If you have had the pleasure of being around the left for some time, you will remember the Workers Revolutionary Party. Oldsters might even remember the Socialist Labour League, its earlier incarnation, or even the secretive “Club” of its early years. For 49 years this Trotskyist group was led by one Gerry Healy, a violent man and serial abuser of women. This book makes for difficult reading and some might want to avoid reading it.
Clare Cowan was at the heart of the WRP for half her life. A well-off white South African, she became central to the organisation, not least as Healy saw her as a cash cow. When money was short she’d be sent off to her parents or her trust fund to bail out the organisation to buy property because preparing for a “workers’ revolutionary government” does not come cheap. And Healy had a BMW, loved expensive food, foreign trips and, despite its size, the WRP ran a full colour daily newspaper, one of the first in the country. The membership was soaked too and driven to exhaustion by paper sales that started at dawn and continued into the evening. Talking to ex-members I am aware that some just paid for their papers and threw them away, pretending to have made the sales.
The WRP had little to do with the rest of the left – they had their own panoply of organisations, a Marxist Education Centre in Derbyshire, flats for many full timers, trucks, cars (and an unused fleet of mopeds), six bookshops, and seven Youth Training Centres. Clare Cowan never mentions what the youth were being trained to do, but there was certainly a lot of grooming going on, of which more later. In fact the left avoided them as much as they avoided the left. There were good reasons, for example in 1979 Healy sent staff photographers to take pictures of a left wing demonstration by Iraqi exiles to send the images to the Iraqi Ba’athist Party, then busily executing trade unionists in Iraq. Cowan includes an advert for a WRP meeting defending Saddam Hussein’s party. The Middle East was another source of funds for the bottomless pit that was the WRP. Libya under Gaddafi seems to have been particularly generous.
The violence was astonishing. Healy was prone to fits of temper, attacking staff, and in one case perforating the eardrum one of his core workers. Nor was it exactly private. Cowan describes at one Central Committee meeting how when a Young Socialist delegate challenged him on an issue, Healy simply punched him in the face. No members of the Committee said anything. Cowan was herself the subject of one of his rages, being hit on the head with some books – not long after having had an operation on her head, something that was known to Healy.
Why did nobody speak out? Well, some left, but others believed that this group of a few thousand would bring the revolution. Healy used the full panoply of enforcement and coercive control including public humiliation followed by exclusion or rewards. Somehow he got otherwise sensible people to drive him, to cook for him, to wash his clothes, to do everything he asked – in the name of the revolution. Core members were overworked and encouraged to think that the fascist state would come for their Party soon. The WRP were paranoid about the state snooping on them – and not just the British state, but Stalinist spies infiltrating their international organisation.
It was Healy’s voracious sexual abuse that brought him down in the end. The author discovered – after twenty years – that Healy was not just ordering her to “take off her dress”, but was doing the same to other full-timers, including the one he had hospitalised with the perforated eardrum. His secretary – whose back he damaged by hitting with her with a broom – finally went into hiding and sent a letter to the Party listing the 26 women she knew by name who he had abused. Clare Cowan outlines how he was able to break women, to enforce silence. This was not a political party but a cult. Even then some of the leading members, while accepting this happened, described those who complained as people having a bourgeois morality. Including, presumably, the girl who Healy tried to seduce who was under age – and he was seventy. Astonishingly some of the leaders tried to cut a deal with Healy, forcing him to sign a letter saying he would “cease immediately my personel ([sic] contact with the youth”.
And then it all collapsed. The Party was losing £20,000 a month – this was in the mid-80s. Healy’s supporters – who included the actor Vanessa Redgrave and her actor brother Corin – decamped, suing those who remained for the assets they had loaned to the Party. In time all that remained was eight micro-group splinters. Healy himself was never prosecuted and died in 1989. Clare Cowan and others kept the much reduced Party alive until the late 1990s and she recovered from the beatings, the sexual abuse and the theft of her resources. Some found it harder. A handful kept the flame – if that is the word – alive, including the Redgraves and occasionally on large demonstrations you can see a tiny group that still use the Party name.
But there are two others worth mentioning. Ted Knight – recently deceased – was widely seen as Healy’s operative in the Labour Party. I have no idea if that was the case but his Labour Herald newspaper was printed on favourable terms by the WRP and at one stage Clare Cowan was simply told to give him her car, this at a time he was leader of Lambeth Council. The other is Ken Livingstone, also associated with Labour Herald. In 1994 Livingstone wrote a fawning introduction to a hagiography of Healy. Worse, in that introduction he said “I have never changed my belief that the split in the WRP during 1985 was the work of MI5 agents.” Not the 26 women then, three of whom had worked for the Party for decades.
Since the effective demise of the WRP there has been one major convulsion in another left organisation, when the general secretary of the Socialist Workers Party was accused of sexual harassment, which led to the resignation of 700 – perhaps more than a thousand – members of that Party. I am not comparing like to like, Healy stands in a league of his own not least for the length of time he got away with it, and his related violence. In America at least two other Trotskyist groups had similar issues. What’s sad is that at one stage even the abusers and those who knew and covered it up wanted a free, socialist society, and they ended up as no better than the worst capitalist.