In the footsteps of WRP?

The pro-Iran apologetics at the Stop the War conference brought back unsavoury memories of Gerry Healy's 'Libyan gold'. James Turley examines the history

It cannot be doubted that one of the little turning points in British left history was the calamitous implosion of Gerry Healy's Workers Revolutionary Party in 1986 amid a maelstrom of unsavoury allegations. Once the largest and most influential Trotskyist organisation in Britain, the Healy group was at the time of its fall barely a thousand strong, largely irrelevant and viewed as politically mad by even the most charitable souls. At the core of the collapse - among other issues of various importance - was the deepening sense of suspicion over the source of the party's finances. Before we consider this in detail, a more general history of the Healyite group is necessary.

Gerry Healy, despite claiming membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain's youth league as far back as 1928, was a relatively late convert to Trotskyism, leaving the CPGB in 1936 under the influence of Jock Haston, who was then a member of the small, entrist Militant Group.1  It was not long, however, before Healy would turn on his mentor - after losing a factional battle over Labour Party entry in 1948, Healy enlisted the patronage of the Fourth International's leading faction to enforce his policy anyway. The exasperated Haston resigned from the Trotskyist movement, and lived out his days as a quiet Labour Party functionary.

The Fourth International leadership, for its part, was wedded to the very perspectives laid down by Trotsky before World War II, which history had by that point proven to be basically incorrect. Primarily, this was that the war would be followed by a social and political crisis of capitalism similar to that which followed World War I, and the Soviet Union would either be destroyed by the imperialist world or else restored to its previous glories by an internal revolution. In the event, capitalism stabilised itself easily enough, while the Stalinist bureaucracy extended its borders to include most of eastern Europe. Healy followed the FI leaders - primarily Michel Pablo, Ernest Mandel and James Cannon - in refusing to abandon these perspectives. (Cannon even claimed that the failure of the predictions to come true indicated that the war was not yet over.)

Still, barely five years after doing Pablo's dirty work in the UK, Healy joined Cannon in his basically apolitical split from the FI, and the subsequent decades of his political work were characterised by sabotage, vituperation and violence directed at the hated 'Pabloites'. At this point, the two consistent 'idiosyncrasies' of Healy's career were in place - extreme sectarianism combined with a millenarian view of imminent capitalist crisis.

Healy in Libya

Consistent as those features were, they led Healy and his followers all over the political map. He formed a Labour entrist organisation around a paper called Socialist Outlook. In 1956, it was his group which was able to recruit most profitably from the crisis-ridden CPGB, but many of the most prominent intellectuals thus recruited - Peter Fryer and Edward Thompson, for example - were ultimately driven out by Healy's petty dictatorial impulses.

By the mid-1970s, the Socialist Labour League - as Healy's group was then - had left the Labour Party and, having resolutely failed to make inroads into the student and labour movements of the 1968-74 period, faced depleting finances and wavering morale. Healy's response was to dig again into catastrophism - Edward Heath, according to Healy, was not going to call an election, but institute a fascist-type regime with no independent unions. The SLL transformed itself into the Workers Revolutionary Party and launched a full-colour daily paper, News Line. Many at the time expressed surprise at how this was achieved, given the financial situation of the party.

It is now indisputable that Healy was looking beyond his own members and supporters for funds. It was this that led him in 1976 to send a WRP delegation to visit the Libyan government of Mu'ammar al-Qaddafi and to request money for a new printing press. Healy himself apparently visited Libya the following year. It is unclear the extent to which financial assistance was ultimately procured from Qaddafi. In his investigative documents relating to the 1985 split, David North claimed over £1 million in total from Libya, Ba'athist Iraq and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation.

Some of this was undoubtedly given a 'legitimate' veneer. The WRP's print shop took on contracts to print, for example, 250,000 copies of Qaddafi's Green book. Various other 'favours' are well documented and now infamous. News Line journalists were ordered to take pictures of communist demonstrators outside the Iraqi embassy and print off extra-large copies to be handed to the WRP's Ba'athist paymasters. No less repulsively, money was taken from Libya for "information-gathering" with "openly anti-semitic undertones" - the defunct libertarian-socialist paper Solidarity describes it plainly as "Jew-spotting in the media, politics and business".

This, combined with declining membership, increasingly outlandish behaviour on the part of Healy and his inner circle and the failure to materialise of yet another round of catastrophist perspectives surrounding the miners' strike of 1984-85, led to severe strain on the party. The final straw was the publication of details of Healy's long-running sexual abuse of young female comrades, and the party split into a number of almost equally dire sects - all were based around sections of Healy's erstwhile inner circle, and all inherited his total political and organisational degeneration.

Politics of treachery

It would be easy enough to dismiss all this as a matter of baseness and corruption. Many, indeed, have done so - Healy's close associates Michael Banda and Cliff Slaughter were swift, after the various scandals broke, to raise the slogan of "revolutionary morality" (even as they were initiating violent attacks on their factional opponents, in typical Healy style).10 

But this overlooks, or underplays, the deep political roots all this had. The WRP's catastrophist politics - the revolution is just around the corner - obliged it, as 'the revolutionary party', of course - to found and maintain a daily paper. The relationships with Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein, even if this meant the complete rewriting of WRP perspectives, would enable 'the revolutionary party' to fulfil its obligations to the working class. But there was a price to pay.

Likewise, there is a political imperative behind the SWP's new-found appreciation of Tehran (another favourite regime of the senile WRP). I am not for a moment suggesting that the SWP is doing it for the money, but its recent popular frontism could lead it in all manner of directions. The presence of an Iranian state television crew at the STWC conference is certainly worrying, for example, demonstrating at the very least a degree of cooperation with the Iranian embassy.

Principled opposition to the islamic regime is now off limits for the misleaders of the STWC. It is clear that the SWP has talked itself into regarding the foul Tehran regime as basically anti-imperialist and therefore progressive. Rotten politics will lead socialists to rotten actions.