George Evans reviews Clare Cowen's 'My search for revolution - and how we brought down an abusive leader'
The 1960s were a turbulent time - in politics and in youth culture: the swinging 60s and revolting students, sex, drugs and rock and roll; the US civil rights movement, which led on to black power and the Black Panther Party and inspired the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland. The US also had the free speech movement, which rejected the stultifying effects of McCarthyism, and students fighting a similar stultification in France led to les événements in 1968.
There was more, much more, and the biggest movement of all was against the Vietnam war. This evoked a mass movement in the US of students and other youth, but also driven by Vietnam veterans who had experienced it. The international flavour was conveyed by the chant, “We shall fight, we shall win, London, Paris and Berlin!” (perhaps a little Eurocentric). Alongside all this was the Prague Spring, the continuing anti-colonial movements, the struggle against apartheid and regimes in South America, which became in most cases military regimes.
In Britain we had rallies, demonstrations, meetings, a lively left and alternative press, together with a plethora of leftwing groups and parties. For people of the author’s age there was a widespread search for revolution, and Clare Cowen’s starting point was unusual. She was brought up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) a little before Ian Smith’s unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) in 1965. She came from a comfortable home with black servants and at the beginning of the book, in her late schooldays, she was beginning to ask what was going on.
Right from the start her narrative is in a conversational style that gives the book a lively feel and helps to move the story along through the years to follow, when Clare heads to Europe for her further education. Via personal and political relationships, she graduates from Bristol University, where she encounters the Socialist Labour League (SLL).
She piles into her new political life with enthusiasm and describes rallies, marches, together with pub, factory and street paper sales. She plays a key role in building SLL and Young Socialist branches and is clearly an effective organiser. Much of her work is also administrative: for instance, driving ahead of unemployment marches to organise food and shelter for the marchers. She got things done.
There are accounts of widely diverse events, from small local picket lines to the 1973 Pageant of Working Class History that attracted an audience of 10,000, and plenty of photographs in the book. The most important driving force in the SLL, and for Clare, was Gerry Healy.
At her book launch she read out this description of him:
There was a rustle of curiosity, as this unprepossessing man mounted the platform. He spoke quietly until everyone was straining to hear him and then worked up to a crescendo, thrusting his index finger upwards to emphasise his points.
Healy was undoubtedly the charismatic leader of the SLL (and later its successor, the Workers Revolutionary Party) for Clare - and for all members who, like me, stayed for any length of time.
But there were intimations of something else and Clare recounts these as they appeared at the time, rather than in hindsight. A major one was her relationship with her partner. They were living together, but Healy thought that was a bit ‘hippyish’ and so they got married, happily enough.
The SLL number one gave her husband a leading role in the headquarters and so they moved to London, but then Healy started criticising and then humiliating her husband, who eventually left the League. Clare and he got divorced: a points win for the SLL - or rather for Healy. At the book launch and since I have heard of his other interventions in people’s personal lives - for ‘the benefit of the working class’, apparently.
Clare was busy building a Young Socialists branch, when she came across two members scabbing on the Lambeth dustmen’s strike. She reported it. Soon after, at a London aggregate where there was quite a crowd, she was denounced by member number two, Mike Banda, for her comment - and then publicly humiliated, with Healy himself leading the hunt. She accepted this nonsense - that was how things were after the great leader had spoken, but Healy later assured her that she could correct her behaviour: “You can do it, comrade. I’ll help you.”
Public humiliation was a common feature of SLL and WRP life. Many comrades left in disgust or went into a state of quiet resignation. Others, like Clare, strove to learn. They were still searching for that revolution and this was the place to do it - if only they were worthy.
Clare was proud to be given a role at party centre - she gave up teaching and went to work in the finance office. One evening Healy wanted a discussion with her in his flat - and that is when the abuse started: “I went back upstairs in turmoil after the least romantic seduction I had ever experienced - by the leader of the world party of socialist revolution.” She had a lot to think about: this and further encounters were disturbing and yet she thought: “Maybe this is something you have to do for the revolution.”
Meanwhile she was shunted from pillar to post: working in the party offices, sacked and reinstated at a time of great excitement. The worldwide crisis of capitalism and the developing ‘revolutionary situation’ in Britain meant that a mere league was too small; what the revolution needed was a party!
At around the time the new WRP began printing its own daily newspaper, Clare was learning to be a typesetter. There was already a big editorial team and many journalists and photographers. There were also a few experienced printers, but this was a big new development.
News copy, layout sheets and some photographs were sent by a dedicated phone line to the Runcorn printing shop, entirely run by party members. There was a web offset press, camera equipment, sheet presses, guillotines, and much else, as well as the computing gear needed to receive copy and pictures, and transform them into what was needed to produce a newspaper. Not just the newspaper, News Line, but leaflets, posters, magazines and books too.
Clare was pleased and proud to be involved at the heart of this work, but some things stayed the same: grinding daily routines, including branch work and paper sales, which she was happy to keep up with. There was also the unwelcome attention of Healy, as well as continuing humiliation by others. Clare mentions at various points the gratuitous rudeness of Sheila Torrance, WRP assistant general secretary.
She also tells the tale of Alex Mitchell, News Line editor and Healy’s general henchperson. She was asked to stay and clear up after a load of other comrades left. When she showed some objection to this, he slapped her!
Clare was a typesetter for a while, but later she was back in the finance offices and taking on other roles. The period she covers - the mid-60s to mid-80s - includes the arrival of Margaret Thatcher and Thatcherism, and the UK’s move from an industrial economy to a deindustrialised one, with all that meant in terms of unemployment, strikes and protests, culminating in the miners’ Great Strike of 1984-85.
But I will now move on to the second part of her book title, “How we brought down an abusive leader”. In 1982 Healy had a heart attack. This was mostly kept quiet, but Clare knew and was thinking, “How would the party manage without Gerry? It was unimaginable. His political leadership was vital.” He was back not long after, but, as she says, “something had fundamentally changed”.
In 1984, Healy instructed Clare to join Aileen Jennings, his secretary, in fortnightly trips to see her mother in Nottingham and this is really when it starts. It reads like a thriller, because it is a thriller. There was no mortal danger, as far as I know, but comrades did get thumped from time to time.
The actual danger was that of denial, humiliation and expulsion. Many comrades held on for fear of the latter. For many it would mean loss of the only friends they had and, for cadre working for the party, loss of job and even home. However, the real fear was the end of “my search for revolution”.
Accusations against Healy could only lead to accusations of provocation and then immediate expulsion. Any violence would be denied - not just by Healy, but by numerous ‘witnesses’. He was the great leader and any attack on him was an attack on the party and hence on the working class.
When it all blew up, in October 1985, party members knew that there had been five ‘conspirators’ and that they had three lines of attack, but there were an awful lot of details that we did not know, and many of them are here in this book. Those who knew that things had to change could not just go down to the pub for an evening and plot. They took great care not to be any more associated together than they had been before.
Things really kicked off when Aileen Jennings wrote a letter to each member of the political committee (PC), telling them that Healy had been using party premises for sexual liaisons with female comrades for many years: she listed 26 names. She characterised this as a serious security issue, on which the PC must act. She then, very wisely, skipped town.
This was timed for the day after a hugely successful rally to greet marchers from all over the country who had turned out in support of the miners, just after the end of their strike. Not a happy moment for the party leadership: “‘This is a provocation,’ said Vanessa [Redgrave].” Reactions were varied and confused, but, for a while, business continued as usual.
But other pressures were also acting and then the ‘conspirators’ dropped another bombshell. Healy had always insisted on being kept bang up to date with party finances, even while he was in hospital. But the finances had to be as he wanted and expected them to be. Clare witnessed, and suffered, many screaming fits of rage when this was not so and the party treasurer, along with Clare and Aileen, had to keep him happy, while trying to keep the ship afloat anyway.
The bombshell was telling the political committee the truth: that the party was pretty much broke. Healy had been keen on building resources - daily paper, printshop, numerous bookshops, party school ... But he was less interested in the revenue needed to keep things going - gas, electricity, wages ...
The PC put Corin Redgrave at the head of a committee to repair the damage of the “saboteurs”. Unfortunately, he had to use the saboteurs’ help, since he had no idea what he was doing. Other political leaders were of no use either: they had rarely if ever taken any interest in such matters. Redgrave ordered redundancies. Until I read Clare’s book, I did not know that the party employed about 100 people (!). They were not paid much, but still ...
Then came the third point of attack. After the miners’ strike Healy was convinced that we had entered a “revolutionary situation”. One of the five ‘conspirators’, Dave Bruce, gave a presentation to the political committee disputing this nonsense and they struggled to produce a rebuttal.
Cracks were showing and leading members started to demand explanations. The critical moment came with Mike Banda. Everything had been hidden from the membership (apart from the leadership and the ‘conspirators’ - though the latter had picked up a few allies). Mike Banda broke it to the membership. I heard about it, because I was one of the printers in Runcorn.
Tony Banda, his brother, told us everything one evening and Mike phoned next day and asked us not to print the paper. Some agreed and some did not: a paper was produced by a skeleton crew. Tony meanwhile had gone to a North West aggregate meeting in Liverpool and several carloads of extremely angry comrades arrived at the printshop, just as the papers were being loaded on a truck.
They threw off the papers and told the drivers where to go. Tony sat by the phone all night, explaining to worried comrades in London and at intermediate drop-off points what had happened and why. Not long after Mike Banda told the press, blowing it open to the world.
There were all sorts of meetings, as the party split. Corin Redgrave defended Healy and in one meeting “cited the party’s achievements” and said: “If this is the work of a rapist, then let’s recruit more rapists.” So a split was inevitable - a straightforward split between continuing supporters of Healy and decent people who opposed him. But each wing splintered further and continued to do so for some time, while many members just walked away. Many assets had to be sold to pay off debts.
The point of bringing down “an abusive leader” was to continue the “search for revolution”, but it was clearly not going to happen in the WRP. There were and are assorted grouplets. I was in one, and then in a smaller one and then… like many I played no active political role for decades after.
Clare’s final chapter is entitled ‘The women’s question’. The group she was in were appalled by Healy’s actions, but comments she heard or read always seemed to concentrate on the sexual nature of his offences. Clare, not alone, disagreed and said that his actions were “about subjugation, humiliation, control - and these were political issues”.
Reading that, I was struck by the discussions in the left - including, of course, the CPGB - about democratic centralism. This has long been recognised as crucial to communists. For Healy the ‘democratic’ bit came when party members voted (in general unanimously) for anything he put to them. The ‘centralist’ bit was that Healy ran the show - no questions asked. This was not, as we know, unique to Gerry Healy or the WRP, but Clare has written a valuable account of exactly where this can lead.
There are lessons and insights here: there were many knowledgeable Marxists in the WRP - many communist fighters, many comrades who gave their money, time and lives to ‘the party’ and, they thought, to the working class. Yes, we were ‘searching for revolution’, but we too not only suffered because of an “abusive leader”: the main abuse related to democratic centralism. As with many other revolutionary groups, what was practised was as far removed from the genuine article as it was possible to go.