[Transcription/Markup/Proofing: John Heckman.Public Domain: Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line 2007: http://www.marx.org/history/etol/document/icl-spartacists/1986/SL-WRP.html]
Spartacist and the Healyites
The Revolutionary Tendency (RT) of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) first came together in 1961 in opposition to the party’s deepening revisionism over Cuba. The SWP’s line, which would be codified particularly in documents by Joseph Hansen, boiled down to the idea that the overturn of capitalist property relations in Cuba by a petty-bourgeois nationalist revolution under Castro’s leadership meant that Trotskyist parties were no longer necessary. Hansen, in classic centrist fashion, hid behind all kinds of saving clauses his central contention that Castro was unconsciously a Marxist revolutionary.
Leading the RT were three comrades who were the founding leadership of the SWP’s recently launched youth group, the Young Socialist Alliance: Tim Wohlforth, Jim Robertson and Shane Mage. These comrades had been won over to the SWP out of the competing Shachtman organization, whose final liquidation into “State Department socialism” they had fought. They were won to the program of the SWP, which through the stagnant 1950s had remained formally orthodox—as well as getting organizationally pretty ingrown.
The SWP cadres were themselves about ready to shake loose from their programmatic moorings as political life in this country had begun to heat up, first of all with the civil rights movement, which shattered the illusion of a seamless all-American anti-Communist consensus, and later with the polarizations brought about centrally by the escalation of the losing war against Vietnam. Emerging from the 1950s a weakened and rather depoliticized party still formally possessing a narrowly orthodox program, the SWP in its central core was now on the lookout for something “new.”
Thus the founding youth leadership of Wohlforth, Robertson and Mage found themselves increasingly at odds with the party majority, which was already in the grip of a centrist mood. Following a sharp fight over Cuba at the 1961 SWP Convention, it was clear that our comrades would soon be pulled out of leading positions in the youth and had to transform themselves into a minority tendency within the party as a whole if they were to continue the fight against the SWP’s degeneration.
The SWP and the IC
The SWP at that time was the main organized force behind the “International Committee of the Fourth International” (IC), the international grouping which had emerged out of a fight against the revisionism associated with Michel Pablo. Pablo had risen to prominence in the Trotskyist movement in Europe after the world war had decimated the founding Trotskyist cadres. Beginning in 1951, he concocted a theory that a new “objective” reality would force the Stalinist parties to play a revolutionary role. Pablo proposed liquidating the Trotskyist nuclei into the Communist Parties in order to accelerate their transformation into revolutionary instruments under the pressure of this “new world reality.”
The SWP leadership’s association with the struggle against Pabloism was largely a reaction to the emergence in the SWP of the Cochran-Clarke faction, whose politics, adapted to the U.S. terrain, appeared to be similar to Pablo’s. The wing of the SWP leadership headed by James P. Cannon and Murry Weiss was deeply opposed to the political liquidation of the struggle for Trotskyist parties as indispensable instruments for the conquest of power by the proletariat. The conservative SWP apparatus (Farrell Dobbs, Tom Kerry, Joseph Hansen) came to oppose the organizationally liquidationist implications of the Cochran-Clarke line as applied to the United States. The apparatus agreed to support Cannon in exchange for his relinquishing control of the party administration.
In Cannon’s concluding speech at the party plenum held in May 1953, he said
“During the course of the past year, I had serious doubts of the ability of the SWP to survive. At one time—I will frankly admit to you here for the first time—I thought that our twenty-five-year effort, compounded on all the previous experience and work of ourselves and others, had ended in catastrophic failure; and that, once again, a small handful would have to pick up the pieces, and start all over again to build the new cadre of another party on the old foundations.”
Cannon chose instead the compromise with Dobbs & Co. The bloc then fought Cochran-Clarke to the finish, while belatedly aligning itself with the anti-Pabloists internationally. The SWP’s 1953 “Open Letter to the World Trotskyist Movement” was a fine document but the fight was never carried aggressively into the various national sections to split authentic revolutionary forces away from the Pabloists.
By the early 1960s the SWP’s commitment to the anti-Pabloist IC had become empty, while the SWP and European Pabloists had drawn together on the question of Cuba—abandoning the necessity for Trotskyist parties. The break-up of the IC came in 1963 when the SWP and the European Pabloists led by Ernest Mandel reunified to form the “United Secretariat” (USec). The withdrawal of the SWP left the IC pretty much a rump formation, with Gerry Healy, formerly Cannon’s man in England, as the leading English-language spokesman for anti-revisionist Trotskyism.
Healy’s organization in England, then called the Socialist Labour League (SLL), had grown rapidly. It had regrouped out of the Communist Party, after the Khrushchev revelations and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, some people who wrote impressively in defense of authentic Trotskyism. And it had succeeded in capturing a large chunk of the Labour Party Young Socialists.
It was therefore rather a shock when Healy intervened into the RT in 1962 to bring about an utterly unprincipled rupture within the tendency. Healy claimed to believe that the position of Robertson and others that the SWP had become centrist meant that our comrades had a “split perspective” from the party. So Healy (who was still not sure it was all over between the IC and the SWP leadership) and Wohlforth, Healy’s American tool, presented the RT with an ultimatum that we must sign a statement renouncing our views on the nature of the SWP. Wohlforth’s bloc partner at the time, the state capitalist Art Philips, returned from England with the ultimatum, whose flavor is conveyed in this excerpt:
“We do not want to impose [our proposals] on you. If you do not like to accept them, then there is no need to accept them. All those comrades who do accept them will be considered as part of an international tendency.”
— Healy letter, 12 November 1962
The RTers in their majority replied they would accept international discipline in dealing with the SWP, but refused to lyingly recant their views. This was our first experience of Healy’s technique of blackmail — false confessions to destroy the reputation and self-respect of comrades and nail them into Healy’s corner for future fights.
In New York only a minority of the RT agreed to commit political suicide; on the West Coast, where Robertson had his “base,” the vote against accepting Healy’s ultimatum was 17-0. The split between the RT majority and the Healy-loyal group under Wohlforth, called the “Reorganized Minority Tendency” (RMT), was a crime, reinforcing the older party cadres in their view that the oppositionists were not young Trotskyists of the Cannon tradition fighting for program but unserious and unassimilable professional factionalists.
It’s not clear that Healy ever had much use for Wohlforth, or necessarily thought a viable American group would be built under his leadership. It is clear that Healy wanted no truck with anybody who thought discipline meant having a fight, taking a vote, then doing what Healy wants — if you lose the vote.
The RT and Wohlforth’s RMT intervened each in its own fashion at the 1963 party convention. Whereas the Wohlforthites counterposed their own long, turgid, pompous and cranky document to the SWP majority’s long, turgid, unexceptionable but abstract main document, the RT introduced a one-page amendment calling for active intervention into the civil rights movement, including getting into the South, and for recreating SWP trade-union fractions on a modest selective basis.
The RT in 1963 had already recognized as an important difference between ourselves and Healy/Wohlforth the latter’s affectation that it was possible for small Trotskyist nuclei to go over to a perspective of “mass work” irrespective of limitations of forces. A draft letter to Wohlforth’s RMT dated 18 May 1963 regarding the RMT material for the upcoming convention explains this divergence:
“We see one central defect in your convention material.... We do not believe that the way to combat the revisionists’ surrender of a strategic perspective of proletarian revolution is by counterposing a demand for the Trotskyists to undertake (everywhere and with forces no matter how small!) immediate agitational struggles of the working masses. This is a call which perhaps corresponds to felt inner-factional needs but which lacks reality. Your posing of our immediate task in every country as ‘the conquest of the masses’ creates an enormous discrepancy between this declared task and our means. This call is a slide into a sectarianism which tends to cut the movement off from opportunities as they are.... The general, but not sole or universal, perspective which the present world juncture demands, in our opinion, is one which places major emphasis on propagandistic work toward the crystallization of Trotskyist cadres.
Today in most parts of the world our task is to lay down the foundations for revolutionary parties, not to pretend they already exist and declare ‘they’ should struggle for hegemony over the mass movement.”
—Marxist Bulletin No. 3, Part II, published August 1970
The “conquest of the masses” pretense we analyzed in 1963 leads straight to the quintessential Healyite press policy: the daily paper for a microscopic group. An over-frequent “agitational” paper of an organization devoid of the organized communist cadres and real base necessary to actually lead masses of workers in struggle is not the “collective organizer” of anything, but merely the “mass work” window-dressing for a sterile sect.
The RT had no illusions that the SWP leadership could be won back to the revolutionary road. But we hoped to remain in the party long enough to win over some experienced forces as the SWP deepened its right-centrist course on the domestic terrain. Healy/Wohlforth foreclosed that possibility when they fingered us for expulsion in 1963. The ultimate proof that we did not have a “split perspective” was that the Dobbs regime of the SWP expelled us for “disloyalty” because they could find no breaches of party discipline on our part. Dobbs authored the infamous 1965 “Organization” resolution to justify after the fact the first-ever expulsion of a minority solely for its political views.
The few years that our tendency got to spend in the SWP were crucial for us. Veterans of the party that Trotsky and Cannon had built—comrades like Cannon and Dobbs, Murry Weiss, Dick Fraser and Art Sharon—taught us some things that make us what we are. Later, Wohlforth (along with Marcus) was to sneer at Cannon as a mere vulgar “window-smasher,” en route to Wohlforth proclaiming himself in effect the first real American Marxist. That has never been an affectation of ours. James Cannon was that communist politician of his generation who uniquely emerged intact as a functioning Leninist from out of the decaying Comintern. In that sense, we certainly aspire to be Cannonites. And later on, when we encountered some of the numerous left splits from the USec in Europe, we appreciated more than ever that it was the American SWP’s unbroken continuity with Lenin’s and Trotsky’s Communist International through the SWP’s founding cadre which permits us to be different from so many European New Leftists who thought they were Trotskyists, having learned “Trotskyism” from books after Stalinism, fascism and war had physically wiped out the cadres.
The recent sequel to the reformist degeneration of the SWP—Barnes has only lately finally driven out and expelled the last of the long-time party veterans, so that he could finally surface with his denunciation of Trotsky and the theory of permanent revolution—is a relevant postscript to the expulsion of the RT. Healy/Wohlforth’s discrediting split of the tendency was surely not the main reason why the party cadres stayed with Dobbs and Barnes (just recently Barnes & Co. gloated over how little trouble they had sliding these veteran layers out of leading positions and influence beginning in the late 1960s). Mainly, the party had come through a grinding period of perceived irrelevance and the cadres were pretty well used up politically; if something turned up that looked like a way out of stagnation they weren’t about to look it over too closely. They couldn’t fully act out their appetites until the emergence of mass discontent against the Vietnam War allowed them to become organizers of a popular-front “movement” under Democratic Party hegemony. In the meantime they didn’t resist becoming cheerleaders for Castro. Nevertheless, in a very subordinate measure, Healy/Wohlforth have some responsibility for the outcome which ultimately was Jack Barnes’s contemptuous wastage of these comrades.
When Healy got us untimely ripped out of the SWP he surely expected that we would just die, a few dozen comrades without too much literary capacity and devoid of international ties. Wohlforth, meanwhile—having failed to cement lasting ties with Dobbs by setting us up—engineered his own group’s expulsion. Now the two groups confronted one another in America, both claiming adherence to the same basic political program. We neither withered away nor changed our politics to make the organizational rupture look justified; we persisted in the ways dictated by our program, intervening where we could among radical students, the labor movement, the civil rights movement North and South. Wohlforth’s “conquest of the masses,” meanwhile, consisted entirely of his over-frequent paper.
We continued to press Wohlforth for unity and in 1965 we and Wohlforth’s American Committee for the Fourth International (ACFI) undertook unity negotiations. The minutes of these sessions, published as our Marxist Bulletin No. 3, Part IV, “Conversations with Wohlforth,” reflect our criticisms of the ACFI’s grotesquely opportunist practice and of the SLL’s political instabilities—e.g., their crisis-mongering, their stupid “orthodox” line that Cuba was still capitalist (at the same time as they had a perfectly Pabloist, tailist line toward Vietnamese Stalinism). The negotiations showed no tendency to go in the direction of fusion, but in 1965 Healy overrode his American group and proposed to himself meet with delegations from Spartacist and ACFI.
These meetings were held in Montreal in October 1965. The delegation from England consisted of Healy and Aileen Jennings. Healy’s initial draft of a unification proposal provoked a sharp fight by Spartacist over how disputes in the fused American group would be settled — by a body of the IC, meeting in London (Healy’s proposal), or by a conference of the members of the fused American group (our proposal). Healy’s initial draft stated that disagreements would be set aside “for consideration by the American Commission at the International Conference.” We fought for an amendment that the American Commission “would report back its recommendations for consideration by the Unification Conference of the two American groups.” The final draft was: “Tactical disagreements on work in the U.S. would not be an obstacle to unity provided they did not contravene the above decisions. They would be left up to the majority of delegates at the Unification Conference to decide.”
The importance of the right of national sections, within the framework of a unitary international program, to make their own tactical decisions and select their own leaderships is demonstrated by the degeneration of the Communist International under Stalin, reducing national leaderships to incompetent, Kremlin — servile hacks devoid of revolutionary capacity.
On the basis of the Montreal agreement, a delegation from Spartacist went off to London for the April 1966 IC Conference. (Wohlforth stayed home and sulked, sending his lieutenant Freddy Mazelis to head the ACFI delegation.) We submitted to the Conference our draft perspectives document, and took part in the general international discussion. Comrade Robertson’s presentation on behalf of the Spartacist group is reprinted here. While the Spartacist group felt we could live in an international which had Healy’s position on Cuba because of its acceptable programmatic expression—the reassertion of the need for a Trotskyist party independent of Castro, combined with the defense of Cuba against U.S. imperialism—we considered ourselves obliged to bring to the attention of the Conference our disagreement with the Healyite analysis. Robertson noted: “If the Cuban bourgeoisie is indeed ‘weak,’ as the I.C. affirms, one can only observe that it must be tired from its long swim to Miami, Florida.” We criticized the IC’s enormous overestimation of the imminence of the final “crisis of capitalism.” And we commented that “Up to now, we have not done very well, in our opinion, in smashing the Pabloites,” insisting that “in many countries a period of united fronts and organizational penetration into revisionist groupings remains necessary” to the refounding of the Fourth International.
It soon emerged that the question of reforging the FI was a main axis of division within the IC. Healy’s line — in contradiction to his draft document under discussion — was that the FI had been rebuilt and the IC was it. The Hungarian delegate, Michel Varga, acting evidently for the French Lambert group, which then failed to back him up, put forward the view that Pabloism had organizationally destroyed the FI, which remained to be reconstructed on the basis of the IC’s program. Our views on this question thus intersected a power fight between the British and French.
The response of Healy/Banda was swift. Following his presentation in the morning, comrade Robertson at the lunch break had informed Healy that he intended to miss the next session in order to get some rest. When the Conference reconvened, charges were leveled that Robertson’s “unexcused” absence was an act of petty-bourgeois, American-chauvinist contempt for the Conference for which he must be made to “apologize.” For two days wild and escalating political attacks on us were made by Healy, Banda, Mazelis and others. While repetitively making it perfectly explicit that we had had no intention of violating an (unannounced) Conference rule, our delegation refused to denounce ourselves. After reading out our final statement (see Spartacist Delegation Final Statement) we were summarily excluded. An internal circular by Al Nelson was instantly sent out to all Spartacist members from our national office. It read in part:
“After the ridiculous incident ... had been so grotesquely inflated, a verbal apology to the IC Conference for our ‘petty-bourgeois indiscipline’ was demanded of Comrade Robertson and our delegation. We of course refused and in a prepared statement stated that this was a violation of Leninist practice and represented singling out of the Spartacist for special ‘treatment,’ using fear and intimidation as substitutes for international discipline based on political consciousness, and that to apologize would be to vote for false charges....
“We must stand firm in the face of this unprincipled attack. Nothing must get in the way of building a revolutionary movement here as part of the re-building of the Fourth International.... Granite Hardness!!”
As a sidelight to this expulsion where false confession was made a matter of “discipline,” it must be noted that for the privileged French and English IC sections there was no discipline. The IC, it turns out, was for democratic centralism “in principle” but was in reality governed by the position that “The only method of arriving at decisions that remains possible at present is the principle of unanimity.” The IC was thus revealed — to our surprise — to be not an international tendency but a bloc whose two main sections each said and did their own thing while imposing “discipline” on smaller sections within their respective spheres of influence: Europe for the French, the English-speaking countries for Healy.
In Spartacist No. 6 (June-July 1966), we reported the facts of the trumped-up expulsion and reprinted comrade Robertson’s political presentation made to the Conference. We wrote that
“the experience of the Conference, taken together with other evidence from the history of the SLL, demonstrates that the Healy-Banda machine subordinates real political issues of agreement and disagreement to the exigencies of organizational issues and personal prestige politics. That organizational tendency is itself a political issue of the first order.”
“We draw appropriate political conclusions from the organizational wrecking practices of Healy and Wohlforth. However, we do not close the door to them, much less to all those forces within the I.C. who are their victims.... So long as they remain on their present bankrupt course, we are locked in an implacable struggle to cleanse the revolutionary movement of their poisonous influence. We shall go forward, let our enemies beware!”
Gangsterism and the Courts: The Tate Scandal
In June 1966 another piece of propaganda appeared on the scene. The SWP, delighted at the explosion of the London Conference, and having gotten their hands on our documents on the split, brought out a pamphlet entitled “Healy ‘Reconstructs’ the Fourth International (Documents and Comments by Participants in a Fiasco).” Joseph Hansen wrote the preface, a clever piece (“He [Robertson] is in a foreign land...among unusual people given to unusual ways. In fact, of all the organizations he has been in, it can safely be said that he has never seen anything like this.”). Apart from a few incidental lies, like that the RT was expelled from the SWP for violations of discipline, the preface is truthful on the events of the Conference, while also making every effort to make us appear naive and pathetic. Thus, according to Hansen, the expulsion of Spartacist caught Robertson “by complete surprise (he came to believe his own propaganda about Healy being a model leader),” Robertson was “dazed,” etc. But the documents contained in the pamphlet—including an exchange of letters between Healy and Spartacist following the Conference—speak eloquently for themselves.
The Healyites, having for nearly three months publicly concealed the flimsy “apology” pretext for our exclusion under a smokescreen of political accusations, finally had to respond to our Spartacist article and Hansen’s pamphlet.
Cliff Slaughter got the dirty job and in the Newsletter of 2 July 1966 he contradicted himself exquisitely:
“Robertson was, of course, not asked to denounce himself as a petty-bourgeois, or anything of the sort. Such is not the politics of Bolshevik organizations....
“His very rejection of this, his insistence on personal prestige against this discipline, confirms our characterization of this group as petty-bourgeois, dominated by the ideology of middle-class radical groups in American politics, their ideology subordinated to the US monopolists and American exceptionalism.”
An IC Statement on the “Robertson Group” dated 9 April 1966, which was rather detailed on the “apology” fiasco, was finally brought out publicly in Labour Review in August.
In Spartacist No. 7 (September-October 1966) we denounced as “monstrous” the Healyites’ initial response to the Hansen pamphlet: the August 20 Newsletter had slandered opponents as “finger men for the State Department” and threatened to itself use the capitalist courts — Hansen’s pamphlet, said the SLL Political Committee, “is legally libellous, we shall not hesitate to deal appropriately with the handful of United Secretariat agents who hawk it around the cynical fake-left in England.” We concluded our article
“... we must state that for the historic short run at least we have been vindicated in the course that we steered at the [London] Conference and subsequently, and have emerged with our capacity to pursue revolutionary work unimpaired....
“It is absurd to describe Healy’s break with Spartacist as being our breaking from the Fourth International.... And if Healy’s wrecking sectarianism and bureaucratism have made the work of Trotskyists (including ourselves) internationally more difficult, we will go ahead: the world party of socialist revolution will be reborn, but toward that task Healy has been shown to be not a midwife, but an abortionist.”
In November 1966 Healy/Banda drew the blood line over the Hansen pamphlet with a savage goon squad assault on a USec supporter. Ernie Tate, who was selling it outside London’s Caxton Hall. Then they justified the beating, suing Tate for protesting publicly and also pressuring some English left papers who had printed Tate’s protest to back down and apologize. (Fifteen, years later, Vanessa Redgrave on behalf of the Healyites sued a sharp-tongued centrist, Sean Matgamna, for having said a bunch of hostile things about Healy that everyone knew were true.)
The recourse to violence signals contradiction between professed program and real appetite. It was the Stalinists who brought these “tactics” into the workers movement systematically — they, more than the previously existing kinds of “socialists” who made promises and broke them, had an acute conflict between their professed fidelity to the Bolsheviks and the example of the October Revolution, on the one hand, and their anti-revolutionary practice on the other. Healy/Banda’s characteristic methods of violence include the verbal kinds of violence: slandering opponents as “CIA,” “FBI,” “GPU,” etc. to isolate them and set them up for physical attack, and direct use of the state, especially using the particularly loathsome British libel laws to muzzle people and/or go after their assets.
Our response to the beating of Tate was to make the biggest outcry we could. We published Tate’s statement — an account of the assault and appeal for workers democracy — and headlined our editorial, “Oust Healy!” [Spartacist, No. 9, January-February 1967] In that article we answered the question always posed by IC sycophants: if the SLL has a good program how can it have such a bad “regime” as you say? We wrote:
“How is this contradiction to be explained? We say that Healy is an aggressive and greedy adventurer whose particular politics have changed frequently.” [original emphasis]
It was in 1970 that we recalled comrade Lenin’s term for a phenomenon like the Healyites: political bandits.
Programmatic Gulf Opens Up
Our call to “oust Healy” presupposed a continuing contradiction in the IC between formally correct program and corrupt “regime.” Within a year of the Tate scandal, however, the Healyites had resolved the problem by sharp programmatic departures from Trotskyism: principally, their embrace of the Maoist “Cultural Revolution,” which was at bottom nothing but an unusually degrading and violent falling out between sections of the Chinese Stalinist bureaucracy; and their line on the 1967 Arab-Israeli “Six Day War” when, in the name of fighting Zionist racism and expansionism, they embraced a totally classless concept of an “Arab Revolution” consisting of the despotic nationalist regimes which have cravenly colluded with imperialism and Zionism to dismember the Palestinian nation.
This programmatic shift into classically Pabloist tailism of “Third World” Stalinism and nationalism signified a clear political break by the Healyites from the political terrain of Leninist class politics. Earlier, while making clear our various differences, and refusing resolutely to capitulate to Healyite blackmail efforts in 1962 and 1966, we had remained unreconciled to the disunity of apparently programmatically closely related forces. Healy no doubt hoped to push us into drawing unjustified political lines—ideally, in his terms, we would call for a Fifth International and spin off into space. But we did not make Healy’s wrecking conduct toward us into the center of our political world; we consciously sought to follow the example of Trotsky when he deferred until after 1933 in drawing the theoretical balance sheet of the Stalinization of the Comintern. Only in Spartacist No. 10 (May-June 1967), after Healy had come programmatically unstuck from his orthodox posture, did we conclude that “These departures by the Healy group from revolutionary politics signal the transformation of the unclarified civil war between Healy-Banda-Wohlforth and ourselves into a clear-cut political struggle between counterposed tendencies.”
In 1967 the Healyites made themselves programmatically external to our own history. The full unfolding of Healyite appetite took a while longer. But the 1967 adaptation to the mythically progressive Arab rulers was the theoretical preparation for the Healyites’ grossly crossing the class line when they became open press agents for murderous Arab regimes, associated with the launching of the daily News Line by the British WRP in 1975. In 1979 we headlined, “Healyites: Kill a Commie for Qaddafi.” The precise development of these corrupt relations with capitalist dictators — from the signing of an accord with Libya’s Qaddafi in 1977, through the applauding of Iraq’s execution of 21 Communist Party members, to the fulsome support of Iran’s theocrat Khomeini (the Iran-Iraq war making the latter two policies incompatible) — was admitted in nauseating detail by the U.S. Workers League’s David North in 1984, when the Healy/Banda IC machine had begun organizationally to decompose, soon culminating in its present spectacular implosion.