The Theoretical Foundations of Healyism

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22/10/2015 by socialistfight

Gerry Healy

The Theoretical Foundations of Healyism

By Chris Bailey February 1988.

From New Interventions, Vol.3 No.1,1992

THE EXPULSION of G. Healy from the WRP in 1985, and the revelations that led up to this expulsion posed, for every member who had seriously set out as a communist, a major question. How could an organisation, which had supposedly begun from the highest motives – the freeing of mankind from all forms of oppression – have sunk to such depths – rape, physical thuggery, etc. Far from embodying the highest point of development within the working class, the class that represents the future of mankind as a whole, the way the party operated before the expulsion was virtually medieval – a throw back to the past. The majority of the Political Committee, the leading body of the party, voted in favour of rape, a position which Cliff Slaughter correctly described, at the time, as near-fascist.

The development of such positions within the marxist movement cannot be separated from the problems of human society as a whole. Trotsky, in his writings on Fascism, frequently referred to the result of a failure of mankind to solve the problems confronting it. The world cannot just stand still; if society does not go forward and solve its problems – problems arising from the contradiction between the productive forces and productive relations – then what takes place is a resort to barbarism. How could a society with all the potential which the present productive forces give us produce Auschwitz? As communists, it is exactly such questions that we set out to confront, to grasp, and to overcome. If we cannot deal with them within our own movement – then we will never be communists.

The barbarism present in the old WRP had its roots in unsolved problems for humanity as a whole, but more immediately its source was problems emanating from the collapse of the Fourth International, the only organisation which could solve the crisis of leadership of the working class, which itself is the crisis of humanity. We know from international discussion (despite the present WRP leadership’s attempts to cut off such discussion), that many of the problems of the WRP were at least embryonically present in other organisations. We also know that, with one possible exception, they did not reach the degree that they did in the WRP. It is in this sense that the term Healyism is used here. It means the carrying to the extreme of certain problems and tendencies arising within the Fourth International, and a theoretical justification of this.

The central question facing those of us who expelled Healv was not so much what Healy did to us, but what we did to Healy. How had we allowed him to do what he did? Why did we submit to him? The extreme, of course, was the submission to sexual abuse and physical violence from Healy, but all of us in the Healy organisation allowed ourselves to submit to him in a way that only varied in degree. A year before his expulsion, we all voted unanimously to give him unlimited powers in the WRP.

There is no question that the central grip that Healy had over us was ideological. We believed that we must do what we did for the sake of the socialist revolution. What was this ideological grip? What was the theory behind Healyism? How could we break with it without the most thorough critique of it?

Even the most cursory glance at the writings of the old WRP cannot help but reveal that the theoretical justification for Healy came not so much from his own rantings, but from a layer of so-called intellectuals who now lead the present WRP. After 2½years, they have written not one word on the theoretical foundations of Healyism. It is not self-confession and breast beating that are required here, nor the admission of individual responsibility, but a serious critique by those who provided the theoretical justification for Healy of what was wrong with this theory. Without such work the claims of such leaders to be providing leadership for the WRP and the working class cannot be taken seriously. In fact, under their leadership, all the old positions that blocked WRP members from serious work in the working class are returning: sectarianism and slander towards others in the workers’ movement, opportunism towards certain trade union leaders and Labour councillors, anti-internationalism etc etc. Without a thorough critique of the theory that produced Healy such a return is inevitable. Healyism still continues in the WRP without Healy himself.

Problems of the Fourth International
The main strength of the Fourth International, when it was founded, was not its numbers but its theory and program. Trotsky’s contribution here had been immense, particularly through his analysis of Stalinism. After his death there was a tremendous gap in terms of theoretical leadership. The International found itself grappling with problems it was ill equipped to deal with. Marxism is a living science. It can not just stand still. Theory always and inevitably finds itself in conflict with events. It is only through such a conflict that theory can more deeply grasp the world and change it. The Fourth International faced with such a conflict, however, found itself in crisis. Lacking even the most elementary grasp of Marxist logic and theory of knowledge (Trotsky had taken up a fight for exactly this in the last period before he was killed by the Stalinists) it found itself unable to analyse new developments, particularly the overthrow of capitalism in Eastern Europe and thus unable to develop a program for the working class in the face of these events. The split in 1953 was the inevitabe result. It represented a stage in the break-up of the Fourth International. The whole of the International had prior to this, in 1951, adopted a position with regard to Yugoslavia which was a clear-cut revision of Trotsky’s fundamental position on Stalinism.

The formation of the International Committee in 1953 was a contradictory development. Whilst claiming to be motivated by a struggle “against revisionism”, its own conceptions of a federal International were themselves a complete revision of the Fourth International’s founding principles. It did, however, voice criticisms of the more extreme adaptation to Stalinism flowing from the 1951 position. It avoided its own role in the 1951 vote, though, and with its formulation that revisionism consisted solely of “capitulation to Stalinism” covered up for its own often unprincipled relations with Social Democracy. It claimed to represent “orthodox Trotskyism”. It was through the development of this latter concept that Healyism reached its highest theoretical expression.

Orthodox Trotskyism
“Orthodox Trotkyism” is a contradiction in terms. Marxism, like any other science, can only develop in living movement. The only real defence of Trotskyism as the continuation of Marxism against the revisionism then taking place was through its further development. The use of such terminology as “orthodox Trotskyism”, whilst it could have been a starting point for a fight back against those who were revising Marxism, already signified the transformation of Trotskyism into a dogma. It is upon such dogma that absurd sects develop. An analysis of the development of Healy and the Socialist Labour League in the ’50s and early ’60s is a subject in itself. The Internationalist Faction intends doing work on this subject. What is beyond question, even with only a preliminary investigation, is that “orthodox Trotskyism” did not form the basis of any real development of Marxism in Britain. It was used by Healy to present himself as some kind of living continuation of Marxism. This obscene little man, who should have been an object of scorn and ridicule in the labour movement, was thus able to give himself a status he had no reason to deserve. It was in this period that Healy first built around him a completely servile organisation including a group of so-called “intellectuals” who were willing to justiiy his every act. Any opposition was swiftly expelled.

Cuba
Two events in the early ’60s played a significant part in the further development of Healyism. The first of these was the Cuban revolution. The second was an event that could have been of tremendous importance in grappling with the problems of the disintegrating Fourth International, the publication of Vol.38 of Lenin’s collected works containing his philosophical notebooks. The Cuban revolution was a major problem for “orthodox Trotskyism”. Starting from a purely petit-bourgeois revolt with very limited aims, the eventual result was the expropriation of the bourgeoisie in Cuba. The failure to make any development in Marxism with regard to a viable theory on the expropriation of capitalism in eastern Europe meant that the “orthodox Trotskyists” could give no explanation of events in Cuba. Confronted with this, some of them did seek to attempt to tackle the problem, notably those in the opposition in the US SWP. Their work still remains an important starting point for serious work on this question, which still remains to be done. The Socialist Labour League and Healy, however, pursued a different path. They took the incredible route of denying what had actually taken place! They claimed that Cuba was still a bourgeois state even though there was no bourgeoisie! The fact that there was hardly any opposition to this position in the SLL shows the degeneration that had taken place. Members were willing to accept the pronouncements of the leadership even when they clearly contradicted the facts. This is the characteristic of a cult, not a revolutionary party.

The “Fight” Against Empiricism
The situation did not, however, end with Cuba. If anything Cuba was only a beginning. Having denied the facts on this question, the next step was to proceed to deny facts in general. The world was what G. Healy declared it to be! This is not an exaggeration. It is exactly the route the SLL and later the WRP developed along. The chief architect in providing a theoretical justification for this, at least in the early stages, was Cliff Slaughter. Slaughter had, since joining the SLL from the Communist Party in the late ’50s, emerged as one of Healy’s most servile “theoreticians”. An examination of SLL internal documents of the period shows that Slaughter could always be relied upon to produce a theoretical justification for Healy’s latest bureaucratic expulsions etc. He now excelled himself. The denial of facts was now to become justified in general. This was done in the form of a so-called “fight against Empiricism”.

The first thing that must be said is that a fight against Empiricism was certainly required at this point. It was, in fact, well overdue. It was clearly impossible to read Lenin’s notebooks without being struck by the contrast between Lenin’s attention to method and the bankruptcy on this question within the Trotskyist movement, at that time. It was this which gave credibility to Slaughter’s work in this period. There is no question that in the argument between Hansen and Slaughter in 1962-63 Hansen is unable to grasp the difference between Marxism and Empiricism. (He did not, however, actually say that “consistent Empiricism was the same thing as Marxism”, a misquote Slaughter has persisted in for 25 years.) It is equally true that the position of the SWP was an empirical adaptation to events in Cuba. The fact, however, remains that, although dressed up as Marxism, Slaughter’s position on Empiricism is actually even more reactionary than that of Hansen.

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Hansen’s statement that the SLL’s position on Cuba gives the “impression of a thought process little above that of medieval times when the experts determined what the world was like through fasting, meditation, prayer and pious reference to the holy scriptures” (Trotskyism versus Revisionism, Vol.4, p.30) is essentially correct.

Slaughter does argue for medieval forms of thought. Although surrounded by a number of correct statements on the limitations of Empiricism, Slaughter’s central argument is that Marxism, unlike Empiricism, does not “start with the facts”. In his writings on Lenin’s notebooks Slaughter states: “For example, some ‘Marxists’ assume that Marxist method has the same starting-point as empiricism: that is to say, it starts with ‘the facts’. It is difficult to understand why Lenin and others should have spent so much time on Hegel and the dialectical method if this were true” (Labour Review, Summer 1962, p.77). This sentence was seized upon by Hansen in his document “Cuba: The Acid Test”. Slaughter in his reply to Hansen, “Opportunism and Empiricism”, not only fails to correct his wrong position but goes on to compound it. He correctly states that Empiricism is bourgeois thought, but then proceeds to attack it from a position which is actually a return to pre-bourgeois philosophy.

In his play Galileo, Brecht graphically illustrates the clash between Empiricism and previous philosophy. In one of the scenes in the play, Galileo has a telescope trained on Jupiter. He can actually see that its moons don’t move according to the accepted theory of the time. He asks one of the scholars to observe this. The scholar repeatedly refuses, explaining in more and more complex language that the observation cannot be correct. Slaughter argues in favour of the man who will not look through the telescope. He informs us: “All this argument that ‘the facts’ are the objective reality and that we must ‘start from there’ is a preparation to justify policies of adaptation to non-working class leaderships. Empiricism, since it ‘starts from the facts’, can never get beyond them and must accept the world as it is” (Trotskyism versus Revisionism, p.82, my emphasis).

Slaughter argues in favour of the man who will not look through the telescope.

It seems almost an insult to Engels to have to quote from him in answer to this position. The statement of Francis Bacon, generally acknowledged as the founder of Empiricism, written at the beginning of the 17th century, would seem totally adequate: “Human knowledge and human power meet in one; for where the cause is not known the effect cannot be produced. Nature to be commanded must be obeyed” (Francis Bacon, First Book of Aphorisms, my emphasis).

In order to go beyond what the world is (i.e to change it) you must first begin with it as it is. That would seem to be a basic tenet of all materialism. However, if someone really must have a quote from Marx or Engels as to whether Marxism “starts from the facts”: “We all agree that in every field of science, in natural as in historical science, one must proceed from the given facts [Engels’ emphasis], in natural science therefore from the various material forms and the various forms of motion of matter; that therefore in theoretical natural science too the interconnections are not to be built into the facts but to be discovered in them, and when discovered to be verified as far as possible by experiment.” After this comes the following sentence, crossed out in the manuscript: “We socialist materialists go even considerably further in this respect than the natural scientists by also…” (Engels, Dialectics of Nature, p.47).

The Limitations of Empiricism
Before going further in discussing the theory propounded by Slaughter it is necessary to discuss what were the real limitations of Empiricism. Is it really that Empiricism begins from the facts, as the Roman Catholic church, the Maharishi Yogi, followers of Hare Khrishna and … Cliff Slaughter argue? An excellent summary of the real limitations of Empiricism is contained in Hegel’s Small Logic beginning on page 60. Far from attacking it for beginning from the facts Hegel says:

“In Empiricism lies the great principle that whatever is true must be in the actual world and present to sensation. This principle contradicts that ‘ought to be’ on the strength of which ‘reflection’ is vain enough to treat the actual present with scorn and to point to a scene beyond – a scene which is assumed to have place and being only in the understanding of those who talk of it. No less than Empiricism, philosophy recognises only what is, and has nothing to do with what merely ought to be and what is thus confessed not to exist. On the subjective side, too, it is right to notice the valuable principle of freedom involved in Empiricism. For the main lesson of Empiricism is that man must see for himself and feel that he is present in every fact of knowledge which he has to accept.”

It seems to me impossible to read this passage without being struck by the contrast between it and the crazy world the WRP was under Healy. But more than this, it is also the answer to the present leadership of the WRP when they inform us, for instance, that “the miners’ strike was not defeated”. In explaining this they always “point to a scene beyond – a scene which is assumed to have place and being only in the understanding of those who talk of it” – in this case the WRP. This is the nonsense that was Healyism, and it is being revived by the same people who developed it in the first place.

Hegel now goes on to explain the real problem of empiricism: “Besides, this school makes sense-perception the form in which fact is to be apprehended; and in this consists the defect of Empiricism. Sense-perception as such is always individual, always transient: not indeed that the process of knowledge stops short at sensation: on the contrary, it proceeds to find out the universal and permanent element in the individual apprehended by sense. This is the process leading from simple perception to experience” (Small Logic, p. 62).

And further: “Touching this principle it has been justly observed that in what we call Experience, as distinct from mere single perception of single facts, there are two elements. The one is the matter, infinite in its multiplicity, and as it stands a mere set of singulars: the other is the form, the characteristics of universality and necessity. Mere experience no doubt offers many, perhaps innumerable, cases of similar perceptions: but, after all, no multitude, however great, can be the same thing as universality. Similarly, mere experience affords perceptions of changes succeeding each other and of objects in juxtaposition; but it presents no necessary connection. If perception, therefore, is to maintain its claim to be the sole basis of what men hold for truth, universality and necessity appear something illegitimate: they become an accident of our minds, a mere custom, the content of which might be otherwise constituted than it is” (ibid., p.64).

The problem of Empiricism was not that it began from facts but that it didn’t recognise their nature. Facts are not just sense impressions; for them to have any meaning it is necessary “to find out the universal and permanent element in the individual apprehended by sense”. In doing this we are introducing something that is not present in the original sensation. Both cave-men and modern men have witnessed eclipses of the sun. The sensations received by the eye are pretty much the same in both cases, but the “fact” of the eclipse is very different for them.

The development forward from Empiricism, in the history of philosophy, was not to reject “starting from facts” but to investigate the nature of this “something” introduced by the observer into facts. At first sight this “something” appears to be an obstacle, a barrier to grasping the world as it is, the “thing in itself. This was the view developed by Kant. The tremendous contribution of Hegel was to recognise that far from being a barrier, the universals introduced by correct thought were the truth of the object itself. But how to define correct thought? Hegel began from the objective nature of thought itself. He studied not individual thought but thought in its historical development in man as a whole. In this he was absolutely right. He was wrong, however, in seeing this development of thought as the motive force of history. Marx placed Hegel on his feet. Thought was the highest product of nature, not the other way round. Despite his objective Idealism there are still passages in Hegel which are almost pure materialism, as both Lenin and Engels remarked. Sometimes Hegel “forgets himself” and starts from the material world. The following quotation on the relation of dialectical thought to the facts is such a passage:

“The relation of speculative science to the other sciences may be stated in the following terms. It does not in the least neglect the empirical facts contained in the several sciences, but recognises and adopts them: it appreciates and applies towards its own structure the universal element in these sciences, their laws and classifications: but besides all this, into the categories of science it introduces, and gives currency to, other categories. The difference, looked at in this way, is only a change of categories. Speculative Logic contains all previous Logic and Metaphysics: it preserves the same forms of thought, the same laws and objects – while at the same time remodelling and expanding them with wider categories” (Small Logic, p.13.)

This is the answer to Slaughter’s nonsense. Dialectical logic, whilst developing and enriching the categories and concepts of thought, does not refute the facts “but recognises them and adopts them”. Facts provide the basis for the further development of theory. Why? Because facts contain the only connection between thought and the external world. The Empiricists failed to recognise the two-fold nature of experience. They equated perception with sensation. But they were right on one central question. The source of all knowledge is through sensation which is our only connection with the external world. The central task of philosophy, after recognising the limitations of Empiricism, was to proceed further in grasping what was objective in “facts”, not to deny “starting from facts”.

The Objectivity of Sensation
The reason why sensation, that which we receive through the five senses, is objective, and comes from without, has been recognised for a very long time. On page 286 of Vol.38 of Lenin’s Collected Works is a quote from Aristotle on the question:

“The difference (between sensation and cognition) is: that which causes the sensation is external. The cause of this is that perceptive activity is directed on the particular, while knowledge has as its object the universal; but the universal is, to a certain extent, in the soul itself as substance. Everyone can therefore think if he wishes but sense-perception does not depend on him, since the necessary condition is that the object perceived be present” (Aristotle, De anima, II, 5).

On the next couple of pages, following this quote, Lenin shows the tremendous difficulty Hegel gets into on this question. Hegel, as indicated in the passages above, agreed with starting from the facts. He recognised that truth must be “present to the senses”. He goes right up to the threshold of materialism on this question, but then twists and turns to escape the inevitable conclusion. Hegel, in reference to the above quote from Aristotle, admits that sensation contains “passivity”, i.e. independence from the subject. He then tries to claim that this does not necessarily mean that it comes “from without”. Lenin remarks: “the idealist is caught! … The idealist stops up the gap leading to materialism…. Passivity means precisely from without!!” (Vol.38, pp.287-288, my emphasis.)

It is this question that is the very foundation of materialism. The passive nature of sensation shows that it comes “from without” and is the source of knowledge of the external world. If sensation was an activity then we could make of the world anything. The importance of facts is that they contain this “passivity”, this “from without”. If you are to deny “starting from the facts”, and want to make the world the product of your thought then you must deny the passivity of sense perception and declare it to be active. This is exactly the position that was adopted by the SLL-WRP.

It is not clear who was the original author of this position in the SLL-WRP. That it was compulsory learning in the WRP for many years is without doubt. Cyril Smith was the specialist in lectures on this question. He based his lectures on a poor translation and even worse interpretation of Marx’s first thesis on Feuerbach. The central theme of these lectures was that instead of engaging in “contemplation” (a bad translation of the German word “Anschauung”), members of the party should engage in something called “sensuous activity”, which seemed to mean that they should “train their senses” to see things that weren’t there!! Sensation, we were taught, was active and not passive. I have written more extensively on this question earlier (Cyril Smith and the “Treatment” of Theory, WRP Internal Bulletin). Smith was still teaching this rubbish after the removal of Healy. When challenged on this, at a series of lectures in London, he sought to extricate himself by constantly changing his position and claiming his opponents’ positions as his own, in his usual dishonest manner. One thing he was adamant on, though. In a continuous argument, over four lectures, with members of the WRP who were later to become members of the Internationalist Faction, he insisted that “sensation is active”. (Just in case he now tries to wriggle his wav out of a difficult situation, again, I have it all on tape.)

The “Practice of Cognition”
The work of the “theoreticians” in the party meant that the WRP, if it consistently carried out the theory it was based on, could literally live “in a world of its own”. This was inadequate for the purpose, however. Healy wanted us to live “in a world of his own”. There remained one more refinement, that ultimate monstrosity, “the practice of cognition”. This still retained the earlier features (denial of facts, “training” to see what wasn’t there etc). It contained, however, an added refinement. It was not only wrong, but complete gobbledygook. That was, in fact, its essential feature. It was not meant to be understood. Having used the “theoreticians” up to this point, Healy now produced a continuation of their work which only he could claim to understand. It was most ungrateful of him and no doubt upset them a good deal, but they continued to try to prove their worth by praising his work in this “field” as often as possible and accepting minor duties like “dealing with” Thornett, Sklavos etc. Meanwhile, Healy took over all “cadre” training. “The nature of this ‘training’ was to instil a complete personal subordination to him.” (See “The Practice of Cognition”, Chris Bailey, Workers Press, January 1986.)

The “Revolutionary Party”
The SLL/WRP never has been a revolutionary party. It has, at least since the early ’60s, been based on utterly reactionary theory dressed up as Marxism. If relations in the party resembled those of feudalism and the Spanish Inquisition then this flowed directly from its theory. At the same time, the WRP arose from the degeneration of the Fourth International. The overthrow of Healy, and the struggle to grasp the theoretical foundations of Healyism, is an important step in the central task facing communists today, the rebuilding of the Fourth International. Healyism has been a not inconsiderable obstacle to the rebuilding of the International and to the building of a revolutionary party in Britain. At an international level Healyism gave Marxist philosophy and method a bad name by dressing the most reactionary nonsense up as representing this most advanced theory. In Britain, it disgraced the name of Trotskyism in the eyes of the working class. Both these questions must be dealt with by those who have broken with Healyism and are fighting to become communists.

The Internationalist Faction fights to carry forward these tasks. We do so against all those who wish to revive Healyism without Healy. Healyism was not just one obscene old man. The obscene old man was selected by events. The foundations of Healyism were rooted in an avoidance of the tasks facing revolutionaries by denying the real world. Those of us who are prepared to face the real world as it is will be able to make big strides forward in tackling these tasks. There are no short cuts.

Forward to the rebuilding of the Fourth International!

Down with Healyism without Healy!

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