David North
Gerry Healy and his Place in the History of the Fourth International

Healy Defends the Fourth International

The break with the Pabloites and the founding of the International Committee was the essential preparation of the Fourth International for the crisis which erupted in the Kremlin bureaucracy and its associated Stalinist parties all over the world in 1956. Healy would frequently recall how, on a Saturday morning in the waning days of that year’s winter, he heard a news report that Khrushchev had given a secret speech in Moscow in which it had been admitted that the late Joseph Stalin was a criminal who was responsible for the murder of thousands of communists in the Soviet Union. This was the opportunity for which the Trotskyists had been waiting for years! As soon as Healy was able to verify the story, he reacted with his characteristic energy. He collected the name of every Communist Party member he or anyone else in the British section knew; and began travelling from one end of the country to another to discuss the significance of Khrushchev’s revelations in the historical context of Trotsky’s struggle against Stalinism.

The power of the British Trotskyists’ intervention in the crisis of Stalinism was derived from the clarification which had been achieved through the struggle against Pabloite revisionism. Precisely because the British section had rejected conciliation with and capitulation to Stalinism, Healy was able to achieve important breakthroughs within the Stalinist ranks— particularly among a section of Communist Party intellectuals such as Cliff Slaughter, Tom Kemp and Peter Fryer, the latter being won to Trotskyism after observing, as the Stalinist Daily Worker’s correspondent in Budapest, the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution in November 1956.

The crisis in the Communist Party and the recruitment of significant new forces into the Trotskyist movement enabled Healy to put into motion two projects that were to play an important role in the further political and organizational development of the British section: the publication of the Newsletter and Labour Review. The Newsletter greatly strengthened the independent political activity of the Trotskyists within both the trade unions and Labour Party, where, to the consternation of the right-wing social democratic and trade union bureaucrats, the influence of the revolutionary Marxists was steadily growing. The second rapidly established itself as the premier organ of international revolutionary Marxism. While, for the purpose of developing the broadest discussion on the implications of the Stalinist crisis, its pages were made available to representatives of centrist and left social democratic currents, the editorial policy of Labour Review championed indefatigably the program of revolutionary Marxism.

It would not be difficult, however, to discover weaknesses and mistakes in the entry work conducted by Healy between 1947, when the RCP minority entered the Labour Party, and the formation of the Socialist Labour League in 1959. Entry work, by its very nature, places the revolutionary cadre in a political and organizational milieu that is utterly hostile. The constant threat from the right-wing bureaucrats of proscription and expulsion inevitably restricts its freedom of movement. The inescapable need to form alliances with non-Marxist elements so that revolutionary work can be conducted within the parameters of the hostile organization always carries with it the risk that unavoidable concessions may proceed further than originally intended. Healy did not always manage to avoid political mishaps as he navigated the treacherous waters of the Labour Party. Nevertheless, Healy’s work was conducted under the banner of revolutionary Marxism, and constitutes a chapter in the history of the Trotskyist movement which, with both its strengths and weaknesses, remains to this day a rich source of political experience. It is impossible to read the old bound volumes of the Newsletter and Labour Review without being inspired by their high political and theoretical level and unyielding orientation to the day-to-day struggles of the British working class.

Labour Review explained to its readers in 1958 that “no one who takes up this arduous task of Marxist activity in the workers’ movement should expect easy victories, even at a time of growing militancy. It is uphill work: a reader of our literature won here, a contact gained there, a discussion group formed, a resolution passed, a group of militants won for the Marxist conception and strategy. Before the revolutionary crisis matures, bringing over to the banner of Marxism tens and hundreds of thousands of workers, those who see the need for such a comprehensive strategy as only Marxism has to offer are relatively few. Though few, these are the precious cadres of the future workers’ party: on their assembly, organization and political and ideological training no care or effort is too great” (August-September 1958, p. 97).

It then described the type of Marxist movement that Labour Review was fighting to build:

“Not a group of embittered doctrinaires without roots or perspectives or the ability to learn from their mistakes; not a coterie of well-meaning university dons and writers who have something to say on every subject except the class struggle taking place under their noses; not a party paying lip-service to Marxism but in fact dominated by whichever faction happens to be in control in Moscow. No, the Marxist movement to whose construction Labour Review is dedicated will be rooted in the pits and workshops and on the building sites; it will unite the efforts of workers for whom ‘intellectual’ is not a dirty word and intellectuals who have no dearer wish than to serve the working class in struggle; it will carry forward those traditions of revolutionary ardour, discipline, steadfastness and internationalism to which the word ‘Bolshevik’ is properly applied, and will marry them, in new conditions, to all the best traditions of our native working-class struggle.

The Marxist movement in Britain will be the worthy heir to the Chartists, the Clydeside strikers, the councils of action, the Communist Party of 1920–24, the National Minority Movement, the Marxist groups of the thirties and the Revolutionary Communist Party of the forties” (Ibid.).

While Healy’s work inside the Labour Party deserves critical study as an important part of the Trotskyist experience in Britain, of far greater and more enduring historical significance is the role he played in the aftermath of the 1953 split in the struggle to defend the program of the Fourth International against the reactionary assault of petty-bourgeois revisionism. And here it must be said that the struggle conducted by Healy and the British Trotskyists against the unprincipled reunification of the Socialist Workers Party with the Pabloites ranks among the most important contributions to Marxism in the twentieth century. At a time when the vital threads of revolutionary continuity could have been severed, the stand taken by Healy against the renegacy of the SWP saved the Trotskyist movement from the immediate danger of political liquidation into the revisionist swamp of Stalinist, bourgeois nationalist and petty-bourgeois radical politics. Healy and the Socialist Labour League insisted that the fundamental problem confronting the workers movement was what they called, in an especially well-chosen phrase, “the persistence of opportunism in the present stage of imperialism’s development” (Labour Review, Winter 1961, p. 90).

The documents produced in the course of that struggle laid down the foundations for the theoretical rearming of the Fourth International and the Marxist education of an entire new generation of revolutionary internationalists. Many of these documents were written by Cliff Slaughter, but there is no question that Healy was the political leader of the fight against the revisionists. This was acknowledged by the Pabloites themselves, in the form of an endless stream of anti-Healy slander and provocations that were nothing less than the concentrated political expression of the hatred and fear that the independent struggle of the working class arouses within the petty bourgeoisie. The protracted struggle against the Socialist Workers Party began in 1957, when Cannon wrote in March of that year to Leslie Goonewardene of the LSSP and indicated that he was now in favor of entering unity discussions with the Pabloites. Healy often recalled that the receipt of this letter hit him like a blow to the chin. The fact that Cannon had not bothered to consult the British prior to embarking on this dubious initiative could only mean that the SWP, which was so conscious of the subtleties of political protocol, no longer was really interested in international collaboration on a Marxist basis. On May 10, 1957 Healy wrote a lengthy letter to Cannon in which he rejected an organizational approach to the question of reunification and warned that the revisionist positions of the Pabloites had assumed a far more defined character since the split of 1953. Healy insisted that the crisis of Stalinism posed the necessity of even greater political intransigence on the part of the Trotskyists and this could be developed only on the basis of an unrelenting fight against Pabloite revisionism:

“Recently we have been reviewing the internal documents of our world movement since the end of the war,” he told Cannon, “and it is quite clear than an objective study of that period is extremely important for the education of our cadres in the future. Pablo and Germain’s double-talk has had some terrible effects in the miseducation of our comrades on the Continent, and this cannot be put right simply by declaring that the objective situation since the 20th Congress is very much in our favour. The Marxist education of our cadres has to take into account how Pablo and his tendency developed just as you were able to do in the books dealing with the struggle against Shachtman and Burnham. The objective situation is not sufficient by itself to do this…

“If we assume without qualification that the present favourable political situation can greatly help in checking the disintegrating splits which characterized our movement in its isolation, this could lead to a one-sided and erroneous conclusion, in just the same way as the ‘mass pressure’ theories of Pablo and Germain during 1953. The strengthening of our cadres is decisive in this present period and this can only be done in a thorough-going education around the problems of revisionism. That is the most important conscious role which our movement has to play” (Trotskyism Versus Revisionism, vol. 3 [London: New Park Publications, 1974], pp. 33–34).

As relations between the SWP and the British Trotskyists began to deteriorate, Healy held discussions with Cannon and other SWP leaders in Canada on two occasions, in late 1958 and early 1960, in an attempt to work out a common position within the International Committee on its attitude toward unity with the Pabloite International Secretariat. Healy continued to insist that any final decision on a reunification should depend on the clarification of the political differences which had produced the split in 1953. No definite agreement could be reached between the American and the British approach, and there was an unstated feeling that the two parties were drifting apart. However, the talks were not without their lighter side. At one point Cannon bluntly told Healy that he was sorely in need of some new clothes; and with great fanfare a number of SWP leaders escorted Healy to the nearest department store. A few hours later Healy returned to Cannon’s hotel room wearing a brand new suit. “Not bad, not bad,” Cannon remarked as he looked Healy over. “But change the line and we’ll take it away.”

But it was Cannon who was seeking to change the line of the International Committee, and on January 2, 1961, the National Committee of the Socialist Labour League wrote a letter to the SWP which could be interpreted as nothing less than a declaration of war on its proposed capitulation to Pabloite revisionism. The SLL sharply reminded Cannon of what he had written in the “Open Letter” and warned that any retreat from its principles, precisely under conditions of an international upsurge of the working class, would “take on the significance of a world-historical blunder on the part of the Trotskyist movement.” The SLL then presented the SWP with the following advice: “It is because of the magnitude of the opportunities opening up before Trotskyism, and therefore the necessity for political and theoretical clarity, that we urgently require a drawing of the lines against revisionism in all its forms. It is time to draw to a close the period in which Pabloite revisionism was regarded as a trend within Trotskyism. Unless this is done we cannot prepare for the revolutionary struggles now beginning. We want the SWP to go forward with us in this spirit” (Ibid., p. 49).

Now that the SLL had openly declared its opposition to an opportunist reunification with the Pabloites, the SWP reacted bitterly. On May 10, 1961 Cannon wrote a letter to Joseph Hansen in which he complained of “an outbreak of neo-Oehlerite frenzy in Britain, which can hardly fail to bring them into sharp conflict with us.” [6]

Just two days later, Cannon wrote to Farrell Dobbs, “The breach between us and Gerry is obviously widening. It is easier to recognize that than to see how the recent trend can be reversed. In my opinion, Gerry is heading toward disaster and taking his whole organization with him” (Ibid., p. 71).

Cannon’s invocation of the ghost of Hugo Oehler set the stage for what was to become an international campaign of vilification against Healy, built around the charge that he was an “ultraleft sectarian” who opposed the Cuban Revolution! The substance of Healy’s “sectarianism” consisted of his refusal to abandon the Marxist principles upon which the Fourth International was based and go along with the Pabloite subordination of the working class to whatever Stalinist, bourgeois nationalist or petty-bourgeois radical force dominated the political scene in one or another country.

As for the allegation that Healy opposed the Cuban Revolution, this was an outright lie that was invented by the SWP and peddled internationally by Joseph Hansen. Its purpose was to prejudice the politically-disoriented members of the SWP and other Pabloite organizations against the Socialist Labour League so that its position on the complex Cuban question would not even receive an objective hearing. As Healy recalled:

“Hansen got busy with his slander. Was it not US imperialism which oppressed the Cuban peoples? Of course it was, and if the SLL hesitated in characterizing Cuba as a ‘workers’ state,’ did not that automatically mean that the SLL was an ally of US imperialism?

“This was the story which he peddled around the SWP in order to poison the political atmosphere against the SLL with whom they collaborated for 20 years.

“Alongside all this, members of the SWP were organised to go to Cuba so they could see the ‘land of socialism’ for themselves.

“Coming from the USA and its anti-red, witch-hunting atmosphere, everything which they saw in Cuba seemed fine from the tourist point of view, the one difficulty being that they were there only for a short time.

“Nevertheless, it served Hansen’s purpose. When the American and Canadian tourists returned he was saying ‘Now you see how the SLL helps US imperialism. Don’t bother to read their bulletins, Jim Cannon is right not to have discussion with supporters of US imperialism, is he not?’—and they in turn, unfortunately said ‘Yes’ to what was nothing more than shades of Stalinist distortion of Trotskyist method” (Problems of the Fourth International, p. 26).

There existed innumerable articles in the press of the Socialist Labour League, many of them written by Healy, in which the Cuban Revolution was unequivocally defended against the provocations of US imperialism. However, the SLL rejected the specious conception that a principled defense of Cuba as an oppressed nation somehow required the designation of Fidel Castro’s regime as socialist. It correctly recognized that the SWP’s glorification of Cuba as a “workers state” was a political outcome of its capitulation to the method and outlook of Pabloite revisionism, which did not accept that the essential condition for the victory of the socialist revolution was the independent revolutionary mobilization of the working class under the leadership of its own Marxist party.

Nothing more glaringly exposes the subsequent degeneration of Healy than a comparison of the political line which he and the Socialist Labour League defended between 1961 and 1964 against the Socialist Workers Party with that advanced by Healy and the Workers Revolutionary Party in the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, had the SLL held the opportunist positions on bourgeois nationalism and Stalinism in the early 1960s that were so shamelessly and cynically advocated by the WRP 15 years later, it would have had no reason whatsoever to break with the SWP and oppose the reunification with the Pabloites in June 1963. The important documents produced by the SLL between 1961 and 1964 stressed repeatedly the counterrevolutionary implications of the Pabloite adaptation to bourgeois nationalists in the backward countries on the one hand and the Khrushchevite wing of the Stalinist bureaucracy on the other. For example, in his September 1963 report to the International Committee, summing up the central political issues in the split with the SWP, Cliff Slaughter contrasted the position of Trotskyism and Pabloism on these vital questions:

“In the backward countries, fighting to resolve the crisis of leadership means fighting for the construction of proletarian parties, with the aim of proletarian dictatorship. It is especially necessary to stress the proletarian character of the leadership in countries with a large petty-bourgeoisie or peasantry. On this question, the revisionists take the opposite road to Lenin and Trotsky, justifying their capitulation to petty-bourgeois, nationalist leaderships by speculation about a new type of peasantry… These are only thin disguises for capitulation to the petty-bourgeois leadership of the FLN in Algeria and of Castro in Cuba…

“In relation to the Stalinist bureaucracy and the political revolution, the case is even clearer. The pronounced right turn of Khrushchev comes only a few years after Pablo’s insistence that his section of the bureaucracy would lead the destruction of Stalinism… Any strategy which proceeds from assumptions that sections of the Stalinist counterrevolutionary bureaucracy can ‘move left’ is a negation of Trotskyism” (Trotskyism Versus Revisionism, vol. 4, [London: New Park Publications, 1974], pp. 188–89).

There was another essential element of Healy’s political work in the early 1960s which, when compared to his activity in the last two decades of his life, underscores his later political degeneration. During the struggle inside the Socialist Workers Party, nothing was of greater importance to Healy than the political clarification and education of the cadre of the Fourth International on the basic questions of program and principle. This was the preeminent reason for his opposition to any unprincipled reunification with the Pabloites which proceeded without clarifying the issues which had provoked the split in 1953.

It is illuminating to read through the political correspondence which Healy maintained during the struggle against the unprincipled reunification with Tim Wohlforth, who was then the leader of the pro-ICFI minority faction inside the Socialist Workers Party and later the founder of the Workers League. Despite the deep differences between the SLL and SWP, Healy’s private correspondence testified to his earnest hope that a profound discussion on perspectives would resolve the crisis in the Fourth International. Repeatedly, Healy urged Wohlforth to avoid any factional activity that might preempt the political and theoretical clarification of the international cadre.

“We have been able to make tremendous strides forward in Britain since 1954,” he wrote to Wohlforth on March 8, 1961. “Our leadership is theoretically much stronger and despite considerable difficulties we continue to make a steady expansion of our influence in important circles. As far as we are concerned the stage is now set for a very thorough discussion which we feel confident could be carried to a successful conclusion because of the desire of comrades in many countries for such a discussion.

“We must be extremely careful not to fritter away our forces in any kind of factionalism. It is my belief that with patience and firmness on principles the world movement can be reorganized within the next two or three years.

“I think your document will be very helpful to the comrades in the SWP.”

On March 21, 1961 he offered the following advice to Wohlforth:

“We are very much of the opinion that the discussion in the SWP must be handled in the most objective way. I am speaking as one who has been in many factional struggles and I have no hesitation in endorsing wholeheartedly all the warnings which Jim Cannon has made from time to time against factionalism.

“On the question of Pabloism we must argue the matter out politically amongst ourselves and in the next year or so arrange an international gathering of our people. The most urgent question is to clarify the movement.

“Please write to me as regularly as you can since I am always extremely interested in learning your ideas.

“We are now on the threshold of a real international movement with I feel sure a firmer orthodox Trotskyist position.”

On April 5, 1961:

“Our anxiety about factionalism does not spring from a misunderstanding of the goodwill which we know exists on both sides, but from the fact that we are seriously perturbed over the fundamental nature of the political differences. The contribution of Nora on your article is a warning sign. If this type of miseducation gains a serious grip on the SWP then it will surely lose its political bearings, no matter how solid the cadre.”

And three weeks later, on April 24, 1961, Healy wrote again:

“There is one thing you need have no hesitation about so far as the Socialist Labour League is concerned, regardless of who might designate us as factionalists. This is absolutely wrong, and we will insist upon a political clarification of the issues concerning our international movement. On this we will yield to no one. I feel that we have wasted far too much time up to now in avoiding such theoretical clarification. You will, therefore, be interested to learn that our National Executive Committee has decided to draw up a document intervening in the political discussion now taking place in the SWP. I am hoping that we can complete this document towards the end of May. We shall do our best to send it in time for it to be distributed before your convention.

“I agree with your decision to avoid at all costs any aggravation of the factional situation. Please continue with this policy and let there be no talk about anyone breaking from the SWP, no matter how difficult you might feel the situation to be. Your problem is not one concerning the SWP—it is fundamentally an international problem. We need to clarify questions internationally. I fully realize the responsibility of our section in this respect.”

It is no wonder that none of the renegade factions of the WRP which broke from the International Committee in 1985–86—that of Slaughter, Torrance or the Redgraves (who represent the pathetic “Marxist” Party in which Healy ended his days)—even refer to the 1961–64 struggle of the SLL against the Pabloite reunification. They have nothing in common with the Healy of that period, who was proud to call himself an “orthodox Trotskyist.” Whatever the state of their relations with Healy after the October 1985 split inside the Workers Revolutionary Party, they all reject the internationalist principles upon which Healy and the SLL based the struggle against the SWP-Pabloite reunification.


Hugo Oehler was the leader of a sectarian faction within the American Trotskyist movement in the 1930s that bitterly opposed the application of the “French turn” tactic in the United States, that is, the entry of the Trotskyists into the Socialist Party. Oehlerism is synonymous with a sterile adherence to principles which are understood only in the most abstract manner.