Memories of Cliff Slaughter, who has died at the age of 93:
1: A school of the Socialist Labour League (SLL), Manchester, 1961 or 62. Slaughter is a leading writer of the SLL. He has written a couple of articles on the theory of the revolutionary party, which many people (me included) think very highly of. He has been talking about the iniquities of the Stalinist movement, in which he had spent over a decade of his youth. Someone asks him how he could have failed for so long to see through Stalinism. He explains it as his failure to think through his sometimes critical ideas to the necessary conclusion.
2: A Sunday morning, early in 1963, a meeting of the Manchester SLL branch committee, which includes Slaughter, in the front room of the Povah family home in Salford. A car rolls up — in my memory, it is a red car — and parks outside the house. We can see the street, and the narrow footpath plainly through the front window, and the car attracts our attention.
The car door opens, Gerry Healy steps out, comes across the pavement and seems to loom outside the window. He waddles in, a very short, pudgy-rotund man, with a large bald head, features disproportionately small in the big head.
When we see Healy get out of the car, Cliff Slaughter turns very white. The blood drains out of his face. For a moment, I think he is going to faint.
Healy likes the effect he is producing and the tension. He scowls at everyone and sits down, immediately taking over the meeting.
It is early in the Profumo affair. The press and TV are wallowing in the scandal that a Russian embassy attaché and a British Tory minister had a paid lover in common. Healy says, very quietly, “Whaddaya think, Cliff”? Slaughter hastily says it is very like a scandal in Italy, I can’t recall which one. Healy nods his satisfaction to Slaughter.
3: Seven years later, 1970. Slaughter has recently written a 12-episode series of articles analysing a wodge of IS minutes which the SLL have got hold of: Who are the International Socialists? (IS, forerunner of the SWP) They have been collected into a sizeable pamphlet.
It is low-grade political hackery, what the Americans call grunt work — not work for a self-respecting political grown-up. Slaughter’s name on it gives it some weight.
A couple of instalments deal with the Trotskyist Tendency inside IS, predecessor of Workers’ Liberty. A picture showing a Northern Ireland civilian with his hands up being searched at gunpoint by British soldiers has a caption on it that makes IS, the Trotskyist Tendency, and me, by name, responsible for it.
At a public meeting in Teesside, Phil Semp, who had been Slaughter’s pupil at Leeds University, demands an explanation for that bit of political excrescence. Oh, Slaughter tells the meeting, he himself wasn’t responsible, not at all. No. It was “a cock up in the printshop”.
He was never “responsible”. He surrendered his political responsibilities and his political soul to Healy and the Banda brothers.
4: It is 1986, a quarter of a century after the Manchester school of 1961-2. Through those 25 years Slaughter has been a supporter and enabler of Gerry Healy in the SLL (now called WRP), an intellectual hack-scribbler, working to order.
The WRP has imploded. Gerry Healy has been exposed as a coercive predator on women comrades. Slaughter has sided against Healy, perhaps for the first time ever. Writing in Workers’ Press, paper of one of the subgroups produced in the scatterings of the WRP, Slaughter needs to explain his long political and intellectual subservience as a political bag-carrier for Gerry Healy.
His fault, says Slaughter, lay in a failure to think through his critical ideas to the necessary, logical, conclusions….
There is no shortage of tragedies of varying sorts in the 20th century left and ostensible left. Slaughter’s political fate was the tragedy of a politically educated Marxist who was committed to the war for working-class emancipation from wage slavery and capitalism, and tried to work for it, but who in his teens got drawn into the Young Communist League and the Communist Party, in the wake of his father, Fred Slaughter.
Breaking out of that in his late 20s, he let himself get trapped in a vicious little cult. He spent the best years of his life, over 25 years, helping to poison parts of the labour movement and the ostensibly Trotskyist movement with lies and the habit of lies, political craziness and the habit of tolerating craziness and smothering unreason.
But the story is not only a story of Cliff Slaughter’s personal tragedy. It is also a story of his crimes in backing and boosting Healy. Slaughter was an academic sociologist with a high reputation. He co-authored a famous study of miners, Coal is Our Lives. He put that academic reputation at the service of Healy.
Healy surrounded himself with a group of enablers, protectors, heralds and sycophants. Slaughter was one of those. Without them, Healy could not have functioned and survived. Without them he could not have committed his personal-political crimes against his comrades and his political crimes against the working class and the Marxist movement.
The WRP imploded when it did (1985) because the Healy apparatus split. Healy, in his 70s, with his health broken down, could no longer rule by personal force and the terror he had been able to inspire.
The organisation was going bankrupt. The mercenary alliances and the get-rich-quick projects to “build the party” had failed, and failed badly. The organisation had become dependent on money from Libya — Healy got over a million pounds from Gaddafi — and other Arab regimes
Slaughter could not but have known that Libya and other states were financing the WRP. He would have read in its paper the WRP supporting and justifying the killing of Iraqi Communist Party members by the Saddam Hussein regime, with which at that point the WRP was also involved.
On a visit to Libya, Slaughter was repelled by the “anti-imperialist” Islamic mumbo-jumbo of Gaddafi. In an interview available on the Splits and Fusions website he tells a story about a WRP delegation to Libya:
“To my shame, I was almost silent. The relationship with Saddam was for money, also Gaddafi. I went to a Tripoli conference on Gaddafi’s ‘Green Book’ and took a plane back after a day and a half, unable to stomach any more.”
Almost? Disgusted, he left early. And then what did he do?
Give others who were following Healy in his mercenary lunacies about Libya, Iraq and other Middle East powers, the benefit of his own understanding? Start a fight against Healy, Corin and Vanessa Redgrave, and the Banda brothers, inside the organisation? Or, when they expelled him, as they surely would, raise a hue and cry outside the organisation?
He didn’t do any of that. Again, Cliff Slaughter was “not responsible”. Clare Cowen quotes Slaughter making a good speech in support of the anti-Healy wing when the WRP was breaking-up in 1985. But he waited until the central apparatus split, until the Bandas struck at Healy.
Slaughter said in the same interview that the philosopher Healy “knew nothing about philosophy”. Yet Slaughter the prestigious academic for decades buttressed Healy’s claim to be a Marxist philosopher, and a great one. He lent his endorsement, tacit or vocal, to Healy’s ridiculous “dialectical” rigamaroles. He helped Healy back up his claims to knowledge that Slaughter knew he didn’t have, and he recommended Healy’s gobbledegook as good Marxism to people who wouldn’t know any better.
Slaughter went to work full time for the SLL in 1965. They made a fuss about it. Slaughter wrote that now was not the time to cling to “soft jobs”. He lasted maybe a year. Then he went back to academe, at Bradford University, up the road from Leeds, which he had left to be a serious revolutionary.
Slaughter tried many times in his SLL-WRP years to run away from the Healy group. Healy always caught up with him and got him to come back. Slaughter was one of a number of national leaders frequently pilloried, insulted, denounced. There was a layer of such people: Cyril Smith, Jack Gale, Bill Hunter, Geoff Pilling, Robin Blick, Bob Shaw, Tom Kemp, Cliff Slaughter...
The Healy organisation was, at its core, a sado-masochistic cult with its own rites and rituals of accusation, denunciation and chastisement, followed by public self-abasement, abject confession, sometimes tearful, and then, submissive reconciliation and last-minute reprieves on earlier threats of expulsion. Everything was a matter of right and wrong, of sinfulness or being in a state of revolutionary virtue. Healy decided which; he had the power to loose and bind, exclude, damn or absolve.
The audience at such things was made complicit in it by approval, support for Healy or ashamed silence. The audience for it was part of the ceremony.
This is a typical scene at the WRP HQ, as recorded by a witness who doesn't want to be named:
X: "My abiding memory of her is of her being clustered round the main office door at the Centre along with the full-time 'sisterhood' there – Sheila Torrance, Linda Blend, Dany Sylveire, Maureen Bambrick, and Dot Gibson (but not Aileen Jennings or Janet Sutton) – earwigging while Cyril Smith, Tom Kemp, John Simmance, Bill Hunter, John Edwards, Cliff Slaughter or some such was getting the full Healy screaming tantrum in his office above, obviously (and perversely) relishing Healy’s verbal and sometimes non-verbal thuggery". I need to add that the ''sisterhood'' was available to the Ayatollah Healy as a harem.
On one level, it was, though gruesome, laughable, like the hammy pseudo-dramas that wrestling matches project — good guys and bad guys, virtue and vice. But it was not laughable to those, especially the young people, caught up in it, believing that the Healyites embodied Marxism and Bolshevism and socialism.
It was not laughable for youngsters who internalised the signals and compulsions towards conformity, learning that it was a revolutionary duty to submit, learning to see “the party” (in fact Gerry Healy) as everything and themselves as nothing. Who internalised the fear of heresy and ideological sinfulness, identifying it with speaking out of turn; of using their own mind and judgement, of getting something wrong, of thinking for themselves. Learning that “the leadership” is always right: don’t think, don’t question “The Party” and “The Cause” embodied in the leader.
Slaughter spent over a quarter of a century in that game as target, supporter, and ammunition-boy for Healy, sometimes hammer and sometimes anvil. The man who let that happen to himself, who took part in Healy’s brutal rituals for 25 years, must have had in him a fearsome load of self-doubt, guilt and self-hatred.
Someone, E P Thompson maybe, described Healy’s system as “a machine for maiming militants”. That was to understate it. Slaughter was both its victim and an auxiliary victimiser.
The Healy group sued me in 1981 for publishing this description of their system: “The WRP is no laughing matter. It is a pseudo-Marxist gobbledegook-spouting cross between the Moonies, the Scientologists, and the Jones Cult (which committed mass suicide in the Guyana jungle three years ago). It recruits and exploits mainly raw, inexperienced, politically, socially and psychologically defenceless young people. It employs psychological terror and physical violence against its own members (and occasionally against others)”.
Slaughter was in his mid 50s when the WRP collapsed. What did he do afterwards? Politically, very little. He wrote a few texts, amongst them a small book a few years ago entitled Bonfire of the Certainties. In that he adapted the title of a novel of the 1990s, derived from an event in Florence in the mid 15th century when, under the influence of a religious lunatic, Girolamo Savonarola, people threw books and things that were important or comforting or satisfying, or precious to them, on a public “bonfire of the vanities”.
In fact, the original title would have fitted Slaughter and his story almost perfectly. Most of what the Healyites did in Slaughter’s day was pointless, worthless, harmful, diversionary, a cul de sac in relation to socialism. The daily paper with its miniscule readership, the maintenance of which ate up the lives of the members of the organisation. The raving polemics empty of real, not to speak of worthwhile, content. The colourful pageants, and the big rallies, mostly of kids persuaded to attend, almost all of whom would go away and soon forget it all. The theorising that sanctified whatever the party leader decided to do. The sacrifice of basic socialist propaganda and education to free-wheeling shallow “party-building’’ agitation.
For Gerry Healy’s organisation in most of its existence, “all was vanity, vanity”
Watching what they did to the young people they involved, and the way they polluted and poisoned the political world in which we all lived, I grew to have a bitter hatred of the leaders of the SLL and the WRP, but I could never build up a real head of hostility against Cliff Slaughter. It was a bit like Queen Victoria. I had loathed her as the “Famine Queen”, who had presided over the murder of over a million people in Ireland by avoidable famine and cholera, and as one whose name meant 19th century sexual repressions, small children in factories and child brothels, and all the other “Victorian” horrors, brutalities and moral hypocrisies. Then I read in a review what the 20 year old Victoria wrote, to her prime minister, Lord Melbourne, about her wedding night. It was, she told the prime minister, a foretaste of heaven.
After that I could never feel quite the same about Vicky again, a poor, small, human creature locked inside her royal carapaces.
After watching Cliff Slaughter nearly faint at the apparition of Healy at the window that Sunday morning long ago, I could never feel the same hostility to Slaughter as I did to Healy and others — to poor Cliff Slaughter, locked inside whatever it was that allowed Gerry Healy to keep him imprisoned for a quarter of a century. Rest in peace... comrade.