Healy, Thomas Gerard (‘Gerry’) (1913–1989), Trotskyist party-leader, was born in Ballybane, Co. Galway, on 3 December 1913, the eldest of four children of Michael Healy, a well-off farmer of Ballybane, and Margaret Mary (née Rabbitte). Healy fabricated aspects of his early life story, such as his widely circulated claim that as a six-year-old he saw his father being shot by the ‘Black and Tans’. He developed a lifelong habit of exaggerating or lying about his life and political activities. His father lived at least into the 1930s, and his mother died in May 1981, but he was estranged from them from a young age.
Healy had probably moved to the United Kingdom by 1926, possibly spending time in Cardiff before relocating to London. The first confirmed date for his presence in Britain is 1936, by which time he was active in the Communist Party. He left the party the following year for unclear reasons; he later claimed that he was expelled for questioning the USSR’s continued trade links with the fascist regime in Italy. The Scottish Trotskyist, Jock Haston, claimed he had personally converted Healy to Trotskyism following a fight outside a public toilet in Hyde Park, London. Haston’s account is probably more accurate.
By the end of the thirties Healy was a committed Trotskyist and active in the Workers International League (WIL), one of five small groups in Britain claiming allegiance to Trotsky. At the start of the second world war, the WIL leadership, including Healy, relocated to Dublin, seeking to avoid both wartime censorship and newspaper rationing. Healy soon ran afoul of fellow members, and of the WIL’s small Irish affiliate; his contentious and sectarian approach to politics was already developing at this early stage. Healy returned to London by 1940 and seems to have worked a series of factory jobs throughout the war. It is possible he also attempted to enlist in the British Army, despite the Trotskyists holding to a policy of ‘revolutionary defeatism’ in which they hoped to see both the Nazis and the Allies simultaneously defeated. In December 1941 Healy married Betty Russell, a onetime Communist Party member. They had two children together and, though never formally divorced, separated in about 1974.
Under pressure from the leadership of the Fourth International, the umbrella organisation for world Trotskyism, several small British groups began to amalgamate with the WIL to form the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). The RCP was active in wildcat strikes in the later years of the war and enough of a nuisance to be under state surveillance. That Healy was not targeted for surveillance is testament to his relative unimportance at that time. At the war’s end, most Trotskyists (including those within the RCP) anticipated a downturn in global capitalism and an upsurge in revolutionary consciousness. Instead, the capitalist economies stabilised, leaving the Trotskyists bewildered, disillusioned and prone to in-fighting.
In 1949 the RCP split into two factions: an open party under Jock Haston who favoured maintaining an independent existence, and an ‘entryist’ faction led by Healy, who sought to join the Labour Party and push Labour leftward. Shortly after the split, the Haston-led RCP dissolved, having come to a realisation that Trotskyism was a dead end. The Healy faction was thus in the odd situation of being the secretive wing of an open party that no longer existed; their members euphemistically referred to themselves as ‘The Club’, and Healy became an active member of his local Labour Party in Streatham, south London.
With the election of Hugh Gaitskell as leader in 1955, the Labour Party tacked rightwards and any potential sympathies for ‘The Club’ evaporated. In 1959 Healy led his followers back into open activity by forming the Socialist Labour League (SLL) – it was then the only properly organised Trotskyist party in the UK. The SLL saw a significant bump in numbers as it pulled in former Communist Party members who had left following the Hungarian invasion of 1956. Leading communists like Brian Behan ((qv), brother of Brendan (qv) and a former member of the national executive of the British Communist Party) and Peter Fryer, a former correspondent for the Daily Worker, joined at this point. Few of these recruits stayed, as Healy’s authoritarian leadership proved no better than that of the Communist Party. On the other hand, the SLL retained a presence within Labour’s youth wing, at least until 1964 when Harold Wilson closed the Young Socialists to finally clear out the SLL. The Young Socialist exiles provided a different pool of recruits, keeping the SLL alive into the 1960s.
By this period, Healy’s propensity for violence was also becoming an open secret. An assault on the Northern Ireland-born Trotskyist Ernie Tate in 1966 was widely discussed, and the American Trotskyist George Novack warned his British comrades to remove Healy from leadership. Healy was physically short and noticeably ugly (the actor Kate Beckinsale, whose stepfather, Roy Battersby, was a Healyite, said he was a ‘Mr Toad lookalike’ (The Guardian, 19 May 2016)). But he was also charismatic and maintained a loyal cast of followers, despite (or because of) his violence.
The upsurge of left-wing and anti-war activism at the end of the 1960s was a boon for British Trotskyists, lasting into the mid-1980s. Newer formations on the British radical left, such as the International Socialists (later renamed the Socialist Workers Party) and the International Marxist Group, proved more adept, however, at recruiting students and youth. The staunchly anti-Stalinist SLL refused to support the Viet Cong; its hostility to anti-Vietnam war protests flowed from this but was inexplicable to many outside the party. Healy found a different source of high-profile recruits in the theatre world, as sibling actors Corin and Vanessa Redgrave and the director Roy Battersby, among a host of others, joined the SLL. Trevor Griffiths’ play ‘The Party’ (1973) depicted this milieu, with Lawrence Olivier giving a thinly veiled, and generally sympathetic, portrayal of Healy in its first performance at the National Theatre, London, in December 1973.
With increasing strike action in the early 1970s, the SLL again experienced a growth in membership – mainly from working class backgrounds, notwithstanding the celebrity presence of the Redgraves – and Healy publicly spoke of a coming revolution in Britain. He duly transformed the SLL into the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP) in 1973. Predictions of a full-throated class war became a recurring trope of Healy’s politics, serving as a recruiting tool and as a means of motivating (or coercing) party members.
The WRP remained numerically small (never really growing past 3,000 members), but it punched above its weight. The party maintained a daily paper, Workers Press (the only ever Trotskyist daily in the world, replaced by News Line in 1976), a full-colour printing press, a network of book shops across Britain, a small mansion in Derbyshire used for party retreats and up to ninety full-time staff members. In September 1975 police raided the house in Derbyshire on the spurious allegation that weapons were being stockpiled there. The tabloid press dubbed it ‘the Red House’, and in August 1976, Shelley Rohde, a journalist for the Daily Mail, wrote a sensationalist exposé of a study course held at the house in which she had enrolled. Little other than discussions of Marxist history and economics seemed to be going on at the house, but the British press paid a great deal of attention to the WRP, partly because of the Redgraves and partly because it was seen as an extreme case of the ‘loony-left’. Party employees, Healy among them, lived in flats owned by the WRP adjacent to its offices in Clapham, London. The party later added a network of urban youth training centres to its portfolio, though these mostly remained unused.
Question marks over how exactly this small party was funding such large-scale operations fomented a series of increasingly outlandish theories among other leftists about donations from dictatorial regimes in the Middle East. There was a sliver of truth to these accusations, and Healy does seem to have personally met with Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, which he justified by presenting these regimes as bulwarks against Zionism and American capitalist imperialism. Other Trotskyist groups condemned these connections and, in some cases, exaggerated them. The WRP was sensitive to such accusations, sometimes threatening legal action against opponents who had labelled them stooges of Gaddafi. The most reliable sources of funding, though, were the large donations sweated from party members. From 1974 onwards, the WRP stood candidates in every general election, but like most Trotskyist candidates in British elections, they fared abysmally.
The WRP limped into the 1980s with little to show for its work politically. Healy suffered a heart attack in September 1983, and discontent within the party boiled over. The defeat of the miners’ strike (1984–5) added to the despondency; all the major strands of British Trotskyism saw their memberships drop with several parties imploding around these years. The WRP had refused to actively engage in the miners’ strike, preferring to concentrate on building connections with Arthur Scargill and other union leaders. As vanguardist Leninists, they were suspicious of spontaneous working-class organising. In the summer of 1985, a group of five grassroots party members who feared for the WRP’s future moved against Healy by circulating a letter exposing his history of sexual abuse. The letter named twenty-six women, and the assumption was that Healy had abused far more, going back to at least 1964, when a secretive ‘control commission’ within the SLL had investigated his behaviour. In October 1985 Healy was expelled from the party he had so tightly controlled from its inception. The WRP fragmented into six separate organisations, and in time all but two of these groups also split or disappeared.
Healy’s final years were spent in the Marxist Party, a tiny group made up only of his closest supporters, mostly the Redgraves and their camp of followers. He died on 14 December 1989 and his cremated ashes were buried in Highgate Cemetery, London, near Karl Marx’s grave. Obituaries, almost all condemnatory, were published in various Trotskyist publications. Obituaries also appeared in the Irish Press, as well as the Guardian (written by Vanessa Redgrave).