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Gerry Healy, Stalinism and "Revolutionary History"

David Binns

From New Interventions, Vol.2 No.3,1991

WITHIN AND around the labour movement there periodically rise to prominence individuals whose significance seems to exceed their contribution – creative or otherwise – to a movement for communism. Gerry Healy is a case in point.

The scope of Healy’s career will not be fully appreciated for years and probably decades to come. Not least this is because of the selective silence of many, some still politically active, who at various times were closely associated with him. The near unanimous silence, as far as was practicable, of the WRP offshoots in response to the publication of the International Committee of the Fourth International Control Commission’s chilling "Interim Report on the WRP" speaks volumes.1

John Archer’s appeal, in a recent Revolutionary History,2 for a factual account of Healy’s role in Jock Haston’s break from Trotskyism has a more general validity: there is no shortcut across the actual understanding of processes and events. The implications of Archer’s observations can be traced in some of the other contributions to the Revolutionary History forum on "the political legacy of Gerry Healy".

According to the International Communist League, programmatic compromises made by Healy "were the seeds of destroying whatever work he had initiated".3 The problem here is the a priori granting of left credentials to the Healy organisation: we are to believe that its basically sound perspectives and activities were – time and time again – undermined, from within, by lapses due to "criminal practices" which remain politically unexplained, but which somehow became fatal after 1966, the year of James Robertson’s break from the ICFI. Behind the ICL position stands a refusal to consider the possibility that the line of supposed orthodox continuity might be rotten in its foundations.4

Parallel assumptions run through the contribution of the WRP/Workers Press. Healy, according to the WRP, "came close to destroying the ... movement he had set out to build" (much as, in the same account, the attempts of Stalinism to destroy the so-called Fourth International were "almost successful").5 The extended version published in Workers Press elaborates the self-justifying thesis of the "golden thread", an ironic parallel to David North’s "ICFI tradition", in fuller detail. As an item of faith, the organisational split of 1953, with "principle" assembled on one side, is beyond basic reappraisal, as it was in Healy’s day. The WRP thus perpetuates the legend that Healy, with Cannon and others, "did take up a fight against the consequences of the liquidationism of Pablo and Mandel ... culminating in the split of 1951".6 Not only does this trivialise the pre-split "Pabloite" practice of Healy in relation to the French opposition, Stalinism in Yugoslavia and the Bevan wing of the British Labour Party (there is also the later fawning before Mesali Hadj); the WRP, in addition, cannot account for Healy’s warning to Cannon, as late as July 1953, that the International faced "the danger of a split": the problem, for Healy, was one of how to "introduce some sort of balance into the present international leadership".7 Thus the authentic voice of adopted "American pragmatism"!

Notwithstanding the events of 1985, the WRP has not moved an inch beyond the standpoint of the fraudulent Trotskyism Versus Revisionism collection. In volume one of that laborious exercise in sophistry the editor, Cliff Slaughter, asserts: "Pablo’s principal opponents were the British section led by Comrade Healy, the SWP led by Cannon and the French PCI (OCI) led by Lambert and Bleibtreu."8 The present WRP leadership is perpetuating the mythology of 1953 by breathing new life into the lie that Healy’s role (as well as that of Cannon) amounted to anything other than forcing an organisational as distinct from a political break. This is not the stuff from which revolutionary history, let alone a revolutionary future, is made.

The Workers International League, like Workers Power, does address the actual history of Healy. In a three-part series published in Workers News, Richard Price has gone some way toward an informed and critical evaluation of the ICFI in which Healy came to play so central a role. There is also, from the WIL, an attempt to relate the "legacy" of Healy to the wider "crisis of the Fourth International" reaching back, for example, to "deviations" during the second world imperialist war.9

Price, nonetheless, limits his critique unnecessarily. Echoing Workers Power,10 the orientation of the FI towards Yugoslav Stalinism is interpreted as "the edge of a slippery slope".11 While helpfully trashing the notion that there was anything "principled" about the 1953 split, particularly as regards the British section, there remains a question mark over the agenda being posed. The problem to be explored is defined as that of "the post-war crisis of the Fourth International".12 Price acknowledges "organisational dislocation" of the FI under war conditions, but sees "errors of perspective" as exclusively "following the war": in particular, the International’s failure to come to terms with capitalist restabilisation combined with a territorial expansion of Stalinist rule.13 Though empirically pioneering, and illuminating on many details, Bob Pitt’s political biography "The Rise and Fall of Gerry Healy" adopts essentially the same perspective.14 In both cases, the foundations of the FI remain inviolate. But critical assessment of these is central to a Marxist understanding of the trajectory of the post-war world.

Among the most cherished texts of "orthodox Trotskyists" over the period spanned by Healy’s ascendancy was Trotsky’s Revolution Betrayed. Though a complex work, containing various lines of possible subsequent development (some more fruitful than others), it proposes that the USSR of the mid-1930s be viewed as a transitional entity, as "a contradictory society halfway between capitalism and socialism".15 Capitalism had been overthrown, but on the basis of inadequately developed productive forces and the resulting "poverty of society in objects of consumption"16 a bureaucracy crystallised. Yet even national isolation, Trotsky insisted, did not lead to the liquidation of October. By virtue of its need to defend state property, the bureaucracy, for the time being, "remains a weapon of proletarian dictatorship".17 The bureaucracy, for Trotsky, was an essentially political phenomenon. Since, according to orthodoxy, the USSR was transitional to socialism, the bureaucracy could have no organic place within it. Its overthrow, therefore, entailed political rather than social revolution.

For around a decade following the formal endorsement of "socialism in one country" in 1924, Trotsky associated the political consolidation of Stalinism with the coming to power of what, in April 1931, he termed "the centrist bureaucracy".18 Centrism had a specific meaning for Trotsky, signifying currents located between Marxism and reformism, or evolving, one way or another, between them. The shift, by early 1935, towards characterising the Stalin regime as bonapartist is less significant than it is often made to appear. Despite his heightened sense of the potential for capitalist restoration or even some form of fascism, Trotsky could still reason that "the dictatorship of the proletariat found its distorted but indubitable expression in the dictatorship of the bureaucracy": and even more starkly, that the USSR, accomplished bonapartism notwithstanding, "still remains a workers’ state".19

Equally, the more sombre mood which pervades the writings of 1939-40, by which time the suggestive word "totalitarian" recurs in relation to Stalinist rule, did not prevent Trotsky from reasserting old conclusions. His polemic against Shachtman, "From a Scratch to Gangrene", confirms that "basically ... the system of planned economy ... has been preserved and continues to remain a colossal conquest of mankind".20 Throughout the terror, Trotsky continued to insist that the USSR embodied superior social organisation of labour relative to capitalism. Yet Revolution Betrayed, his most empirically informed analysis of the USSR in the 1930s, barely mentions the labour camps, even though they were coming to occupy a pivotal place in the society.21 Precise data on the camp population may never become available. Among the more reliable indicators, however, is Roy Medvedev’s suggestion that in 1952 alone some twelve million people were subjected to such labour regimes.22 The phenomenon expanded enormously following changes to the penal system in November 1929. From then on, imprisonment gave way to Corrective Labour Camps and Colonies, which became decisive in the administration of work in the "degenerated workers’ state".

Almost half a century ago, David Dallin published data showing the "free" industrial labour force in the Soviet Union as rising from 3,670,000 in 1930 to 5,620,000 in 1935 and to some 8,000,000 by the outbreak of war. Camp labour grew from around 30,000 in 1928 to 650,000 in 1930. According to the same author, it probably reached between 5 and 6 million by 1934-35, and continued to grow.23 Dallin’s figures almost certainly understate the truth. They leave no doubt, however, that industry and its infrastructure were built upon overt criminalisation of a large minority, at least, of the working class. And this in a period when non-camp labour was subjected to such atomising procedures as "socialist emulation", Stakhanovism, viciously applied piece-rate payment systems, an arsenal of draconian labour laws, and intensified police controls of all types.24

The labour camps, in short, epitomised the society: they were, quite literally, its essence. For that reason alone, the largely out-of-print corpus of camp literature25 is more central to an understanding of Stalin’s USSR and its disintegration today than the political manifestations of the purges upon which Trotskyism, following Trotsky, has placed far greater emphasis. For all the perverse fascination of the Moscow Trials, and notwithstanding their undoubted contribution to the atomisation of the working class and intelligentsia, it is the camps which reveal the typical form of absolute surplus extraction. The camps were the hidden agenda of the trials.

A temporary and partial suspension of the law of value within national boundaries in no sense amounted to its supersession by the law of planning, which could only be founded upon workers democracy. Particularly during the Second "Five Year Plan", collectivisation was carried out against the working class and peasantry. As such, it permitted only such localised forms of defensive workers control which would retard rather than develop social productivity. What remained was an unregulated "system" producing unusable use values. Appropriating the title deeds to Marxism, and being thanked in a thousand ways by the bourgeoisie for doing so, the overseers of this scrap heap and its post-war clones were decisive in discrediting the possibility of, let alone need for, human emancipation. And orthodox Trotskyism provided more or less explicit support.

The Transitional Programme actually refers to "the socialist character of the USSR".26 It is also true that Trotsky, in the same text, denounced the "theory" of socialism in a single country. What permitted the ambiguity was a legalistic conception of the (degenerated) workers’ state, defined in terms of nationalised property and state monopoly of foreign trade. An honest appraisal of the founding documents of the FI can only conclude that the corrosion of Marxism brought about by the degeneration of the Soviet Union within the defeat of the world revolutionary conjuncture deeply impregnated the outlook of that organisation and the thinking of the person who chiefly inspired it. Whilst it would be slander to argue that Trotsky was responsible for Healy (or any other petty gangster who has gained local influence in the name of the Fourth International), effectively apologetic currents within Trotsky’s later writings on the USSR could be played upon and amplified by epigones in the circumstances following the second world imperialist war. We are still living in the shadow of that farce within a tragedy.

Yet the absence of revolutionary proletarian manifestations in the West did not, of itself, necessitate counterrevolutionary "left" formations. There was no inherent reason why looser forms of association than the sub-Leninist parodies epitomised by the Healy milieu could not have nourished more healthy development. But in the event, generations of leftward moving individuals and groups, including those attempting to break from Stalinism, would be informed, by the official "Marxist" opposition, that Stalin’s national graveyard was "a preparatory regime transitional from capitalism to socialism."27 Some would in time be healthily repulsed by this apologia: greater numbers would be disillusioned and immobilised by the organisational practices to which it lent credence.

The absence of even minimal internal accountability for self-perpetuating cliques gives their organisations the quality of free-floating apparatuses, subject to arbitrary whims, obsessions and influences. A cult of clandestinity flourishes within the carefully nurtured isolation of "the party". The doctrinal baggage which justifies all this is a Stalinist caricature of "democratic centralism": the reality is one of extreme centralism, in turn legitimated by cataclysmic perspectives proclaiming the immanence of the struggle for power. A paternalistic conception of revolutionary duty and leadership which Baden Powell would instantly recognise binds the package together.

Rapid membership turnover at the base perpetuates the regime of non-accountability by confining political memory to the apex. An at best sanitised, and often falsified, history is transmitted to the dribble of recruits. Tomorrow’s "fresh layers" are in turn held in isolation from today’s renegades and expellees. "Theory", finally, is degraded to a rationalisation for pre-given policies originating who knows where. The sect phenomenon is at once social, organisational and psychological. Fantasy as well as more sinister alliances and dependencies naturally come to dominate this grotesque, administered life. Such organisations are capable of anything.

The roots of the problems of the FI reach deeper than programmatic and conjunctural errors. More fundamental are the implications of portraying the USSR as transitional to anywhere except decline and, behind that, the unresolved theoretical issues associated with the "Leninist" conception of the epoch.28 With Stalin held up, albeit critically, as the (contradictory, of course) defender of "transitional" or even "socialist" forms, why not also Tito? Why not Mao? Why not Castro? Why not, come to that, Gaddafi, or Saddam Hussein? And why not Healy and Slaughter’s sinister ICFI as another potential "blunted instrument"?

The FI, in its various manifestations, reinforced the claim that the USSR is a broadly progressive phenomenon.29 Worse, it has acted as an agency for transmission of this nonsense into radicalising sectors of the working class and adjacent social strata which overt Stalinism, too tainted by direct association with counterrevolution, was unable to reach. It is not only the organisational methods of Stalinism that have been carried into ostensibly Trotskyist movements; key aspects of the former’s rotten sociology were incorporated within the FI’s perspectives and analysis, with appalling consequences.

Various "new class" theories, developed in polemic against the claims of Trotskyism, made partial breaks with orthodoxy while retaining its essential logic. The most notable achievement of bureaucratic collectivism was to reject the supposed identity of nationalised property and working class interests. In the absence of proletarian control of economy and state, it was argued, nationalisation may actually intensify alienation beyond even the capitalist limits.

Yet a simultaneous insistence on the progressive – albeit parasitic – character of the USSR pervades the same writings. Bruno Rizzi, the first explicit exponent of bureaucratic collectivism, associated it with "an extra impulse that production undeniably receives as a result of the collectivization of property and the organization of the economy according to a pre-established plan".30 A similar conviction that intensified, collectivist exploitation is compatible with social productivity beyond that which capitalism is capable of achieving informs the analysis of Socialisme ou Barbarie31, while Tony Cliff drew parallels between the historical role of Stalinism in the USSR and that of the revolutionary bourgeoisie elsewhere.32 In these and other examples the positing of a new ruling class is associated with progressivist conclusions. The only critique which remains is moral.

The Shachtmanites – at least by the mid-1940s – had come to recognise Stalinism as destructive of the productive forces. Moreover, they suggestively linked its historically regressive nature with the labour camps33 and, in the case of Shachtman himself, with the inherent wastefulness of such organisation of labour. But theirs remained a basically nationalist reading, even when considering the international policy and spread of Stalinism after 1945. Thus the Shachtmanites considered that Russian "bureaucratic-collectivist imperialism" was "rooted in the needs of the Russian economy",34 rather than in the decay of capitalism as a world system. Shachtman and his followers attempted to come to terms with real social phenomena within the development of the USSR, but, in a variant of orthodox Trotskyism's concession to Stalinism, viewed them as phenomena coherent in their own right. The analysis remained founded upon national postulates, not grasping that the suffering in the camps was the suffering of a universal class. Their inmates’ experiences epitomised the decay of a world system not in the process of supersession.

More than the history of political movements, political economy and an understanding of the movement of society is the precondition for any future communist regroupment. Yet it is here, through its vacuity, that the damage inflicted by orthodox Trotskyism has been and remains greatest. Of no one is this truer than Healy who, in his final years, found himself openly back in the orbit of world Stalinism from which, like so many others, he never really broke, no matter how fierce the "oppositionist" rhetoric.


1. Alone among WRP spin-offs in making this document publicly available is the Workers International League. (See Workers News, April 1988.) North’s post-Healy ICFI has drawn on the report selectively in its own publications, but apparently judges public discussion of the full text as likely to open the door to police action. More subtly evasive is the response of the WRP/Workers Press whose Political Committee managed to compose a reply without acknowledging that the report was the product of the ICFI. Instead, and in true Healy-Mitchell style, Time Out, the Sunday Times and Solidarity, who originally published the essence of the report, are held responsible for the "witch-hunt" (what witch-hunt?) and "slanders" (whose slanders?). (Workers Press, 13 February 1988.) Thus the parameters of WRP glasnost.

2. John Archer, Revolutionary History, Vol.3 No.1, Summer 1990, pp.31-2.

3. International Communist League, in ibid., p.31.

4. While viewing 1952-4 as "a ragged, partial split" (Basic Documents of the Spartacist League Part 1, Marxist Bulletin No.9, New York, n.d.), Spartacist takes as a founding text the 1961 SLL resolution "The World Prospect of Socialism". "World Prospect", though it notes all manner of Stalinist "excesses", asserts of the USSR, China, and the post-war Eastern European states: "Their more rapid and even growth, compared with the capitalist countries, testifies to the advantages of planned economy over private enterprise." (Labour Review, Vol.6 No.3, Winter 1961-2, pp.120-1.) With that tribute granted, all coherent contact with both the world and its prospects is lost.

5. WRP, Revolutionary History, op.cit., p.33.

6. Workers Press, 10 March 1990. This assessment of Healy, by "a group of leading comrades" in the WRP, acknowledges various now-familiar opportunist moves by Healy before and during the 1953 split, but does so solely in order to confirm, as an a priori truth, that the formation of the IC was "decisive for the continuity of the Fourth International". To underpin this mythology, "Trotskyism" once again degenerates into a cult of the personality. Trotsky issued "warnings" to others in the FI: these went "unheeded"; they were "not understood" and "exposed the Fourth International to the gravest dangers". Anything can be conceded except that Trotsky, even in the isolation of his later years, and being fed misinformation by the likes of agent Etienne, might not have been infallible.

7. International Committee Documents, Vol.1, Pathfinder, New York, 1974, p.63.

8. Trotskyism Versus Revisionism, Vol.1, ed. C. Slaughter, New Park, London, 1974, p.xiv.

9. R. Price "How to Rebuild the Fourth International and How Not To", Workers News, September 1990.

10. See The Death Agony of the Fourth International and the Tasks of Trotskyists Today, Workers Power/Irish Workers Group, 1983. The scale of this group’s own unintentionally backhanded concession to Stalinism is apparent from their assertion, for the post-war years: "in the Russian workers’ state, planned economy proved stronger than the sabotage and bungling of the Stalinist bureaucracy" (p.24). Stalinism, that is to say, achieved the miracle of planning in the absence of democracy despite the presence of ... Stalinism.

11. R. Price "The Revisionism North Defends", Part 1, Workers News, December 1988.

12. R. Price "The Revisionism North Defends", Part 3, Workers News, April 1989.

13. "How to Rebuild the Fourth International ...", op. cit.

14. The emphasis fails upon "...the failure of the Fourth International to deal with the political problems posed by Stalinism’s post-war expansion." See Part 4 of the series, Workers News, July 1990.

15. Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, New Park, London, 1967, p.255.

16. Ibid., p.112.

17. Ibid., p.249.

18. "Problems of the Development of the USSR", Writings of Leon Trotsky 1930-31, Pathfinder, New York, 1973, p.229.

19. "The Workers’ State, Thermidor and Bonapartisrn", Writings of Leon Trotsky 1934-35, Pathfinder, New York, 1974, pp.173 and 182.

20. Leon Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism, New Park, London, 1971, p.153.

21. Trotsky briefly, and inconclusively, alludes to "the continuous purgations and the concentration camps" (Revolution Betrayed, p.270). Significantly, the passing remark is made in the chapter on the 1936 constitution rather than, for example, in that entitled "Whither the Soviet Union?" or in Trotsky’s discussion of labour productivity. The virtual silence of Revolution Betrayed on the labour camps is complete in Trotsky’s reply to the Moscow Trials, I Stake My Life, and is a feature of his writings down to his assassination.

22. Quoted in R. Conquest, "Response to Stephen Wheatcroft", Slavic Review, Winter 1989, p.729.

23. David J. Dallin, The Real Soviet Russia, Hollis and Carter, London, 1947, pp.84 and 138.

24. For a scholarly survey, albeit with apologetic undercurrents, of these and other repressive measures, see I. Deutscher, Soviet Trade Unions, Oxford University Press, London, 1950, ch.4.

25. Key texts which shed fight on the camp phenomenon and its social significance include: Victor Serge, Destiny of a Revolution, Jarrolds, London, 1937; David J. Dallin, The Real Soviet Russia, ch.7; Joseph Freeman, The Soviet Worker, Martin Lawrence, London, 1932, ch.9; Boris Levytsky, The Uses of Terror: The Soviet Secret Service, 1917-1970, Sidgwick and Jackson, London, 1971. For valuable personal recollections see "Memoirs of a Bolshevik-Leninist", in G. Saunders, ed., Samizdat: Voices of the Soviet Opposition, Monad Press, New York, 1974; Anatoly Marchenko, My Testimony, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1987; Maria Joffe, One Long Night: A Tale of Truth, New Park, London, 1978.

26. Leon Trotsky, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, Pathfinder, New York, 1970, p.38.

27. Revolution Betrayed, p.47.

28. An important start in this long overdue reckoning has been made in Hillel Ticktin’s articles in Critique, Nos. 16 (1983), 17 (1986) and 20-21 (1987). Relevant historical perspectives are discussed in Richard Day’s The Crisis and the Crash: Soviet Studies of the West (1917-1939), New Left Books, London, 1981.

29. For example, the March 1963 statement of the political bureau of the SWP (USA), "For Early Reunification of the World Trotskyist Movement", judged the USSR as "progressive compared to capitalism". (Fourth International, No.17, October-December 1963, p.70.) The founding documents of USec thus incorporate a sympathetic tribute to Stalinism.

30. B. Rizzi, The Bureaucratization of the World, Tavistock, London, 1985, p.51.

31. See the sympathetic summary in R. Gombin, The Radical Tradition, St Martin’s Press, New York, 1979, pp.32-3.

32. Cliff speaks of the "dynamic development of the productive forces" achieved through Stalinism, and adds that with this "all the impediments to the historical mission of capitalism ... are abolished". ("The Theory of Bureaucratic Collectivism: A Critique", in The Origins of the International Socialists, Pluto, 1971, pp.85, 92.) Gorbachev please note!

33. See Jack Weber "Stalin’s Slave Laborers", New International, Vol.13 No.5, July 1947.

34. "The New Russian Imperialism", New International, Vol.12 No.4, April 1946, p.102.