David North
Gerry Healy and his Place in the History of the Fourth International

Healy’s Role in the Struggle Against Pabloite Revisionism

While the struggle against Haston established Healy as the leader of the British Trotskyists, it was the fight against Pabloism that led to Healy’s emergence as a leading figure in the Fourth International. At a time when the fate of the Fourth International and its British section hung in the balance, Healy came out decisively in support of “orthodox Trotskyism” and waged alongside of Cannon a bitter struggle against the revisionism of Michel Pablo and Ernest Mandel (who in that period used the party name Germain).

There is no question that his role in the 1953 struggle demonstrated that Healy had assimilated the lessons of the 1940s and had matured greatly as an internationalist and revolutionary leader. His conduct of the struggle against the unprincipled Pabloite faction in Britain, led by John Lawrence, revealed the exceptional qualities that Healy could draw upon at the prime of his political life: an unshakable courage and devotion to Trotskyist principles, a vast knowledge of his party, an extremely acute awareness of the relationship between the development of the revolutionary cadre and the progress of the class struggle as a whole, and apparently inexhaustible reserves of energy and determination.

But it is a falsification of history to claim, as Torrance now does in the Workers Revolutionary Party obituary, that Healy was the political leader of the fight against Pabloism and that he established the International Committee of the Fourth International. That role was played by Cannon. This point must be made not only in the interests of objective truth—though that is reason enough—but because the diminution of Cannon’s role and the claim that Healy “led the fight” against Pabloism was first advanced in the late 1960s in order to downplay, as Healy began to do in his Problems of the Fourth International, the significance of the international movement and its decisive role in the development of the Trotskyist movement in Britain. In that unfortunate pamphlet, Healy went so far as to denounce the “legend” that Cannon’s historic “Open Letter”—which called upon the international Trotskyist movement to break with Pabloism—played a decisive role in securing the defeat of the Pabloite tendency in Britain. “This was a lie,” wrote Healy. “The English Trotskyists in 1953 … were well able to look after themselves” (Problems of the Fourth International, p.17). Such statements served only to feed the nationalist tendencies which existed inside Healy’s organization.

The development of Pabloite revisionism was the reflection within the Fourth International of the new political relations established internationally on the basis of the postwar settlement between American imperialism and the Soviet bureaucracy. Pabloism, with its theory that objective reality consisted merely of the conflict between the “imperialist regime” and the “Stalinist world,” represented a theoretical capitulation to the surface appearance of the Cold War. From this flowed the rejection of the class struggle as the driving force of history and the independent revolutionary role of the working class. The designation of the Eastern European countries, where capitalist property had been expropriated by bureaucratic fiat rather than the conscious revolutionary action of the working class, as “deformed workers states” became the point of departure for fundamental revisions of both the program of the Fourth International and the entire historical conception of Marxism.

However appropriate the use of the term “deformed workers states” may have been to define the peculiar and hybrid states that arose under the exceptional conditions which prevailed at the end of the war, Pablo and Mandel seized upon the ambiguity of this formulation to endow Stalinism, upon whose counterrevolutionary role Trotsky had insisted, with a profound and progressive historical mission. Rather than explaining that the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe were the bastard product of the Kremlin’s bureaucratic strangulation of the proletarian revolution in both West and East Europe at the end of World War II, Pablo acclaimed the “deformed workers states” as the necessary form through which socialism would be gradually achieved on a world scale over the course of several centuries! Moreover, Pablo insisted that a nuclear conflict between the imperialist and Stalinist regimes was inevitable; and that this war would assume, under the leadership of the Kremlin, a revolutionary anti-imperialist character. Pablo and Mandel capped their views with the argument that the death of Stalin in March 1953 had cleared a path for the self-reform of the bureaucracy.

Within this political schema, there was no independent role for the Fourth International. Insisting that there was not enough time to build the type of mass revolutionary parties that Lenin had constructed and that the Stalinists would, at any rate, be forced by the sheer weight of objective necessity to play a revolutionary role, Pablo called for the virtual liquidation of the cadre of the Fourth International into the Stalinist parties. There, he maintained, the Trotskyists would help organize mass pressure upon the Stalinist leaders and force them to carry out the revolutionary mission to which they had been assigned by Pablo!

Elaborating a program of universal liquidation, Pablo argued that the aim of the Fourth International should be its dissolution into whatever mass organizations dominated the workers movement in which sections conducted political work. He insisted upon “the necessity of subordinating all organizational considerations, of formal independence or otherwise, to real integration into the mass movement wherever it expresses itself in each country, or to integration in an important current of this movement which can be influenced.” This program of “real integration into the mass movement” applied not only to Stalinist and social democratic organizations, but to bourgeois nationalist movements as well.

As astonishing as it may seem today, when we have the benefit of considerable historical experience, few in the Fourth International detected the utterly revisionist content and devastating political implications of Pablo’s line when it was officially promulgated at the Third World Congress of the Fourth International in 1951. Cannon as well as Healy supported the resolutions. Even Pablo’s bureaucratic expulsion of the majority of the French section for opposing the practical consequences of the liquidationist line in its country was endorsed by Cannon and Healy. However, the emergence of the Cochran-Clarke tendency in the United States, which threatened the liquidation of the SWP, jolted Cannon into recognizing the implications of Pablo’s line and set the stage for the bitter struggle inside the Fourth International.

By the spring of 1953, Healy, confronting a faction which sought the liquidation of his section into the British Communist Party, also began to understand the catastrophic implications of Pablo’s revisionism. From the moment Healy made his opposition known, Pablo responded with a savage factional campaign, using the Lawrence group, aimed at destroying the British leadership. Pablo sought to place Healy under International Secretariat discipline, ordering him not to discuss his differences with IS policy inside the British section. Healy brushed aside this bureaucratic diktat, which was a mockery of genuine international democratic centralism. It was at this point that the collaboration between Healy and Cannon assumed crucial importance for the survival of the Fourth International.

Healy’s correspondence with Cannon—a portion of which has been published in various internal bulletins (of which a small and very inadequate selection was eventually reprinted by the WRP under the editorship of Cliff Slaughter)—is an important record of this collaboration and Healy’s contribution to the fight against Pabloism. He clearly rejected Pablo’s theory that Stalinism had a progressive role to play and warned of the disorienting effects of his positions on the cadre of the Fourth International.

“There is no way around the hard day to day grind in building a party,” he wrote to Cannon on May 27, 1953. “Whilst it is true that the revolution has thrown Stalinism into a crisis, it still remains a powerful reactionary force. It has huge resources and tremendous apparatus scope. In the historic sense its ‘sun has set’ but right now it can deal the most savage blows against the revolution. Our sections are the vanguard of the revolution because they represent the only conscious force on a world scale which is organized for the revolution. They are our most precious capital. No matter to what extent the crisis upsets Stalinism, unless our people are on the spot there will never be a proper change in the situation. The revolution can make big changes—it did in Yugoslavia, but it cannot by itself transform Stalinists and centrists into cadres of the FI. That is the historic mission of our movement and the sooner we tear aside illusionary, deceptive and opportunist revisionism the better.

“The politics of your ‘realist’ minority [3] is in practice the most unreal thing imaginable. It consists in scouring the globe for revolutions—hypnotizing itself with the way in which the empirical puppets of Stalinism are tossed from pillar to post’ in these enormous events; then drunk with ‘new thinking’ they turn scathingly towards our small movements and squeal about ‘sectarianism,’ whilst at the same time they throw aside our conscious role and parachute around in space, only to land up eventually in the age-old camp of the enemy—Stalinism or imperialism” (Trotskyism Versus Revisionism, vol. 1, pp. 113–14).

Healy was one day to suffer the same terrible fate; but that lay years in the future, after he had already long before abandoned the struggle against Pabloite revisionism. However, he was then implacably opposed to Pablo’s adaptation to Stalinism, although Healy still retained the hope that Pablo could be pulled back from his revisionist political course. But as the factional fight intensified, Healy came to recognize that the Fourth International was faced with a fight to the finish. As he wrote to Cannon on September 7, 1953:

“From all these events there is but one conclusion—we are engaged in the greatest struggle in the whole history of our movement to defend our basic principles. It will be a stiff vicious struggle. Our opponents are capable of all sorts of things. It will be up to us to fight it as one and in the end we shall defeat them—of that I am confident.

“Pablo attacked your conception of our international with great bitterness. This man proceeds with all the old cominternist vices. His methods sickened me to the point that it almost made me physically unwell. Many things flashed before my mind whilst we talked. They hate the old cadres of our movement. They want an international of spineless creatures who will accept revisionism to the point where they become the left cover for Stalinism. These are hard words, but if you went through what I did, you would, I know, agree” (Ibid., pp. 267–68).

Cannon placed high value on his collaboration with Healy and continually stressed the importance of their common struggle against revisionism in the Fourth International. “You are at a decisive turning point in your whole life-time activity as a revolutionist right now,” he wrote to Healy on September 5, 1953. But the documentary record clearly establishes that the political line of the counteroffensive against Pabloite revisionism was developed almost entirely by the SWP leadership, which was natural given the vast political experience— dating back to the origins of the International Left Opposition—which it embodied. This fact does not diminish the importance of Healy’s role; because without his firmness and determination, the British section would have not survived Pablo’s assault and the fight against revisionism would have been gravely weakened.

Healy, using the party name Burns, was a signatory of the resolution of November 23, 1953 which officially formed the International Committee to prosecute the struggle against the Pabloite International Secretariat’s revisions of the program of the Fourth International and its assault upon its cadre. The resolution affirmed its solidarity with Cannon’s “Open Letter” and quoted those sections in which the programmatic bases of “orthodox Trotskyism” was clearly elaborated:

“(1) The death agony of the capitalist system threatens the destruction of civilization through worsening depressions, world wars and barbaric manifestations like fascism. The development of atomic weapons today underlines the danger in the gravest possible way.

“(2) The descent into the abyss can be avoided only by replacing capitalism with the planned economy of socialism on a world scale and thus resuming the spiral of progress opened up by capitalism in its early days.

“(3) This can be accomplished only under the leadership of the working class as the one truly revolutionary class in society. But the working class itself faces a crisis in leadership although the world relationship of social forces was never so favorable as today for the workers to take the road to power.

“(4) To organize itself for carrying out this world-historic aim the working class in each country must construct a revolutionary socialist party in the pattern developed by Lenin; that is, a combat party capable of dialectically combining democracy and centralism—democracy in arriving at decisions, centralism in carrying them out; a leadership controlled by the ranks, ranks able to carry forward under fire in disciplined fashion.

“(5) The main obstacle to this is Stalinism, which attracts workers through exploiting the prestige of the October 1917 Revolution in Russia, only later, as it betrays their confidence, to hurl them either into the arms of the Social Democracy, into apathy, or back to illusions in capitalism. The penalty for these betrayals is paid by the working people in the form of consolidation of fascist and monarchist forces, and new outbreaks of wars fostered and prepared by capitalism. From its inception, the Fourth International set as one of its major tasks the revolutionary overthrow of Stalinism inside and outside the USSR.

“(6) The need for flexible tactics facing many sections of the Fourth International, and parties or groups sympathetic to its program, makes it all the more imperative that they know how to fight imperialism and all of its petty-bourgeois agencies (such as nationalist formations or trade-union bureaucracies) without capitulation to Stalinism; and, conversely, know how to fight Stalinism (which in the final analysis is a petty-bourgeois agency of imperialism) without capitulation to imperialism.

“These fundamental principles established by Leon Trotsky retain full validity in the increasingly complex and fluid politics of the world today. In fact the revolutionary situations opening up on every hand as Trotsky foresaw, have only now brought full concreteness to what at one time may have appeared to be somewhat remote abstractions not intimately bound up with the living reality of the time. The truth is that these principles now hold with increasing force both in political analysis and in the determination of the course of practical action” (Ibid., pp. 314–15).

Quoting these paragraphs today, at a time when the Stalinist regimes throughout Eastern Europe are crumbling, it is astonishing to consider how intensely relevant the analysis presented in the “Open Letter” remains—more than 36 years after its publication!

Pablo responded to the publication of the “Open Letter” by proclaiming the expulsion of all supporters of the International Committee. In Britain, on the instructions of Pablo, the minority led by Lawrence proclaimed that it now constituted the official section and that Healy and his supporters were expelled. Healy treated this bureaucratic charade organized by Pablo and Lawrence with the scorn it deserved. “They shout, hurl personal abuse, shriek threats and of course wind up with a funeral oration on the majority comrades,” Healy noted in a letter, dated December 15, 1953, to the members of the real British section. “Who is this supposed to convince?—certainly nobody in this country. It is for international consumption, designed to mislead those who have no knowledge of what has actually happened in England” (Trotskyism Versus Revisionism, vol. 2 (London: New Park Publications, 1974], p. 72).

Frustrated by Healy’s solid majority, Pablo and Lawrence (who was already working closely with the British Stalinists) set out to destroy the British section. They sought to exploit the tactical problems confronting Healy under conditions in which the British section’s public freedom of action was restricted to some extent by the fact that it was working inside the Labour Party. At that time, the Trotskyists collaborated with a group of centrists to publish Socialist Outlook. Lawrence, who remained on its editorial board even after the split in the British section, now sought to completely destroy Trotskyist control over the newspaper and drive it toward open support for the Stalinist line. The bitterness of the political war between the Trotskyists and the pro-Stalinist Pablo faction is indicated in a letter written by Healy to Leslie Goonewardene, a leader of the Ceylonese Lanka Sama Samaja Party, on April 21, 1954. He described the methods used by Pablo and Lawrence to destroy all the gains of six years of entry work inside the Labour Party and smash all Trotskyist influence on the editorial board of Socialist Outlook:

“For several months now I have been a minority of one on that Board in a constant struggle against an organized attempt to push the paper toward Stalinism. During that time I and our comrades have had to sit back and watch open Stalinist agents such as Hyman Levy (the defender of Lysenko and the Moscow Trials) monopolize our paper—not only that but Mrs. Goffe, a close personal friend of Lawrence wrote into the paper specially congratulating Mr. Levy. Just think what the Old Man’s reaction would have been to this type of thing. [4] You know how he estimated the intellectual apologists of the Moscow Trials; you know that Levy was for years their chief man at the London School of Economics, and now we have Pablo’s ‘chosen people’ opening up the pages of a paper constructed out of great sacrifice by our comrades and your comrades (Mike and Tony) to be defiled by Stalinists [5]

“Now this sort of thing was not only confined to the paper. It extended into the printshop. Here, Lawrence and [the centrist] Braddock and myself were the directors and once again we were in a minority. Having joined forces with the centrists, the Pabloites then began to drive the shop into bankruptcy. They kept their people (three in all) full time on the paper doing nothing except factional work against us. As a result a debt of 900 accumulated at the shop and we were steadily going broke. They didn’t give a damn because it was the money of our comrades which purchased the machinery and the general equipment.

“Right from the start therefore, Pabloism in Britain emerged as a sabotaging unit working to objectively aid Stalinism. Our paper sales went down from 6,000 to 4,500 a week. By temporarily isolating myself on the Editorial Board and in the printshop they thought they would smash orthodox Trotskyism. Their whole strategy was part of a carefully prepared plan. Having been completely repudiated by the overwhelming majority of the group, they struck at the nerve centres of our work at the points where we had alliances with centrists, and it was precisely these alliances which were a big obstacle for Stalinist work inside the LP left-wing.

“The British Pabloists were not really interested in the fight inside our group. This only lasted a few weeks. Right from the word go they meant to cut loose and blast the work we were doing in the LP, and Pablo, Clarke and their Germainist dupes backed this to the hilt” (Ibid., pp. 80–81).

The viciousness of the Pabloite attack on the British section led to an event, described by Healy, which could have had tragic consequences:

“Last Wednesday morning at 8 o’clock he [Lawrence] turned up at the printshop with one of his followers who worked for us as a machine minder. When I drew attention to the fact that he was not complying with decisions of the Editorial Board, without warning he swung a blow at my face bursting blood from my nose. His henchman started to interfere, but by then Mike came to the rescue, and pulled a knife on Lawrence. I immediately took it from him and Lawrence was put out of the office by the other printers. This terrible incident could have been serious, as it was all that happened was a bleeding nose for me and a black eye for Lawrence’s assistant. We can produce a signed affidavit by non group printers describing the incident as above.

“Lawrence then sent his man to the Printers trade union of which he is a member, and he denounced young Mike as a man who pulled a knife. All this was done in an effort to get Mike’s ticket taken away from him. At the moment this matter is in abeyance and Mike has been summoned before the union committee…

“You are aware that we are not weaklings in our group. We have had many faction fights in the past, but never acts of physical violence. The only people we had these with were Stalinists—nobody else, and it is not an accident that the Pabloites run true to form. I would like to say one word about violence. In our group we have had some hard people—we have only to say the word and many things can happen, but we won’t because we are Trotskyists. However, we will defend ourselves in the future and steps have been taken along these lines. Pabloite Stalinist scum will no longer stalk around using their fists and rushing to right-wing union leaders.

“Now in the midst of this ‘civil war’ along comes Germain’s proposals for a ‘commission’ to investigate us all—to see if we are ‘bona fide.’ Please Comrade Leslie, forgive me if I speak with a little feeling about this political trickery and duplicity. If there is going to be commissions set up we’ve got some ideas. Let us set one up to investigate Pablo and Lawrence. For our part we will submit absolutely cast iron proof on the matter I have just mentioned.

“The members of our section know all about Pabloism and its logical end Stalinism, and we will have no truck with Pablo committee traps. We have only one answer to make to Pabloism in Britain and that is to smash them politically and organizationally, and nobody is going to talk us out of this” (Ibid., pp. 83–84).

Despite the immense political difficulties confronting the British Trotskyists—which were compounded by the extreme poverty in which Healy and other leading members lived—they overcame all the provocations organized by the Pabloites and emerged victorious. It was during this period that Healy’s stature as an international Trotskyist leader grew enormously; and the political lessons which were learned during this life-and-death battle paved the way for the great advances which were to be made by the International Committee in Britain during the coming years.


Healy is referring here to the minority in the SWP led by Cochran and Clarke.


The Old Man referred to by Healy was Leon Trotsky.


The brothers Mike and Tony Van Der Poorten, known inside the party as Mike and Tony Banda.