Monday, June 1, 2009

Gerry Healy's Legalistic Underbelly (1975)

Workers Vanguard No. 81 (17 October 1975)

Gerry Healy’s Legalistic Underbelly

The British Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP) of Gerry Healy has always eagerly sacrificed its every ostensible principle to the single-minded worship of its one real god: publicity.

Eschewing the laborious task of building an organization of revolutionary cadres and of patiently working to establish and deepen its authority among advanced workers, the WRP is characterized by overweening fondness for a high organizational profile 'and for publicity stunts which it thinks will dupe the working people into crediting the WRP with mass influence. Hence the WRP's strident crisis-mongering, its unreadable and unread daily newspaper, its concentration on the volatile youth who do not long remain with the organization but turn up for suitably impressive demonstrations, its penchant for celebrities. But the WRP's cynical flamboyance sometimes backfires and lately it has found itself on the receiving end of some much less welcome attentions, as a consequence of sensationalist and anticommunist coverage in the bourgeois media. On September 27 the British cops staged a raid on a WRP center in Derbyshire; they claim to have discovered, among other things, "nine .22 cal. bullets in a stairway cupboard (but no guns)" (Time, 13 October 1975).


The Healyites may believe, as reformists explicitly posit, that the British legal structure ("bobbies" without guns, for instance) is god-given and eternal, or that the armed fist of the class enemy is reserved for faraway places like Palestine or India (or, most distant of all for the Healyites, Ireland).

The English press had splashed the "red menace" of the WRP across a goodly number of pages, assisted by the "true confessions" of an embittered former WRP supporter (English left and ex-left circles crawl with unregenerate cynics and other graduates of Healy's school of political banditry and Stalinist organizational methods, who have taken refuge in "softer" groups, apolitical demoralization, or worse). Actress Irene Gorst's tale of her alleged grilling by WRPers who accused her of working for Special Branch (Britain's counterpart to the FBI) got front-page coverage in the 28 September 1975 London Observer.

The Healyites' well-deserved reputation for browbeating their members - as well as their apocalyptic and increasingly paranoid political style - facilitated the media's scandal-mongering campaign. But what really made the "Red House" affair front-page material was the prominence of its participants. The WRP was hoping to become a household word by capturing a clique of entertainment personalities, the best known being Vanessa Redgrave. It was the defection of one of these hoped-for shortcuts to fame and fortune which catapulted the WRP into the headlines.

Squirming Toward Respectability

In response to the threat of repression, the WRP has crawled for cover. A recent issue of the American Healyite press (Bulletin, 7 October) has printed a declaration by the WRP baldly promising the bourgeoisie that "If anyone in the WRP was found to have a firearm, they would be expelled at once." We certainly defend the WRP against this recent police raid on its premises. But a Marxist defense against red-baiting and witch-hunts has nothing in common with the dive the WRP is taking.

Marxists do not engage in mock-terrorist sabre-rattling. There would be nothing objectionable about putting forward a critique of petty-bourgeois adventurism. in the context of explaining the strategy of preparing the mass of the toilers to resist the onslaughts of brutal reaction which the capitalists will unleash in when their stranglehold on society is challenged by the revolutionary action of the class-conscious workers. But for self-styled Trotskyists to issue gratuitous guarantees of toothlessness is disgraceful.

Marxists are not terrorists. But so often, "anti-adventurism" is found to dovetail with anti-Marxist reformist legalism. When the U.S. Socialist Party expelled Big Bill Haywood in connection with its 1912 "anti-sabotage referendum," what was really involved was a ruthless political purge of the left wing. Marxists are not gun nuts but neither do we run around disarming worker militants.

The Healyites may believe, as reformists explicitly posit, that the British legal structure ("bobbies" without guns, for instance) is god-given and eternal, or that the armed fist of the class enemy is reserved for faraway places like Palestine or India (or, most distant of all for the Healyites, Ireland). But we would remind the WRP of Lenin's adamant view that the proletarian who does not know the use of arms is a self-willed slave.

For Marxists, the idea of a pacifistic bourgeois state is a criminally dangerous illusion which virtually invites the capitalist class-to say nothing of ultra-rightist extremists-to attack the workers movement with impunity. The WRP rips up the core of Lenin's teaching in State and Revolution with the same touching faith in a high-minded, benevolent bourgeois state that the Socialist Workers Party manifests when it calls for the American armed forces to protect blacks.

The English left milieu makes much of the third-period sectarianism and obtrusive organizational beastliness of the Healyites as a convenient horrible example justifying its own pervasive squishy-soft chumminess. But the W RP's cringing rush for respectability is not a new or isolated phenomenon. The surface super leftism of the Healy group has never been much more than skin deep.

In 1966, the Healyites found themselves widely scandalized on the left for the exercise of their usual practice of physically intimidating political opponents, in this case Ernie Tate of the English United Secretariat group. To silence Tate's protests, the Healy organization ran to the bourgeois courts to sue Tate under Britain's harsh anti-libel laws, then explicitly justified and generalized this criminal crossing of the class line. Healy's International Correspondence (6 February 1967) defended the use of the courts against opponents within the labor and left movement, putting forward the bourgeois state machinery as the proper arbiter to defend revolutionaries against expulsion-minded union bureaucrats or "slanderous" criticism by fellow leftists.

The WRP's sanctimonious pacifism in the attempt to deflect provocation today is not different in kind from the panicky piety of the SWP in 1963, when Farrell Dobbs dashed off a telegram of condolences to the widow Kennedy following the assassination of America's chief imperialist executive. Healy has always relished the SWP's embarrassment over this-revealing display of reformist cowardice.

The current gutless "defense" by the notoriously ultra-"hard" WRP against the threat of repression may come as a surprise to impressionists, but Marxists have always recognized the grovelling opportunism which lurks at the core of Healyism. This incident reveals the legalistic underbelly beneath the brittle ultra-left veneer of the WRP.