English Language Spartacist, No. 36-37 (Winter 1985-86)
[Transcription/Markup/Proofing: John Heckman, Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line 2007: http://www.marx.org/history/etol/document/icl-spartacists/1986/1966interview.html]
On the 1966 Split
Interview with London Conference Participants
On November 16-17 , Spartacist interviewed four leading members of the Spartacist League/U.S. in the aftermath of the spectacular implosion of the Healy/Banda WRP in England. The subject matter covered in the interview is wide-ranging, but it centered on the expulsion of Spartacist from Healy’s and French leader Pierre Lambert’s April 1966 London Conference of the International Committee (IC). Three of the comrades interviewed — Jim Robertson, Joseph Seymour and Liz Gordon — were participants in the London Conference as members of the Spartacist delegation. (The fourth Spartacist delegate, Rose Jersawitz, was passing through London on her way to study politics with the Voix Ouvrière group in France. Upon returning to the U.S. she launched a faction fight in the SL urging emulation of VO, and then quit to do so, founding the Spark group based in Detroit.) The other comrade interviewed, Al Nelson, was the party leader in command back in New York when Healy broke with us at the London Conference.
As necessary historical background to the material presented in the interview, a narrative account of our tendency’s history and experiences with Healy is provided in “Spartacists and Healyism.”
Conducting the interview on behalf of Spartacist was a panel of five comrades. Mark Kellerman (joined 1965) is a former member of the Central Control Commission, a member of the SL Central Committee and a staff writer for Workers Vanguard. Reuben Samuels (joined 1968) is a member of the Workers Vanguard editorial board and the SL Central Committee. Joel Salant (joined 1968) once edited Spartacist East and is currently a member of the SL Central Control Commission. Bonnie Brodie (joined 1974) is the editor of Young Spartacus. Helene Brosius (joined 1964) is secretary of the International Secretariat and managing editor of the English-language edition of Spartacist.
SPARTACIST: Since the definitive rupture between ourselves and Healy took place nearly two decades ago, we might begin by indicating where the idea came from to interview the participants in that history.
Robertson: The Healy/Banda organization has blown apart, and a lot of dazed people are asking “where did we go wrong?” And the 1966 IC Conference and our expulsion keeps coming up over and over again. Now Wohlforth says, oh of course Ernie Tate was maliciously beaten. Banda says to his miner supporters, yes, maybe it was a mistake to get rid of the Spartacists in ’66. And it seems that François Demassot had told a lot of people that I was beaten up in London, which isn’t even true.
And now we are told, by people who were in a position to know, that Healy was wild, drunken and really violent in the summer of 1966, after his expectations were thwarted at the ’66 Conference in April.
The article that we wrote last summer also figures strongly. That article was on what the Healyites did to the mine union leadership, playing running dogs for the Labourite right wing and the Tories. Because we heard from miners: “You better watch out for the WRP, Banda is absolutely out of his mind over what you people have written and he has sworn to get you.” So we may have helped to crystallize a split in the WRP that was evidently one or two years in the making, and having nothing to do with Healy’s alleged sadistic sexual proclivities.
You know, Shachtman once got very, very mad at Cannon who observed that we Trotskyists are the only moral people. And he thought that was a little too angular a formulation, leaving Shachtman in a brothel somewhere. Well, what Cannon meant was that without a correct program you cannot be very moral in the course of wars, revolutions, repression, betrayals, lawsuits. Without a correct program that crystallizes, in writing and in your work, the historic aims of the proletariat, you simply cannot be moral. Even if you are the Reverend A.J. Muste, who wouldn’t kill a fly. To the extent that we have something to crow about here, we have to locate it in our programmatic outlook.
It turns out that we have a profound difference with the WRP, over politics. Their nominal defense of the Soviet Union is at such a level of abstraction that any concrete expression for several decades has been against the Soviet Union, on most anything you can name. Including, interestingly, going way back, support for the Cultural Revolution, which was virulently anti-Soviet. And they applauded the execution of Communists in Iraq. Then they had to dump the Ba’athist connection in Iraq in order to back the Ayatollah, because Iran and Iraq were at war. And may I point out that to back the Ayatollah is also to be anti-Russian. And they back Solidarność, which wants a bloody counter-revolution to make Poland safe for NATO. Iran, Poland, China. Afghanistan — back all the enemies of the Soviet Union on the perimeter of the Soviet Union. And this is called “defense of the Soviet Union”!
So we have some stuff to say now, because we were the principled people the whole way. And I would suggest that the main reason is not some morality associated with Americans versus English persons, but that over a long period of time, through many fights, through one tendency after another, we stood concretely for the defense of the Soviet Union, against imperialism, and against the damn Russian bureaucracy. That has in fact been our political compass, and it also generates a certain cultural superstructure and a certain morality.
Our political culture is associated with an actual Leninist program that seeks to live, instead of a series of sideshows and circuses.
In light of the things that the two WRPs are daily revealing about their stinking common heritage and recent practice, one is tempted to say “thank god we’re not Healyites.” But this is not an accident. Our practice and tradition come out of the international communist movement, and we have the examples before us of the Cannonites and Shachtmanites. Whose leaders weren’t “maximum leaders”: they sometimes had fights in their central committees. And they lived modestly and they did not claim to have total knowledge — of “security,” dialectics and everything else in the world. Unlike Gerry Healy. J.V. Stalin, Elijah Muhammad, the Reverend Jim Jones, Sun Myung Moon, Lynn Marcus and L. Ron Hubbard.
SPARTACIST: Do you consider the Shachtmanites part of our Trotskyist heritage?
Robertson: There was a lot wrong with the Shachtmanite organization: it was deeply programmatically weak, disoriented and subject to demoralization, which did in fact, in a difficult time, destroy it. But as far as internal administration and party democracy went, it was very good. You could get up in conferences and say rude things about Shachtman, have debates. A pretty lively National Committee, as many internal bulletins as people were capable of writing. And I learned a lot.
The SWP I thought was basically a sound organization but I saw certain practices that seemed kind of bureaucratic. In particular, every week members of the National Committee got a big packet of information from the center, which was confidential unless you happened to be personally close with an NC member. If it was a real issue, it would hit the internal bulletin within a year or so. But there was a kind of vicarious insiderism that I thought was offensive and manipulative.
But by and large the organization seemed to run OK. I mean, you knew what your rights were. And if you stepped over the line, you knew you could get thrown out. But at least you sort of knew what the line was.
My first fight with Wohlforth was on that subject. We had our first faction meeting, and I mentioned in the course of it, “Well, comrades, this is a pretty serious business.” This was right around the time of the 1961 plenum where we had it out on Cuba — I think it was immediately following it. Hansen sort of booby-trapped us into turning up as an opposition. The intention was to smash this youth leadership and bring them to heel on Castro. Well, we didn’t smash. We came out fairly hard and we called a faction meeting a few days later. We had quite a few people there. And I said, “Well, the way things are going, looking at the party and looking at the situation, I give us about 18 months here.” And Wohlforth yelled at me and screamed and yelled and screamed.
After the meeting, I hung around a little bit — it was in his apartment — and I went up to him and said, “Well, Tim, why did you argue with me about that? You know the nature of the organization we’re in, we’re on a pretty hard collision course. I think we’ll be pretty lucky if we last 18 months, given the logic of the situation.” He said, “I know.” I said, “So why did you fight me about it?” He said, “Well, there are people like Freddy Mazelis who are very nervous, and I didn’t want to scare him.”
We lasted about 18 months.
But insofar as I encountered the Healy organization, there was nothing top to bottom that I found appetizing, in accordance with my understanding of a communist organization. And the Healyites did indeed march to a different drummer. We were put off track by their literary side for several years because of Healy’s success in winning over significant sections of the trade-union and educational apparatus of the British CP to an ostensibly Trotskyist position. They wrote very powerfully. And it took a little while for Gerry to work through that and use it up, and to create some kind of nasty, shabby, deepening and evolving cult.
SPARTACIST: When did you develop the slogan, “However Healy does it, do the opposite”?
Robertson: It was from watching the Wohlforth operation here, grinding the members to pieces. I’ll give you a nice example. We just spent about 18 months preparing and running an election campaign in New York. We got a good party organizer in, a campaign manager and two candidates. And we ran hard for many months, the best campaign we could, pound, pound, pound.
OK, in a Healyite organization, the day after the election, you walk in and you say, “Well, comrades, the crisis intensifies and you’ve been semi-traitors for the way you’ve dogged it. Now you’ve really got to go to work.” That’s an absolutely normal Healyite technique. Instead of, “Well, comrades, take some vacations now. Go and skin dive, or go to Portugal, or do something. Pay as much of your own way as you can, and perhaps the party treasury can assist you. We have worked you relentlessly, now take a break.” That’s a very good example of an anti-Healyite technique. And so maybe we’ll have some of the same candidates around in a few years.
In a Healyite organization it would be: “Turn over your vacation money and work twice as hard.”
What does this reflect? If you’re going to try to build a revolutionary workers party, you’ve got to have cadres. If you’re running a perpetual sideshow, you don’t want cadres. You need a few supervisors or foremen, and you just run through the human material and milk it. These administrative techniques reflect qualitative differences in purpose.
SPARTACIST: How did the Revolutionary Tendency first get involved with Healy?
Robertson: It all began really in 1961 with the document called “World Prospect for Socialism.” At that time there was the old International Committee, which was the SWP and a little group in England and a little group in France and a little group in Switzerland and maybe a few corresponding sympathizers here and there — the Cannon wing fallout from the 1953 split, which was pretty moribund.
And then the Healyites broke away from their deep entrism in the Labour Party, in the course of winning over several hundred very able people out of the CP, from the education and industrial departments, mainly in the wake of the Khrushchev revelations and the Hungarian Revolution. And they wrote this document, which was very fine. And there was Healy’s magazine Labour Review, in which was appearing some of the finest Trotskyist analytical and political material written since the ’40s fight, particularly material by Cliff Slaughter but not restricted to him. Peter Fryer’s material on dialectics. The American magazine Fourth International of the SWP was fairly dull and pedestrian.
The youth leadership of the founding YSA was kind of restless with the SWP. For a while Tim [Wohlforth] got into secret correspondence with Patrick O’Daniel (Sherry Mangan), who was the editor of Pablo’s English-language magazine, the Fourth International. I was a little nervous about this correspondence.
And then one day Tim was on tour and a letter came, and a majorityite comrade, Al Taplin, opened the letter instead. It was forwarded immediately to Jim Cannon in L.A., who invited Tim over to his house. And Cannon pulled out the party constitution and read him the relevant passage, and then handed Tim the letter. I ran into Tim in San Francisco a few days later. He was still shaking.
We were smuggling in half a dozen copies of the Pabloite FI and handing them around surreptitiously. Because Pablo was putting an orthodox front on things, and we were kind of nervous, because we were wondering what the devil we were doing in a very small, largely Anglo-Saxon wing of the world movement. We hadn’t worked anything out—we were poking around, as youth will.
When I first came into the SWP I noticed that if I asked any of the younger comrades. “What party are you a member of?” they would answer, “The SWP.” So I said to them: “Read this book.” And they would come back after having read the book and I would ask, “What party are you a member of?” and they would answer, “The Fourth International.” The book was The Case of Comrade Tulayev, by Victor Serge. Thus, in a rather unintentional way, I was building a proto-faction.
So we were disgruntled in a non-focused way with the SWP, it was very much of a national party. We were casting around looking at various socialist currents and tendencies in the world. It would be useful to explain what caused us to shift from looking at the Pabloites sympathetically to looking at the Healy group sympathetically.
The Pabloites put out their English-language Fourth International which looked attractive and sufficiently orthodox. We studied the resolutions from their Fourth and Fifth Congresses which looked very straightforward.
Then there was a huge scandal. A Healyite fraction got expelled from a local constituency Labour Party organization and it was alleged that supporters of Pablo had blocked with the right wing to get rid of them. The SWP publicized this as a classic atrocity which was supposed to show how rotten the Pabloites were as opposed to their good friend Gerry Healy. But Wohlforth and I thought: what happened one night in some town several thousand miles away is not susceptible to our critical examination.
Then, when the Marcyites split from the SWP in 1958. Pablo gave them some coverage in his press. But he made a careful political separation between himself and them. We thought that was fair, even though we knew that the Marcyites were no good. One always wants to exploit the misfortunes of one’s opponents, and the SWP was an opponent of Pablo.
However, something took place which we could evaluate from a distance. Around 1959 or so, a group with some prominent people, including Alasdair Maclntyre, broke away from Healy. We got their documents—probably published by Pablo—and saw that they mainly complained about various organizational abuses and had drawn classically Menshevik conclusions on the party question. So we said, these guys are no good. But Pablo, in his introduction, supported them without reservation. So we thought, forget Pablo. We also drew another, objectively quite stupid conclusion. Healy’s defense of the correct Leninist position on democratic centralism caused us to tilt toward Healy and we started looking upon Healy much more favorably. But the enemy of your enemy is not necessarily your friend.
And then “World Prospect for Socialism” came out in 1961. We were getting more than restless over the Cuban question. And here was this really good, hard line “for the revolutionary workers party!” Since it wasn’t against the law in the SWP, we got scores of copies and started handing them around. We thought, well, program is decisive, and this is the clearest and most pristine expression of the program of international Trotskyism that we’ve seen in a long time.
Then we got into this fight on the Cuban question, and got plunged into being the minority faction in the SWP.
And we were still trying to run the youth group, which I knew was going to be for a very short time. Wohlforth didn’t seem to want to understand that, either.
And I couldn’t stand the alternations that Wohlforth was doing. Every week he’d go down to 116 University Place and he’d be jerked around by Farrell Dobbs, and either we’d be in a hard oppositional stance or we were going to be conciliatory. And I said, we’re through in the youth org. I think we ought to pay attention to what we can do. We’ve got some pretty good young cadres, there’s a few branches that can be taken, because in those days branches were like independent castles with barons. They didn’t use membership transfers—there weren’t enough people to move around and they were all too old.
But I thought if we could get Philadelphia and New Haven and a branch on the coast, transform ourselves from the youth majority into a tendency in the party as a whole with a majority in a couple of branches, that we’d get more longevity, to run a fight. Also we’d get more political prestige, because the youth didn’t count for much. The old Cannonites vividly remembered what happened to the last youth organization: the YPSL-Fourth left with Max Shachtman.
Well, Wohlforth wanted to play around, and then just got mulish. At the same time, Mage had gone on a walking tour through Algeria in the middle of the war against the French and he came back pretty much a Lambertist. He was keeping it very quiet — I had to go visit his house, and I reached into his file of magazines, and there was a whole bunch of La Vérités. And Tim had done the same thing he pulled with Pablo — this time behind my back — and that is he had gotten into secret communication with Gerry Healy.
So we reproduced in our own little minority tendency the IC: we had a Cannonite, we had a Healyite and then we had a Lambertist! Earlier Wohlforth had made another departure; he had decided to support Swabeck on Mao’s Great Leap Forward of ’59-’60. Well, he got badly burned on that, because Larry Trainer and Jim Cannon got up and disavowed Swabeck—Shane and Murry Weiss being the principal polemicists that shredded Swabeck. And I remember in a break one of the younger leaders, Bert Deck, asking me, “How come you didn’t speak, Jim?” And I said, “Well, Comrade Swabeck was at the Fourth Congress of the CI. I think he’s terribly out of line now. I think he was beautifully handled by Murry and Shane and I don’t think you needed me to put my boot in too.”
And the youth leadership was a bloody disaster. The Weissites had had the youth leadership. And then Wohlforth and Weiss had a falling out, and the majority of the youth leadership went with Wohlforth. So there was a very small and not very competent and quite hysterical Weissite presence in the youth leadership. (That’s when we started asking for party reps. I remember Tom Kerry came once or twice, and he never came back. He had had it with these maniacs.)
Well, that’s all Dobbs was waiting for. So he started pouring in Barry Sheppard and Peter Camejo. And he managed then, over the Cuba issue, to bring it to a national youth conference in December of ’61, and clean us out.
OK, so suddenly we were in a situation in which Wohlforth is in private communication with Healy. He kept those letters pretty close to his vest. He had a set of two or three lieutenants, that he would reveal little bits and pieces to. Wohlforth and Healy would do whatever they did in their letters, and then Freddy [Mazelis] and I and one or two other guys would get the word to line up the masses of the faction, which probably consisted of 15 people in New York. I went out to California and I lined up some people that I’d known out there. So we got another wing, with the pre-eminent figure being Geoff White, with whom I had been seriously at odds for years, because I was in the left wing of the SWP and he came out of the CP pretty much a Deutscherite. So we got on not well at all. Also he was much more diplomatic than I was and the SWP believed in suavity, and suave I wasn’t. So I got dumped out of the Bay Area and into the center. From which there is a political moral: if you really want to wipe somebody out, don’t send them to the center.
SPARTACIST: How did the 1962 split in the RT come about?
Robertson: Then we started getting into trouble about the nature of the SWP. Because it looked to me like, with the SWP embracing the Castro road to revolution, we had a flagrant case of centrism here. You can go read the documents and, starting with a flirtation with Tito, every time there was an opportunity or an action, you could see that the SWPers were straining against the bounds of a formal revolutionary program, because their appetites were going somewhere else. The SWP was physically and socially in very bad shape by 1960. It had about 600 members, and they were ready for something.
They got it over Cuba. I remember Morris Stein, a nice fellow. He got up at the June ’61 SWP convention and said, “What’s happening in Cuba is the greatest thing since the October Revolution.” He sat down, and that was the last we ever saw of him. Hooray—he had lived to see it. One has to draw conclusions from the SWP’s Cuba position: that the party was a centrist formation rapidly moving to the right. It had crossed a certain kind of watershed. And we had to fight.
I wrote a letter to Ed Lee in the Bay Area about how we have to not get wiped out. We used the phrase: otherwise each new rightward departure is going to create a new wave of oppositionists, who then will let themselves get washed out; our job is to stay here and accumulate such revolutionary Marxian discontent as the current course of the party is throwing up.
And Wohlforth didn’t want that. Healy was saying, “Trotskyism Betrayed: The Story of the SWP,” and at the same time, “the SWP in its central core is firmly proletarian and revolutionary.”
And so Healy and Wohlforth pulled a coup in ’62. The only trouble is, Wohlforth has never won a faction fight, ever. I mean, it’s almost impossible for the main leader of a group to lose a faction fight (and he’s lost about six of them in a row) — you really have to do it badly. The crucial trick is to alienate the large majority of your key lieutenants. Really infuriate and offend them. And be very unstable. You zigzag all over the place. That’s Wohlforth — a talented, hard-working guy, but this short-term appetite for maximum-leader status. And terrible weakness — if you got a chance to pound him politically for a couple of days, you’d get the opposite line.
And so he really wanted to be the principal leader and he worked like a son of a bitch. He’d bring out all kinds of copy — which wasn’t very good, he wrote a major error into every single article.
So he made an ever-closer pact with Healy, and dumped us. And that was supposed to be the end of us. Because I’m pretty sure that they believed that they were going to wipe us out. That we were a petty-bourgeois little group of six people hanging around Columbia University, and that in 1962 it was going to be all over for us. And then Wohlforth, to make sure, made a bloc with Dobbs to get rid of us. At least, Dobbs thought getting rid of us was a charming idea, but didn’t think much of keeping Wohlforth around either. And then, once we were thrown out, Wohlforth got immediately demoralized and quit, declaring the party centrist.
SPARTACIST: But you didn’t draw final conclusions about Healy?
Robertson: We didn’t know what to do vis-a-vis Healy and the SLL. Because we continued to be impressed by them politically, by what they said programmatically. It looked like a big force, Gerry said he was the leader of the world proletariat and we were prepared to give him a contingent credit. So we persisted — we fought as nastily as we could with the local Wohlforthites, continued to be polite with Healy and took the best articles that Slaughter and others wrote for Labour Review and printed them as a pamphlet, “What Is Revolutionary Leadership?”
SPARTACIST: And that was it until the Montreal meetings in ’65 and the ’66 Conference?
Robertson: We had our ups and downs and Gerry diddled us a little bit over the years. Then I guess he was thinking that in 1966 something very big was going to happen. So he upped the voltage, and set up for the fall of ’65 this conference in Montreal. And we went in, a lot of us, and all the Wohlforthites. We did some hard negotiating, got what we thought was a very satisfactory, principled resolution of our negotiations, rubber-stamped of course every step of the way by the poor Wohlforthites, who came out of there looking pretty gloomy—very gloomy indeed. Well, I guess I was looking at them about the way the Chinese peasant looks at a little pig.
And off we went to London. We were under a lot of pressure, because the Wohlforthites had written their perspectives document as fluently and rapidly as they always did. And we were still working on ours when our delegation left for London in April 1966. I turned it in, kind of ruined and exhausted, and after that, stayed up all night again because they started the general discussion on the state of the world, and I thought, well, we’re coming in, we’re this very junior, puny, unimportant American group, but we owe it to these comrades that we’re uniting with to offer some of our views on the main questions of the international movement. So we went in, and I made a presentation.
And on the way out that noon, finished, thinking that nobody would ever pay any attention, I ran into Gerry on the stairs and I said, “I’ve really had it. We did our document for the fusion. I made a statement to show where we’re coming from, and now I want to go and take a nap.” He just nodded. And then someone — I always sort of thought it was Banda, but I don’t know — really didn’t like some of the stuff we said.
Gordon: Our long-standing position that the fight against Pabloism had never been carried through internationally put us on the “wrong” side of a concealed power fight between the British and the French.
Seymour: There’s another aspect where I think that we, again possibly inadvertently, gored their ox. They had this “final crisis” line, that the incomes policy was the beginning of fascism in Britain, that the ghetto upheavals in the U.S. were the beginning of the American revolution. And in the Spartacist presentation was the refusal to inflate—we said that the crisis of the Fourth International is not comparable to the situation of 1914, that revolutions are not on the order of the day, that we’re not at the head of mass parties.
Robertson: So they were paying more attention to us qualitatively than we imagined.
SPARTACIST: Jim, how did you personally get along with Healy?
Robertson: I think Gerry Healy knew me a lot better than I knew him. In the first place, he only showed a face—he had a lot of faces. But he had 20 years on me. He’d seen all kinds of people in politics. And I think he had a very good idea of the customer he was dealing with.
Let’s be clear: I liked Gerry Healy, I got on very well with him, we saw eye to eye on all kinds of questions, gossip, nuances, tactics, like a couple of fairly hard-bitten communists who’d been through some mills. He had a hard young Cannonite on his hands.
I noticed a few odd things here and there. I did not like at all at the [April 1966] Morecambe conference of the Young Socialists, when he said, “you know, some YCLers turned up to distribute their paper and we sent them packing.” I thought, wait a minute, that doesn’t sound so good. And I thought he was a little flamboyant, telling me all these stories that I thought he shouldn’t have told me, about concealing assets in the middle of a bankruptcy proceeding, for example. And he bragged that his organizers had cars, but he was planning to get them helicopters to move around Britain.
This is only now, in the light of this split that took place a couple of weeks ago —I think Healy was on to me a lot better than I was ever on to him. And he had an idea of what I’d come out of. I think he wanted a fusion in London very badly. He had to make what he took to be an unacceptable compromise in Montreal (which we took as good coin), figuring that he’d rectify it by a pressure cooker in London. And that blew up.
I think that he was under pressure from the French already, and wanted to produce in the English-speaking world, which was his half of the world. And I think that it bothered him a very great deal that it blew up, judging by the accounts coming out now that he was drunk and wild and unusually violent in the summer of ’66; we represented in his mind a very big setback.
I know he had a perfectly good idea of what Wohlforth was. Because after the night of the first blowup, when I wandered back in, probably after dinner, we went at it for a while. And then when that session adjourned, fairly late, Liz and I were called into Healy’s room, with Banda in a shadowy corner, and Healy quite drunk, and he said, “Listen, Jim”— very friendly then, the sudden switch — “we can work this out. The fusion can go through. Just go and make a good act of contrition. You know you’ve got this petty-bourgeois American background; together we will struggle to overcome it. And I care nothing for Wohlforth — you’ll go back home the leader.”
And I looked at Liz out of the corner of my eye — I had come out of the CP you remember, not entirely an innocent — and I said something to the effect of “Gee, Gerry, this is a really interesting proposition. Our delegation wants to leave right now and consider it.” And we got out of the room as fast as we could.
We’d run into Healy’s Stalinist technique in ’62. Geoff White and others wrote most eloquently then — if you sign confessions to stuff you don’t believe, you have had it. You are neutralized as a reputable political factor henceforth.
Nelson: You know that you’re making public allegiance to views that you don’t hold, and it sort of guts you. You’re somebody else’s person. You’re Zinoviev waiting for the Moscow Trials.
SPARTACIST: So they did this long denunciation of you. What was the response of the other delegations that were there?
Gordon: I remember being endlessly harangued by large quantities of people from the Lambert section and VO: “Why don’t you just apologize? We can get this out of the way, and then we can have clear political discussion.” And VO would say: “So it’s wrong. So it’s unfair. But you are being petty-bourgeois individualists. OK, we can see it’s unfair. But it’s not that important, is it?”
Robertson: VO just backed off; they figured it was Healy’s conference.
Seymour: The Japanese observer, I think, abstained, or maybe voted against.
Robertson: Hardy [VO] said to me, “You know, I made a mistake. I came with 18 female schoolteachers who speak English. I should have brought 18 of my auto workers. If I ever get into another conference with the Healyites....” But they just went along, that’s all.
You know, it didn’t happen by accident. Healy/Banda wanted to pick a fight, and we were either supposed to crawl or become wild and enraged and make weird indefensible political statements—it was a technique of Healy. Put the blocks to somebody, and you either break them or drive them to stand up and announce that Michel Pablo is the real world leader. And I thought, we’ll just hang in here like Ulysses S. Grant, and fight it out all summer — because they started the fight on indefensible grounds, and we’re not going to give them anything else to make the split over.
SPARTACIST: With the recent split everyone’s started talking, and we learned that a lot of people on the British left think Robertson was beaten up at the London Conference.
Robertson: That story needs a correction. Our expulsion had the smell of violence about it, all right. We got downstairs at the end, and Gerry was quite drunk, and he was running around and he was visibly working himself up into a punchout—not between him and me, but he had these guys in the shadows. And I had a very vivid image of the alley in back.
What is quite true is that it was Lambert who intervened to cool Healy off, and we got out of there. So I never had a hand laid on me, but the suggestion was in the air.
Gordon: I can remember Jim telling me in London, “You know, we really fought hard in the SWP. We said some unkind things about Farrell Dobbs, we told Tom Kerry to shut up and sit down when he was heckling in a national convention, and there were a lot of people there that just couldn’t wait to get rid of us, but I never felt that I was in physical danger when I was in the SWP headquarters.”
SPARTACIST: After the ’66 split, the Spartacist organization maintained a posture of loyalty to the IC for a period of time.
Robertson: As long as we had the same formal program in common. So we complained about Healy’s administration, ending up with “Oust Healy!” But within a few months, the “Arab Revolution” and the Red Guards obtruded, and we said, wait a minute — we don’t care now about Healy’s internal administration, it is the administration of a formally, programmatically alien tendency. When you have a regime that is nominally of a revolutionary Marxist character, and is multi-facetedly corrupt, that creates a tension. Because the corruption has to reflect an appetite alien to the program. That’s always the basis of bureaucratism—when you proclaim one thing and practice another.
SPARTACIST: How did Hansen actually get hold of our documents, the ones he used in his pamphlet, “Healy ‘Reconstructs’ the Fourth International”?
Robertson: When we got back, we took about every scrap that we had in connection with the London Conference and the earlier negotiations in Montreal—we immediately mimeographed it all up in kits. I remember one night we had a social and invited everybody we could think of over, and we were handing these kits around to whoever turned up. And we got in the subway, and there was a friend of ours, a left civil-libertarian who we’d worked with on some cases before, his name was Marvin Siegal. I reached into the leftover kits, and I handed him one.
So he went home with his kit. He was pretty interested in it. He was living with Berta Green, who I think was on the National Committee of the SWP at the time. And he mentioned, “Oh, I ran into Jim, look what I got.” And she took it right out of his hands! (He complained later, “She wouldn’t even let me read it. She said it was a security matter.”) And took the documents straight to the SWP. And the next thing we know, it’s a pamphlet by Hansen, whose introduction seems so penetratingly knowledgeable, you’d think it was the power of Marxism. I gather he’d also had reports from the two dissident USec delegations that were there. So he had a lot of fun writing that introduction.
And then Healy made a great to-do out of it, that we had betrayed the class line by going to the SWP and giving the documents to them. Well it was a public split and these were our documents.
And in a straightforward way, that led to the beating of Ernie Tate, because that’s the pamphlet he was selling when they creamed him.
SPARTACIST: Our tendency made a vigorous outcry against Healy after Banda’s beating of Tate and Healy’s legal action to suppress the story.
Robertson: It was either Healy or Banda, and I don’t expect now we’ll ever know which one, that actually organized the beating. It was a calculated act, orchestrated, not just somebody becoming unhinged. Tate was selling, they harassed him, they went inside and then half a dozen guys came out all at once and systematically beat the shit out of him. At the time (I don’t know what’s happened to him since) he had a bad medical condition. He had some kind of fine, black, grainy stuff in the fluid inside his eyes; and if he got a sharp blow it all swirled up and he was blind for some time afterward and had to lie in a darkened room for a long time while it settled out. So the Healyites knocked him down in the gutter and kicked the hell out of him! He was rather a mess. And we’d been pretty friendly — at one point we were right on the edge of winning most of the young and quite able Canadian Trotskyist cadre. But one of their key guys, John Riddell, had some contact with Healy that put them off very badly. They then went on to found the USec [United Secretariat] section in England.
SPARTACIST: In hindsight, did Healy have a “good” period, let’s say 1957-67?
Seymour: I think the split of the Healyites from the Labour Party Young Socialists in ’64-’65 actually—with all proportions guarded—created some of the conditions that Jim Jones got when he took his operation to Guyana.
Because it’s not simply that Healy had a formal literary posture, but that he had to fight for the line of orthodox Trotskyism, including the Soviet defensism which was expressed in those documents—he had to fight for that line as long as he was doing entry work in the Labour Party against the Labour Lefts and the Cliffites. For example, one of the split issues was that the Labour Party Young Socialists should defend the Warsaw Pact against NATO. And that was one of the key—if not the key—issues of a somewhat ragged split.
I was a very junior member of the Spartacist League coming not from the SWP, but rather from a background of sort of New Left Maoism with a short stint in Progressive Labor. And I went to England in September of 1965, to be an economics graduate student, and what struck me was precisely the degree to which the Healyite youth operation was like the politics that I had had to break from to become a member of the SL. In fact it reminded me of nothing so much as the Marcyite youth operation—on the terrain of a society much more dominated by Labourite reformism and with a more plebeian but not proletarian base—a youth group that basically consisted of high school students, not young workers. Some apprentices, but certainly not youth that were active in the trade unions as a central arena.
I had been in London for a couple of months when I wrote back, “Apparently the SLL has been recruiting into the YS on an activist, revolution-tomorrow line. Little attempt is made to raise the level of consciousness of most of them or to build cadre, but they’re used for purely organizational work, selling the paper, etc., and peopling demonstrations. Needless to say, the turnover of the kids is high. If true, and I believe it is, it is a serious fault. At best it can be considered negligence caused by a rapid influx of young members, and at the worst a cynical exploitation of the aimless discontent of lower-class youth.”
So I don’t know what subjective change the central cadre underwent, but it was clear that once they had broken from the Labour Party, they built a pretty self-isolating, rather apolitical lumpen-plebeian youth operation which did not intervene in the mass organizations of the British working class. And I think that this provided them with what could be called the sociological and organizational basis for the subsequent degeneration, culminating in becoming agents for Qaddafi and justifying the murder of the Iraqi CP members.
Robertson: Remember their academic student journal, The Marxist? Very high level, fine stuff. And then I saw some of the members of the executive committee of the YS at Morecambe. Real good guys. There was one from Ulster in particular that I would love to have talked to. But every time there was the faintest air of the possibility of the loss of unanimity, Healy and Slaughter were right up at the front of the platform. I wasn’t used to this in the youth organizations that I’d been in, where Shachtman had a reliable gang of half a dozen kids who were perfectly capable of running an operation.
I think we understand now where Healy’s SLL came from. It had Gerry’s cadres from the old RCP [Revolutionary Communist Party], the people that he got out of the Communist Party after ’56, and Seymour has added the third crucial component—the Young Socialists operation. Winning over this big chunk of the Labour Party Young Socialists gave them a certain kind of base in what you’d roughly call a lumpen section, and they were also at the same time working the adult employed industrial workers — and so they were walking on two stilts. If you look at “Wohlforth Terminated,” you’ll see that in Britain in those days, the lumpen consisted of unemployed, unskilled white kids who were actually the sons of employed industrial workers. The gap didn’t open up the way that it certainly did for the Workers League in the United States when they tried to work the parallel social strata, so that on the one hand the WL aimed at black and Hispanic youth, at the same time pushing this Committee for a Labor Party which denied the black question, the war in Vietnam, and wanted to found a Labor Party headed by George Meany.
The SLL actually got a base among footloose kids. And it required the “festival” quality of ersatz politics to keep them going. Marches all over bloody hell, and all that sort of thing. The WL tried to reproduce that in the United States, and they’re still looking for the killers of Tom Henehan. The Healyites were always on the lookout for the take, and always sucking up to somebody. I think it was to Healy only a quantitative shift to go from playing footsie with Nye Bevan to Qaddafi.
SPARTACIST: After your experiences in ’62, comrades, weren’t you concerned going into the London Conference about Healy’s manipulative organizational practices?
Nelson: If there’s a cult made of Lenin, there’s also from the social-democratic side a reverse cult made of Stalin. You know, Stalin was this beast that always lived in the belly of the Bolshevik Party, and then one day like in the movie “Alien” it comes ripping out and all of a sudden it starts chomping up everything in sight, and then you have Stalinism. That’s kind of simple-minded.
So Healy had been around for a long time and done some rotten things. I also expect he could turn the leftism on and off if it served a purpose. So it’s hard to tell from afar. We knew a lot more about the Workers League because we worked closely with them and knew the cast of characters. We weren’t worried about Wohlforth and his bunch because we were very much harder politically than they were. And the differences they had with us, which we understood was a left-right difference, could be contained within one democratic-centralist organization. Except we were concerned about having the right relationship on our domestic ground with the international. And their organization was something of a curiosity, because they had tried to kill us in ’62 and simultaneously put out some fine material.
Gordon: I want to go back to the Montreal Conference in ’65. That ran for three or four days. We brought in a much heavier delegation than we sent to London; Montreal was the first time that I ever saw Geoff White. And we really went at it with Healy. The main bone of contention was whether a disciplined section can select its own leadership and make its own tactics. And Al reminded me that at one point Healy said, “Not one word of this document will be changed,” and we were prepared to split right there. And it was then that Harry Turner and Bob Sherwood came forward as the capitulators just by making a little noise in that meeting.
Nelson: Turner broke discipline: “Let’s not be hasty, comrades” — as Jim was packing up his briefcase.
Gordon: Enabling Healy, after the London split, to address his letter to those two people, because they were soft. Healy was a lot of things but not stupid. And our tendency, including in ’62, was prepared to accept international discipline. We found out only after the London Conference that there was no democratic centralism in the IC — they admitted the IC was governed by the principle of unanimity between the English and the French.
In Montreal, we raised our differences and Healy was pretty conciliatory on the politics and he said, “Oh, we have lots of differences with Mike Banda. We have differences over Vietnam, we have differences over Indonesia.” And it’s when Nelson got up and made a presentation on the ’62 split — that Healy was responsible for it—at that point Healy blew his stack. Then he started saying, “Oh, come to London. We’re not going to discuss this now — come to London, you can discuss this in London.”
Here’s a small story about something Healy didn’t like at the London Conference. We said, “We and the Japanese comrade want to go off to Highgate Cemetery and see Marx’s grave.” Healy said, “Agh, only the Stalinists do that—all the visiting Stalinists from Eastern Europe go and lay flowers there.” Well, we didn’t care; we went and didn’t think twice about it. It’s that kind of attitude that I think made Healy decide we were unassimilable.
Robertson: You know, we weren’t afraid of these guys in some political sense. I remember the ’62 split. The night that Philips got back from England — Wohlforth and Philips, triumphant. First they both lit cigars to show there were members of the proletariat in the room. And then they brought out the document we were supposed to sign: “Here it is — take it or leave it.” And I said: “Did you write it all down, Lynne [Harper]? Okay, that’s a split, isn’t it?” We weren’t afraid of these birds. Why should we be? We thought we were probably quite as good as they were.
We knew how Leninism is supposed to work: the majority controls the line. You get a majority, you control the line; we get a majority, we control the line. If you don’t like it enough, one of us splits! You want debate? You get debate. You want an internal bulletin? You get an internal bulletin. You have a “non-negotiable demand,” and we don’t accept it — well, that’s that, it’s time to go!
Nelson: That’s how it was in ’65 too. We worked our position out in caucus. Healy read us his proposal, we asked some questions, wanted some assurances about the relationship between the fused section and the international. He said, “That’ll be handled by the American Commission.” And then he read his statement. We said, “Well, what about putting...” He said, “Nothing different can be put in here. Nothing will be changed.” And we had had a caucus where we said that if we don’t get these assurances, we get out. Healy said no and Jim started packing his stuff up. I think Geoff White was talking, and Jim was starting to pack his material up. And then Turner pops up with, “Let’s not be hasty.”
Robertson: Have a good time with Moreno, Harry! [Laughter.]
Nelson: And we held out and Healy backed down.
Robertson: So here’s the answer to the implied question, “when did we first know that Healy was a beast?” Well, we didn’t care whether he was a beast—because we figured we were pretty tough too. It was Healy that wasn’t willing to be in the same cage, let’s keep that in mind. Somebody said to Cannon something about how Stalin corrupted the American Communist Party. He said, “No, don’t be so sure. There were a lot of people who were yearning for corruption in the American Communist Party. Don’t blame it all on the Russians.” Wohlforth was not a victim of Healy. Wohlforth was a servant.
And we were not in a big hurry to go around and justify everything. We got bounced? Weaklings then run and suck differences out of their thumbs. We thought: well, this seems fraught with the possibility of political differences. We said: a leadership that behaves in such an irresponsible fashion is no good. And we let them come up with the political differences.
And now the evidence — it’s not conclusive — is that Healy went around the bend that summer.
This absurd thing about an apology... “Gerry, you are rude! You will apologize to me” — except I wouldn’t dare do that, I would have been beaten to a pulp on the spot. But given an equal relationship of forces, with VO’s 18 auto workers in the room, Healy would have apologized to me for insult — then we might have had a unity. Healy was very good in Ceylon when he went out there in ’64. Pudgy little colonial imperialist, he got up and started swinging his weight around. Bala Tampoe went and stood over Healy and said, “Sit down and shut up!” And Healy sat down and shut up.
So one noticed early on that Healy didn’t seem to have a lot of fixed politics. Looking back, reviewing the fight we had in Montreal in ’65 and the rest, I can see where Gerry would get nervous about us. We actually had firmly committed politics. We looked at what we thought were his fundamental political statements and we thought: this is very good, this is really what we’re about. And I can see where that would make brother Healy very nervous, encountering an organization in the United States that actually believed the stuff he was currently peddling, whereas he knew perfectly well that yesterday he was singing a different tune and would be again tomorrow.
Well, Gerry has his own administrative means. If we sign a sufficient number of confessions, get our back broken, then it doesn’t matter where he takes his sleigh, we’re going to take the ride. Only he ran into a lot of obstruction. Some of it came programmatically. And some was that we were in a fairly strong position: we were in another country, where we were more numerous and entrenched than they were. They announced in London at the end of the conference, of course we’re going to make a campaign and rip the Sparts wide open. Instead, we ripped ten or a dozen people out of the Healyite organization in this country, because they were much smaller and their people were looking forward to getting into a fused organization with us, even if Wohlforth’s head was going to roll.
Not that we did anything specially good, it was pure missionary position, going straight down the road according to program. When Tate got beaten up we yelled and screamed, while everybody in Britain was taking a dive on account of a couple of writs. “A high court writ? — oh my god, that’s it.” Well that didn’t travel too well into another country.
The Tate beating — that’s the first hard evidence we ever had of Healy’s kind of violence. And then we yelled our heads off. Subsequently I’ve run into too many people in England who personally either participated in beatings for Healy/ Banda or were the victims — or both — who simply shut up. So we have to ask a question: is this a matter of English moral fibre, or is there another political process at work here? Is it just the way things are done, the flip side of the mateyness in and around the Labour Party, to treat gangsterism like a guilty secret?
Well, part of the silence was certainly embarrassment. That if the truth comes out, “Trotskyism” looks bad. But you have to be hard-nosed — in politics you can’t do the gentlemanly thing and hope that if you don’t talk about it, it will just go away. This thing happened, it has to be exposed and dealt with — and now there’s a big public split and all the old bodies have risen to the surface.
Maybe there is also a certain cultural component: the background in Methodism. The Healy organization at their summer camps had sexual segregation and sex patrols. Their attitude toward homosexuals is vicious — the A. Jennings letter says: we uncovered the fact that there was a homosexual who slipped through and was actually training our pure youth, and you know what that means.
I think Peter Fryer was the SLL’s most important recruit from the CP. He’d been a British Daily Worker correspondent in Hungary during the Hungarian Revolution. He came back and wrote a beautiful little book, which was called The Tragedy of the Hungarian Revolution. We must have sold those by the tens of thousands. Well, Peter Fryer turned out to be a man of many facets — he was quite good. And he started, presumably at the instigation of Healy and others, Peter Fryer’s Newsletter, which became the Newsletter, organ of the SLL. So what happened to Peter Fryer? Well, I don’t know.
Healy and Fryer had some kind of falling-out. And this was the first time I ran into some of Healy’s megalomaniacal practices. Healy told me, he may have printed it, “Fryer has run for it. I’m having all the ports of England watched.” In fact Fryer wisely had taken off for Portugal. The Healyites made much of it: “And this Peter Fryer — when he ran for it he left the country with his wife, his mistress and his mother.” We were supposed to be appalled. I always felt that was rather elegant.
Peter Fryer really was the guy who introduced the SLL into the milieu of the British CP: the industrial apparatus, the intelligentsia and education department. Later when the Healyites were busy denouncing Fryer, Healy printed a little thing that said: “And now, look what has happened to Peter Fryer, as happens with all renegades” and they listed a bunch of renegades and the low pass they had come to. “This Fryer, he now writes books on ‘sex’.” So I read this, and I wondered what happened to Peter Fryer.
One night I was walking down Eighth Street in Greenwich Village and looked into a bookstore. Sure enough, there was a book by one Peter Fryer called something like The Anthropology of Sex Through the Ages. He was indeed writing books on sex.
This gives you some of the flavor of the Healyite organization rather early on. Fryer was a very important acquisition from the CP. He did set up the Healyites’ first press. And he was a top-flight Marxist journalist. He also had very fine theoretical capacity. His little article on Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks (Volume 38) is a masterpiece, and is something that we’d always wanted to print as our own pamphlet, “What Is Dialectics?” And he was savaged by Healy.
And I thought that Healy made a mistake after 1966 with his whispering campaign against me personally — the way he put it in writing was “the relations within the delegation resembled that of a clique,” which, translated, was a verbal campaign around the world that Robertson likes liquor and women. (Now during that conference I was a lot more sober than he was. He kept a bottle of whiskey in his desk drawer which he drank neat; I was pretty much dried out because I had a lot of writing and speaking to do.) But the nonconforming religious derivation of significant sections of the British working class is such that he thought this would be effective. And I thought: wait a minute, I think I know a little more about the proletariat of the world, a liking for liquor and girls is not automatically going to disqualify a Marxist politician from consideration over political issues.
One is reminded of the psychological pattern of a Jack the Ripper who on Sunday morning gets up and gives lay lectures about demon rum and bad women. The Banda wing says: if Healy was single-handedly building the party, what was he doing with his other hand? Well we don’t know anything about Healy’s relations with women, but we have seen the sanctimonious puritanism of the Healy organization — an attitude which goes back to the Methodist traditions of a founding section of British trade unionism in the last century.
One of the top leaders of the Independent Labour Party in the ’30s put in his book something along these lines: “Ah, it’s terrible, the drink. I’ve seen so many fine young men come to Parliament from the mines and the mills. And because the evil Tories have licensed Parliament as a royal palace exempt from the licensing laws, during the long hours in Commons these fine working-class lads turned to drink. And within a few years they became completely useless, completely corrupted.” My answer is, in the thousand years that the Tories have ruled England, I don’t believe that one of them has drawn a sober breath.
Gordon: At the London Conference in ’66 Healy complained: we’ve got to have these bottles of wine here for the French during the meal breaks. Whereas you were supposed to do your drinking privately, out of Gerry’s bottle presumably. So we had our meals with the Lambertists and VOers, who liked to drink wine and crack jokes—we just dove in indiscriminately among them, keeping them between us and the English delegates.
Robertson: The IC said things, and we acted on what they said. We weren’t entirely blind, although I must say that we were very innocent of the techniques of controversy associated with Pabloism in Europe, which seem to consist of—if you announce that your most unyielding and fundamental principle is X, that’s sure to be a lie. It took us a couple of trips to Europe to figure that one out, because we came from the “parochial American” Cannon/Lenin school, not the Michel Pablo style of wheeler-dealerism.
Lately we’ve heard countless stories of brutality. One such story is that Healy went up to a putative cripple, a comrade of the editorial apparatus, who was writing at a desk, and Healy began to kick him, and went on until eventually he got tired of kicking him and wandered away. I never got a chance to see anything like that. When we left the London Conference there was the smell of violence in the air, which we said some months later — after the Tate case, when we had something more than “we think maybe Healy was ready to have us beaten.”
But we can do some reevaluation too: I think we were a lot more important to Gerry Healy than we considered at the time. We were actually a significant entrenched group. He had already tried to destroy us once, in ’62. It hadn’t worked — we bounced back and went straight down the road according to program.
He tried to pull us in again with the unification agreement in Montreal in ’65. He had to give us what we thought was essential. He hedged it, with all his own protections, but we got what we thought we had to have. The IC determines the overall international program, Healy has the right to address our national conference, but the conference majority decides. That was the crucial clause that we fought about. His draft said: the future of the American section will be decided in the American Commission in London. Ours said: it will be decided in an American conference (where we happen to have the majority). So Healy bracketed it in all known ways, but he gave us what we said we had to have, expecting to take it away from us in London once he got us there.
And then that attempt blew up in his face, and there wasn’t much he could do about it. And it’s reported that he went quite mad in the summer of ’66. In hindsight I think that we were a giant disappointment — much more so than we understood at the time — to the old man and it helped unhinge him. And I am sorry about the guys that were beaten (and the abused girls, if one believes what the Banda/Slaughter wing says) — the people Healy could get his hands on, who paid the price that summer for our intransigence. And if we were surprised by what happened at the London Conference it didn’t matter because we just did what we had to do, according to our program and understanding.
SPARTACIST: Comrade Nelson was the anchorman in New York when the delegation went to London. Was that in the expectation of trouble?
Robertson: It sounded exactly like going to Moscow in the late ’20s. You know, the factions go off to Moscow. You don’t send everybody. Somebody’s got to mind the store. We had the predominant assumption, since we’d fought with Healy in Montreal, that those accords were going to be carried out, but we were not hopelessly naive.
SPARTACIST: When the split took place in London, what was happening here?
Nelson: Well it actually started after the Montreal Conference. We started some common work and we had a pretty good fix on their U.S. organization, which was extremely soft. For instance, when we split out of the Fifth Avenue Peace Parade Committee in October ’65 they stayed. Over the massive American bombing of Haiphong harbor they signed a call beseeching, “Where is the voice of our president for peace on Christmas?” They were politically soft. Wohlforth broke down in a joint meeting and ran out of the room, crying, a month before the fusion as I recall. While we were being very sharp-toothed and determined and beady-eyed and saying, “Sure, parity in all committees, absolutely. You want the paper, you got the paper. Half the central committee, of course.” We knew we were going to gobble them up. There was also a middle layer; we used to call them “November Bolsheviks.” They wouldn’t join either group, they were going to join the fused group, and they went away after the ’66 split.
So Jim called up and said there’s been a split, break off all contact and stop selling their paper. We laid out the tactics and we moved fast, setting up meetings right away with all of the pro-unity Wohlforthites we could find. On our side, when the delegation came back. Turner was the only one on the Political Bureau that was soft. I remember he raised a motion, he said we should have apologized. Jim said, “But I did, Harry.” He said, “Well you should have really apologized.” Jim said, “You mean I should have said what Healy wanted me to say.” (And Turner did try running to Healy, a couple of years later.)
SPARTACIST: What were our relations with the ACFI — subsequently the Workers League — in this country?
Robertson: Our relations were that the Wohlforthites wanted violence against us. Wohlforth was zealous in seeking the maximum of physical destruction for our people. At the NPAC [National Peace Action Coalition] Conference where SWP and CP goons violently excluded us and Progressive Labor to keep their keynote speaker, a U.S. Senator, from having his feelings hurt. Tim Wohlforth personally led one of the goon squad charges. He was out for our blood. Harry Ring in the SWP’s Militant praised the Wohlforthites for their loyal services.
Then later, they got some lumpen youth around them, mainly Hispanics and blacks. They programmed these kids for deadly violence against our people. They called us agents of the FBI and CIA and cops and tried to work these youth up to the point of murder. And at the same time Wohlforth was perfectly clear that when there were a few murders of our people, the kids who had done them would be immediately disavowed.
So we pulled back from selling at WL events in New York while continuing elsewhere to try to intersect them politically. They countered with a campaign of violent attacks on us in a number of places — Toronto and Los Angeles come particularly to mind. And we defended ourselves. And then we got this exquisite letter from David North, who was head of the WL by then: please stop your campaign of violence against us. To which we replied: we will always defend your democratic rights, we’re glad you want to stop this shit. This exchange was published in our paper.
SPARTACIST: What were the differences with Wohlforth over Cannon?
Robertson: Wohlforth got hold of Shachtman’s account in the New International of the fight between Cannon and Shachtman in the CLA [Communist League of America-forerunner of the SWP] in 1933. I remember arguing with Wohlforth, who said, “You know, Trotsky was really against Cannon.” And I said, “Well, that’s really interesting, Tim. Where is this?” And he said. “Oh, it’s well known.”
Well, 15 years later I got hold of the CLA internal bulletins and the material that never got into the bulletins, and I can speak chapter and verse on the triad of Cannon and Shachtman and Trotsky. But it took a major research project mounted over many years to get all that material. Cannon owes a lot to Trotsky. At some point Trotsky did indeed have something resembling an organizationally third-camp position on the CLA dispute, but not for long. And Cannon said (I came across it just lately in the SWP’s newest Cannon volume), referring to his own experience as a leftist CPer (Fosterite), “You know, before Trotsky got hold of me I was a very highly trained professional factional hooligan.”
But when it came right down to it, there was no question about what the relationship between Cannon and Trotsky was.
But Wohlforth — lacking any documentation, with no knowledge except having read Shachtman’s account 20 or 30 years later in the NI — Wohlforth instantly embraced Shachtman’s contention: Trotsky was against Cannon, Cannon was never really a Trotskyist. This was on the road to discovering that the first good American Trotskyist leader was... Wohlforth.
Nelson: During the unity negotiations in 1965 Wohlforth took great exception when Jim said that the SWP had been badly damaged because they lost all their intellectuals with the Shachtman split. And Wohlforth got all bent out of shape and said, “how dare you say that, it was a principled split,” which it was. Wohlforth didn’t want unity with us, so he was coming out with all kinds of things, and then he and Marcus cooked up this line that Cannon was just a Third Period window-smasher — that was supposed to stick in our craw, which it certainly did.
SPARTACIST: In 1981 we supported Sean Matgamna’s Socialist Organiser group in their defense against Healy’s libel suit.
Robertson: There was Healy using the courts again, to bankrupt a small organization and shut everybody up. And we published Matgamna’s letter and were planning to feed him a thousand pounds and any information we thought would help him fight the case that Gerry had brought against him.
Except that Matgamna returned our initial check, thereby insinuating that we were some kind of CIA agents, because first Matgamna appealed to the socialist public for support and then wouldn’t take our money. What was really going on then was that Matgamna was playing footsie with Thornett, who was a right-wing split from Healy and specially hated our guts. Of course Healy always does this to opponents — calls them CIA agents.
SPARTACIST: In the Socialist Organiser article that we reprinted in WV No. 391, Matgamna said that Healy played a revolutionary role after the Revolutionary Communist Party “collapsed” under the leadership of Jock Haston and Ted Grant.
Robertson: I remember when I first heard the name Gerry Healy. An old guy, a soft SWP sympathizer in San Francisco, came back from England and said he’d seen this marvelous man — he has great weight on the docks and is a personal friend of Nye Bevan, has three MPs in his pocket — his name was Gerry Healy, he was on the inside of everything. Well, his great weight on the docks was with the “blue union” that was fighting General Transport, and Gerry was right in there with a split away section of the bureaucracy in the out-of-London ports. And I was having a fight in the Shachtmanites over “What is the theoretical limit of nationalizations? Why can’t Parliament every year just nationalize more and more until they’ve nationalized the most profitable sectors and undercut the economic foundations of the British ruling class?”
About the RCP we presently have to be pretty agnostic, because any time any three old members of the RCP get together in a pub, all the old wars start again. But I think that, whatever a madhouse the RCP was, this was the seminal period for British Trotskyism. And I think it was done to death by the International, a bloc between Cannon and Pablo with Healy as the local accomplice. I think they made a decision to destroy this organization.
Now Matgamna thinks that Healy’s emergence at that time as the central figure proves that he was once a real revolutionary. When I look at what he did immediately afterward to become the underground wing of Aneurin Bevan’s section of the Labour Party (while hundreds of then-Trotskyist cadres were dumped out into the wilderness) I remain a deep skeptic, without sufficient information. And very possibly, comrades, reflecting the fact that there was a lot I liked about Max Shachtman, who liked Jock Haston.
Now Haston had kind of an odd line on Russia, and maybe a sterile line on Labour. But instead of saying “you guys should have a more flexible line on Labour” the international leadership used a sledgehammer on the RCP, and Healy was the hammer man. Healy’s line was not just entrist — Nye Bevan set up some kind of think tank which Healy participated in until the LP executive tumbled to the operation and got rid of it.
The RCP came from a fusion of two groups, each with multiple factions, that emerged in Britain in the late ’30s, after a number of false starts. One of them turned up in 1938 at the founding conference of the Fourth International and the other didn’t. Healy happened to be in the one that didn’t. Cannon went to England at the time and was very impressed with Healy. But Haston was the principal leader of this cascade of six or eight factions. And they were rammed together by the international to form the RCP.
The Labour Party during the war was a junior partner with the Tories under Churchill. And the RCP began to become quite sensational and they picked up cadres. As the war ended and the Labour Party competed and won an enormous electoral triumph in 1945, Cannon and also Pablo were very much on the RCP’s case, and Healy was their local inside man. I don’t know all the rights and wrongs but I do believe that they did not try to reshape the RCP, but successfully destroyed it. And so far as I know that was the last Trotskyist organization in Britain, the SLL in the period from 1957-67 proving to be hollow.
Now this history happened, but it is certainly not clear to me that it had to happen that way. “Did he fall or was he pushed?” I think the RCP was pushed right out the window and went splat. Was it necessary? I don’t know, sometimes you need to break up an organization, but I remain skeptical. And when it went splat, of course, its fragments turned up everywhere.
It’s true the RCP was horribly disoriented by the Labour Party electoral victory. Their conception I think was a linear one — analogous to Cannon’s “The Coming American Revolution” , which tended to ignore the CP, the unions, the blacks, suggesting instead that what was going to happen was a massive linear extension of the SWP which when it got big enough would come to power. The RCP’s perspective of steady linear growth came to a screaming halt one day, when little Major Attlee took over after Churchill, and furthermore the Labour Party actually carried out some nationalizations.
By the way, the RCP analysis on the Russian question wasn’t that bad, it was just too simplistic. It certainly beat Wohlforth’s and most everybody else’s. It was simply that wherever the Russian Army arrived has become part of the Russian workers state, which as a first approximation had a certain merit.
On the Labour Party question, I think that from the end of the war and the general elections that immediately followed, up through the present time, developments in Britain in the working class have been linear—not a straight line, but a smooth curve. They went up a bit, largely as a result of the Labourites heavily increasing the taxes on beer and tobacco to subsidize the social security program that came in, and during the period of recovery when British industry functioned a bit. And now they’ve gone steadily downhill for a long time. But there have been no real major discontinuities. There was one opening of a modest sort at the juncture recently when the SDP [Social Democratic Party]—the CIA wing, pro-American wing of the Labour Party — split away.
Now, in that time Gerry has blown hot and cold on the Labour Party — always some new revelation. But there aren’t any new revelations. Wohlforth did a memo on shallow entry; the Pabloists in Europe went wild, saying “that’s not a scientific Marxist term.” Shallow entry — you can’t ignore the Labour Party, and you better not immerse yourself in it. And I don’t mean that you should have a split in your group, one side going into the LP with illusions and the others being hard sectarians who say the LP is a protofascist organization that you throw rocks at. No, you need a unitary organization which tries to play the Labour Party question the way you would an organ. And I’ve had that position since the fight in the Shachtman organization in 1952 over Bevan.
I would hope that all of our members are more or less members of the Labour Party, and I think often it’s very unimportant. What are the tactics? Well, we would love to have a miner stand for election openly against Neil Kinnock. Simultaneously, in other places, there is the tactic of conditional support to LP candidates: here’s where we Spartacists stand on issues; will you, selected Labour leftists, accept our support? And then get into the constituency campaigns and really support those that we think might exacerbate the situation inside the Labour Party.
A somewhat detached attitude, which does not ignore the Labour Party but recognizes that it must sooner or later be deeply split. This is very different from what Healy did then (and Grant [the Militant group] tries to do now): rah, rah, all the way with the Labour Party, which will, by a series of internal transformations, become the instrument for socialism in Britain.
SPARTACIST: And the earlier period of British Trotskyism, you called it “false starts”?
Robertson: There were no beginnings to British Trotskyism; it had to be imported. And it didn’t take root right away. And it had no history. It was not like in Poland or Bulgaria or the United States, or even Germany or Belgium or France, where you had Trotskyists coming into existence at the time the Stalin-Trotsky fight began to unfold in 1925.
The first British Trotskyists are supposed to be the “Balham group.” Know what they were like? “Well we went over to France and we spent our time above the pub. And we had mass unemployment in Britain and all those foreigners were screaming that some dictator had come to power in Germany. We couldn’t imagine anything more irrelevant so we went back to good British soil.”
So we had to implant in Britain, starting finally around ’36 I think, and then under pressure two successive waves of unification were imposed, first around the time of the Fl founding conference in ’38 and then culminating in ’44 with the RCP—a hothouse plant that needed very tender care. They ran into the very sharp objective change, from the Labour Party as a junior partner in imperialist war to a Labour government. The international did not help, it destroyed. And then you have fragmentation, and then that literarily brilliant decade of Healy, when he got the numbers from the youth group and the brains out of the CP.
We’re just lucky we come from a country that had Trotskyist nuclei, admittedly late, and a continuous documented history. The internal bulletins and the volumes of the Cannon writings are available to us all. There’s nothing specially American about that—we’re just lucky to come from a protected enclave, unlike the Bulgarians or the Chinese or Vietnamese, the Russian Left Opposition, or the fragile European Trotskyist nuclei whose slender threads of human continuity with the Fourth International were simply physically wiped out by fascism and the war.