WHEN GERRY HEALY, the former leader of the Workers Revolutionary Party, died on 14 December 1989, his ambition to establish himself as a figure of world-historic significance lay in ruins. Despite his final efforts to curry favour with the Gorbachev wing of the Soviet bureaucracy, Healy ended his life in almost complete political isolation. His followers, who stuck with their infallible leader to the finish, numbered no more than a hundred or so internationally, and in Britain were reduced to a mere handful of acolytes – mainly from the theatrical profession – whose roots in, understanding of, and influence over the labour movement were approximately nil.

In truth, Healy had never been anything more than a very minor political figure, whatever illusions he himself may have had on that score. It was only in Britain that he ever built an organisation of any size or political weight, and even there his achievements were, on the scales of history, extremely modest. At the peak of its strength in the early 1970s the Socialist Labour League, as it then was, had a membership of perhaps two thousand; it produced a daily paper, albeit with a small circulation; it had established a base of support in the trade unions; and it had drawn towards it a radicalised layer in the intelligentsia and semi-intelligentsia (not to mention Vanessa Redgrave). But in none of these departments – membership, circulation of its press, industrial base, influence on cultural and intellectual life – did Healy’s organisation even rival the Communist Party of Great Britain, which by general agreement was always one of the weakest components of the official world Communist movement.

Nevertheless, a study of the career of this politically marginal figure is not irrelevant. Over the years, tens of thousands of workers, youth and intellectuals were recruited to Healy’s organisation in Britain. Furthermore, a multitude of organisations worldwide, comprising thousands of militants, still identify with the traditions of the International Committee, the tendency Healy helped to found after the split in the Fourth International in 1953. As for the United Secretariat, the largest of the international Trotskyist tendencies, its British section produces a publication named Socialist Outlook after the paper around which Healy organised his entry work in the Labour Party from 1948 to 1954, and has at times published glowing references to the activity of Healy’s group in the British labour movement of the 1950s. In fact a bewildering variety of groups, many of whom would react with indignation to accusations of ‘Healyism’, lay claim to this or that aspect of Healy’s political legacy. The memory of Thomas Gerard Healy, it might be said, weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

What is striking is that those groups which base themselves on, or seek to emulate, episodes from Healy’s past adopt entirely conflicting political approaches in the present. They are able to do this because Healy’s career comprised a series of unprincipled zigzags, in the course of which he furiously denounced political positions which he had earlier enthusiastically supported, and eagerly embraced policies which he had once bitterly opposed – invariably carrying out these abrupt reversals without the slightest trace of self-criticism. Retrospective identification with particular points on Healy’s political trajectory can thus be used to justify virtually any political line: from Stalinophobia to the promotion of illusions in Stalinism’s revolutionary potential; from sectarian abstention on struggles within social democracy to liquidation into left reformism; from a formal defence of the permanent revolution to sycophantic adulation of bourgeois nationalists.

These sudden shifts in political line are not, of course, a feature of the Healyite tradition alone. In the early 1990s the Militant Tendency, whose badge of honour for decades had been its commitment to patient work inside the Labour Party, launched itself into a self-destructive turn towards an independent party. And the Socialist Workers Party, which had for years (quite correctly) opposed calling for a general strike in circumstances where this was demand was unrealisable, raised precisely that slogan in 1992 during the campaign against pit closures – at a time when industrial conflict in Britain was at a historically low level. Healy’s various ‘about turns’ were thus only particularly extreme examples of a method employed by the leaderships of virtually every far left group currently in existence.

For all these reasons, a detailed analysis of Gerry Healy’s political evolution is not merely of historical interest but has direct relevance to the struggle to build a socialist movement today.

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