By Ken Tarbuck
This article was published in Workers News No.30, April 1991, under the pseudonym of “John Walters” and with the title “Origins of the SWP”.
IN RESPECT of Bob Pitt’s articles, you might be interested in hearing one of the ways in which Healy purged his organisation in 1950. In Birmingham, where I lived at the time, the “Club” branch was evenly divided between supporters of the old RCP majority and Healy supporters (most of whom had arrived after 1947). Most of the old RCP were reluctant entrists, and were most certainly incensed at the manner in which our organisation had been turned over to the Healy faction in a most undemocratic manner. However, none of us had supported the Open Party Faction in 1949; rather we grudgingly went along with the leadership. There was a great fund of political loyalty to the Haston-Grant leadership, and this is what really swung most of us behind the move to entry. This loyalty, incidentally, was rapidly used up in the following year.
We found it difficult to adjust to the new regime and above all we found it extremely hard to stomach Socialist Outlook. If one compares the pages of Socialist Appeal with Healy’s paper, this problem becomes understandable. Gone were any criticisms of Stalinism or Social Democracy in any meaningful sense. We found ourselves selling a paper which gave front page coverage to known Stalinist trade union leaders or fellow-travelling Labour MPs. As can be imagined, this did not do much for our morale. On top of this we found as ex-majority supporters we were treated like second class citizens by the Healy supporters; they seemed to adopt a sneering attitude towards ex-majority supporters. Then we began to hear rumours of expulsions or departures from activity of people who had been members of the movement for some years.
It must have been in early 1950, just what date I cannot recall, that the ex-majority supporters in Birmingham began to meet secretly as a separate group to discuss our dilemma. Certainly we knew by then that most of the old leadership around Haston had either deserted us, had been expelled or were under threat of expulsion. We decided to submit a short document to the forthcoming group conference criticising the Socialist Outlook. It was quite short and very cautious, since we were concerned not to give Healy an excuse for expelling us. We found it difficult to arrive at an estimation of the group’s (or International’s) policies on the basis of documents because we were not allowed to retain them. We were issued with documents and allowed to keep them for one week and then had to return them to the branch secretary (who naturally was a Healy supporter, Harry Finch). This was on the grounds of ‘security’. When we started meeting in secret we decided to try to copy the documents so as to retain some evidence of what was supposed to be going on. However, in those days there were no photocopiers available and none of us had typewriters, so we were reduced to copying them by hand.
The document which we submitted to the 1950 conference was drafted by myself and then amended by what I suppose could be called our faction, and then submitted in the name of Percy Downey and myself. Even then Harry Finch was most belligerent about it being a joint document – he was very suspicious by then. I was elected to attend the conference, along with Harry Finch, as one of the two Birmingham delegates.
However, I should mention that before the conference our secret faction invited Tony Cliff to meet us, which he did, and we had a long discussion with him about the group and the International. He had a very plausible line which went something like this:
“If one continues to see Stalinist Russia as a workers’ state and admit that the Stalinists can carry through a revolution (Eastern Europe, China) then you end up adopting Stalinist policies (e.g., Socialist Outlook, the IS line on Yugoslavia, etc and Stalinist organisational methods are used, e.g., Healy’s group). The only way out of the dilemma was to adopt the state capitalist line.”
This is, of course, a compressed summary. We were quite impressed with his line of argument, but at that point we refused to throw in our lot with his faction. As ordinary rank-and-file members we felt we needed more time to consider the issues and see what happened at the conference. We were certainly not committed to a state capitalist position, although we were obviously swayed by Cliff’s arguments.
The conference was held in an atmosphere of repressed hysteria, since by then the Korean War had begun, and Healy used this to whip up a feeling that at any moment we could expect the police to raid us. (Look-outs were posted to warn of any police move.) The result was that any criticism of the leadership was met by cat-calls, boos and hisses as though the critics were the “enemy”. Naturally, Healy had rigged the conference to give himself an overwhelming majority. This had been done by manipulating the composition of branches. Some branches were divided, others were amalgamated, but in each case the net result had been that Healy’s supporters gained more delegates. Ted Grant in particular was the butt of some very vicious barracking and at one point Healy shouted out “Get back to the dung heap”. I remember this very well, since it was the first time that I had seen such conduct within the movement or heard such language used against comrades, so it made a lasting impression on me.
At the conference I had a discussion with Ted Grant and told him in unmistakable terms what the Birmingham comrades thought about his spineless attitude before the dissolution of the RCP, and pointed out that he and Jimmy Dean had considerable responsibility for landing us in our predicament. I made it clear that we were not prepared to support him in any leadership role in the future, nor were we alone in this attitude amongst the opposition. So the opposition to Healy, such as it was, was fragmented right from the start. At this conference Healy introduced another novelty – a slate for election to the National Committee. The EC had drawn up this slate and if any delegate wanted to nominate someone who was not on the slate they also had to nominate someone else to be taken off! This was, of course, designed to sow dissension. (This did not stop me nominating.) I cannot recall now just how many opposition delegates there were at that conference, but it was not many, half-a-dozen, perhaps slightly more. However, this in no way reflected the true strength of opposition, since during that year nearly 100 comrades left, some to form the original Cliff group (about 50), some to join Ted Grant and others just drifted away.
When I reported back to my comrades in Birmingham we came to the conclusion that Cliff was correct and it was then that we decided to help found his group. It was clear that we would have to form a group outside the “Club” since the majority of Cliff’s supporters had already been expelled. However, we decided that we would not just walk out but ensure that we were expelled so as to maximise the political point to be made, and put us in a position to appeal to the International since none of us wanted to leave the Fourth International.
It was then decided that Percy Downey would submit a resolution to the Birmingham Trades Council putting a third camp position on the Korean War. The upshot of this was an immediate summonsed branch meeting of the “Club” at which Healy was present. It was very acrimonious to say the least, and Healy was at his most venomous. Healy laid a resolution for the expulsion of Percy, and refused to allow any discussion of the political issues. He insisted that the only issue was “did Percy, or did he not, break discipline by putting the resolution to the Trades Council”. Each time anyone tried to raise the political issues Healy broke into a rage and shouted us down. However, when the vote was taken there was a tie! Healy then called a halt to the meeting, declaring the branch was suspended until further notice. Outside the pub where we had been meeting Healy wagged his finger under Percy’s nose and growled “we’ll get a unified branch in Birmingham one way or the other Mr Downey“.
Shortly after that there was another summonsed meeting and we arrived to find that John Williams of Coventry was there. JW had been inactive for about two years before this and had not paid any subs even before the RCP had collapsed. But Healy had restored him to full membership and this meant that he (Healy) would have a majority in the branch. The resolution for Percy’s expulsion was again put, and again no discussion was allowed, and this time it was passed by one vote. Percy then left the meeting. Healy then went round the room pointing to those of us who had voted against the motion and said something like “Do you retract your vote?” When we answered no, Healy said: “You are suspended for one month. If after that time you haven’t retracted this vote you are expelled.” So nearly half the Birmingham branch was expelled for voting against the expulsion of another member! With Percy it meant that 50 per cent of the Birmingham branch were pushed out. And similar events were going on up and down the country.
Certainly in our case Healy had fallen into our “trap” since we then went on to help to found the Cliff group. But we were only able to dig this “trap” because of the bureaucratic manner in which the group was run. Had there been anything like a democratic regime such as had existed in the RCP we would not have wanted to leave the organisation. And of this I am sure, had there been a credible alternative to Healy around which maintained a workers’ statist position, Cliff would not have made so many recruits. Despite being hampered by the immigration laws at that time, Cliff was very active in contacting people, meeting them and discussing for as long as it took to recruit them. This entailed some personal risk for Cliff, since he faced being deported back to Palestine and a very uncertain future to say the least. Grant, on the other hand, was completely inactive, as far as we knew, and seemed to have retreated into his shell. In this respect one could argue that one of the people who was most responsible for the creation of the state capitalist group in this country was Gerry Healy!
One other point. When it became known in later years that physical violence had been used by Healy against his own members it did not come as a shock to people like myself. Even in 1950 he carried around with him an atmosphere of violence. Even if at that stage it was only verbal, he certainly created a feeling of fear amongst those around him. I recall that in a letter I wrote to Sam Bornstein in December 1956, before any evidence of violence was known, I characterised Healy as a political gangster. This may not be a very precise political characterisation but it summed up for me at the time what I considered Healy to be. Given all that has happened since 1950, I feel that I was correct in my assessment of Healy.
We should not ignore the responsibility of Haston and other leading members of the WIL/RCP for the role Healy played later on. There was a certain element of cliquishness in the treatment of Healy in the early 1940s. All the evidence points to the fact that he should have been excluded from the WIL because of his behaviour, but he was allowed to rejoin after resigning and stay in. Also, Haston was prepared to offer Healy political advice at least until the mid-1960s. Healy would often meet Haston in his home for discussions. This I verified while renting a room in Haston’s house in the mid-1960s. So the clique persisted for many years.