Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Tale of Old Morality

THE late Thomas Gerard Healy used his not inconsiderable authority in the Workers Revolutionary Party to conduct himself in a manner not becoming a revolutionary marxist leader, but rather somewhat between a feudal baron and a bull walrus.

Healy's contribution to defending Marxism and building the Trotskyist movement as a vanguard was largely squandered, as the WRP retreated from real involvment in working class struggle behind a combination of false revolutionism, "dialectical" mumbo-jumbo, and opportunist "alliances".

Despite falling membership and branches that never met since they only existed on paper, the leadership declared Britain had entered a "revolutionary situation" in the 1980s, and members were thrown into frantic activity just to keep the party and its paper, News Line, going.

At the first major confrontation between the working class movement and the capitalist state in Britain, the 1984-5 miners' strike, Healy was thrown into panic, and his leadership found wanting, along with the WRP's ability to lead the class from a backseat. It was in the aftermath that an explosion was sparked by revelations about the leader's private life - from the fairly comic, e.g. keeping an expensive fast car hidden in a Clapham lock-up for a quick getaway, - to the systematic abuse over many years of young female comrades, including the daughters of members.

The combination of cunning intrigue and the discipline of a religious sect which had kept victims from talking no longer worked. As the Healy spell evaporated, people realised why a whole series of leading Young Socialists had departed the movement over the years - boyfriends driven off with trumped up accusations, young women themselves, horrified by their experiences, quitting and running, traumatised, and lost to left-wing politics.

One question left unanswered after the Healy revelations was how the state, which must have infiltrated the WRP, and the media, which has an eye for such things, somehow missed the potential scandal and related issues for decades, until the WRP's own members, working at the party centre, blew the whole thing wide. Loyal party comrades might have blinkered themselves for years, agents and ambitious press reporters would not have done. Perhaps someone in the state found that having a hidden handle on Healy was more useful over time than a one-off, maybe soon forgotten, Sunday paper story.

As happens in cults and families, the shock of realising how they had been misled by an authority figure they trusted made some WRP members question whether they could believe anything, anymore. Others went into denial - it had not happened, it was all a plot, the victims were themselves to blame, and anyway...what had Comrade Healy's private lifestyle got to do with politics? Another, miniature WRP, keeping the paper News Line and other trappings emerged, determined to carry on as though nothing ever happened.

But what was also interesting was how the Tory press, and some people on the Left who had never had a good word for Healy or the "Healyites", seemed amused, even sympathetic to the old man. OK, he had retained old Trotskyist ideas on the Soviet Union, and made apocalyptic predictions about mass unemployment and military coup threats (not always incorrectly as it happens), but what did it matter if he had also used young women this way? They might almost have been admiring him. Of course, those who made such comments tended to be male lefties.

I have been prompted to these recollections by the unseemly row that has split the Scottish Socialist Party. Not that the man at the centre of events and allegations, Tommy Sheridan, is anything like Gerry Healy. Emerging as a popular figure in the Scottish poll tax struggles, he helped the former "Militant Tendency" in Scotland establish a credible alternative to Labour, gaining seats in the Scottish parliament, and the high political profile and grassroots support that socialists south of the border could only dream of emulating.

Healy never answered the charges made against him by his party, and notwithstanding their litigious reputation, he and his remaining acolytes never sued newspapers that reported the allegations.(The Redgraves did go to court to claim back property they had lent the party).

Having fought and won a libel case against the Murdoch-owned News of the World, obtaining £200,000 in damages, Sheridan delighted a wider circle of admirers than his usual supporters, in the same way as standing up to the US Senate won wide applause for George Galloway. Incidentally, when Sheridan was suspended by the Scottish Socialist Party - over allegations of sexual misconduct such as the News of the World made - Galloway made a cheeky call to him to join forces, throwing in some remarks about narrow-minded Trotskyists, and in the pages of the Scottish Daily Mail. Some thought this out of order from the man who went south to take his chances with Respect, but Galloway's own supposed Trotskyist allies in the Socialist Workers Party have thick skins when necessary.

I have not followed the Sheridan case in detail. So far as I saw, the allegations concerned flings with other Socialist Party members, visits to "swinger's clubs", and multiple couplings. There was no suggestion that he abused power relations like Healy, or had to force himself on anybody Whether his alleged personal conduct was that we expected from a revolutionary leader is another matter. The Scottish Socialist Party's proud boast, inherited from Militant, was that their MPs would only take the average wage for a skilled worker (an idea Galloway and Respect would no way accept!). We were led to expect this meant they would lead a fairly blameless life, exercising self-discipline, staying close to decent working-class folk, and avoiding the blandishments with which the bourgeoisie has long been able to corrupt or destroy Labour parliamentarians and workers' leaders. (Some Militant members seem to have fitted the part, and have been respected accordingly).

Anyway, Tommy Sheridan has won his case. But not without various left-wing commentators saying they could not see anything wrong with the kind of things he was supposed to have done, even hinting they were something to be admred. In which case why bring a case for libel? Those of us who raise eyebrows stand accused, as in the Healy case, of "bourgeois morality". Is there then no socialist morality?

The more pressing problem is that the execrable right-wing News of the World was able to call members of the Scottish Socialist Party as its witnesses, and its lawyers are now trying to force the SSP to hand over internal documents such as executive minutes to help it fight an appeal. Will the SSP members who testified against Sheridan be accused of perjuring themselves? Or might a successful appeal lead not only to Sheridan handing back the dosh but he and his good wife facing the charges and approby we saw befell some Tory MPs?

For the Scottish Socialist Party's side of the story, including the minutes of a crucial executive meeting, see:

The SSP has split, with anti-Sheridanites burning him in effigy, a former treasurer appealing for backing against the order to hand over minutes, and the ex-Militants calling themselves International Socialists (not to be confused with the forerunners of the Socialist Workers Party), part of the Committee for a Workers International(CWI) announcing that they have decided to break: "We believe the SSP is now effectively finished as a party that could seek to organise and represent the working class of Scotland. The name of the SSP has been dragged through the mud by the actions of the leadership majority. The CWI believes that the energies and efforts of socialists is now better utilised in building a new force for working class struggle and socialism". No suggestion that it might be necessary first to explain what went wrong, and determine what sort of party is needed in discussion involving the working class.

But even though he long ceased to be a member of theirs, they do loyally defend comrade Sheridan.

As for those who loyally defended the alleged misdeeds of Sheridan, rather than being merely pleased that he had won his case against the News of the World, I was reminded for some reason of an old Scottish folk song, The Barnyards of Delgaty.

"I can drink and nae be drunken,
I can fecht and nae be slain,
I can lie with another's lass,
And still be welcome to my ain!"

It has several variations. But in the version I remember, this verse was supposedly sung by the Laird.

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At 12:40 AM, Anonymous Anna said...

It's about seeing people as things, Charlie. Turning human beings into objects of use, capital to be spent, whether in service to individuals, a class, or 'la causa'. It goes on under capitalism, and it goes on in the 'movement', such as it is. Until there's a revolution in consciousness, all these people's witterings and declamations about socialism mean nothing.

If you turn a blind eye to this behaviour, fail to challenge it when it arises, rationalise the unspeakable until it's the norm, and join in because you're confident you'll never be held to account, then you're as much an enemy of the class trying to shake off it's oppression as any capitalist.

And that's one reason why the left remains infinitesimal.

At 1:31 AM, Blogger Charlie Pottins said...

I am glad Anna made this comment because it makes me feel safer venturing into this kind of issue, and shines a light ahead.
I always remember years ago a question that was put to me on doorsteps when selling papers or canvassing:
"How do we know that you will be any different from any of the other parties that come around asking for support?".
It was not an easy question. Just because we thought our motives were selfless and pure there was no reason people should take our word for it.
And remember we were not the first people they'd heard talking about socialism. Since my grandfather decided to support Keir Hardy the working class and oppressed people have seen the rise and fall of Russia's attempt, as well as what the Labour Party has become.
I came to the view later that there were two answers. One, that we were not just making promises and asking for votes, but inviting people to join with us in the struggle - nobody else is going to do it for you. The other that we would not hesitate to deal with any leaders who step out of line, and had shown this.
If this sounds inadequate, I'm sure it is, but what worries me listening to some on the Left is not that we have not got all the answers but that many activists busy in their own little circles do not even listen to the questions yet.

At 7:07 AM, Blogger Darren said...

I understand that the supposed effigy of Sheridan that was burnt was little more that a photo on a stick put together and was a pissed up prank by a few kids in the SSY on a political camp trip.

At 3:36 PM, Blogger Jim Jay said...

The allegations did include prostitution though - which does put an extra angle on it.

At 10:55 PM, Blogger Len Richards said...

I was briefly a member of the WRP when it first became a "mass revolutionary party" in 1973-4, giving up the strategic position it had apparently previously manitained within the Labour Party (and hence any genuine connection with the working class).
I witnessed, without understanding what was really going on, the expulsion of Alan Thornett, the WRP's most important trade union leader. This happened because Thornett questioned the extreme sectarian line being run by Healy.
It is clear in retrospect that Healy was a cult leader who 'enjoyed' as many of the benefits of being a cult leader as he could. This included sexually 'using' and abusing female members of the WRP.
Rank-and-file members like myself had no idea this was going on.
It is hard to explain the loyalty of people to these cult otganisations. It is a blind loyalty fed by fanatical belief in the correctness of the cause. I was as blindly loyal as any other member until, after two years, my pregnant wife got fed up with my fanatical activism and abandoned me in London to return to our home base in Auckland, NZ.
I soon followed her, but I felt I had to sneak away from the WRP. I left my accomodation to stay with friends from NZ until I managed get the money together to fly back to Auckland.
I recall spending most of my time panhandling (begging, in truth) for money ('donations') for the 'Party' while I was active in it.
Stupidly I soon renewed my contact with the Healyites through a small group in NZ who were affiliated to the Australian Socialist Labour League. I was active here for the next 7 or 8 years, travelling frequently to Sydney for Xmas camps and conferences. The practice there mimicked that of the WRP. Jim Mulgrew acted like a mini-Healy, bullying people around etc. Apparently he was a cowed 'kitten' whe he was in Healy's presence in Britain.
In 1984 I returned to Britain to attend a course at the Derbyshire 'school' run by the WRP. The WRP was already beginning to meltdown and, again in retrospect, I could see that some good comrades at the school tried to protect the visitors from Healy as best they could.
The best thing about that trip was joining the striking miners' picket lines in the Derbyshire/Sheffield area. The worst thing was returning to Auckland find my wife and three children had left home - she had finally had enough of my involvement and financial/time commitments to the sectarian madness of 'trotskyism'.
It was later that year in Australia that I learned of the scandal about Healy and his sexual abuse of the women in the WRP and Young Socialists.
At this point, or soon after, I left the Healyite movement for good. Some of the Australians took the chance to take their revenge on Mulgrew while still defending Healy - go figure! They still run some sort of mini-healyite group around Nick Beams as far as I know. Who cares, quite frankly.
There is a PhD thesis somewhere in these sort of experiences and the phenomenon of these left sects. How could people like Sheila Torrance, Healy's right hand woman (and, by some accounts, chief pimp), maintain the fiction around Healy? What did these secondary leaders get out of the cult life? I suppose it made them feel important. It was pretty miserable for ordinary party activists but people will sacrifice a lot for a cause they believe in.
There seems to be a drive to be part of something important, to escape from the mundane banality of everyday life as a 'consumer' and alienated wage-slave in capitalist society.
Cults of various kinds have existed in human society in pre-capitalist times. Are they a phenomenon of class society?


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