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Cliff Slaughter- a critical appraisal

May 8, 2021
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Cliff Slaughter, for several decades the chief ideologist of the Healyite movement, the Socialist Labour League (SLL) and then the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP) died at the beginning of May.

Andrew Burgin, a well-known leader of Left Unity, posted some appreciative notes on Facebook. Phil Hearse, who was expelled from the Young Communist League in 1963 for being an SLL supporter, and was then in the Healyite youth movement, has written a critique of Andrew Burgin’s notes, and both are published below.

Andrew Burgin:  A Few Words for Cliff Slaughter

I’m sad to hear that Cliff Slaughter has died. He played an important part in my political life and political education.

In 1985 the Workers Revolutionary Party expelled its long-time leader Gerry Healy for the sexual abuse of 27 female comrades. I was at the WRP college of Marxist education in Derbyshire when news came through of the decision to lay charges against Healy. Peter Jones who was lecturing at the time stopped the class he was teaching and closed the school.

Comrades returned to their districts and almost immediately went into a series of aggregate discussions. At the first London aggregate Cliff was present, even though London was not his district he had speaking rights because he was secretary of the International Committee. Several hundred party members were assembled sitting on benches in the large garage complex of our Clapham headquarters.

Sheila Torrance who was on the political committee and effectively ran the London area defended Healy against the charges. Her argument was that Healy’s role as a revolutionary socialist was a more important consideration than the allegations of sexual abuse.

Slaughter spoke directly after Torrance. He dissected her argument and in a hugely powerful speech made the case for a revolutionary morality and linked the abuse directly to Healy’s politics. He concluded that the abuse itself expressed the degeneration of Healy’s politics and of those who now sought to defend him. It was the politics.

The aggregate was a difficult meeting to be in, not least because a number of the women comrades very bravely spoke of what they had experienced. Only a minority of comrades supported Healy at that aggregate. Healy had little support throughout the party and both the central committee and the overwhelming majority of full-time workers supported his expulsion. Healy’s supporters chose to split the party.

Before 1985 Slaughter had been a somewhat remote figure in the party, at least to ordinary members. He wasn’t a full-time party worker and so was only seen on the platforms at the big events. He wrote regularly for the party’s theoretical journal, the Labour Review and crafted political documents at Healy’s request.

From the time of the split Slaughter worked to understand and to try and overcome the degeneration of the organisation.

The tyrannical party regime which Clare Cowan documents so well in her history of the WRP had damaged many comrades and many still bear the scars. Cliff was one of the central figures in the post-split period who sought to repair the damage and set the organisation on its fe

et politically speaking. The crisis in the organisation did not end with the break with the Healy group but the party went through a series of political convulsions. At every point Cliff with some others including Geoff Pilling and Tom Kemp attempted to raise the level of discussion and to overcome the abuses of the past. Cliff supported the women comrades who insisted that the women’s question was central to the understanding of the degeneration of the party. A women’s commission was established and the question of women’s oppression was placed at the heart of the party’s work.

Cliff insisted that this was an issue for the whole of the left and argued against those on the left such as the SWP which referred to Healy’s sexual abuses as a ‘bedroom farce’ and those such as Ken Livingstone who said that Healy’s expulsion was the work of state agents.

Slaughter had joined the Communist Party at university in the late 1940s. In 1956 in the wake of the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Revolution and the revelations of Stalin’s crimes in Khrushchev’s secret speech he, along with thousands of other CP members, left the party.

Cliff was among a small number who were won to Trotskyism. They included Brian Pearce who was part of the CP historians group, Peter Fryer who was the Daily Worker correspondent in Hungary at the time, and Brian Behan the building workers’ leader. Most of the recruits from the CP left or were driven out after a short period but Cliff remained.

He regretted hugely the part he had played in sustaining Healy’s regime but tried to overcome that through the building of a healthy political tendency in the post-split period. The years after the split saw the party reach out internationally to try and re-establish the Fourth International and Cliff wrote many of the position papers and political documents that guided that work. Cliff’s death has sent me back to look through the those documents and internal bulletins produced after 1985 and there is a wealth of material from Cliff, much of which bears re-reading today.

Others will write about the books that he is best known for; Coal is my life and Marxism, Ideology and Literature among others. I most often return to a short book he wrote in 1996 titled ‘a New Party for Socialism – Why? How? When?’. He sought to deal with what was is and will be one of the central problems for the left, the question of a new party. Cliff begins the book clearly and simply writing, ‘the working class needs a new party. Why is this idea becoming more and more widespread?’ In 100 pages Cliff sought to give shape to all the arguments around this question and to lay the basis for beginning that work.

In recent years Cliff moved on politically and his close comrades can speak more knowledgeably than I can about his ‘Bonfire of the Certainties’.

I salute a comrade who devoted his long life to the struggle. I send my condolences to his family, friends and comrades. RIP. The photo shows Cliff [second from right] at a WRP rally in 1978.

Letter to Andrew Burgin from Phil Hearse

Dear Andrew

As you know, despite current tactical differences I have immense respect for your determination in the face of personal adversity, and your tireless commitment to the cause of the working class, the oppressed and the Left.

However, your FB obituary notes on Cliff Slaughter, admittedly a first response, are seriously misplaced.

You talk about his role after the 1985 split with Healy and his last-minute turn to oppose Healy’s abuse, and then you talk about his role in the original ‘New Left’ in the mid-1950s, but what is missing is the central part of his 30-year political career as ideological chief prop to Gerry Healy. In this capacity, Slaughter participated in every mad ultra-left and sectarian turn— and justified it.

He fully supported and justified the brutal and insane internal regime. He used his intellectual prestige to back up Healy’s gaslighting of the membership with insanely comical ideas about dialectics[i]. He fully participated in the slanderous and disgusting campaign on Security and the Fourth International (see below), a chronic breach of revolutionary morality.

Slaughter fully supported the WRP’s criminal abstention from the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign and the Anti-Nazi League. He stood and watched as people were stuck at Central Committee meetings, with no objections.

Slaughter jumped ship from the rotten clique of pro-Healy leaders, not as the ship was sinking but after most of it was sunk. He was someone who cannot have been unaware of Healy’s sexual abuse, despite his later protestations. But you had to admire his chutzpah in his 1985 affectation as someone who could help lead the ex-WRP comrades forward. Those WRP members who forgave everything because he opposed Healy at the last minute were naïve. Slaughter finally broke with Healy when it was obvious, he was going down. You don’t need a weatherman to see which way the wind blows.

In 1985 the WRP, after the expulsion of Healy and shorn of its hardcore last ditch Healy defenders, held a meeting at Friends House on Euston Rd to explain all. Key speaker: Cliff Slaughter. He laid most of the blame at Healy’s door, but said ‘we were all to blame.’ But what he never said was that some were more blameworthy than others.

And there was more gaslighting in limiting the discussion to mainly sexual abuse and the internal regime. That was crucially important, but elided over the basic fact that the regime could not be separated from the WRP’s ultra-sectarian politics, its whole political history.

Slaughter’s collaboration with an abusive and violent regime went back decades. Bob Pitt recounts:

“Healy could not have acted as he did…without the support of a whole group of other people around him in the leadership. Healy himself was well aware of this, and made a specific point of involving other leading SLLers in his attacks on political opponents. In September 1959, for example, when two dissidents were visited in the middle of the night and entry forced into their house, he had insisted on taking Cliff Slaughter along because, Healy explained afterwards, it was important to commit people like Slaughter.”[ii] 1959!

The death of anybody who gave their life to the fight for socialism is sad. But the version of socialism that Cliff Slaughter fought for was mired in sectarianism and abuse—abuse of the WRP members and abuse of the rest of the Left. Which Slaughter did not oppose, but actually participated in, until 5 minutes to midnight?

When we have chatted about our respective pasts—yours in the WRP, mine in the IMG, you have said to me ‘well that’s your past, so you would defend it’. In other words, we can all look back decades, and it’s a moot point who was right and wrong. Well I don’t agree. The very existence of the WRP wasted thousands of activists and hundreds of cadres in pursuit of the bizarre fantasies of a cult leader. Its very existence created an unnecessary obstacle for really revolutionary tendencies like the IMG and IS/SWP.

The WRP defended politics which were wrong from its inception, deepening its sectarianism towards the working class and mass movements, and its chronic abusive factionalism towards the rest of the Left. Let me give you examples from my experience.

In 1977, or thereabouts, the WRP organised a meeting at Birmingham University on the theme of ‘Security and the Fourth International’, main speakers Cliff Slaughter and Alex Mitchell. Their case was the disgusting slander that Joseph Hansen, a longtime leader of the American SWP was a GPU (KGB) spy, as was Sylvia Callen, secretary of SWP leader James P Cannon. Also featured was the accusation that leaders of the American SWP, like Jack Barnes, Doug Jeness and Mary Alice Waters, who had all been to Carlton College in Michigan (the ‘Carleton College clique’) were agents.

Key themes in the speeches by Mitchell and Slaughter were that the ‘Pabloites’ – aka the Fourth International – were riddled with KGB and CIA agents. This of course was not an abstract question. The very existence of the Fourth International highlighted Healy’s lack of interest in building a real international movement, as opposed to a minor international fan clubs of tiny groups.  And of course the Fourth International’s existence created opponents on the Left who the Healyites routinely slandered. As it happened, the IMG weas at the time the dominant left tendency at Birmingham University, doubtless a factor in the choice of venue.

This whole campaign was based on a spurious ‘investigation’ written by Mitchell and American Healyite David North, published in 1975. It became the central political campaign for the WRP for several years. Its introduction said:

The findings of Security and the Fourth International constitute an indispensable foundation for the training of Marxist cadre and a powerful material weapon of the World Revolution. The agents which this weapon has already exposed, and those whom it will ultimately destroy politically, represent the spearhead of the counterrevolution. This fact must be grasped by every class conscious worker and youth: all the historically-accumulated instinct of the bourgeoisie for self-preservation finds its greatest level of consciousness in the elaboration of its strategy for destroying the revolutionary leadership of the working class.

This is the writing of a deranged sect. Actually it is a conspiracy theory dressed up as Marxism—other left-wingers differ from us politically because they are KGB or CIA agents, or motivated by them.

So Andrew, when did Cliff Slaughter ever one raise criticisms of this disgusting campaign? Never. He was centrally involved in it.

Let me mention a couple of other more personal experiences. In 1965 I went along to the SLL-YS Young Socialists May Day march the in central London on a sunny Sunday afternoon. SLL/YS organiser Bernie Dianant admonished Keith Veness for ‘kow-towing’ to me, ie talking to me in a friendly way. Since my 16-year old self could not spend every evening in YS activity I had to be struggled against.

The thing that struck me was that there was no one other than us there, literally no one. Because the SLL and YS did not go to the main Saturday May Day march, but had their own. Our cries of Victory to the Vietcong (not NLF) reached a few pigeons on the Embankment. The march was for supporters, no one else, intended to enthuse a couple of hundred youth with red flags and revolutionary slogans. Without them encountering other socialist and working class tendencies.

The same method was in evidence on October 22 1968, when 100,000 people in solidarity with the NLF in London, where the SLL gave out their infamous ‘Why we are not marching’ leaflets. The real answer to the question was that we are not marching ‘because we are a barmy sect with cultish features.’ There is no record of Cliff Slaughter objecting to this policy.

In 1978 when the Anti-Na League was launched, the WRP repeated its VSC stand-off operation and refused to join in. Jack Gale wrote a pamphlet arguing that the ANL over-estimated the fascist threat and was defending capitalist democracy (as if we don’t defend capitalist democracy against the fascists). This was ‘Why we are not marching’ part 2.  As Bob Pitt recounts[iii], almost simultaneous with the pamphlet’s publication Jack Gale was expelled, being one of those used as scapegoats for the lack of newspaper sales.  And did Cliff Slaughter object? To the policy on the ANL? Or the expulsion of Gale and the other sacrificial lambs?

Comrades who are nostalgic for the old WRP/SLL should not be. It did some good industrial work in the 1950s, and later at the Cowley car plant and on the London buses, and got a significant audience through the All Trade Union Alliance.  Its Right to Work marches were marvels of heroic endeavour, carried out by cadres who were clever and inventive. But they were marches for a cause—building the WRP—that was rotten. The Workers Socialist League split from the WRP in 1974, led by Alan Thornett and other Cowley comrades like Tony Richardson, as well as John Lister, showed the paucity of Healy’s grasp of the role of industrial work in developing a revolutionary leadership (at the time a debate about the role of the transitional programme).

Andrew, you sent round a clip from the huge SLL rally at Alexandra Palace in 1974. I was astonished by Healy’s speech, because he said what he actually thought— We are building a revolutionary leadership and when the working class moves into mass action, they will find us here waiting for them, prepared to give them leadership. It’s there, on the record, a completely false and exterior concept of building a revolutionary party. And did Cliff Slaughter object? One word, ever?

Something else I should mention in my timeframe was the 1965 beating of Ernie Tate, selling an anti-SLL pamphlet outside Camden Town Hall, on Healy’s instructions. Sections of the Left like Tribune who publicised this outrage were threatened with libel action and had to retract. At the time Isaac Deutscher was writing about Russia under a pseudonym in the SLL’s Labour Review, but stopped and denounced the SLL leaders he brought to his house to be admonished. And did Cliff Slaughter object to this use of violence in the workers’ movement?

Cliff Slaughter was the joint secretary (with the OCI’s Stephan Just) or the largely mythical ‘International Committee of the Fourth International’. This was mainly a lash up between the WRP and the French Trotskyist OCI and a few mini-groups in support. It never got much beyond exchanges of letters between Slaughter and Just.

At a mass youth rally in Belgium in 1972, the Healy organisation intervened to insist that the key task for youth was the ‘fight for dialectical materialism’. This ridiculous notion was an obvious attempt to provoke a split led to the OC, and was politically insane. And did Cliff Slaughter object? To any of it?

This in turn led to Healy’s bonkers attempts to re-write the Marxist theory of knowledge, and this gibberish became the centre of courses at the party’s training school in Derbyshire. All this was nonsense, as Cliff Slaughter must have known. And did he speak out about it?

I heard lots of rumours over the years that Slaughter was himself the victim of a bullying regime, and that he was ritually humiliated by Healy from time to time. If so, I would not be surprised. It is a typical mode of functioning for a cult regime to beat up (metaphorically) its most significant supporters. Typically in cults, loyalists are victims.

In Clare Cowans’ book, My Search for Revolution[iv], she makes it clear that sexual abuse in the WRP, as well as violence (she was a victim of both) went back years and extended to Healy’s ‘international comrades’.

Bob Pennington used to relate that in the 1960s, when Communist Party general secretary John Gollan used to say the British CP had not known about Stalin’s reign of terror, the Trotskyists replied “Harry Pollitt went to Russia 17 times, how could he not have known?”. Bob Penning added: “Cliff Slaughter went to Clapham High Street 317 times, howe could he have not known?” Well, he certainly knew the SLL had a frightful bullying regime, way outside of socialist norms and proletarian democracy.

Clare Cowen relates how Slaughter popped up at the end of the struggle, and elegantly stuck the sword into Healy when the beast had already been fatally wounded by more junior, rank and file, picadors and banderillos. But better late than never.

A big part of the leadership’s abuse of the membership was the setting of impossible goals and pointless activities, especially the endless sales of the daily press, a ridiculous project for a tiny organisation. This involved huge financial efforts that emptied members’ pockets. The movement took all their time and all their money, making it really difficult for people to have normal jobs and normal relationships. Yes, revolutionaries are often enthusiastic to be active on a daily basis is. But not for ever, and not when pointless activity robs them of the possibility of a life beyond the party. Edward Upward says ‘No Home but the Struggle’[v]. I agree, more or less. But not ‘No home but the party’, especially when the party is very small and its objectives and achievements, as well as its social roots, must necessarily be limited.

Against the WRP, I would of course defend the political and theoretical gains of the IMG. I’m not generally interested in saying my past is better than your past. But when we discuss the past and analyse the contributions to Left and revolutionary renewal, the contribution of the Healy-Banda-Slaughter-Mitchell-Redgrave leadership will be found to be mainly negative.

Redemption for Slaughter would have meant a complete account of the WRP’s existence as a cult and his part in it. Including, but not only, the things I have outlined above. It would have meant him telling the truth of the inside story of how Healy and the core SLL leaders operated.  A ‘rethinking of everything’, without such an accounting, is frankly changing the subject and avoiding responsibility.

With comradely greetings

Phil


[i] An operation with close similarities to L. Ron Hubbard’s ‘Dianetics’. There are many parallels in the lives of Healy and Hubbard. See Bare Faced Messiah, Russell Miller, 1981.

[ii] Bob Pitt, The Rise and Fall of Gerry Healy, Chapter 6, https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/healy/pitt/Chap6.html

[iii] Pitt, op cit chapter 5

[iv] https://uk.bookshop.org/books/my-search-for-revolution-how-we-brought-down-an-abusive-leader/9781838590987

[v] All three volumes of Edward Upward’s Spiral Ascent are downloadable here. http://www.edwardupward.info/spiral.html

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 9, 2021 8:30 pm

    Re Sylvia Callen: your syntax permits of two interpretations. Do you deny the evidence that Callen worked against SWP for GPU?

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  1. Cliff Slaughter 1928 – 2021 | Splits and Fusions

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