrote, to her prime minister, Lord Melbourne, about her wedding night. It was, she told the prime minister, a foretaste of heaven.

After that I could never feel quite the same about Vicky again, a poor, small, human creature locked inside her royal carapaces.

After watching Cliff Slaughter nearly faint at the apparition of Healy at the window that Sunday morning long ago, I could never feel the same hostility to Slaughter as I did to Healy and others — to poor Cliff Slaughter, locked inside whatever it was that allowed Gerry Healy to keep him imprisoned for a quarter of a century. Rest in peace... comrade.

Comments

Submitted by diana parkin (not verified) on Wed, 02/06/2021 - 11:43

Very good article by Macgamna. The International Secretariat arm of the so called 4th International seemed to spawn more people destroying  cults than others: the Spartacists being definitely purveyors of Kool Aid.

I never met Slaughter, but Coal is Our Life is an excellent book.

I did meet Healy once; I was barracking him outside a LP YS conference in the early 60s. He was in his car and drove it

furiously into us

 

Submitted by Robert Gibbs (not verified) on Wed, 16/06/2021 - 21:42

What can you say? Slaughter betrayed the trust that younger, less experienced people placed in him. He had the opportunity to take a different road and failed to do so. I remember him and all of Healy's enablers with contempt.

Submitted by Gerry Downing (not verified) on Tue, 29/06/2021 - 16:08

Cliff Slaughter died on 3 May 2021 at the age of 92.  His important contributions to Marxist theories include Religion and Social Revolt, Labour Review, May-June 1958, https://wordpress.com/post/socialistfight.com/177, What is Revolutionary Leadership? Labour Review, Oct.-Nov. 1960, https://wordpress.com/post/socialistfight.com/174 and Lenin on Dialectics An Introduction to The Philosophical Notebooks of Lenin, 1962, Labour Press. https://wordpress.com/post/socialistfight.com/17.

He was won from the Communist party by Gerry Healy after the crisis there following Khrushchev’s 1956 secret speech outlining the crimes of Stalin and the subsequent invasion of Hungary in the same year, to put down that revolutionary uprising; proving that nothing had really changed.

Peter Fryer (18 February 1927 – 31 October 2006) was expelled from the Communist Party for honestly reporting on the suppression of that revolution. He and Brian Behan, brother of the famous playwright Brendan, led some hundreds from the CPGB into the SLL from 1956 to 1958. Fryer, the best of that crew, resigned in mid-1959 because Healy now reversed the relatively open orientation he had adopted to the working class organisations and imposed the old bureaucratic centralist regime. But Cliff Slaughter and a number of other ‘Red Professors’ remained and paid the price of unconditional capitulation to Healy, certainly after the mid-1960s.

Slaughter led his group’s repudiation of the heritage of the Russian Revolution vis the works of István Mészáros:

“Learn and develop the insight of István Mészáros in the closing chapters of Beyond Capital that the future mass socialist movement will be inherent pluralism, with its component parts developing through their growing and necessary ability to co-ordinate their efforts (and thus achieve class consciousness not to accept ‘control’ (and a supposed ‘revolutionary consciousness’ already formed by professed Marxists from above).” Cliff Slaughter, International Socialist Forum. A Contribution to Discussion on 'Revolutionary Socialism: The Minimum Platform,

It is not possible to imagine a more complete rejection of Marxism than that. In 1960 Cliff Slaughter knew enough about Trotskyism to write a relatively good article called What is Revolutionary Leadership, even if we know that he was in reality defending Healy’s bureaucratic centralism, not genuine democratic centralism. Nonetheless the theory is substantially correct.

Slaughter’s and Mészáros’s formulation of the relationship between party and class is neo-Kautskyite.   Ridiculously he proposes that Lenin’s pre-1917 orientation (the revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry) constituted an adequate perspective for the revolution whereas the truth is the revolution was lost without the repudiation of that orientation and the transformation of the party into a weapon for the overthrow of capitalism via the April Theses.

Most shockingly of all Slaughter says that Mao Zedong’s block of four classes perspective was correct in 1949 as against post war Trotskyism. Third world popular frontism trumps post war class struggle Trotskyism, with all their Transitional Programmes and class independence struggles for the overthrow of capitalism (deeply flawed though these programmes were) is the message. No, a thousand times no, the class deserves far better than reformism hidden behind pseudo-revolutionary phrases like this!

If Slaughter is right about socialism not being on the agenda in 1917 then Trotsky’s famous theory of Permanent Revolution is meaningless and without content, the Russian Revolution was merely a bourgeois national revolution, and so is the political content of the struggle of the Bolsheviks led by Lenin and Trotsky and its international manifestation, the Revolutionary Comintern in its first four Congresses. In order to achieve this volte face Slaughter capitulates to both Kautskyism in accepting the old Social Democratic theories of the party and of stages in the revolution and goes even further than Tony Cliff’s state capitalism in attribution a historically progressive historic role to Stalinism.

Unbelievably Slaughter repudiates the entire history of Trotskyism and his own life’s work (deeply flawed though it was) and there was no one left in his group to object. He avers not merely that there were some exceptions to the theory of Permanent Revolution; the entire thing was always rubbish according to our renegade.

Slaughter continues, “He (Trotsky) went on to question which classes would solve the task of the democratic revolution and how those classes would relate to each other”. Trotsky did not ‘question’ this but was absolutely sure that only the working class could lead the revolution and it could not simply be a ‘democratic’ revolution but an ‘uninterrupted’, permanent one. He and the Bolsheviks agreed that only the working class could lead the coming revolution because of the small size and belated development of the bourgeoisie and its subservience to both the Tsar and foreign, mainly French capital. On this point, both were equally opposed to the Mensheviks, as we have seen above. As to actually ‘solve(ing) the task of the democratic revolution’ here Trotsky disagreed with both the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks. To say he “interrogated Lenin’s formulation of ‘the revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ (p281) is wrong.

And here we get the blatant lie. In quoting from Trotsky’s Permanent Revolution (1905) he says,

 “’the dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ would”, now comes the Trotsky quote, “Have to carry through to the end the agrarian revolution and democratic reconstruction of the State. In other words, the dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry would become the instrument for solving the historically belated task of the historically-belated bourgeois revolution.”

But is the actual quote from Trotsky is “In other words, the dictatorship of the proletariat would become the instrument for solving the tasks of the historically-belated bourgeois revolution.

We can see that the bolded and peasantry above (twice) is not in the Trotsky original quote, also bolded below. Further Trotsky is referring to the social content of this dictatorship and not what ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’, an entity which Trotsky never endorsed in all his writings, might do. Slaughter has added it in to confuse us on what Trotsky’s real position was. To clarify matters, ‘the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ means a block of the two classes, possibly on an equal footing in government, ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ means the working class, via its revolutionary leadership of the soviets ruling and leading the peasantry in a governmental alliance. There were many occasions when Lenin came remarkably close to Trotsky’s Permanent Revolution as the following passages from the Permanent Revolution show:

Trotsky: “... The formula which the Bolsheviks have here chosen for themselves reads: the proletariat which leads the peasantry behind it.”

Lenin, “... Isn’t it obvious that the idea of all these formulations is one and the same? Isn’t it obvious that this idea expresses precisely the dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry – that the “formula” of the proletariat supported by the peasantry, remains entirely within the bounds of that very same dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry?” (XI, Part 1, pp, 219 and 224. My emphasis). And Trotsky comments:

“Thus Lenin puts a construction on the ‘algebraic’ formula here which excludes the idea of an independent peasant party and even more its dominant role in the revolutionary government: the proletariat leads the peasantry, the proletariat is supported by the peasantry, consequently the revolutionary power is concentrated in the hands of the party of the proletariat. But this is precisely the central point of the theory of the permanent revolution.

This is how those dreadful enemies of Slaughter since the mid-fifties, the ‘Pabloites’, have bowdlerised it. And this was also the game that Radek, Zinoviev and later Stalin played in China in the twenties and thirties, the two stage theory that resurrected Lenin’s old formulation repudiated by him in the April Theses, and extended it back and politically reviving the old Menshevism. This was the policy which destroyed the Chinese revolution in 1927 and led to the admired ‘victory’ of Mao Zedong’s theory of the bloc of four classes in 1949. He took power in the name of this bloc in 1949 which politically excluded the working class, but he did not institute a deformed workers’ state (with the working class still politically excluded) until 1952-3 when the advent of the Korean war meant the their erstwhile allies in the national bourgeoisie became too unreliable for government.

Those expropriated between 1949 and 1952-3 were only those who had directly fought for the US-backed Kuomintang in the civil war, the landlord class and the ‘comprador’ bourgeoisie, agents for foreign Imperialist interests who were defined as the only enemies of the working class; the ‘national bourgeoisie’ were allowed to remain in control of their capitalist enterprises for about three more years. They might never have been expropriated (the USSR did not expropriate them in Austria post-WWII or in Afghanistan after the 1979 invasion, despite holding state power). This is the Popular Frontist two stage policy still pursued today by the SACP in South Africa via the ANC and by Maoist and other Stalinist forces from Peru to India, Nepal and the Philippines, to give a few examples. Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution provided the basis for the only consistent revolutionary programme for these countries.

And the final insult to the name of Trotskyism: Slaughter explains that bourgeois-democratic revolutions after 1917 were all led by Stalinists (he could never handle Cuba) and “it was only via this path – and not via the bourgeoisie – that nationalist capitalist states could be achieved; and that is the historic role the various Stalinist regimes, ‘workers states’ played. They prepared and effected the transition of the nation to capitalism” (p284).

Well there we have it! This implies the Bolsheviks were wrong against the Mensheviks and Trotsky was wrong against Stalin and present-day Trotskyists are wrong against Stalinists everywhere. Stalinism has played a historically progressive role and their opponents on the left deserved what they got for attempting to obstruct this progressivism, as they always claimed – remember Ho Chi Min’s remark on the great Vietnamese Trotskyist leader Ta Thu Thau after he has had him assassinated in 1946 as told by Daniel Guerin: “He was a great patriot and we mourn him ... but all those who do not follow the line we have laid down will be broken.” Slaughter has listened to and imbibed whole the philosophy of the Stalinist Mészáros who listened to and learned his ‘Marxism’ from that other more famous Stalinist Georg Lukács, a lifelong loyal Stalinist with only minor oppositional stances, and become a Stalinist himself.

The manner and form of how individuals and groups like the PR group and the MfS abandon that historic task are mere details and historical accident; we have established this fact by examining these details. In the Swamp Max Shachtman, Raya Dunayevskya, CLR James and Hal Draper mediated through the works of Georg Lukács, István Mészáros, Cyril Smith and Cliff Slaughter now trump Lenin and Trotsky as political models as well as on the intimately connected question of internal democracy and the need for a workers’ state. We must continue the struggle without and against them; that fight will strengthen new revolutionists now emerging to replace them; they will supersede them and annul their failures.

 

 

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