Few people have noted the spectacular split in the Workers' Revolutionary Party as more than a diverting entertainment. We invited two ex-members of the WRP's forerunner, the Socialist Labour League, to comment on the show. Below, Robin Blick casts an experienced eye backstage, while Ken Weller adds an afterword. Both find circumstances which ought to give all Leninists urgent cause to rethink their ideas of revolutionary organisation.
Content warning: rape / abuse of power.
Many readers of Solidarity will have followed the evolution of the crisis in the Workers' Revolutionary Party, and each will have their own view on both its causes and possible outcomes. I am doing nothing more than adding my own insights with the possible advantages that a ten-year membership (1961-71) and subsequent involvement in another split (the Oxford-based opposition of Cowley shop steward Alan Thornett in 1974) might provide.
It is a truism to say that the WRP was a Leninist organisation like no other in Britain, or for that matter anywhere else at present. Certainly, the disclosures about the Gerry-built internal regime are redolent more of a religious cult than a secular political movement; and this, together with the alleged sexual depravity of its leader G Healy, sets it apart in many respects from the other groups which make up the family of Trotskyism.
The unquenched (and entirely justified) venom and glee which erupted among scores of former WRP inmates at the news of Healy's disgrace is certainly unique in recent British politics and perhaps can only really be compared to the revulsion against Stalin unleashed by Khrushchev’s 'secret speech' of 1956.
Even so, can the rest of the 'revolutionary left' distance itself from Healyism quite so neatly? After all, as Trotsky put it, "The party in the last analysis is always right, because the party is the sole historical instrument given to the proletariat for the solution of its basic problems". Let us ask the question, what would Healyism in power look like? Of course, with or without its fallen leader the WRP will never assume state power, but if it ever had, under its former regime, Britain would surely have had its own 'year zero' and witnessed its own 'killing fields'.
Within the limits imposed by the constraints of a liberal society, the WRP gave us more than a glimpse of what can, in other circumstances, times and cultures, burst forth as Gulag or Auschwitz. Reports in Newsline, the party's paper (now renamed Workers' Press), allege that for years Healy plundered the movement's supporters to the point of penury, physically attacked members, sexually exploited or abused young women, and sold opponents of Arab despotisms into torture and execution, without any objection from those around him.
Each abomination found its justification in a familiar argument: the end justifies the means. If the leader is tired, worn down with the cares of leadership and grappling with the destiny of humanity, is it not natural, even necessary, that the younger female ‘cadre’ should be placed at his disposal to ease these burdens and thereby enable the party to lead the human race out of barbarism?
What is a rape placed on the scales of history and weighed against the menace of impending military dictatorship and nuclear catastrophe? And if the leader’s performance is enhanced by some of the good things of life – say a £15,000 BMW – is it not right that Party members should sacrifice their own little luxuries to make it possible?
Finally, if the continued financing of the Party – the only hope of humanity, remember – hinges on securing and sustaining finance from regimes that habitually torture and massacre their opponents, then shouldn’t the party go along with and even publicly endorse such regimes’ every act of depravity? It may even, as part of the fulfilment of the tasks of history, offer its services – at a price – to bring yet more victims within their grasp. All this has been alleged against Healy by his former comrades.
Once the absolute abstraction of ‘the revolutionary leadership’ is accepted as the only answer to the problems of the human race, then it becomes all to easy for otherwise quite decent and well-motivated people to cheerfully contemplate, and even participate in, the degradation or extermination of any part of it.
This, the morality of the Jacobin, passed through Lenin more than anyone else, into the main current of contemporary Marxism, whether Stalinist, Trotskyist or other. It is not unique to Healy, his faction, or the WRP as a whole. Readers would be hard put to it to find any revolutionary or radical grouping which subscribes to a conception of morality and ethical conduct that repudiates in toto the Leninist subordination of human beings to the requirements of party regimes and the social systems they create and rule over.
There has been much talk, both in their press and at their meetings, of what the anti-Healy faction call 'communist morality'. However, talk is all it is. The writer has yet to have explained to him what precisely, in any given situation, this 'communist morality' would permit or forbid. Its current advocates voted with only one dissention for the WRP Central Committee resolution approving the execution in March 1979 of more than twenty opponents of the Baath regime in Iraq; one of the victims, Talib Suwailh, had only five months earlier brought 'fraternal greetings' to a conference of the WRP's front organisation the All Trades Union Alliance. Where was the vaunted 'communist morality' then? Free men and women, meeting not in Baghdad but in London, found they could not oppose such a vile motion.
For twenty years, according to the foremost proponent of this 'communist morality', Cliff Slaughter (Newsline, 20.11.85), Healy had been busy converting the WRP into a "private brothel" - hardly an activity which, in view of Healy's position, would have escaped the notice of someone as observant as Slaughter. Yet again, 'communist morality' failed to guide the actions of those who could and should have put a stop to what has been called Healy's "byzantine debauchery".
In fact, the reason is quite simple. Ideologically based and orientated morality cannot function in such situations precisely because it is subordinated to a supposedly 'higher' end - in this instance, the triumph of communism. 'Fascist morality', 'Christian morality', 'Islamic morality': each has proved itself capable of the most terrible crimes against humanity because of a similar opposing of ends and means.
Slaughter should be asked - as I hope to when given the chance - what does 'communist morality' lead us to conclude about the repression of the Kronstadt garrison by the Bolsheviks in 1921? Were not vile means subordinated to lofty goals then, as he accuses Healy of doing now? Did the 'communist morality' of Lenin and Trotsky - and it is to their example that we are invited to turn for inspiration in such matters - prevent them from framing and murdering their political opponents, outlawing, contrary to earlier pledges, all opposition groups, first outside and then within their own party, and unleashing on the Soviet people the first totalitarian political police in history, the Cheka?
I hope, but doubt, that in the course of the WRP's much advertised public quest for the roots of its present crisis, the search for the historic roots of Healyism will transcend the barriers of sacred texts and even more sacred leaders. Healy may be a monster. But what he is, where he came from, should give us all food for thought. Both factions of the WRP, in their various ways, are still telling us that morality is subordinate to politics, that 'the moral is political'. Surely it is time the matter was put the other way round. The political is moral.