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Splits and Fusions- an archive of Trotskyist publications in Britain

This is the post excerpt.

Welcome to Splits&Fusions.

Here we will showcase documents from the various tendencies of what can broadly be described as the Trotskyist movement in Britain (with a nod to Irish, US and other publications in the English language).

In most cases items will be presented without much in the way of editorial, beyond a brief (and hopefully factual) description of the group. Continue reading “Splits and Fusions- an archive of Trotskyist publications in Britain”

Socialist Review Group- South London Branch minutes- 1959-1963

We recently scanned a collection of minutes of the South London branch of the Socialist Review Group to which our friend John Rudge kindly agreed to write a short introduction:

The Founding Conference of the Socialist Review Group (SRG) took place on the weekend of 30th September-1st October 1950. That makes the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) exactly 70 years old – a birthday that seems to have passed with no particular comment. That is a pity as such a period of continuous organisation and activity is worth celebrating. I am therefore obliged to Colin Fancy and Rob Marsden for making a rare set of minutes available for the meetings of the SRG’s South London branch for the period December 1959 to March 1963. For historians of the IS Tradition these are a welcome birthday present.

At its foundation in October 1950 the SRG had 33 members. As evidence of how difficult was the task of revolutionary organisation in this period, on the date these minutes commence in December 1959 the SRG had the grand total of 71 members! But these minutes are important. The period covered by them represents the, albeit very slow, advance of the organisation towards its “breakout moment” in 1968.

The minutes show how the founding of CND in 1958 and the launch of the Young Socialists organisation in the Labour Party in 1960 both provided fertile ground for the involvement of the young activists attracted to the SRG. The involvement of the South London members in both of these organisations is well documented here. These members were pivotal to the formation of the SRG’s youth publication Rebel (For Socialist Youth Against the Bomb) in July 1960 and active in the launch of its successor publication Young Guard in September 1961. They involved themselves in trade union and wider political activity when they could and took an active interest in the launch of Industrial Worker (later Labour Worker). The minutes show their active interest in theory and education.

It is to be sincerely hoped that more of this sort of information can be brought into the public domain. By understanding our past we can better build our future.

John Rudge

19th October 2020

We have some 40 sets of minutes, covering three years from 1959, plus an interesting sheet showing the change in attendance at the meetings over this period…

SOCIALIST REVIEW GROUP South London minutes

Labour Herald

The first issue of Labour Herald we have, volume 1 no 13 for December 4th 1981, has a notice (p3) that the editors – Ted Knight, Ken Livingstone and Matthew Warburton- intended to sue Event magazine for libel over the claim that the Herald was funded by Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi!

What is true, and well known, is that the paper was at least partly produced and financed by the Workers Revolutionary Party. However, as Alex Mitchell makes clear in his memoir, it was not simply the case that LH was a WRP entrist project within the Labour Party.

Of the initial three editors of the paper only Knight was a former supporter of Healy’s group. Ken Livingstone, whilst he may have come under Healy’s spell (see for example his completely uncritical foreword to the hagiographic Gerry Healy: A Revolutionary Life) , was always of the labour left. And Matthew Warburton came from an altogether different tradition.*

Bill Bowring writes “From the start, the paper was funded by the trade unions, and you can see many contributions from left leaders. And advertising. Jeremy Smith, then secretary of the Haldane Society, contributed, as did quite a few Labour MPs.

The lie that the paper was somehow funded by Col Gadaffi or was an organ of the WRP has circulated from time to time. A lie pure and simple. I left the WRP in 1974; while I was in it from 1969, Ted was considered a renegade.

In fact I went to Libya twice in 1991, with Bernie Grant, but in connection with the framing of Libyans over the 1988 Lockerbie disaster. No whisper of Labour Herald.”

Labour Herald was published on a weekly basis between 1981 and 1986 as a well produced 16, later 12, page tabloid boasting state of the art colour covers and photographic centre spreads.

Towards the end of its run the editorial team included alongside Ted Knight, Sharon Atkin, John McDonnell and Bill Bowring (to whom we are very grateful for donating his copies to this archive).

We have 49 copies of Labour Herald including two issues from later in 1986 which appeared in magazine form– presumably this was a failed attempt at a relaunch of the paper following the loss of WRP patronage after the previous years splits…

LABOUR HERALD Archive

*The expulsion of the Right opposition from the International Socialists in 1973 gave rise, ultimately to three groups. The Revolutionary Communist Group famously gave rise to the Revolutionary Communist Tendency / Party but right at the very inception of the RCG a group refused to join and instead constituted themselves as The Discussion Group.

We haven’t (yet) done a substantive post on The Discussion Group for lack of material but we do have a single pamphlet… by one Matthew Warburton.

Inflation and How To Fight It- Discussion Group pamphlet

***

John Sullivan comments on the secrecy of the Discussion Group “The last time the Discussion Group edged discreetly out of its closet was in 1980 when it joined with Ken Livingstone and the WRP in sponsoring a very lavishly produced journal, Labour Herald. While that episode lasted, the group’s caution vanished, as Labour Herald had extremely detailed and specific policies, all of them about the Middle East. That particular venture collapsed because of a falling out between Livingstone and his partners, so the Discussion Group has resumed its vow of political silence, producing only the occasional pamphlet.”

May 1968- The English Speaking Action Committee

We are pleased to present eight documents produced in France at the height of the May / June events of 1968. Mostly credited to the English Speaking Action Committee they are bulletins or press releases aimed at getting the word out to the Anglophone world and explaining the meaning and aims of the struggle…

UNEF and SNES support the workers. A statement calling for support for workers demonstrations.

Action, Reflection and Organisation– a statement explaining the movement and issued by the Action Committee of the Liberated ex-Britanic Institute

British Press Myth and Reality… The British press less than objective? Who would have thought it?

The Strike Goes On– an extract from a Dany Cohn-Bendit statement 1st June 1968

Action Committees– A straightforward explanation of the action Committees role and structure

Testimony- Police Brutality– an eyewitness account.

The Old Habits– A response to De Gaulle’s speech. Issued 2nd June 1968

And finally an 8 page account of the Workers Student Action Committee – Citroen written at the time by Fredy Perlman.

Perlman was in Paris in 1968 and we assume he was one of a number of activists involved with translating and writing articles on behalf of the English Speaking Action Committee.

Thanks to Barry for digging up these buried treasures.

Sous les pavés la plage!

The Communist Workers Organisation

Back in April during the ‘lockdown’ I did quite a bit of scanning of materials from the Communist Workers Organisation- later issues of their paper Workers Voice, copies of the magazine Revolutionary Perspectives from the 1990s and 2000s and the earlier Communist Review / Internationalist Communist. Some of these can be found at the CWO website.

Having previously looked at the Merseyside based Workers Voice group, which was one component of the CWO, we had long intended to do a posting on the history of this group.

However, we now find that CWO has posted a long, detailed and critical article, almost a pamphlet, on their own 45 year history.

The history is very useful on a number of points. It explains the appearance within Solidarity of Left Communist ideas and the split from Solidarity of two groups- Revolutionary Perspectives and Council Communism (later World Revolution)- the progenitors respectively of the CWO and the International Communist Current. And it untangles some of the complex interaction between these two groups and Workers Voice.

It then traces the development of the CWO through the later 1970s to the present day, answering a number of questions and throwing up some  interesting avenues for further research.

So we learn (or have confirmed) that ‘Britain’s only Bordigist’ was an initial member of the WV group and once the fusion between WV and RP foundered he became the British representative of the Bordigist International Communist Party publishing an English language journal Communist Left and more recently a monthly paper The Communist Party which can be found in PDF form at their website and hard copy in selected bookshops!

We also learn that in the early 1980s as the CWO drew close to the Italian group Internationalist Communist Party- Battaglia Comunista (PCInt), a second group of PCInt supporters appeared in Britain- the Internationalist Communist Organisation which quickly joined the CWO. We can find no other references to the ICO in any literature so if any reader has information on their origins we would be very interested…

Also discussed is the origin and development of the Communist Bulletin Group– recently covered on this blog.

Our collections of CWO materials include issues of the duplicated Revolutionary Perspectives journal (second series if the original RP prior to the founding of the CWO is the first series), some of which we found online at Archive.org and the Spirit Of Revolt site and a small  number of copies of the Workers Voice paper which appeared from 1980 as an 8 page tabloid.

Between this paper and the earlier duplicated Workers Voice group’s publication the CWO issued WV as a series free factory bulletins. Sadly, we don’t have any of these.

The CWO issued a theoretical journal Communist Review, later Internationalist Communist Review, from 1984. This became the house journal of their international tendency- International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party.

We also have copies of the first 34 issues of Revolutionary Perspectives (3rd Series) 1995-2005. All the material from the later issues of this series can be found online at Leftcom.org

A fourth series of Revolutionary Perspectives currently appears quarterly as an A5 journal alongside an agitational broadsheet, Aurora.

COMMUNIST WORKERS ORGANISATION Archive

At a later date we hope to take a look at the CWO’s long-term sparring partner the International Communist Current and the groups deriving from it.

The Left Fraction and “Special Work”

The British Trotskyists in wartime were necessarily security conscious and none more so than the Left Fraction. In fact it would be no exaggeration to say that the LF bordered on paranoia…

Supposedly taking a cue from Lenin on Special Work * the LF developed a set of precautions to guide the organisation of meetings and conferences. 

*(note this is an incomplete document- we have page 1 and the two following pages seem to go elsewhere- I have included it only as it appears in the file in relation to this topic)

Members of the Fraction each adopted a pseudonym based on their real first name and the third from last letter of their surname. A handwritten list of these pseudonyms is then included!!

Additionally, the LF had a whole series of code names, words and phrases to be used in communications…

The document then ends with a short list of ‘safe’ addresses.

We have copies of the guidance for a number of conferences:

1941 September RSL conference– organised by the LF dominated Leicester Group who insisted on special precautions- see this exchange between LF and RSL

The RSL Central Committee rejected the request from Leicester and Glasgow branches that the 1942 RSL Conference itself be held under ‘special conditions’

1942 September LF Conference

1946 January LF Conference

1946 July LF Conference

The extensive documentation for the January 1946 Conference, held in Glasgow, is very interesting. It contains both detailed instructions for delegates and for the guides who were to meet them at a number of specified locations and times.

A handwritten list of ways in which a guide might be identified was also included:

Attache Case- initials T.L.S

Man with lady’s handbag

Coloured medicine bottle

Roll of brown paper with string at each end

And I list of the various meeting points:

The documentation presented in the various files contains a number of handwritten items of correspondence, some of which are difficult to read. If you decipher any interesting facts from them, please comment below…

British Surrealism and the drift towards Trotskyism

A slightly off-beat post for Splits & Fusions, suggested to us by John Plant.

Like John I have an interest in the Surrealist movement and its interactions with the radical left… Here is a very brief sketch.

In Britain Surrealism first came to widespread public and media attention as a result of the London International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936.

Two years later, what had become the English Surrealist Group established the London Bulletin. Originally London Gallery Bulletin, this was a magazine edited by E.L.T. Mesens and published by his London Gallery between April 1938 and June 1940.

The magazine was the most influential English Surrealist periodical. Although it described itself as an avant-garde review, Surrealist contributions predominated; and it featured the work of Mesens, Paul Eluard, Andre Breton, Benjamin Peret, Roland Penrose, Conroy Maddox and many others. 16 issues were published though some were double or triple numbers.

Its just a jump to the left…

In the summer of 1938, Breton and Trotsky met in Mexico, at the foot of the Popocatepetl and Ixtacciuatl volcanoes. This historic meeting was prepared by Pierre Naville, a former Surrealist and leader of the Trotskyist movement in France.

Despite a heated controversy with Breton in 1930, Naville had written to Trotsky in 1938 recommending Breton as a courageous man who had not hesitated, unlike so many other intellectuals, to publicly condemn the infamy of the Moscow Trials.

Jointly Trotsky and Breton drafted a Manifesto For An Independent Revolutionary Art, which appeared above the signatures of Breton and Diego Rivera.

This Manifesto was published in London Bulletin no6 October 1938 in French and then in English translation in the next issue.

We found all the issues of London Bulletin nicely scanned and online– which is just as well as a set recently sold at auction for £8,000. Donations are welcomed should another set ever come up for sale!

LONDON BULLETIN Archive

Remy’s book “Surrealism in Britain”  discusses in detail the London Bulletin and what he calls the “the drift towards Trotskyism” in this period but the engagement of Surrealists with the Left goes back further.

Prior to the establishment of the London Bulletin, in 1936, the Surrealist Group in England had issued a Declaration on Spain in another Surrealist journal- Contemporary Poetry And Prose. This was edited by Roger Roughton, a passionate Surrealist and revolutionary who remained, nonetheless, a member of the Stalinised Communist Party of Great Britain. Roughton was later to resolve his own contradictions in favour of the CP, breaking with Surrealism. 

Toni del Renzio, widely seen as a rival to Mesens for ‘leadership’ of the London Surrealists, fought briefly on the Aragon front during the Spanish Civil War and Wikipedia suggests this was with the Trotskyists (probably POUM). Roger Cardinal’s obituary in the Guardian is useful.

For many years Surrealists carried out political activity in collaboration with the wider left in initiatives around Spain, anti-fascism etc. whilst at the same time carrying on a lively debate in the pages of Left Review– initiated by a supplement to the July 1936 issue which was devoted to Surrealism. We don’t have a copy of this but would love to find one…

For further information we recommend Remy (op.cit.). Also this thesis on Mesens, of which chapter 13 on the wartime and immediate post-war activities of the British Surrealists is very useful.

Postscript: It has been suggested that Mesens was close to the Revolutionary Communist Party in the 1940s and was a financial contributor. Can anyone corroborate this?

Post-postscript: Inevitably in the later 1930s there was a split from the (London centric) English Surrealist Group by the  Birmingham Surrealists who included John and Robert Melville – father and uncle respectively of Theo Melville, early member of the International Group who joined the Posadist Revolutionary Workers Party. Theo wrote an intro to an exhibition of his father’s paintings.

This factoid would make a good Surrealo-Trotskyist pub-quiz question.

Post-post-postscript: The 1970s saw a minor resurgence of politically engaged Surrealism in Britain. However, this time more closely aligned to Anarchism than Trotskyism- at least if we go by the fact that Freedom Press published two key Surrealist magazines The Hinge Of History in 1978 and Melmoth in 1979 (this latter was incorporated into Freedom magazine).

Post-post-post-postscript: Also in 1979, a (different?) group of Surrealists made an intervention in the pages of Socialist Challenge (issue 88) with a four page pull-out supplement- Surrealist Challenge. This included texts by the well-respected US Surrealists Franklin and Penelope Rosemont and reproduced the Breton / Trotsky Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art. 

However, the supplement was strongly criticised by feminists and some members of the IMG for the allegedly misogynistic imagery of some of the texts. The Surrealist Group in England responded with a broadsheet “And Onan Cried over his Spilt Milk…” critical of both Trotskyism and feminism. Another text we would like to see a copy of.

Post-post-post-post-postscript: We draw your attention to the Curious Case of Comrade Kukowski– Trotskyist, Surrealist, Tory!

The beginnings of an Archive Of Surrealist Publications

 

Workers Voice, CWO and the Communist Bulletin Group

Ingram contacted us to offer a welcome corrective to our post on the Workers Voice group and the pre-history of the Communist Workers Organisation:

“Your comment on Worker’s Voice origins and end are not quite correct. Those in England describing themselves as Marxists in Solidarity split from that organisation and Cardan around 1972 after a fractious conference in Glasgow.

The Scots went on to form the Revolutionary Perspectives / Communist Workers Organisation after contact with French comrades regrouping round Italian and German Left positions as did, separately, the English Marxists who formed World Revolution.

Lots of reasons why at that time the Scots and English did not combine – Luxemburg vs FRP positions of Capitalist Crisis and some personal issues.

Workers Voice were in contact with RP and regrouped with them.

But the Voices found it difficult to accept that there had been a proletarian revolution in Russia, walked away from the regroupment and eventually disappeared.

Individuals gravitated to Bordigism(?) and one to WR/ICC or disappeared completely.

By 1976 a minority in the CWO could see no reason for WR and CWO not to join together and left CWO to join ICC. Both WR/ICC and CWO continue to this day.

The Communist Bulletin Group consisted mostly of the ex-CWO members of WR who split from WR itself in 1978. See the Communist Bulletin for details.”

We have all 16 issues of Communist Bulletin, which ran until 1995.

These were cribbed from a variety of sources, including LibCom.org

Not to be confused with the other Communist Bulletin!

COMMUNIST BULLETIN Archive

Cliff Slaughter- A Life For Socialism

The name of Cliff Slaughter will be familiar to many readers of this Blog as a leading light of the Socialist Labour League / Workers Revolutionary Party from the 1950s until the break with Healy in 1985.

We are very pleased to have been offered this interview, conducted by Victor Osprey, a writer and socialist from Australia.

We reproduce the interview in its entirety below with some links to papers and other items in our collections.

Italicised notes are by Victor.

S&F.

Cliff Slaughter has quite a history on the left. He has been a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and the Socialist Labour League (later renamed the Workers Revolutionary Party, WRP) sitting on the latter’s Central Committee. He was regarded as its leading intellectual, producing numerous articles, essays, and books in that role.

He was also a member in a series of successor organisations after Gerry Healy, its longtime leader, was expelled from the Workers Revolutionary Party in 1985.

He has continued to write books, all the while engaging in the process of a substantial rethinking of his ideas and politics – drawing particularly from the works of Marxist philosopher István Mészáros in that effort.

Cliff Slaughter, it is a pleasure to speak with you, one socialist to another. I have recently been reading your book ‘Bonfire of the Certainties’ here in Australia and find it a valuable and interesting work of socialist literature. What was the initial inspiration for the book?

Cliff Slaughter: Why the book? Trying to settle accounts with my Workers Revolutionary Party past.

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You mention the Russian writer and novelist Vasily Grossman in your book. I have noticed other ex-members of the Workers Revolutionary Party making positive remarks about Grossman’s writings. How do you feel about what Grossman has to say as a writer, novelist and human being who experienced Stalinism firsthand?

CS: Other comrades followed me in reading him. He is unbelievably honest and brave in every respect.

When did you first come across the works of István Mészáros, and what impact did they have on you?

CS: I first read his The Power of Ideology. Geoff Pilling attended one of his lectures and approached him. He was very positive about my Marxism, Ideology and Literature, and got in touch with me.

And the man himself – what kind of relationship did you have with him? Did you and Mészáros collaborate on any projects together?

CS: We were thence very close – He sent me all his books and we met several times. I visited him at his home several times. His Beyond Capital I found very powerful. He worked harder than anyone I have ever known. We were extremely close. His thesis of the structural crisis was influential on me, as you know. We did not publish any collaborative work.

I asked Slaughter about his early life, and he was able to clear up an inaccuracy listed on his Wikipedia page, which said he was a Bevin Boy – young British boys and men conscripted to work in the coal mines, named after the Labour Party Member of Parliament, Ernest Bevan, who served as the wartime Minister of Labour during World War II.  

When and where were you born?

CS: Born in Doncaster, 1928.

What was it like being a Bevin Boy in the middle of World War II?

CF: I was not a Bevin Boy. That category ended in 1945. I had the option of pit work when called up and did my two years 1947-49, before taking up my scholarship at Cambridge.

What events politicised you and drew you towards the left?

CS: My father joined the CP in 1943.

Why did you join the Communist Party and not the Labour Party?

CS: Ditto. I knew the Labour Party was a reformist trap.

In 1956, twin crises rocked the Communist Party of Great Britain. First came Khrushchev’s secret speech which denounced Stalin, regarded as a heroic figure by Communist Party militants. Then came the revolution in Hungary that same year, which saw the formation of workers’ councils – and a Soviet invasion to put it down.

Ordered by the very same Khrushchev who had so recently criticised Stalin for his crimes against socialism.

When did you leave the Communist Party? What convinced you that the Communist Party could not be reformed?

CS: I left the CP after Khrushchev’s speech. I looked at the real history of Stalinism, especially the work of Brian Pearce and knew it was irreparable.

Meanwhile, outside the Communist Party, the British Trotskyists in their different organisations continued with their intellectual and practical work. Formerly united in the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) in the 1940s, which managed to gain a certain foothold of influence, by 1949 the organisation had stagnated, and in July decided to dissolve itself. They reconstituted themselves as The Club, joining the Labour Party and operating inside it as Trotskyists. Gerry Healy, who had joined the Trotskyist movement in the 1930s, emerged as a major figure inside the RCP, and became the leading figure of The Club.

Had you known about The Club before you left the Communist Party, or had interactions with Trotskyists of any sort?

CS: I knew no Trotskyists.

How influential was the Club when you joined it? How many members did it have?

CS: Healy’s organisation had little influence, but made gains from the CP in 1956-58. It had about 40-50 members before that.

Gerry Healy was born in Galway, Ireland, on the 3 December 1913, the son of a farmer. The details of his early life remain obscure, but according to Healy himself, ‘he joined the Young Communist League in Britain in 1928, although this may be just another of the myths he cultivated about his own history, along with claims that his father was murdered by the Black and Tans and that he acted as a Comintern courier into Nazi Germany. By 1936, Healy… was a member of the Communist Party’s Westminster branch. He was then still a party loyalist and a fervent anti-Trotskyist to the extent that he became a regular member of a group of Stalinists who went to Hyde Park to argue with and, on occasions, physically assault Trotskyist speakers.

One regular victim of the attentions of Healy and his fellow Stalinists was Jock Haston, who was then a member of the Militant Group, a Trotskyist organisation led by Denzil Harber which worked in the Labour Party. In the course of their repeated arguments, Haston recalls, he succeeded in winning Healy over to Trotskyism.’[1]

Healy’s authoritarianism would become evident early on, with his manoeuvring to expel Club member Tony Cliff and his supporters for their ideas once he was in a position to do so. When Ted Grant, another member of The Club who disagreed with the ideas Cliff was floating protested against the violation of their democratic rights and bureaucratic expulsion, he was expelled as well. Healy and his supporters had even gone so far as to move a motion that anyone who voted against the expulsion of Cliff’s supporters would be automatically expelled.[2]

Cliff would go on to form the Socialist Review Group, which eventually became the International Socialists and then the Socialist Workers Party. It was associated with the promotion of rank-and-file groups in the 1970s and its formation of the broad, effective anti-fascist front the Anti-Nazi League.

Grant would eventually form Militant, which engaged in long-term entryism in the Labour Party. By the early 1980s, Militant had grown in such size and influence as to become a major force inside the Labour Party. Several Militant MPs were elected to office. This terrified the Labour right and the soft left, directly leading to a successful witch-hunt against Militant directed by then Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock.

How did Gerry Healy first enter your life?

CS: I was contacted by Healy’s members in Leeds.

Once you got to know Healy, did he tell you anything about his working life in the late 1920s and early to middle 1930s, such as when and where he was a merchant seaman? Did he give you any details about his membership in the Young Communist League or the Communist Party before he was expelled?

CS: Healy told me nothing about his earlier life.

As I understand it, you became friends with Peter Fryer. Had you known him when he was in the Communist Party, or only after you joined The Club?

CS: I knew Fryer from my days in the Young Communist League.

Peter Fryer was a committed English Marxist, a writer and journalist. He would write a classic account of the Hungarian Revolution, The Hungarian Tragedy, based on his first-hand witness, having been sent to cover the events by the Communist Party newspaper, the Daily Worker. He also wrote a pioneering history of Black Britions in 1984, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, drawing praise from the likes of CLR James and Paul Gilroy. Delighted at the explusion of Healy, Fryer would write a weekly column for the post-Healy WRP newspaper, the Workers Press for a number of years.

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Fryer became an editor of the journal of the Socialist Labour League, The Newsletter, established in 1958. What kind of circulation did The Newsletter have under the editorship of Fryer?

CS: Peter founded The Newsletter. It had, I think, about 2000 readers.

When Fryer left the Socialist Labour League, how did you feel about that? When did you reconnect with him?

CS: I felt very bad about Fryer’s expulsion, but did nothing. I ‘reconnected’ only when we expelled Healy.

Were there gradations of Healy’s bullying between the membership and the leadership, or did everyone who got in his way get treated harshly and with contempt?

CS: Healy brooked no opposition.

What relationship, if any, did the Socialist Labour League, later renamed the Workers Revolutionary Party, have with the other Trotskyist groups? I read in Clare Cowen’s (former WRP member) memoir that there was once a debate between Healy and Tony Cliff. Was there much productive engagement with other organisations, or was it mostly just denunciations?

CS: We had only hostile relations with groups calling themselves Trotskyists.

In 1953, there had been a major split in the ‘World Party of Socialist Revolution’, the Fourth International, the organisation which united Trotskyists – or revolutionary socialists/Marxists as they often referred to themselves – globally. The Club, which had been the official British section of the Fourth International (FI) from 1950 to 1953, withdrew from the organisation in 1953 alongside several others. These included the American Socialist Workers Party (SWP) whose predominant figure was James P. Cannon, and the Organisation Communiste Internationaliste (OCI) in France, led by Pierre Lambert.

This split would eventually be healed in 1963, with the American SWP returning to the fold of the Fourth International – but the SLL and OCI, Healy and Lambert, would choose not to be part of it.

When The Club had split, they had helped to set up a new international organisation, the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI) which continued to exist after the reunification of the FI proper.

Stronger links were established with the OCI in the post-1953 period, and Slaughter became friends and comrades with a number of OCI members.

With the 1953 split in the Fourth International, the SLL established a relationship with Pierre Lambert’s Organisation Communiste Internationaliste (OCI) in France. How close was the relationship, and were there any tensions between Healy and Lambert? Did you make friends and enjoy warm comradeship with particular members of the OCI, including after they left Lambert’s organisation?

CS: We were for a time close to the OCI. I was especially close to and in agreement with Raoul, who rightly denounced his ally on the OCI Central Committee for saying, ‘I have decided for the party’, with Raoul saying ‘That’s Stalinism!’

Outside of the SLL/WRP itself, what was the biggest section of the International Committee of the Fourth International? What notable contributions did ICFI sections make to the left, labour movement, and the struggle against oppression in other countries?

CS: The IC was virtually a fiction, consisting of only a few very small and influential groups (like Australia).

Australian socialist John Percy, in his book about the Socialist Workers Party in Australia of which he was a member, has this to say about the local ICFI franchise, called the Socialist Labour League:

‘They were very much a sect… very hostile and sectarian towards anyone they disagreed with (which was everyone on the left). They organised dances for working-class youth in the suburbs, and recruited on a very minimal basis, with a very high turnover. They refused any joint political campaigns with other left groups, and for a while they grew.

They built profitable bookshops in Newcastle, Perth and Parramatta. They bought their own offset press, and wanted to put out a daily paper, modelled on their mentor in Britain.

In July 1976, we organised a speaking tour for US SWP Afro-American leader Willie Mae Reid, who was the SWP’s vice-presidential candidate… the SLL did its utmost to disrupt her meetings. In Sydney they got in and tried to shout her down with a small demonstration.

For a while the SLL had some support in sections of the Arab community. It was able to make use of the film The Palestinian, made by British SLL member Vanessa Redgrave. But after a while the SLL and the United Palestinian Workers had fallen out strongly over the cynical use of the film showings.

Kate Blakeney, a member of the British SLL’s National Committee, whom Healy had sought to assault sexually, fled to Sydney with her family in 1978. We recruited her, and she was elected to our NC.’[3]

As secretary of the International Committee, what did the average day in that role look like? Did the ICFI have any functioning democratic decision making bodies independent from the dictates of the WRP, the Central Committee, and the passing whims of Healy himself? 

CS: The IC had no political or organisational independence.

Did you know or have much contact with Tim Wohlforth of the Workers League in the USA?

CS: I knew Wohlforth very well. He is now an advocate of capitalism, which he asserts ‘has never been stronger.’

Tim Wohlforth was a leader of the ICFI’s American section, the Workers League. He had been a member of Max Shachtman’s Independent Socialist League (ISL), breaking with Shachtman as the ISL moved rightwards. Shachtman pushed the ISL to merge with the moribund Socialist Party of America, while a minority of ISL members around Wohlforth chose to join the Socialist Workers Party instead. Inside the SWP, Wohlforth and another former ISL member, James Robertson, formed the Revolutionary Tendency. This tendency criticised the SWP on various grounds, such as its attitude to the new government in Cuba after the Cuban Revolution. Roberston left the SWP in 1962, going on to form the notorious Spartacist League; Wohlforth continued on the fight inside the SWP, coming to defend the views of the ICFI, and was expelled in 1964 as a result.

Supporters of the ICFI in the US formed the Workers League, with Tim Wohlforth as its central leader. After Healy accused Wohlforth’s partner, Nancy Fields, of being a CIA agent in 1974, a vote to dismiss Wohlforth as National Secretary and expel Fields was carried – with Wohlforth and Fields voting for. After a brief sojourn back into the SWP, then slowly falling under the iron grip of its then (and still) leader Jack Barnes, Wohlforth left the far-left for good. He wrote a memoir about his experiences, The Prophet’s Children: Travels on the American Left, and died in 2019.

But the WRP’s international contacts would expand well beyond the ICFI, as the party sought direct relationships with various Middle Eastern regimes and movements. These efforts bore fruit, as the WRP formed a particularly close bond with the Libyan government led by Muammar Gaddafi. They also received money from Saddam Hussein, and had good relations with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation – including its leader, Yasser Arafat.   

Alex Mitchell, an Australian journalist who became the editor of the Workers Revolutionary Party daily newspaper, the News Line, visited Libya on numerous occasions. This included a visit drawing up an agreement for the WRP to publish tens of thousands of copies in English of Gaddafi’s The Green Book, and to print the official Libyan newspaper Al-Zahf Al-Akhdar (The Green March). The revenue stream was healthy enough to help assist with the substantial costs of producing a daily newspaper.[4]

Eventually, Healy would travel to Libya with Mitchell, where they were granted a personal meeting with the Libyan dictator.

During the long-ranging discussion, at one point Healy was talking about the French Revolution, and suggested there had been a restoration of a kind when Napoleon Bonaparte proclaimed himself Emperor.

In his memoir Come the Revolution, Mitchell recounts that at this point, ‘Gaddafi became animated and delivered a rhapsodic tribute to the French conqueror. His eyes flashed as he rattled off the names of battles in which Napoleon had defeated the British, Dutch, Germans and Austrians, although he was less forthcoming on the encounter with the Russians.’[5] 

What about the relationship the WRP had to regimes in the Middle East – notably Gaddafi’s Libya, but also Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and organisations like the Palestine Liberation Organisation and its leader, Yasser Arafat? Did you feel that the WRP’s connections to and promotion of such regimes were opportunist at the time? 

CS: All Healy’s international and national contacts were opportunist. To my shame, I was almost silent. The relationship with Saddam was for money, also Gaddafi. I went to a Tripoli conference on Gaddafi’s ‘Green Book’ and took a plane back after a day and a half, unable to stomach any more.

Did the collaboration with Labour lefts in the 1980s like Ted Knight (who would be elected Labour leader of Lambeth Borough Council and had once associated with the Socialist Labour League) and the printing on the party presses of the weekly Labour left newspaper Labour Herald (edited by Ted Knight and Ken Livingstone) pay off for the WRP itself, or was the party simply happy to see the Labour left do well on its own terms?

CS: Healy’s relation with Knight was kept secret from the rest of us. On reflection, I think it gained us nothing.

Ted Knight, who died in March, was politically active for almost 75 years. In a tribute written to Knight by John McDonnell and Paul Feldman, they recount his history on the left:

‘Expelled from the party in 1954 for associating with Trotskyists then active in Labour and organising a meeting on the abolition of the monarchy, Ted Knight was finally readmitted in 1970. He became a councillor in Norwood in 1974 and in 1978 leader of Lambeth Council.

In 1979, he stood as Labour candidate for Hornsey at the general election.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 118211349_949156992247233_5478262646167241448_n.jpgTed Knight founded the weekly Labour Herald in 1981, along with his co-editors, Ken Livingstone, then leader of the Greater London Council, and Matthew Warburton, deputy leader of Lambeth Council.

They played a key role in changing the Labour Party’s position to one of recognising the right of Palestinians to self-determination.

When the Thatcher cabinet imposed a cap on the local rate that councils could levy, in a bid to reduce local government power, Ted Knight led a campaign against the policy. In 1985, Lambeth councillors refused to make a capped rate for the next financial year because it would have resulted in large-scale cuts to services.’[6]

Jeremy Corbyn, who served as Knight’s election agent when he was the candidate in Hornsey, had this to say:

‘His leadership of Lambeth Council was legendary. He stood up to the Thatcher government and improved public services to meet the needs of working people. The establishment made him pay a huge price by trying to bankrupt him. But he was not deterred by this and spent his life campaigning for socialism. He had a deep knowledge of the history of the movement, going back to his childhood in the North-East. We will all miss him.’[7]

How many trade unionists went through the ranks of the WRP? I have read that during the miners’ strike in 1984-85, quite a few local leaders had had a stint in the Young Socialists (youth wing of the WRP) at some point.

CS: Trade unionists were negligible, I think.

In September 1974, prominent trade unionist and WRP member Alan Thornett resigned from the WRP in despair at what he regarded at its ultra-left line. When Healy offered Thornett the chance to put his disagreements before a special meeting of the Central Committee (and, if necessary, a special conference of the WRP) if he would withdraw his resignation, Thornett did so, and also formed an internal faction in the WRP. After Thornett spoke before a meeting of the WRP CC, Healy closed the meeting and delegated you to give the reply a week later.

How did you handle Thornett’s critique of the sectarianism of the WRP and what he and others considered its break with the Transitional Programme? What do you think about your response now and how the internal WRP dissenters were treated, that is, being heavily criticised and shortly thereafter expelled?

CS: Alan Thornett appeared at the CC with his friend Tony Richardson. At this meeting, Healy proposed we changed from SLL to WRP, because we were in a revolutionary situation! When he called for discussion, there was silence, until he said: ‘Slaughter, say something!’ I replied, ‘It’s not a revolutionary situation.’ Healy exploded and said something like ‘You’re giving aid and comfort to Thornett and co.’

Were Thornett’s criticisms correct, and was this a missed chance to democratise the WRP?

CS: I think Alan Thornett is no Marxist.

Alan Thornett remains a Marxist activist. After he and several hundred others were expelled from the WRP, they formed the Workers’ Socialist League together. The WSL underwent a re-evaluation of the WRP’s politics but remained Trotskyist in their orientation, lasting about a decade. Thornett has written extensively about eco-socialism, and released his book Facing the Apocalypse – Arguments for Ecosocialism in 2019. Of his other books, Militant Years covers the trade union and political struggles in the Morris Motors (later British Leyland) car assembly plant in Cowley where he worked. Thornett is today a member of Socialist Resistance, the British section of the Fourth International.       

In September 1975, The College of Marxist Education was opened by the Workers Revolutionary Party in Derbyshire. For the next decade, it was the site of countless lectures by Healy on dialectical materialism. His lectured were based on Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks, his Materialism and Empiriocriticism, and later Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 was added.

David North recounts the experience of sitting through one of these lectures:

‘Healy’s method of lecturing consisted of extended introductory remarks, which generally dealt with problems which had arisen in the work of the WRP. Up to this point, the audience followed Healy with lively interest. Then, he invariably turned to the blackboard and began drawing diagrams which supposedly represented stages in the cognitive process as manifested in the categories of the Hegelian dialectic. It was not long before the entire audience was utterly bewildered, having lost track of where “semblance” ended and “appearance” began, or at what stage “finite” became “infinite” and “something” turned into its “other.” Matters were not made any easier by the fact that Healy never drew the same diagram twice and it could never be predicted with certainty whether “actuality” would show up before “existence” or the other way around. Indeed, attempts by students to memorise Healy’s dialectic through all its adventures inevitably failed; because it never followed the same path on successive days.’[8]

What were the biggest stumbles of the WRP at the level of Marxist theory and analysis? For example, I’m thinking of the pseudo-philosophical works and lectures by Healy, and the way that was promoted and justified internally in the organisation.

CS: Healy’s lectures on philosophy were delivered first to the circle around Vanessa Redgrave, who were very impressed by his Hegelian words. He actually knew nothing about philosophy, and even less about science. ‘Justified’? Never discussed.

Behind the scenes, those who had been victims of not only Healy’s perennial bullying, but his sexual abuse and predation were plotting to bring him down. They went public with their accusations via the form of a letter read out and distributed at a meeting of the Central Committee in 1985. These events and the lead up to them are covered in great detail in Clare Cowen’s memoir, My Search for Revolution.  

When the accusations of sexual harassment and rape against Healy was first aired, how did you respond?

CS: I immediately proposed his expulsion.

How should socialists and Marxists approach questions of women’s oppression, feminism, and how to organise – especially in the light of different left-wing organisations failing to effectively deal with sexual harassment or abuse?

CS: See my book Women and the Social Revolution. This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 118403995_3805918762756106_6713900312171458400_n.jpg

Have you read the memoirs of either Alex Mitchell (Come the Revolution) or Clare Cowen (My Search for Revolution)? What did you think about them and how they portray life in the Workers Revolutionary Party?

CS: Mitchell is better, though inaccurate in some details. Clare’s book lacks theory and politics. I had good relations with both. Neither gives a useful picture.

In your opinion, what were the greatest strengths and weaknesses of the WRP?

CS: We lost opportunities, e.g, 4000 Young Socialists at Alexandra Palace none of whom remain. Weakness: above all, Healy.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 118246915_604981850197723_4836289423157086049_n.jpg

The WRP specialised in huge set piece events, like rallies at Alexandra Palace, which drew in large audiences – the Young Socialists was the WRP youth wing.

In the wake of the expulsion of Healy, as people struggled to deal with the enormity of what had happened, a whole series of new organisations sprang out of the wreckage. Healy and those who continued to support him set up their own group, which rejected his expulsion. He died in 1989, believing that Mikhail Gorbachev was carrying out the long called for, by Trotskyists, political revolution to overthrow the rule of the bureaucracy and restore power to the soviets.[9] 

Leadership of the ICFI passed to the American section under David North, who promptly expelled the British section, now known as the Workers Revolutionary Party (Workers Press) after the name of their publication. Cliff Slaughter remained in its ranks.

One of the most remarkable efforts the WRP (WP) engaged in during the 1990s was throwing itself wholeheartedly behind Workers’ Aid for Bosnia.

Workers’ Aid for Bosnia was a solidarity organisation formed by British socialists and trade unionists as Yugoslavia began to crack up. It organised truckloads of humanitarian aid, taking them to the multi-ethnic mining region around the Bosnian city of Tuzla. It was one of the most integrated regions in Yugoslavia, with the highest rate of interethnic marriages. A place which had the largest number of people who described themselves as ‘Yugoslavs’ without reference to their ethnicity on the census. A location permeated with a class outlook going back to a miners uprising in 1920; one which led the miners to donate one day’s pay a month to British miners during the 1984-85 strike.[10] 

In 1993 Tuzla was surrounded on three sides by the Serbian army, and Workers’ Aid for Bosnia resolved to do whatever it could to help the people there.[11]   

How to understand and relate to what was happening during the breakup of Yugoslavia understandably led to a number of different positions taken on the British left. Workers’ Aid for Bosnia was the practical product of a particular set of views on the conflict.

Can you speak about the experience of founding Workers’ Aid for Bosnia in the early 1990s and the kind of work the organisation carried out?

CS: Workers’ Aid was our best venture, organised by my friend Bob Myers. He acted on a suggestion by a Serbian comrade, and organised, with great self-sacrifice, convoys to Tuzla.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 118324521_785546142211529_7251072307958363115_n.jpg

Did you ever travel to Bosnia yourself?

CS: I did not make the journey to Bosnia.

How did the rest of the left in Britain regard Workers’Aid for Bosnia – positively or negatively?

CS: The rest of the left ignored Workers’ Aid.

What internal tensions existed inside Workers’ Aid for Bosnia between the socialist organisations that were a part of it? While united in a common project, there must have been differences over what to emphasise, what actions to carry out, and how to win the broadest possible support.

CS: Internal differences in Workers’ Aid. I don’t know of any.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 118281716_1192520881095881_8019489256038491910_n.jpgAfter Healy was expelled, what happened to the organisation that came out of it which you adhered to, the Workers Revolutionary Party (Workers Press) and how did the Movement for Socialism emerge? What rethinking were you and the comrades in the Movement for Socialism engaging in when it came to the Trotskyist tradition and what a viable future socialist movement might look like?

CS: The WRP continued, though by then I was beginning to question ‘vanguardism’, and eventually I successfully proposed we simply call ourselves Movement for Socialism. Most comrades were by then disillusioned and anxious to live.

What kind of things are ex-WRP members doing these days, and what organisations or causes are they involved in? Did any join the Labour Party when Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader?

CS: Some ex-WRPers joined Corbyn’s party.

Several ex-WRPers now collaborate with and have written for Angry Workers’ World, a group based in west London supporting and encouraging workers’ self-organisation in the low-paid and migrant workforce.

How do you regard the state of the existing labour movement in Britain today?

CS: It hardly exists.

Thank you so much for taking the time to respond to my questions.

The forthcoming issue of the socialist journal Critique will feature a piece by Cliff Slaughter on Marx’s materialism.

[1] Bob Pitt, The Rise and Fall of Gerry Healy, Chapter 1, Marxists.org,  https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/healy/pitt/Chap1.html

[2] Ted Grant, The History of British Trotskyism, (England: Wellred Publications, 2002), 191.

[3] John Percy, Against the Stream: The Socialist Workers Party 1972-92, (Carlton: Interventions, 2017), 123-125; Allen Myers, editor.

[4] Alex Mitchell, Come the Revolution, (Sydney: NewSouth, 2011), 331.

[5] Ibid., 333-334.

[6] Paul Feldman and John McDonnell, A giant of our movement by Paul Feldman and John McDonnell, John McDonnell MP, https://www.john-mcdonnell.net/news/2020/03/30/a-giant-of-our-movement/

[7] Ibid.

[8] David North, Gerry Healy and His Place in the History of the Fourth International, (Detroit: Labor Publications, Inc), 84.

[9] Bob Pitt, The Rise and Fall of Gerry Healy, Chapter Twelve, Marxists.org, https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/healy/pitt/Chap12.html

[10] Some experiences of how not to organise and a more useful one, Angry Workers’ World, https://angryworkersworld.wordpress.com/2020/04/01/some-experiences-of-how-not-to-organise-and-a-more-useful-one/

[11] Gabriel Levy, Workers solidarity in wartime: Bosnia 1993, Ukraine 2015, People and Nature, https://peopleandnature.wordpress.com/2015/03/30/workers-solidarity-in-wartime-bosnia-1993-ukraine-2015/

International Socialist Network

In the aftermath of the Socialist Workers Party’s mishandling of allegations of rape against a leading member in 2013, which was widely seen as an attempt to protect him, many hundreds of members were subsequently to leave. This included many longstanding cadre and amounted to perhaps a third of the membership.

Amongst the first to leave were the students with whole SWSS groups disaffiliating and in some cases reconstituting themselves as Revolutionary Socialist societies.

Perhaps a couple of hundred of the initial leavers were to come together in the International Socialist Network.

The ISN was an ideologically heterogeneous grouping with members exploring a variety of ideas and political traditions. When a second large group of SWP members left in 2014, rather than joining with ISN they constituted themselves as RS21 with politics more firmly rooted in the IS tradition. The ISN proved to be short lived and in May 2015 it voted to disband encouraging members to join other socialist organisations.

During its short life, the ISN published a number of discussion bulletins. These follow a well established left tradition of being confusingly numbered with two number 1s and two number 2s for example.

We also have a small number of leaflets and flyers together with two pamphlets- one on the NHS and one on Left Unity in which many ISN members were active.

Issue 0 of Cactus a ‘prototype’ theoretical journal was also nicely produced.

The International Socialist Network was involved in a series of regroupment discussions with other groups on the left- these included Socialist Resistance, The Anti-Capitalist Initiative and Workers Power, later broadened to include RS21.

Whilst these discussions were ultimately unsuccessful they did produce three joint discussion bulletins for a conference on Revolutionary Unity and three issues of a more public facing magazine, called The Exchange.

After the disbanding of the ISN, members went on to a number of other projects, including the journal Salvage

A ghost of the ISN website still exists but many pages, articles and downloads can no longer be found. Our collection of materials is certainly incomplete and we would welcome additions.

INTERNATIONAL SOCIALIST NETWORK Archive

The News Line- an update

Thanks to Keith S we can now add a few items to our News Line collections discussed previously here.

This includes No2929 (Banda-Slaughter) which warns of a bogus rival News Line and a few fragmentary issues- four or five pages only:

November 4th, 5th, 6th and 12th which all have major articles or centre spreads on the split.

Additionally, two articles from the Sunday Times and the Observer, both from 3rd November 1985, which discuss the two News Lines.

BANDA-SLAUGHTER NEWS LINE Archive