Come the Revolution, a Memoir
New South Press, 2011
Reviewed by Ed Lewis
Alex Mitchell’s memoir covers a big chunk of history, from the late 1950s up to a few months ago. Mitchell is a skilled and entertaining writer and the book is worthwhile alone for its vignettes of the 1961 Mount Isa strike, the early stages of the Vietnam antiwar movement in Australia and London, the Canberra press gallery, Rupert Murdoch as a rising young mogul challenging entrenched media interests in Australia, Mitchell’s training in tabloid journalism on Murdoch’s afternoon Sydney daily, The Mirror, his later experience in investigative reporting with the Insight team on London’s Sunday Times, his traumatic few days as a reporter in Biafra, his reporting from Idi Amin’s Uganda, in Ireland during “the troubles” and much more.
But Mitchell makes it clear the passion of his life was left politics, and the high point of his involvement in the left was his time in Gerry Healy’s Workers Revolutionary Party, for a few years probably the most successful Trotskyist organisation in Britain, with a daily newspaper, an extensive publishing program, numerous real estate assets, an active membership of probably several hundred and a constellation of celebrities surrounding it, including Vanessa and Corin Redgrave.
The memoir begins with a prologue describing Mitchell’s quiet exit from the WRP in 1986, after 15 years working for it as a journalist and member of the central leadership:
“It was an exit planned with military precision. I parked the car in a suburban street in south London and locked it. I took the keys and placed them in a large brown envelope which I had addressed and stamped in advance. I had deliberately parked near a Royal Mail postbox, and I now dropped the envelope through the flap.”
He was about to catch a plane for Australia, slipping away from the wreckage of the WRP, which had blown apart in 1985 and was in the process of fragmenting further. His long-time mentor Healy appeared to regard him as a traitor, and would no longer talk to him, and most factions of the WRP regarded him with suspicion as a long-time close collaborator of Healy, or central member of Healy’s personal clique as some described him. There were no fond goodbyes to his comrades of 15 years, Mitchell obviously felt a need for secrecy, and he had good reason to.
In 1959, 27 years earlier, Peter Fryer, another talented Marxist journalist, had done something similar. In an open letter published in late 1959 he describes his exit from the same Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labour League, precursor of the WRP. As editor of two publications, he found himself no longer able to work with Healy, and had offered his resignation, which had been refused. He wrote:
“We who came into the Trotskyist movement from the Communist Party, hard on the heels of the experience of Hungary and our struggle with the Stalinist bureaucracy in Britain, were assured that in the Trotskyist movement we would find a genuine communist movement, where democracy flourished, where dissenters were encouraged to express their dissent, and where relationships between comrades were in all respects better, more brotherly and more human than in the party we had come from. Instead we have found at the top of the Trotskyist movement, despite the sacrifices and hard work of the rank and file, a repetition of Communist Party methods of work, methods of leadership, and methods of dealing with persons who are not prepared to kotow to the superior wisdom of the ‘strong man’.”
“We fully recognized that we, as ex-Stalinists, had much to learn from our new comrades. But we also felt — and we said so openly — that we had something to teach them as well. We were willing to learn. They, it appears, were not.
“They were not willing to slough off the ingrained sectarian suspicion of other people’s motives, the cynicism towards other comrades and other socialists, which has been and remains the biggest single obstacle to the healthy growth and development of the Trotskyist movement in Britain. They were not willing to allow working-class democracy to flourish inside the organization, but insisted on retaining, even during the brief period of rapid growth, a regime whereby effective authority lay in the hands of one man, to whom his colleagues and co-workers were not comrades to be consulted and discussed with but instruments to be used quite ruthlessly. The outstanding feature of the present regime in the Socialist Labour League is that it is the rule of a clique — the general secretary’s personal clique.”
Even in his experience in the Stalinist CP, Fryer apparently had seen nothing like Healy:
“I saw the general secretary take off his coat and fling it to the ground in fits of rage that invariably hindered any constructive solution of a particular problem and so did harm to the movement. I used to ask myself what I was doing to be caught up in such a situation.”
His resignation rejected, Fryer went into hiding, including a few months at the home of a friend, Ken Coates, to get away from the SLL. But even that was not the end for Healy. He launched a search for Fryer, even harassing his relatives, including his mother in Yorkshire. Fryer wrote:
“The denial of democracy to members of the organization is summed up by the general secretary himself in two phrases he has employed recently: ‘I am the party’ and — in answer to the question ‘How do you see socialism?’ — ‘I don’t care what happens after we take power. All I am interested in is the movement.’ Politically this is revisionism, all too clearly reminiscent of Bernstein’s ‘the movement is everything the goal nothing’. Philosophically it is solipsism: if the movement is everything and ‘I am the movement’, then ‘the world is my world’ — and ‘I’ inhabit a fantasy world less and less connected with the real world. It is just such a fantasy world that the general secretary inhabits, in which ‘we’ can ‘watch ports’ (to stop me leaving the country!) and be ‘absolutely ruthless’ to the point of carrying out ‘killings’ (as the general secretary declared to PMcG) — when ‘we’ have in cold fact fewer than 400 members.”
Fryer eventually left England for some years to live in Portugal, out of Healy’s reach. Mitchell made his way to Australia, but that didn’t stop Healy speculating that his former editor had been “lifted” by MI5, apparently implying that he had been a police agent. By then Healy had no organisation to command and was powerless, so Mitchell’s family was safe from harassment. Nevertheless, Mitchell’s cautious method of departure seems well justified.
Fryer made his observations about nine years before Mitchell, in 1968, began attending Healy’s Friday evening London discussion group, whose audience included Corin Regrave, film industry professionals and others of the radical middle class. Mitchell notes that Healy always took a collection, and no doubt part of the function of the meetings was to raise funds.
Bob Pitt, one of many people whose lives were affected by the WRP and its collapse, wrote a book, The Rise and Fall of Gerry Healy, in which he notes:
“At its most cynical level, Healy’s turn to the radical middle classes was motivated by the straightforward pursuit of cash. According to one perhaps apocryphal story, Healy’s response to the recruitment of C. Redgrave was ‘It’s the big one I’m interested in, the one with the money’ – namely Corin’s wealthy sister. Another probable motive on Healy’s part was that such recruits, who had no real background in the workers’ movement and were won to the SLL mainly on the basis of admiration for Healy the individual, were a useful source of uncritical political support. This would seem to be the only explanation for the immediate elevation to leadership positions of the Redgraves – and others such as Alex Mitchell, a former Sunday Times journalist who became editor of Workers Press in 1971. The consequence was to encourage in these people a combination of arrogance and ignorance which destroyed any potential they had as revolutionaries.” (p 77)
That certainly can’t be ruled out in Mitchell’s case, as his description of Healy’s Friday lectures and routing of opponents in debate is nothing short of adulatory, he seems to have remained extraordinarily tolerant of Healy’s blatant bullying and temper tantrums throughout 15 years as his close collaborator, and he still defends actions of Healy that have been widely discredited in most of the left for many years. A problem for Mitchell in this effort is that a great deal has been written about Healy and his methods, and the truth is well established. Mitchell doesn’t have much to add except an insider’s view of Healy’s inner circle.
One of Healy’s campaigns that Mitchell defends is the “Security and the Fourth International” so-called investigation, in which Mitchell, who had a reputation among well-informed WRP-SLL members as a write-to-order man, put his Sunday Mail Insight team skills to work digging up information on Trotsky’s assassination (although it is unlikely that he adhered to the Insight team’s requirement of two independent sources of verification of facts).
In truth, there was little to dig up about Trotsky’s assassination, as the Trotskyist movement had collaborated with investigations at the time, in the 1940s, and much had been written on the subject then and since. Mitchell’s investigation led to accusations against several prominent Trotskyist that they were police agents.
Bob Pitt suggests a material reason for this investigation and the associated accusations: Healy, in his relations with Colonel Qaddafi in Libya, the government of Iraq, and the PLO, “achieved a level of sycophancy towards ‘Third World’ nationalists which outdid anything the derided ‘Pabloites’ of the United Secretariat had ever managed”.
“Under these circumstances, political criticisms of the USec became increasingly difficult to sustain. Instead, Healy launched the ‘Security and the Fourth International’ campaign. This ‘investigation’, which was conducted by Alex Mitchell and American Healyite leader David North, began by charging US Socialist Workers Party veterans Joseph Hansen and George Novack with being ‘accomplices of the GPU’ because of their failure to counter Stalinist penetration of the Fourth International. It went on to denounce Hansen as a GPU-FBI double agent, and ended up by accusing the entire SWP leadership of working for the FBI – on the sole basis that many of them once attended the same college! In 1977 a public meeting was held in London where representatives of virtually every other tendency claiming adherence to Trotskyism condemned this Stalinist-style frame-up.” (p 85)
By the time Healy launched the “Security” campaign, the WRP had been receiving funds from the Libyan and Iraqi regimes and the PLO, as Mitchell confirms. In his prologue, Mitchell says:
“Along the way I took part in official meetings with Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein, PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and Zimbabwe nationalist Joshua Nkomo at which secret solidarity agreement were signed.”
Many left organisations correctly support national liberation movements in the Third World and most of Mitchell’s extensive description of his meetings in the Middle East contain nothing objectionable, but much of the Healy organisation’s interminable ranting against “Pabloite revisionism” was based on rival Trotskyists’ support of Third World liberation movements. One major point of difference was Healy’s denial that a socialist revolution had taken place in Cuba.
In addition, it seems News Line, the WRP newspaper, and Gerry Healy went well beyond solidarity with Third World peoples under attack from imperialism to justifying repressive acts of Middle Eastern regimes. Bob Pitt writes:
“News Line notoriously justified the execution of Iraqi Communist Party members by the Ba’athist regime, and even published a glossy brochure extolling the glories of Iraq under the leadership of Saddam Hussein.”
The second issue on which Mitchell fights a lost cause in Healy’s defence is the charges against Healy of sexual abuse that blew apart the WRP in 1985.
“Again, there was nothing new in this. Back in the early 1950s, Healy had been in trouble after propositioning a daughter of a prominent figure in the Fourth International. In 1964 an SLL control commission had been held over Healy’s relationship with a leader of the Young Socialists. And one of the background issues to the 1974 split in the WRP was the rejection of Healy’s advances by a woman supporter of Thornett. All of this, however, had been kept from the membership, the majority of whom reacted with shock and outrage after Healy’s corruption was exposed in a letter by his longtime secretary Aileen Jennings.”
Mitchell admits that Healy abused his power for sexual purposes with impressionable young women, but focuses on what he considers a cynical use of the matter by those who attacked Healy, particularly the group led by the Banda brothers, and suggests that police agents were behind the whole affair.
The fact is, Healy had been abusing his power for many years, abusing and bullying people, as Fryer’s letter establishes. Some of the people who had been bullied revolted against Healy while his health was poor after a heart attack, at a time when they no doubt estimated their revolt had most chance of success. They expected to take over the organisation, but the WRP was built on such poor political foundations that it blew apart without the charismatic bluster of Healy to hold it together.
Healy was not one of a kind as Mitchell and other admirers still try to insist. He was one of a type: a clever but politically ill-equipped and rather intolerant young man who found a way to build an organisation based on a fairly primitive Marxism and eventually became a dictatorial middle-aged and later old man ruling over cowed and resentful comrades who revolted when they thought they had their best chance of success. Mitchell tries to quibble over how Healy abused his power, but that’s not important, he did abuse it, not just sexually but in many ways, and in doing so sowed the seeds of the WRP’s destruction.
As Fryer pointed out, Healy had built an organisation based on “ingrained sectarian suspicion of other people’s motives, the cynicism towards other comrades and other socialists”, and it eventually blew apart when Healy strained the credulity of even his most loyal followers by insisting the Thatcher assault on the trade unions, and the resulting miners’ strike, was the struggle for power that would lift the WRP to the head of a revolutionary government. Part of this was the purchase of a series of buildings across Britain, initially as youth training centres, but when they failed, Mitchell says Healy told him the buildings would be useful as meeting places for soviets. The solipsism and tendency towards fantasy that Fryer had detected in 1959 was rather far advanced by 1985.
Healy’s type will be recognisable to many people who went through one or other of the many Trotskyist organisations around the same time as Mitchell. In the end, Healy and the WRP weren’t extraordinary, but very ordinary. Organisations similar to the WRP largely, although not entirely, wasted the energies of the people who joined them.
Others have examined flaws in Trotskyist views of organisation that might have contributed to this pattern, and some have concluded that the methods adopted by Healy and others flowed not from Lenin’s practice, as they claimed, but from Zinoviev’s later efforts to codify Leninism for the parties of the Third International.
For more on this last point see: