This article originally appeared in the “International Worker,” fortnightly newspaper of the International Communist Party, on October 20, 1990. Dave Hyland was national secretary of the ICP, British section of the International Committee of the Fourth International, and predecessor of the Socialist Equality Party (UK).
On October 25, the ICP and the ICFI celebrate the fifth anniversary of the split and expulsion of the renegade pro-Stalinist faction of the Healy-Redgrave-Torrance tendency of the Workers Revolutionary Party, and their supporters in Greece and Spain.
The split of 1985 not only rid the revolutionary movement of one cancerous faction. It ended the domination over the ICFI of the WRP’s unprincipled petty-bourgeois clique leadership of Gerry Healy, Michael Banda and Cliff Slaughter. The subsequent struggle against the various WRP renegade factions between October 1985 and February 1986 exposed and defeated a hostile middle class tendency that had developed within the Trotskyist movement itself.
It opened the way forward for a renaissance of Marxist theory, program and tactics throughout the ICFI and was the necessary political preparation for the founding of new sections in every country. It meant a renewal of the decisive political fight against Stalinism, social democracy and revisionism, under conditions of the most profound changes in class relations throughout the world, at a time when all the theoretical and programmatic struggles led by Leon Trotsky, the Left Opposition, the Fourth International and the ICFI against all those forces hostile to Marxism are being historically and dramatically vindicated.
This was the most important political event of the decade and, in fact, the last 37 years, since 1953, when the ICFI was founded in a fight against the liquidationist tendency led by Michel Pablo, which revised the program of the Fourth International and attempted to destroy it. In that period, through the settlements agreed to between the leaders of imperialism and Stalinism, capitalism was able to achieve a relative stability, underpinned by the hegemony of US imperialism.
The 1985 struggle took place under qualitatively different conditions. That year, for the first time, the US became the world’s largest debtor nation. Over the following five years, the Stalinist police-state regimes of the USSR and Eastern Europe would disintegrate and collapse, vindicating the founding of the ICFI and its protracted struggle against Pabloism.
In the early 1950s, the Pabloites claimed that under the mass pressure of the working class, the Stalinist bureaucracies could be forced to play a historically progressive role. The police-state regimes imposed in Eastern Europe were the necessary transitional stage to be passed through on the way to socialism, they said. On the basis of this reactionary perspective, they denied the necessity of training Marxist cadre in the working class and youth organized within the independent revolutionary party, the Fourth International.
This revisionist tendency represented a middle class adaptation to the postwar settlement and expressed a deep hostility to Marxism and the fight for the political independence of the working class. The Pabloites sought to liquidate the sections of the Fourth International into the organizations dominated by the Stalinists and social democracy.
It was the struggle led by James P. Cannon, the national secretary of the American Socialist Workers Party and supported by the British and French Trotskyists, with the founding of the International Committee of the Fourth International in 1953, that defended Trotsky’s perspective and ensured the continuity of the Marxist movement.
The disintegration of the Stalinist regimes and their open drive to capitalist restoration, through the destruction of all the past gains made by the working class, mean the material basis for the revisionist theories of the Pabloites have gone. The principled struggle waged by the ICFI over a protracted period of 37 years has been proven in the affirmative.
But the working class has paid a heavy price for the domination of opportunism over its organizations. It now confronts the continuing betrayals and abandonment by its traditional leaderships, the devastation of all its past gains, the destruction of its organizations and a catastrophe of enormous magnitude as the imperialists drive towards another world war.
For the working class to understand how it has reached its present dangerous predicament, it must assimilate all the strategic political lessons of the last 75 years and the struggle of the Marxist movement against opportunism, in the fight to build the international revolutionary party of the proletariat.
The crisis of proletarian leadership can only be resolved on the basis of a conscious Marxist theoretical development amongst a significant number of advanced workers and youth. As an important part of that development, a full study and the assimilation of all the political issues fought out in the split are vital. The documents produced during and in the aftermath of the split must be carefully studied.
This is particularly true for the working class in Britain. The WRP and its predecessor the SLL had deep roots in the working class. They were the best known of all the groups on the left and the only one with a genuine Marxist history. The SLL’s most prominent leader, Gerry Healy, was practically a legendary figure in the workers movement. This was precisely because on three decisive occasions in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, he had fought in defense of Marxism and the perspective of the Fourth International. This had ensured the proletarian orientation of the then Socialist Labour League and the deep roots it secured within the working class and amongst the youth.
But despite the considerable personal contribution to the revolutionary movement that Healy made throughout that period, the existence of the Fourth International could not be explained on the basis of Healy’s lone fight for Trotskyism. This absurd and reactionary justification—”the historical founder-leader of the movement”—was given during the split by Healy’s supporters—Corin and Vanessa Redgrave, Sheila Torrance, Savas Michael, Richard Price and others—for their own break with the IC and Trotskyism. This was in fact their middle class rationalization for the defense of their own national interests and orientation to the Stalinists, bourgeois nationalists and social democracy.
The revolutionary perspective that the SLL had fought for in the 1950s and 1960s and upon which its political axis was based, was fought for by earlier generations of proletarian internationalists going back to the historical giant and discoverer of scientific socialism Karl Marx. The revolutionaries of the past decades and the sacrifices they made had laid down the theoretical and programmatic foundations of the Marxist movement.
The Fourth International itself was founded by Leon Trotsky and the leaders of the Left Opposition in a life-and-death struggle against the Stalinists and their murderous campaign of assassinations and slanders. The Trotskyists led heroic struggles throughout the Second World War in the face of persecution by both the fascists and the Stalinists, as well as the leaders of social democracy who supported their own bourgeoisie in jailing revolutionaries.
The fights that Healy himself led in Britain in support of the Fourth International in 1943 and 1953, and which played such an important part in his own political development as a Trotskyist, were led internationally by Cannon and the SWP. Based upon this work of the international movement, the SLL was able to intervene decisively in the major class struggles in Britain, winning important forces among the dockers in the Blue Union fight, the miners and car and transport workers. It was also able to make an important intervention in the crisis of the Communist Party in the late 1950s and by the early 1960s won the leadership of the Labour Party youth movement.
Between 1961-63 the leaders of the SWP (including Cannon himself in the last years of his life) sought an unprincipled reunification with the Pabloites, having retreated over some time under the pressure of the petty-bourgeois radical movement in America. The struggle that Healy and the SLL leadership waged against this was based on the past gains of the Fourth International’s fight against revisionism.
Precisely because the political work of the SLL was based upon this historical and international axis, the authority of the SLL grew enormously amongst the most class-conscious sections of the working class and youth, both in Britain and internationally. As the postwar crisis of the capitalist system intensified in the late 1960s and a sharp class polarization developed, new forces were won to the revolutionary banner of the ICFI and the SLL.
But at exactly the point where this development provided the Marxists with the opportunity for deepening the political struggle against all the reactionary agencies of the bourgeoisie in the labor movement and preparing to end their domination, the SLL leaders began to abandon everything that they had ever learned. They abandoned the struggle to build the international movement and began to develop a national orientation. They started to develop the objectivist position that the depth of the capitalist crisis itself would force the working class to make the revolution.
The training of workers as Marxist cadres in order to consciously lead the revolution was beginning to be undermined and was no longer seen as the decisive question for the SLL leadership. This tended to be covered over because of the constant references to dialectical materialism. But Healy’s dialectics were not Marxism, and this more and more took the place of training the cadre on the vital historical and programmatic lessons of the Marxist movement.
Increasingly they adopted the outlook that all you had to do was give an organizational expression to the unconscious revolutionary process. This represented an opportunist adaptation to the spontaneous movement and the sharp upturn of the class struggle, seeking a short cut to leap over the patient and protracted struggle to train and educate workers and the youth as Marxists.
This abandonment of the Marxist scientific world outlook and method by the leadership of the SLL made them and the party membership vulnerable to hostile class pressures. In 1971, the SLL correctly opposed the rejection of dialectical materialism by the French section, the OCI. But having become increasingly impatient towards its international responsibilities, it split with the OCI prematurely and the programmatic issues were never properly addressed. If they had been, it would have revealed that the same pressures were bearing down on the SLL and an important reorientation could have been made.
A huge anti-Tory movement was developing against the Heath government that was still politically dominated by Labour Party “lefts” and Stalinists. The program on which the SLL was transformed into the Workers Revolutionary Party in 1973 did not address any of the fundamental historical and programmatic positions of the Fourth International. It failed to expose the nature of bourgeois democracy, or say anything about the relationship of the British working class to the national liberation struggles throughout the world. It was limited almost entirely to demands of a democratic character, while hardly mentioning the existence of the ICFI. It declared that the sole aim of the WRP was the election of a Labour government! The program on which the WRP was launched was a dangerous adaptation to centrism.
A price was soon to be paid as a result of this retreat into a nationalist perspective. The political confusion that began to reign inside the party could only encourage the development of hostile political tendencies. With the election of a Labour government in 1974, the WRP was forced to redefine its program and place renewed emphasis on its Trotskyist identity and opposition to the ruling social democrats. This change of line met with resistance from a right-wing tendency that had developed because of the retreat of the previous two years. It was led by central committee member Alan Thornett, a shop steward at the British Leyland plant in Cowley. Thornett’s faction worked secretly with a pair of Pabloite renegades whose aim was to undermine the leadership, and smash up the WRP.
The Thornett group’s expulsion caused a lot of confusion and was not approached in a way which could draw out the political issues and lead to a political development throughout the party. To do so would have meant an honest and objective addressing by the leadership of the retreat they had made on fundamental questions.
The WRP leaders never consulted with the rest of the IC cadre on the expulsion of Thornett. Their increasingly nationalist orientation meant that they did not believe that the IC and its cadre had any independent role to play in the affairs of the WRP.
In the wake of this split, the WRP adopted a new policy toward social democracy, calling for the bringing down of the Labour government, first under Wilson, then under Callaghan. The new ultraleft line “appeared” very revolutionary. In reality, because it failed to tackle the main programmatic questions and develop the correct tactics for breaking the workers from the “lefts” such as Benn and Scargill, it let all these forces off the hook.
In this way, it strengthened the revisionist groups like the Militant tendency which acted as the left cover for the bureaucracy, growing in this period as workers strove to find a way out of social democracy’s political trap. The class orientation of the party shifted dramatically, moving away from the industrial proletariat and youth and towards middle class forces amongst the actors and actresses.
In the second half of the 1970s, the WRP leaders made another sharp turn to the right and adopted an open class orientation to the bourgeoisie, when they formed their unprincipled alliances with the bourgeois nationalist regimes in the Middle East—again behind the backs of the IC. They were now accepting money to glorify these reactionary regimes among the workers in Britain through the WRP’s newly-renamed daily paper, the Newsline. This reached grotesque proportions when they even justified the execution of CP members in Iraq by Saddam Hussein’s Baathist Party.
At this point, they turned furiously on their working class cadre. Those factory branches and trade union factions that did not collapse in demoralization, under the weight of the political confusion that now existed within the WRP, were systematically attacked and wound up.
Mike Banda, the WRP general secretary, would make a tour of the branches attacking the leaderships as being militant “workerists,” while imposing his own opportunist line. After one such occasion with the Kodak branch, Banda offered a member with Irish origins a lift home and told him that the IRA was the only revolutionary movement in Western Europe!
The most important political gain of the 1970s was the ICFI investigation into Security and the Fourth International. This was a tremendous victory for the revolutionary movement, as it exposed the role of Stalinist agents in the assassination of Leon Trotsky and other leaders of the Fourth International. It birther revealed that Joseph Hansen, one of Trotsky’s secretaries and a prominent leader in the SWP up until his death, was a GPU/FBI double agent. It was not known by the membership at the time that, while Healy had provided the initial impetus for this important investigation, it was the Workers League of the USA that had essentially led and organized it.
Throughout this whole period, the WRP maintained the loyalty of the most dedicated proletarian forces. A worker does not break easily with the political party that is responsible for first awakening his political consciousness and freeing him from the ideological and organizational shackles of the bourgeoisie. So long as the WRP remained the British section of the ICFI, it was still the revolutionary party of the British working class.
This was another reason why the WRP kept the IC at a distance from the membership in Britain. They feared that too close a relationship between the WRP membership and the other sections of the IC, which had continued to adhere to their Trotskyist principles, would cut across and interfere with their own petty-bourgeois nationalist orientation. When the WRP exploded into factional warfare and disintegrated between July and October 1985, their worst fears were suddenly to be realized.
For the first time, the uncompromising theoretical and programmatic struggle that had been waged by the Workers League since 1982 was able to break through the bureaucratic organizational maneuvers of Healy, Banda and Slaughter and was revealed to the WRP membership. This had begun with the critique by Workers League National Secretary David North of Healy’s Studies in Dialectics. It exposed Healy’s subjective idealist philosophical method and how this was expressed in a distortion of the Trotskyist movement’s historical analysis of Stalinism.
This fight to clarify decisive programmatic questions was continued when North gave the political report for the Workers League delegation to the IC meeting in London on February 11, 1984. This report warned of the revisionist deviations that were being made in the political line of the WRP and in articles in the Newsline.
The reaction of Banda and Slaughter to these criticisms was to close ranks around Healy, support his slanderous attacks against the American Trotskyists and attempt to isolate them from the rest of the IC and its membership.
Slaughter expressed the class outlook of all of them when, in a letter to North in December 1983, he admonished him for his “too heavy emphasis on the political independence of the working class.”
When the WRP finally blew apart amidst a scandal surrounding Healy’s personal practices, it was only the Workers League, supported by the other genuine Marxists within the IC, that could explain to the WRP rank and file the political reasons behind its collapse. Banda and Slaughter had originally and very reluctantly been forced to support the October 25 IC resolution, which set out the reasons for Healy’s expulsion and called for WRP members to be reregistered only on the basis of an explicit recognition of the political authority of the ICFI, because their own political authority in the WRP had been severely undermined.
They immediately began to work again behind the backs of the IC to mobilize every diseased petty-bourgeois element, both inside the party and outside, on the reactionary bourgeois program of “revolutionary morality.” This was used quite consciously to whip up middle class subjectivism, reject any principled approach to the class questions involved and overturn the decision of the IC meeting and its resolution.
They hoped that in carrying this out they could throw up a smokescreen and isolate the ICFI from the proletarian forces within the movement. Expressing the class outlook of all petty-bourgeois nationalists, they desperately sought to stop the lessons of the collapse of its revolutionary party from being explained to the working class in Britain by the ICFI.
In the four months following the expulsion of Healy, when the IC was insisting that these questions had to be addressed, the hysterical and at times violent reaction orchestrated by Slaughter and Banda towards the ICFI and its supporters in Britain proved conclusively that the crisis in the WRP was not the result of the personal degeneration of one man, Healy, but of the total political degeneration of the entire central leadership.
As a result of this political degeneration, they had acted as the major prop of the British bourgeoisie and its agencies within the labor movement throughout the decade. By 1985, a majority of those that staffed the WRP’s Clapham center had become little more than middle class apparatchiks who shared the same class outlook as the Stalinist and labor bureaucracies.
The defeat of the miners strike had a powerful impact on these demoralized middle class forces. They were looking for a road out of the revolutionary movement and they organized in a totally unprincipled fashion a scandal around the personal practices of Healy to provide them with it.
It was these forces that Slaughter now organized against the IC, confident that they scorned any adherence to proletarian class principles. They claimed that sectarianism had isolated the WRP from the working class. The ICFI proved that it was opportunism that had led to the WRP’s “isolation” from the working class, with its orientation to hostile class forces. The Slaughter faction had no interest in making an honest assessment of these questions. They felt not one iota of responsibility to the working class. Their opposition to the “sectarian” principles of the IC was that it prevented them from joining the rest of the middle class radical swamp.
Dave Good, whose meteoric rise to a place on the Central Committee had never been explained, was made editor of the Workers Press to supervise the paper’s attack on the IC—while told by Slaughter to encourage Banda with the writing of his anti-Marxist diatribe “27 Reasons Why the ICFI Should Be Buried Forthwith.”
This was Banda’s pro-Stalinist document which claimed the Fourth International had never been built and there was nothing to defend. Within six months, Banda was speaking on a platform of the “Leninist” faction of the Stalinist CPGB and Good became an open Stalinist—a member of the CPGB and the secretary of its Reading branch.
As Slaughter’s faction was preparing to repudiate the political authority of the IC, three members of the Central Committee, Dave Hyland, Julie Hyland and Colleen Smith, declared themselves a minority tendency in support of the ICFI at the Central Committee meeting on November 16,1985. The minority included the party organizer of the mining area of South Yorkshire and the Young Socialists national secretary.
At the same Central Committee meeting, the minority also opposed a fictional finance report presented by the WRP finance secretary, Dot Gibson. The Slaughter faction, of which Gibson was a leading member, was busy selling off the assets of the WRP, without believing they had to give any account for their actions to the ICFI membership and the working class internationally—with whose sacrifices these considerable assets had been achieved.
Slaughter organized a meeting at Friends Hall in London where he made a public declaration of his split from the ICFI and Trotskyism in front of an audience packed with revisionists, rounding it off by shaking hands with the old Stalinist hack Monty Johnstone.
The overwhelming majority of the Young Socialists National Committee declared their support for the ICFI. Slaughter responded to this by having the YS newspaper pulped.
When it became clear to Slaughter that the minority would be represented by the largest number of delegates at the WRP’s 8th Congress on February 8, 1986, he organized with Good to print a bogus copy of the Workers Press carrying a slanderous and lying attack on the IC and the minority and had it distributed to selected delegates the night before the congress.
This was followed up with the calling of the police to bar the minority from entering the congress venue, while Slaughter himself was given a police escort into the hall. Slaughter had written a memo to Healy earlier in 1984, at the height of their attack on the Workers League, in which he had said there should be “no holds barred” in the fight against the American Trotskyists. On February 8, Slaughter showed exactly what that meant. He felt no compunction in spitting on the history of the revolutionary movement and stealing its hardgained assets, while being defended by the state forces of the capitalist police.
The minority supporters reassembled at a hall in Hammersmith and reiterated in two resolutions passed unanimously its support for the political authority of the ICFI and the investigation into Security and the Fourth International. Two months later at a Congress held in West Yorkshire, the members adopted the International Communist Party as the name of the British section of the ICFI.
At its first plenum after the split, held in Barnsley in June 1986, the IC produced the exhaustive analysis of the political degeneration of the WRP, “How the WRP Betrayed Trotskyism, 1973-1985,” and confirmed the expulsion of Slaughter, Banda and their supporters.
In carrying out this fight, the International Committee of the Fourth International had survived and defeated the most pernicious attack leveled against Trotskyism since 1953. This was itself the most powerful vindication of the principles upon which the ICFI is based. Despite the size of the WRP apparatus and the huge resources at their command, Healy, Banda and Slaughter could not stamp out Marxism inside the International Committee.
The two factions of the WRP that broke from Trotskyism in 1985-86 have since split into at least 10 different splinter groups, each pursuing their own opportunist line. All have continued to be the most servile defenders of the forces hostile to the working class. Having failed to destroy the ICFI and operating on his own reactionary agenda, Slaughter has recently been forced to reclaim its history in a new cynical maneuver aimed at undermining the ICFI’s political authority in the eyes of the advanced workers.
In the years since the split, the ICFI has carried out the pledge that it made in June 1986. Its sections have fought to explain the tasks confronting the working class in the countries in which they work and build their revolutionary parties. In translating the ICFI’s Marxist literature, it has expanded its political work internationally. This includes the meetings and lectures in the USSR and East Germany, the first time in decades that Trotskyists have addressed audiences of youth and workers in these countries.
Five years after the split, the political lessons of that struggle and the entire history of the defense of Marxist principles by the ICFI continue to be of the most decisive importance in enabling the working class to understand how it has reached this stage, who is responsible and how to change it. In celebrating the fifth anniversary of the split in the ICFI, the International Communist Party calls on every worker and youth to study its lessons and make a conscious decision to be trained as a Marxist, by joining the International Communist Party and the ranks of the International Committee of the Fourth International.