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Some Reflections on the Healy Group

Cyril Smith

From New Interventions, Vol.8 No.1, 1997

IT is now 12 years since the explosive disintegration of the Healy group. Now that some of the pain associated with memories of life in the old Workers Revolutionary Party has evaporated, this may be a good time to reflect on its characteristics.

I know there are those who would disagree, preferring to forget the whole business, which they see as irrelevant to today’s concerns. I think they are very wrong. Taking this opportunity to rethink the many questions thrown up by the explosion is not just a matter of therapy (not that this aspect is to be neglected). Investigating our work in the Socialist Labour League/Workers Revolutionary Party ought to provide a starting point for grasping those vast changes in the world since the 1970s, to which we were dogmatically impervious at the time.

Of course, there are several aspects of the work of the WRP/SLL of which we should not be ashamed, even if they did sometimes take rather bizarre forms. We maintained a consistent struggle for revolutionary and internationalist ideas within the British workers’ movement. We kept up a fight against the lies of Stalinism, before this activity became fashionable and almost mundane. We published the works of Leon Trotsky at a time when not many people took them seriously. We warned against the illusion that the economic boom would go on for ever.

But from the moment when I was told about Healy’s sexual activities, I began to see what I certainly should have seen much, much earlier: this was not a communist organisation. The more I tried to look objectively at the relations between the members of the WRP – especially, but not only, in its last, and craziest, period of work – the more obvious this became. Even the sexual aspects of Healy’s brutal leadership turned out to have been matters, not just of appetite, but of power. The opportunism of his latter days (over Libya, the PLO, Khomeini, Saddam, Livingstone, etc) could now also be clearly seen as the sacrifice of principle to the interests of the organisation as a source of his power.

We thought we were establishing a proletarian leadership, but nearly all real contact with life outside the party was regarded as sinful. In a movement whose aim was supposed to be the achievement of a ‘truly human’ society, truly human relations were sneered at, and were denounced as concessions to ‘bourgeois prejudice’. Essentially, members were not treated as fellow communists, but as objects. We regarded each other, and ourselves, as instruments of what we imagined to be some external purpose, something which we were not to question.

The attempt to attribute this cult-like quality to the shortcomings of one leader just won’t wash. If we hadn’t all accepted the kind of regime which held sway, we wouldn’t have stayed around. This was ‘Bolshevism’ in action, we told ourselves, as we interpreted Healy’s brutality as ‘decisiveness’. It is important for each of us to take due responsibility for this acceptance, not because of some obscure need to expiate our guilt, but because this has to be made the beginning of new knowledge. In the light of the discovery that analogous phenomena were observed in many other sections of the Trotskyist movement throughout the world, we must ask: what did the rise to prominence of such regimes tell us about the character of the Fourth International in the postwar period, and about the relationship of the class struggle to communism?

Some people asked: did it matter? Wasn’t this merely a defect of form, of style, which could have been corrected? Wasn’t the content of the WRP’s activities basically sound? I believe it is just the other way round. Healy’s characteristic weaknesses, or those of Lambert, or Lora, or Moreno, or several others, determined only the form taken by the degeneration of the movement. Although I resisted the idea at first, I believe the essence of the problem lay much deeper than the personality of any individual, however dominant.

As we tried to ‘reconstruct’ Trotskyism in 1985-86, some of us found it helpful to assert that ‘the basis of a movement was its theory’. If we made sure that was OK, other aspects would come right, we said. Although we had always paid lip-service to the idea of ‘theory’, we now attempted to take it more seriously in the light of the revealed degeneration of the organisation. That was what I wanted to explore in that little booklet — Communist Society and Marxist Theory — I did in 1987. It was a step forward, I suppose, but only a tiny one. I now regard it as no more than scraping the surface, sticking on a patch here and there.

The WRP presented itself as a ‘monolithic’ body, founded on Marxism, ‘a complete, integral world outlook’ (Plekhanov), ‘cast from a single sheet of steel’ (Lenin). Despite all our talk of a ‘unified world outlook’, the dazzling light of the explosion revealed that, all along, it had been made up of a startling mixture of quite opposed outlooks. Every reactionary and corrupt aspect of bourgeois life, from thinly-disguised religion to something near to fascism, found its reflection inside our party. (It is important to look at the subsequent antics of each of the fragments which were thrown off in the blast. However hard it might be to accept, each splinter does exhibit an aspect of ourselves.)

The thinking which prevailed in the group was really little more than the acceptance of dogma. ‘The masses’ were seen increasingly as the raw material and instrument of the party, which was the repository of ideological purity. For about 18 months after the autumn of 1985, there was a certain amount of hard thinking. Severely shaken by the upheaval, we attempted to re-read some of the basic texts, and to review the history of the International.

Then, just when it began to get interesting, the discussion petered out. What rethinking was done, now took place within a particular framework, in which the task was to keep intact as much of the old system of ideas as possible, rather than tracing the problems to their source. This attitude – perhaps it is still taken by some of us – makes a real regeneration impossible, for it limits the kinds of question you are able to ask.

I don’t think I was wrong to emphasise then that we had neglected the idea of communism, and concentrated instead on some rather vaguely-understood ideas of revolution. We were sure that the power of capital persisted only because of what the Transitional Programme had called ‘the crisis of leadership’. We talked a lot about ‘the taking of power’, modelling this notion largely on the experience of 1917 in Russia. For this, we believed, a Bolshevik-type party, organised on the lines of democratic centralism, was essential. The outcome of all this was to be a workers’ state.

Certainly, the Healy group was a caricature of ‘Bolshevik-Leninism’. But caricature means exaggerating features actually found in the original. Look at this connected set of notions, central to the entire character of the group: firstly, taking power; secondly, a centralised party; thirdly, a workers’ state. There is a common thread running through these three, which has nothing to do with Marx’s conception of communism: subjectivity is located in a self-appointed body, situated outside the workings of existing society.

Marx understood that communism developed within bourgeois society itself, as the productive forces grew. These were centred on the proletariat, now the true subject of history. As it organised itself to fight for the recognition of its own humanity against the inhuman power called capital, the workers became conscious of themselves as a class. At the heart of this process was the understanding that to emancipate itself from the power of capital meant preparing itself for communism, that is, the emancipation of the whole of humanity from private property. The essence of revolution was not ‘capturing state power’, but of breaking up the state as such, dissolving it in the community of associated producers. Any violence arose, not in the attempt to impose new social forms on an unwilling world, but in overcoming the old, inhuman forms.

Marx never spoke about a ‘workers’ state’, nor was he ever a member of a ‘Marxist Party’. (István Mészáros’ Beyond Capital has shown the way to bypass these two notions.) The peculiar conditions under which the proletarians of Petrograd and a few other cities in the Tsarist Empire revolted in 1917 gave an entirely different slant to the whole question. Particular features of the Russian Revolution and the Civil War which followed were taken as the model for every country, and were built into the foundations of the Comintern.

Essentially, the subject and object of social transformation were separated and confused with each other. (Re-read the Theses on Feuerbach, especially the first and second theses.) Recently, I re-read Their Morals and Ours, that most brilliant of the Old Man’s writings. (Long ago, it had played a major role in my decision that I was a Trotskyist.) Trotsky seeks the ultimate criterion for moral action. He ultimately locates this, not in the proletariat, but in the party and its leadership. Re-examining many of the writings of Lenin will reveal the same basic pattern.

Over all three of these aspects of Bolshevism – power, party and workers’ state – hangs a fourth: the notion of theory itself. A complete ‘world outlook’, a ‘body of knowledge’, had to be embodied in a closely-knit organisation, and without it there could be no revolution. This was the medium through which we forced ourselves to look at the world and at our own actions. Herein lies the anatomy of our dogmatism. It is totally opposed to Marx’s idea of what his work was about. Marx never presented his work as a ‘world outlook’. The communists, he stressed, were ‘only’ the most advanced sections of the proletariat. Communism, ‘the movement of the immense majority’, fought to reveal the truth about humanity as it already existed, stripping away the inhuman forms which veiled this truth.

These are a few ideas to which I have come in reflecting on the Healy experience. We should not throw away any aspect of the Marxist tradition, including our own work in the Healy days. But nor should we simply ‘defend our heritage’. Rather, we must carefully separate the ideas of Marx from a mass of other notions. Then, after we have caught up with Marx, we can go beyond the stage he had reached, and discover those new forms of political struggle which arise in the modern world.