Gerry Healy: a revolutionary life
By Corinna Lotz and Paul Feldman
Paul and Corinna have been friends of mine for over 13 years. When they asked me to contribute a foreword to their biography of Gerry Healy I was delighted. At a time when political memories are growing increasingly short, it is good that the effort has been made to record the life of Gerry Healy, a revolutionary Marxist who had a massive impact on the working class socialist movement, in Britain and internationally.
The fashionable obsession with the "end of history" is no more than a disguise for jettisoning valuable common experiences and major contributions made by revolutionaries such as Gerry Healy. Naturally this suits those who would like to bury for ever the memory of his unique concept of political work.
I first met Gerry Healy in 1981, shortly after I became Leader of the Greater London Council and was immediately captivated by his vivid recollection of events and personalities on the left. He had recognised the changed political climate which enabled Labour to take control of County Hall, and that we were using the immense resources of the Greater London Council to support those struggling for jobs and other rights.
Gerry Healy saw that it was possible to use the GLC as a rallying fortress for Londoners who were opposed to Thatcher's hard-line monetarism. Contrary to the image spread by his opponents, I was impressed by the non-sectarian approach that the News Line took on the reforms the GLC introduced. News Line's coverage was thorough and objective throughout our struggles. Given we were under siege by the Fleet Street press, it was a relief to pick up the WRP's paper in the morning! The GLC's public relations department usually put the News Line articles on the front page of the daily press cuttings bundle.
The first discussion I had with Gerry Healy made a great impact on me. Coming from a party where long term thinking is usually defined by the next opinion poll, I was challenged by the broad sweep of his knowledge and the freshness of his approach. He knew how to operate in the political present through his understanding of the movement of economic and social forces.
Although we were in totally different political organisations, Gerry Healy always tried to find a point of connection with the world in which I moved. He did this because he wanted to find ways of working with the left in the Labour Party on common issues and principles. But he never laid down conditions. He accepted that there were fundamental differences between us, but they should not prevent us from collaborating against the Tories. It was a refreshing change from the world of intrigues and back-stabbing politics of the Labour Party. That is why I felt happy about speaking at News Line rallies, even though I came under a lot of fire from those like Dennis Healey within my own party.
During the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Gerry Healy and the News Line worked with a group of us in the Labour Party to end Labour's silence on the repression of the Palestinian people. In the aftermath of the slaughter of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shattila camps, we succeeded in winning the recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organisation as the sole legitimate representatives of the Palestinian People by the Labour Party Conference of 1982.
Gerry Healy and I both endured great upheavals during the 1985-1986 period with the Tories abolishing the GLC and the WRP torn apart by a major split. We lost touch for a time, but renewed contact a few years before he died because of his work in the USSR. I was happy but not surprised to discover that we had reached similar conclusions about the dramatic changes in the Soviet Union during 1987-1989. Our last meeting in the summer of 1989 was devoted to a long conversation about the significance of perestroika and glasnost. We both knew that the events in the Soviet Union would change the lives of everyone in the world, and especially those involved in socialist politics.
The other area we had a close understanding about was the role of the secret services in Britain. We knew that joint campaigning between genuine Marxists and socialists in the Labour Party was viewed as a dangerous threat by the intelligence services. In particular, contacts between us and national liberation movements such as the Palestinians drew even more attention from the British state.
My own research and experiences have strengthened, not weakened, my conviction that MI5 considers even the smallest left organisation worthy of close surveillance and disruption. Given the pivotal role of Healy in maintaining contact with Yasser Arafat's HQ through the WRP's use of the latest technology, MI5 clearly felt that they had to stop the growing influence of the WRP. I have never changed my belief that the split in the WRP during 1985 was the work of MI5 agents.
It was a privilege to have worked with Gerry Healy. I know this book will give those who did not know him an opportunity to understand his contribution to the working class revolutionary movement.
Ken Livingstone MP
"The history of the Trotskyist movement in Britain was not made by the individual 'Healy', but by thousands of participants throughout the 50 years. It was they who politically made 'Healy', and the history of that half a century belongs to them, much more so than 'Healy'."
Gerry Healy was an outstanding leader in the British working class and the international communist movement. His political work encompassed the entire period from the revolutionary 1920s to the destruction of Stalinism in the 1980s. He joined the Communist Party in 1928 aged 14 while training as a ship's radio operator. As a young seaman he travelled round the ports of Europe, working with other communists. One of his tasks was to carry messages for the West Bureau of the Communist International to Germany before and after the Nazis came to power.
During 1936, the Spanish civil war became the burning issue in the international working class movement.
In the fight against Franco's fascism, the Soviet Union and the Communist Parties throughout the world were seen as the main supporters of the Republican cause. Healy, almost by accident, discovered that things were not as they appeared. Information he spotted in the Lloyd's Shipping Register led him to ask his own party leaders a simple question: Why had a Soviet oil tanker on its way to help Republican Spain stopped off in Genoa, in Italy, to unload half its cargo at a time when Mussolini's bombers were pounding the anti-Franco forces? His persistent demand for an answer was countered by the accusation that Healy was clearly a "Trotskyist". He refused to back down and was expelled from the party - without ever having read a word of Trotsky!
A year later Healy did join the Trotskyist movement and by the end of the 1940s was its undisputed leader in Britain. He gained an intimate knowledge of the British working class and its trade unions during and after World War II from his work in the engineering, building and aircraft industries.
In 1953 he became the secretary of the international Trotskyist movement. Healy distinguished himself by taking seriously Leon Trotsky's struggle, particularly in the years before the Russian revolutionary's assassination, for Marxist theory. Trotsky insisted that dialectical training of the mind was as necessary to a revolutionary fighter as finger exercises to a pianist. Healy used this advice to make the training of a party cadre in Marxist theory and practice the centre of all the work he did. He combined in a unique way intensely active revolutionary practice with the development of Marxist dialectics.
In the last four decades of his life, Healy led the Socialist Labour League and later the Workers Revolutionary Party, which had a significant influence on the British and international working class movement. He played a decisive role in preventing the liquidation of the Fourth International's sections into Stalinist and reformist organisations.
Healy never worked as an individual. He was a party man first and last. Unlike the Stalinists, who turned the party into an administrative, centralist shell with a reactionary content, Healy based his political work on Lenin's concept of the party as simultaneously democratic and centralist.
What made Healy unique was that he saw Marxism as an active weapon for workers organised in a Leninist party. This set him apart from the university academics and dilettantes. His insistence on the decisive role of the working class and the revolutionary party earned him the undying hatred of the capitalist state and especially the English middle class. While he learned to expect witch-hunts and slanders, they were painful to him nonetheless. Only his contempt for the originators of these attacks helped him to cope with the smears. On the other hand, it was a source of some pride to him that he never discovered a favourable article about himself in the bourgeois press anywhere!
The Workers Revolutionary Party in Britain, under Healy's leadership, became the foremost Trotskyist party in the world, with its own daily newspaper. How the WRP and the International Committee of the Fourth International were split in the autumn of 1985 is outlined later in this book. The explosion in the party and the International was analysed by Healy from the standpoint of the challenge of developing leadership under changing historical conditions. He understood that under the Thatcher regime, the WRP became a prime target for state penetration. In the summer of 1985, when it emerged that the party's finances had been systematically sabotaged and accounts falsified, Healy insisted on getting to the bottom of the crisis. He wanted to expose the operations of the British state.
The convulsions in the WRP affected Healy deeply, but because he had spent his lifetime in sharp political battles, he was able to weather the crisis. Despite his age and poor health, Healy found the strength and the audacity to initiate completely new areas of work, which included founding the Marxist Party.
As early as 1986 he understood that the changes under way in the USSR were revolutionary in essence. He believed that Trotskyists not only had to welcome the break-up of Stalinism, but also had to grasp the opportunities that presented themselves. In the last four years of his life Healy made four visits to the Soviet Union. He lectured on materialist dialectics in Moscow and discussed tirelessly the historic necessity of restoring Trotsky to his rightful place in Soviet history. His discussions with historians, political economists and philosophers led to the organising of a symposium aimed at establishing the truth of the history of the USSR. This was held in England four months after his death.
He travelled to Greece nine times and on seven occasions to Spain between 1986 and 1989, held week-long courses in Marxist dialectics and took part in numerous political activities.
One of the authors, Corinna Lotz, was Healy's secretary and personal assistant for the last four years of his life. When he died it became obvious that future generations would need to know that such a person had lived. Therefore, in 1990 she proposed to the other members of the International Committee of the Fourth International to write a biography. The committee, of which Corin and Vanessa Redgrave were leading members, unanimously agreed, and much of that year was spent putting in order Healy's documents, books and newspapers. But in November, the same committee suddenly endorsed unconstitutional action initiated by the Redgraves to suspend and then expel Corinna Lotz. Some senior party members, as well as many prominent figures in the labour movement, rejected the action as "a flagrant violation of the democratic traditions and procedures of the labour movement".
Writing this book became more difficult and more urgent as a result of these events. Documentation, books, newspapers and notes accumulated by Healy were kept in his office. Much of 1990 was spent in ordering archives in preparation for the writing of the biography. In November that year, the first action of the witch-hunters was to lock Corinna Lotz out of the house where the archives, as well as many personal notes and materials, were kept. The rapid political degeneration and sharp swing to the right of those who organised the witch-hunt is a story for another occasion. Sufficient to say that at the time of writing they are backing Boris Yeltsin, the International Monetary Fund's man in Moscow, having supported his destruction of the Russian parliament. They have abandoned revolutionary politics in favour of "peace and democracy" and humanitarian protest activities.
This book is not intended as an exhaustive political biography. It is hoped that it will, however, provide an historical outline of Gerry Healy's 61 years in the revolutionary movement, bring him to life for those who did not know him at first hand and stimulate debate about the way forward for the working class movement. The Communist League has since its foundation in 1991 fought for the continuity of Gerry Healy's legacy, both in Britain and internationally. We hope this book will inspire a new generation to join the revolutionary movement.