Statement of the International Committee of the Fourth International
How the WRP Betrayed Trotskyism

The Expulsion of Alan Thornett

One month after the founding of the WRP, the impact of the Arab oil embargo forced the Heath government to impose a three-day work week just as the miners were preparing a national strike in support of their pay claim. After the National Union of Mineworkers began all-out strike action in January 1974, Heath decided to call a General Election in the hope that he would win a popular mandate to use state violence to smash the strike. Instead, the strike continued throughout the election campaign and won support within broad sections of the middle class who swung toward the Labour Party. The WRP had been calling for the bringing down of the Heath government, new elections and the return of a Labour government. It had previously insisted in its program for the transformation of the League into the Party that “This demand for the election of a Labour government on socialist policies, is the indispensable step in preparing the working class for state power, because it means above all the break from reformism.” {Ibid., p. 132-33)

The Labour Party was returned to power as a minority government, and this development was to have profound consequences for the Workers Revolutionary Party. Having based the founding of the Party just four months earlier on the struggle to bring down the Tories and return a Labour government, the realization of this perspective within such a short period of time led very quickly to a serious crisis within the new organization. Hundreds of people had been attracted to the party on the basis of this specific task, and, in the euphoria which followed the return of Labour to power, began to slip away from the party before their real political education as Trotskyists had even begun.

The broad area of agreement between the Party and the working class that had existed during the glorious hey-day of the anti-Tory movement now came up against the reality of a Labour government, whose first action was to settle the miners’ strike on the basis of the union’s demands. The WRP leadership was compelled to redefine its program and placed renewed emphasis on its Trotskyist identity and opposition to the ruling Social Democrats. However, the concessions that had been made to centrism over the previous two years meant that the reorientation could not be carried through without creating friction within the leadership. Moreover, in the midst of these changes, the centrist empire in France struck back! Two cowardly middle-class renegades who had fled the party during the first days of the Tory onslaught—Robin Blick and Mark Jenkins—began collaborating with the OCI in forming the “Bulletin” group for the purpose of creating a faction inside the Workers Revolutionary Party. The specific aim of these scoundrels—who were to eventually become open anti-communists—was to bring about the removal of Healy from the party leadership. A fertile field for their operations existed in the form of the political and theoretical confusion arising from the founding program which had brought an influx of recruits, including a substantial section of workers, on a centrist basis. Moreover, the older members of the party had not really assimilated the basic principles and political lessons involved in the struggle against the OCI.

In the summer of 1974, as has now been documented, Blick and Jenkins established secret contact with Alan Thornett and several other members of the WRP Central Committee. Thornett, who held an important union post at the British Leyland plant at Cowley, was the secretary of the Party’s industrial arm, the All Trades Unions Alliance. The Western Region of the party which he represented had grown considerably during the anti-Tory period.

The Blick-Jenkins group attacked the WRP from the right—ridiculing its stress on the depth of the capitalist crisis and its warnings of the dangers of a military coup in 1973-74 (which were later confirmed in a detailed report, published in the capitalist press, on the crisis within the Tory cabinet during the miners’ strike); denouncing the WRPs criticisms of the Labour and TUC bureaucracy and specifically attacking the Workers Press for unmasking Wedgewood (Tony) Benn.

Their attacks proved effective precisely because large sections of the Party were politically disarmed in front of the Labour government. Furthermore, Thornett, who had developed a close relation with sections of workers on the basis of the centrist “basic rights” deviations of the 1973-74 period, now resisted the return by the WRP leadership to sharp attacks on the Labour government, especially under conditions where it retained a precarious hold on power and was faced with the imminent necessity of calling new elections.

The Thornett faction was born with a club foot. It lied to the Party leadership and the membership about its real origins. While criticizing the Healy leadership for failing to apply the method of the Transitional Program, it developed an entirely new conception within the Trotskyist movement—the creation of a “transitional program” for factions, in which the minority, starting from what it believes the Party ranks are prepared to accept, gradually introduces further demands which are strategically aimed at the systematic demobilization of the Trotskyists and the conquest of power by the revisionists, culminating with a counter-revolution against the Fourth International.

In a political sense, Thornett abdicated any right to lead the WRP when he secretly collaborated with three deserters (John Archer, who had joined the OCI, worked with Blick and Jenkins) who wrote his program and platform. The fact that he violated the most fundamental precepts of democratic centralism and acted as an agent of hostile anti-Party forces was proved by a statement written by his guru, Robin Blick, on November 4,1980:

“This statement is motivated by the continuing refusal of WSL [Workers Socialist League founded by Thornett after the split] leadership to give a true account of its own origins. I have until now refrained from commenting on the polemics between the WRP and the WSL as to the role of the Bulletin group and myself in the events leading up to the expulsion of the Thornett opposition six years ago. But I now feel it is time WSL members knew the facts. The WSL leadership has had more than enough time to put the record straight...

“The seeds of the Thornett opposition were sown with the publication, from January 1974 onwards, of the “Bulletin” by, at first, myself and Mark Jenkins, another former SLL (now WRP) member. This Bulletin was mailed out to all WRP members of whom we had the addresses, irrespective of what we thought their attitude might be toward it. It was by this means that it came into the hands of, amongst others in the WRP’s Western Region, Central Committee member Kate Blakeney. Others in the Western Region region reading it included Alan Thornett...

“The first contact made with the Western Region WRP was with Kate Blakeney, who Mark Jenkins met, at her home, in late August. Another meeting, this time with myself as well as Mark Jenkins, followed very shortly. Kate Blakeney expressed substantial agreements with the criticisms of the WRP in the Bulletin. She informed us that there existed an unofficial and rather secret opposition within the Western Region consisting of herself, Alan Thornett, John Lister, Tony Richardson, and possibly some others. It had no cle’ar platform, or understanding where the WRP had gone wrong, but was rather a coming together of people who for various reasons were dissatisfied with the national performance of the WRP. There was particular hostility towards Healy’s sudden elevation to the highest positions of leadership of the ‘jet set’ converts to Trotskyism, notably Vanessa Redgrave.”

There could not be a more damning indictment of the unprincipled and petty-bourgeois and syndicalist origins of the Thornett clique, which, like all right-wing oppositions, were initially drawn together by a hostility to the Party “regime” and only articulated their politics later. The Blick statement described how the faction was established “in mid-September 1974, at an exit road on the M4 near Reading, late one night.

“The meeting took place in Alan Thornett’s car. He had brought Kate Blakeney with him. Present with me was Nick Peck, an old SLL member, who drove me to the rendezvous. At the first meeting we discussed the crisis in the WRP and Alan Thornett’s views on it and its possible causes, also the situation at Cowley, and the adverse effects of the WRP’s sectarian policies on WRP industrial activity both there and nationally. We agreed to meet again, with the purpose of regularizing political collaboration in the fight against the Healy leadership.”

What a wretched and cowardly group: in the dead of night on a deserted service road, it plotted the overthrow of a long-established Party leadership, which had played a historic role in the world Trotskyist movement, on the basis of, first, industrial policy and second, its “national performance.” There was no reference to Trotskyism or the Fourth International, as if the fate of the WRP leadership was of no concern to the ICFI!

“Over the next few days—this was in the middle of September—Alan Thornett and Kate Blakeney agreed that they should not only collaborate with the Bulletin group (that meant, in view of the problem of security, with me) but that they should draw into that collaboration as many comrades from the Western Region as they felt could be trusted and shared sufficient agreement to conduct a common struggle against Healy. Alan Thornett was to prepare a statement for presentation to the WRP Central Committee and, on this basis, build an oppositional current, exploiting such freedoms as Healy might be obliged to permit him according to the WRP constitution on the rights of minorities and factions.”

This makes a mockery of Thornett’s later claims that his rights had been denied by the WRP leadership. All such rights had been forfeited when he organized his faction on this anarchist basis.

“It was agreed that I should give any assistance, principally political-literary, that Alan Thornett and his supporters might need in conducting this fight. It was on the basis of this understanding that I drafted substantial sections of Alan Thornett’s first oppositional document

“Those for which I was principally responsible are:

“(a) The section on the Transitional Programme

“(b) The section on Workers’Control

“(c) The section on Corporatism

“(d) The section on Social Democracy

“I was also invited to make suggestions for, and insertions into, the other sections of the document. The same applied to the second document, only, on this occasion, I was made responsible for proportionally a smaller part of it, mainly those sections on Workers’ Control and Factions. Both documents are reprinted in the WSL‘s “The Battle for Trotskyism” as solely their own.

“I also assisted Alan Thornett in preparing his addresses both to the Central Committee and to the anniversary rally of Workers Press, where he developed some of the themes contained in his first oppositional document on workers’ control and transitional demands.

“Contacts were on a daily basis, through phone calls and, at least once, but sometimes twice or three times a week, by visits, either by myself to Oxford or Reading, or by Western Region WRP members to my flat in Acton. Meetings also took place at both venues with Francois de Massot and leading participants in the Western Region opposition, me being present on each occasion.

“Despite unavoidable political differences, this collaboration endured up to and during the expulsion of the opposition just before the WRP Conference in 1974. In fact, before each meeting (whether in London or Oxford) between Alan Thornett and Healy, Alan Thornett would contact me to discuss the best way to present his case and counter any possible arguments made by Healy or others of the WRP leadership. Following these encounters, I would get a detailed report, usually by phone, but sometimes if the meeting was in London, in person, almost as soon as they were over. I was fully informed of Central Committee business long before rank and file WRP members found out about it—if at all. (In fact, this was so since August, when the first contact with Kate Blake ney was made.)

“Alan Thornett relied upon the Bulletin group also for the technical preparation of his second document, which was typed out (if not duplicated) for him by John Archer on the very eve of the WRP Congress at which he was to hand it out. Even the location of the WRP Congress was discovered by the Bulletin group, allowing the expelled WRP members to be brought in from the Western Region to lobby it.

“I well remember myself arriving in Oxford by train in October 1974 armed with a typewriter and being taken to a house where I spent the entire night drafting a section of the second document submitted by Alan Thornett.”

Blick concluded his statement by offering the following advice:

“The longer the WSL leadership continues to deny what it knows to be the truth, and purveys as the truth that which it knows to be a lie, the easier it will become for the WRP to make political capital out of the falsehoods disseminated by the WSL about its past. By making this statement, I hope to persuade those involved in the events in question to at least give a true account of them” (Quoted from copy of original letter)

This document confirmed the allegations made by Healy that Thornett was operating as a political agent of forces hostile to the party. The protestations of the Thornett clique about the violations of its rights were utterly dishonest and hypocritical. The real political banner of any inner-party faction is disclosed by the methods it uses. In seeking the assistance of forces openly hostile to his own Party, Thornett had objectively set out to destroy the Workers Revolutionary Party. By entering into a conspiracy against the Party of which he was a member, he demonstrated that he was not interested in correcting its leadership, preserving the unity of the WRP on a principled basis, and educating the membership.

It was the height of political duplicity for Thornett to conspire against his own Party and then denounce the leadership for violating the constitution. Healy, who then had accumulated 45 years of experience within the communist movement, could recognize an anti-party clique when he saw one. However, it is another matter entirely whether the leadership was politically wise in acting to expel Thornett on organizational grounds prior to an exhaustive discussion of the political differences, regardless of their origins. This is not a question of being wise after the event. The Trotskyist movement had, before Thornett emerged on the scene, acquired a great deal of experience in dealing with unprincipled minorities—of which the most famous was the Shachtman-Burnham-Abern tendency. Experience has taught the Trotskyist movement that the political clarification of cadre must be the overriding priority in any factional struggle—even one involving a disloyal clique.

In a discussion with a member of the ILP in 1935, Trotsky remarked that “it is best to let petty-bourgeois tendencies express themselves fully so that they may expose themselves.” (Trotsky’s Writings on Britain, Vol. 3, New Park, p. 123)

In the above passage, Trotsky was referring to a loyal opposition. But the point he was making was applicable to a wider range of circumstances. Had Healy been inclined to work over the lessons of the Fourth International’s past struggles, he might have recalled how Cannon had handled the Morrow-Goldman faction in 1945-46. This experience played no small role in Healy’s own development.

Felix Morrow and Albert Goldman developed an opposition to the Cannonite majority on the Political and Central Committee of the SWP on a broad range of issues. They collaborated closely with Jock Haston, the national secretary of the Revolutionary Communist Party, of which Healy was then in a minority. Demanding unity with the Shachtmanites, Morrow and Goldman functioned as a faction of the Workers Party inside the SWP leadership. Early in 1945, Cannon established that Morrow and Goldman left meetings of the SWP Political Committee to give Shachtman a full account of all its proceedings, including the latest sets of minutes. He would have been fully justified in throwing them out of the party; moreover, he would have enjoyed the support of the overwhelming majority of the SWP membership had he taken this action.

However, Cannon decided against such organizational measures for two reasons. First, he feared that the differences with Morrow and Goldman had not been sufficiently developed to justify a split, despite their provocative behavior. He correctly sensed that they reflected vague “unity” sentiments among sections of the party who, having joined the party after 1940 in the course of the rapid expansion of the SWP at the end of World War II, did not understand the fundamental differences between the SWP and Shachtman’s petty-bourgeois centrist group. He also recognized that there was confusion within the European sections of the Fourth International about the nature of the minority. Both Morrow and Goldman enjoyed considerable prestige inside the Fourth International: the latter as Trotsky’s lawyer; the former as the author of Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain. Cannon believed that it would be a serious error to accept a split under these conditions because it would not come to grips with the political issues which had given rise to the minority. Second—and this was for Cannon a factor of enormous importance—the split would have not, at that point, taken place over differences which would be clearly understood among the politically-conscious sections of the working class.

Therefore, at Cannon’s initiative, the SWP Political Committee addressed a carefully-worded letter to Morrow and Goldman in which it indicated that there were not sufficient grounds for a split, and invited them to meet with the Political Committee to work out organizational grievances and create the best conditions for further political discussion. This was not a short-term maneuver aimed simply at winning the public opinion of the party to its side. As a result of this intervention, the internal struggle with the Morrow-Goldman faction continued for more than a year—until Goldman resigned to join the Shachtmanites in May 1946. Morrow was expelled on the basis of irreconcilable programmatic differences in November 1946, after being allowed to address the party congress. By that point, the differences were so clear that not even Morrow believed that he was still a socialist. He left the conference hall and abandoned the revolutionary movement almost immediately, and soon after became a supporter of US imperialism.

In the course of this intense struggle, the full implications of the differences between Trotskyism and the Shacht-manite tendency in terms of the actual social forces they represented within the workers’ movement were clearly established. The irreconcilability of the differences, which had been established at an embryonic stage of their development in 1940, were again verified under conditions in which Shachtman’s political links to the right-wing trade union bureaucracy, beneath the impact of the Cold War, were assuming a direct political form.

No such clarification took place during the struggle against Thornett, which was over almost as soon as it began. Rather than recognizing that the ability of the OCI to establish, through Blick and Jenkins, a faction inside the WRP was the product of the failure to develop the struggle against centrism, the Healy leadership compounded the previous mistake by moving for an organizational settlement.

There were additional factors which had to be considered. Thornett’s platform had been partially built by the political line upon which the Party had been founded. His opposition to the running of candidates by the WRP in the two 1974 elections was the inevitable product of the Party’s programmatic concentration on the election of a Labour government as the basis for the WRPs existence. Having brought large numbers of workers into the WRP on this basis, it is understandable that Thornett reacted against what he saw as a reversion to “sectarianism.” Moreover, the differences which he raised relating to the use of the Transitional Program—specifically on the slogan of workers’ control and nationalization without compensation—reflected the pressures from those worker elements who had joined the Party on the basis of the anti-Tory line and had not been won over to revolutionary socialist policies. In this sense, despite his unprincipled methods, Thornett represented a large constituency within the WRP—for whose political confusion Healy and Banda were responsible and whom they now had to win to genuine Trotskyism. Having invited workers to join the party simply to bring Labour back to power, it was, politically speaking, bad manners to throw them out when they evinced resistance to organizing a revolutionary opposition to the Social Democrats—especially under conditions in which there were real concerns that the minority Labour government was on the verge of being brought down again by the Tories. The Thornett tendency represented powerful Social Democratic sentiments within the British working class—and an organizational settlement with those who articulated this tendency could only have an adverse effect on the work of the party inside the trade unions.

To make matters worse, the political differences raised by Thornett, to the extent that they had been developed in the autumn of 1974, had not reached the level at which a split could be justified in front of the working class. It was not sufficient for Healy and Banda to have a hunch, no matter how astute, that Thornett was functioning as an agent of the OCI. In 1940 Trotsky had warned Cannon not to take premature organizational measures against the minority, insisting that “you must act not only on the basis of your subjective appreciations, as correct as they may be, but on the basis of objective facts available to everyone” And he cautioned that organizational impatience “is not infrequently connected with theoretical indifference.” (In Defense of Marxism, New Park, p. 198)

Healy fought” Thornett by mobilizing the Party apparatus against him, relying heavily on the middle-class academics and professionals to intimidate the minority and make the organizational case for expulsion. Physical violence was used against the Thornett group. Elements like Cyril Smith were exhumed from their London flats to assist Healy in rigging a Control Commission while Slaughter, who had been sulking in Leeds for years, was brought down to play the role of priest at Thornett’s execution, providing a suitably sophisticated Marxist benediction as Healy lowered the axe. Healy dealt with heretics within the Party not in the manner of Trotsky but in that of Henry the Eighth, and all he succeeded in doing was to place over Thornett’s head the halo of a martyr.

The expulsion of Thornett cost the party several hundred members and wiped out its most important faction in basic industry. The direct result of the politically-irresponsible factional methods was to tilt the social base of the party toward the middle class. Forces like Redgrave and Mitchell rose to prominence as Healy, wounded by the desertion of the worker with whom he had collaborated so closely, reacted bitterly to what he regarded as a personal betrayal.

Coming on top of the unclarified split with the OCI, the bureaucratic expulsion of Thornett was a political disaster for the WRP. In the first instance, fundamental international questions had been evaded. Now, basic questions related to the political line of the movement in Britain were left unanswered. Regardless of Thornett’s aims, intentions and orientation, the emergence of his faction was bound up with crucial problems of the development of the Workers Revolutionary Party and the British working class. The coming to power of the Labour Party in March 1974 and its re-election in October 1974 placed immense political pressures on the Marxist vanguard and required theoretical clarity, without which tactical resourcefullness inevitably degenerates into opportunist scheming.

In this sense, the struggle with Thornett was the first great test of the WRP leadership’s ability to fight the Social Democracy. As Healy should have remembered, his own clashes with Haston inside the old RCP arose over the vexed question of the relation of the Marxist vanguard to g£e Labour Party. The International discussed the question exhaustively and devised a means of putting the contending positions to a practical test. Healy led an entry faction while Haston maintained leadership of the “Open Party.” Ultimately, the correctness of Healy’s position was verified, and the experience played an important part in his emergence as the leader of the British section.

In 1974 the WRP leadership was confronted with the need for developing longer-term tactics in relation to the struggle against the Labour Party. Preparatory to winning the masses within the Labour Party, it had first to win the workers within its own Party. Insofar as a substantial number of them followed Thornett, it was the responsibility of a wise leader to create conditions for these workers to understand the correctness of the party’s analysis. If this was not attempted, it was precisely because considerable confusion existed within the Healy camp.

As the anti-Tory offensive built up, especially after the massive strikes that erupted in defense of the Pentonville Five dock workers in the summer of 1972, the SLL leadership—which, unlike all the petty-bourgeois revisionist groups, was supremely confident that the working class could and would bring down the Tory government—came to believe that the victory of the Labour government would rapidly clear the decks for a final showdown with the Social Democrats. Healy, who had made a serious study of the Cromwellian Revolution, was wont to draw parallels between the coming Labour government and the Long Parliament of 1640. With this analogy, he sought to anticipate the situation that would arise when Labour, returned to power through the strength of the trade unions, confronted the demands of the working class for radical changes incompatible with capitalism under conditions of deepening world financial instability.

But history took a detour that Healy had not anticipated. From 1974 on they faced a long Parliament of another sort. The fall of the Tories and the return of Labour produced a new round of illusions in the viability of Social Democracy. This was reflected first of ail inside the Workers Revolutionary Party. The inability of the Healy leadership to conduct the patient political and theoretical struggle posed by the emergence of the Thornett opposition meant, within the context of the class struggle in Britain, that the Social Democracy had won an important victory over the WRP. In the name of saving the WRP from agents of the OCI. Healy plunged the WRP into a political bloodbath that enormously weakened the organization. Far from achieving political clarity as a result of the inner-party struggle, the Trotskyist movement in Britain emerged from the struggle more disoriented than at any time in the previous 21 years.

It must be added that at no time prior to the expulsion of Thornett was the struggle within the British section brought to the attention of the International Committee. Healy obviously believed that the ICFI had no independent role to play in the affairs of the WRP and looked upon it as merely an organizational appendage of the British movement. On this matter, there is no evidence that Thornett’s views were any different from Healy’s.