IT’S NOT very often an author begins a book by urging readers to disregard virtually everything that is written in it, but this is one of those rare occasions. Let me explain.
The Rise and Fall of Gerry Healy was first published as a series of articles in the paper Workers News, beginning shortly after Healy’s death in 1989. Having spent a couple of years in the Workers Revolutionary Party in the late 1970s, and having been influenced by its politics over a much longer period, I was concerned to find an explanation for the implosion of that organisation in 1985. The conclusion I drew was that the underlying cause of the WRP’s collapse was Healy’s contempt for the basic political principles of Trotskyism.
This, I would argue, was not an entirely stupid conclusion. Reading through the multi-volume Pathfinder collection of Trotsky’s Writings you cannot but be struck by the political intelligence at work there, and by the gulf that separates Trotsky’s method from Healy’s. The best of Trotsky’s writings (his articles on the rise of Nazism in Germany are a case in point) represent a serious attempt to grapple with the complexities of the political situation, in order to reach an objective analysis and outline a practical strategy – a method which contrasts sharply with the subjective fantasy and ultra-left bombast which usually characterised Healy’s approach.
Towards the end of his life, it is true, Trotsky did tend to lose his political grip. The perspectives that inform the Transitional Programme – imminent economic collapse, the redundancy of bourgeois democracy, the threat of fascism as the only alternative to socialism, the expectation that revolutionary conflict was about to break out, and so on – certainly provided the basis for the catastrophism that was a feature of Healy’s political outlook throughout his career. However, as I have argued elsewhere (“The Transitional Programme and the Tasks of Marxists Today“, What Next?, No.11, 1998) Trotsky’s false analysis is understandable as a response to the developments he confronted in the 1930s. He was guilty only of mistaking a particularly unstable phase in the development of capitalism for the terminal crisis of the system, and would undoubtedly have reassessed his perspectives had he lived to do so. Healy, on the other hand, continued to parrot these predictions in circumstances where economic expansion, the stability of parliamentary democracy and the distant prospect of revolutionary struggle were self-evident facts.
Having said that, I don’t think that an adequate critique of Healy’s politics is to be found by counterposing Trotskyist orthodoxy to Healy’s combination of infantile leftism and opportunist manoeuvring, as this biographical study does. These days, I would reject much of the Leninist-Trotskyist tradition, which I think serves as an encouragement to sectarianism. As far as political activity in Britain at the present time is concerned, I believe the method of Marx and Engels, with their emphasis on the need for Marxists to participate in existing working class organisations, has far more relevance than the party-building fetishism that distinguishes the various Trotskyist groupings, rendering them irrelevant, disruptive or both. From that standpoint, I would now look more favourably on the experience of the Healy Group in the 1950s, when it did at least try to work in the the broad labour movement. My criticisms of the Healyites’ political practice in that period would now be from the right. Whereas in The Rise and Fall of Gerry Healy I condemn them for liquidationism, my present view would be that they weren’t liquidationist enough!
The version of The Rise and Fall of Gerry Healy that appears here is an expansion of the original articles from Workers News. The additional material was, however, incorporated many years ago, and if I were to update the biography now I would almost entirely rewrite it. But I have resisted any temptation to do so. Life, to put it bluntly, is too short.