Andy Blunden 1986

My Experience with Trotskyism

I got involved in politics in 1964-5, when the conscription laws were brought in by the Holt government, and I was drafted. I would have described myself as non-political before that, but in retrospect I can now see that in fact I always was political. As long as I can remember I've always defended the Soviet Union, even though I felt a sort of repulsion for the bureaucracy. I've always defended the trade unions, and so on.

But when the government brought in the conscription laws it suddenly came home to me very much, what politics meant. And so I became active in the movement against the Vietnam War and against conscription. I read some things, and took part in demonstrations and so on. I worked with the YCAC, a Communist Party front, although I didn’t realise it at the time. I have to say that at that time, in 1965, it was a very, very small movement. We were a very small minority, and although I myself supported the NLF fight, I don’t ever remember meeting anyone that publicly put forward the slogan of ‘Victory to the NLF’. In public I would define myself as a pacifist, and then go on to, in fact, put the ‘Victory to the NLF’ position which I held.

In March 1966, I burnt my draft card publicly, and later on that year, we participated in the fight to commit the Labor Party to repealing the conscription laws, and opposing the war. That was a successful struggle, but we became very aware that the Labor Party was going to be trounced in the election. So, we made the arrangement when I finished my final exams in October 1966, to leave the country, and in fact, I finished my exams, I left the country, Labor was trounced in the general election and the police came round to my door, all in less than a week.

So, I came to England in 1967. In 1968 I was caught up in that huge movement which affected millions of people across the world. In June 1968 I read a book by Emile Burns, Introduction to Marxism, and from that time forward I regarded myself as a Marxist. I studied Marxism fairly avidly for the next 5 years. I read and studied three volumes of Marx’s Capital, Dialectics of Nature and so on and so forth.

At one time or another I came into contact with all the left wing parties in Britain, but I have to say that all of them I regarded as not being Marxist, mostly from an ultra-left kind of position. I sort of believed that Marxism had died some time in the twenties.

In any case I began work as a teacher in a school in Brixton. It was a very political school. There were three members of the IS, an IMG member and an SLL member there. I felt really drawn to the SLL member because he constantly put forward politics in the trade union, and was scorned and laughed at by all the others, and I felt an immediate identification with him, and I supported him politically in the union. At the time he was fighting for the policy of industrial action to bring down the Tories. All the others opposed this, mostly on the basis of a syndicalist kind of perspective. I didn’t join at that time, but over a period of 12 months I ran out of reasons for not joining, and I eventually joined. He in fact left immediately afterwards.

But I became a member then, in January 1974, in the midst of the miners’ strike which brought down the Heath government. The final thing that decided me was hearing a speech by Mike Banda which I recognised as Marxist, proceeding from an analysis of the capitalist crisis to revolutionary conclusions.

Now, at that stage I had intended returning to Australia, within probably a few months, because the Whitlam government had been elected and I was now living on my own again and free to return. And I never expected that I would remain long in the WRP. In fact I remained a member from then on up until the split with Healy in 1985.

During that time I went through many years of great difficulty really, to understand how to work in the Party. I eventually reconciled myself to the idea that I would never be a revolutionary. I reconciled myself to the fact that I simply wasn’t made of the same stuff as a Healy or a Mitchell or a Torrance or whatever, and developed my own way of working in the East London area, where, as a matter of fact, the leadership tended to leave us alone, and not intervene very much in the branches in that area. I think during the last few years, as a result of that, somewhat apologetically, I did make a small amount of progress – I became active in my trade union and so on, I did actually begin to build a branch.

Quite possibly, a turning point in my development in the Party was when I wrote a review of Omelyanovsky’s Dialectics and Modern Physics. As it happened this review completely coincided with what Healy was doing at the time, in turning to the natural sciences and the Soviet philosophers, and I was flavour of the month for a while after that. Although I subsequently fell very hard, and I think, on philosophical questions, a number of times came sharply into conflict with the leadership – I never defended myself, it wasn’t a conscious opposition . But it did give me some sort of confidence in my own ability as a Marxist, and consequently I had the confidence to work out my own position.

The Expulsion of Healy

Now, the decisive point for me came after the miners’ strike when I was framed up by Healy and expelled on April Fool’s Day, 1985, supposedly for anti-Semitism. In the wake of that Sheila Torrance in fact explained to me, how Healy was degenerating, and that there was a struggle going on in the Party. Now, I never in fact left, and I was formally reinstated in membership on April 27, but really from that time onwards I looked at the policies of the Party and its practices in a completely different way, and I followed more or less day by day the events that led up to the explosion in the WRP in October 1985.

After the split I became aware that there was no need for me to remain in Britain. Throughout the time I'd been in the Party I had wanted to return to Australia. It was only the conception that I shared, that this would be a desertion, that we had certain responsibilities, routine active work that we had to carry on, and that to have returned to the country where I came from would have been a desertion.

It suddenly became clear, after the split, that this was completely false and reactionary. There was no reason why I shouldn’t return to Australia. I discussed with Wayne Poulson and Dany Sylveire, and later with Cliff Slaughter, because I wasn’t still sure of my own perception of that, but they confirmed it. So I was given a letter of introduction to the Australian section requesting that I be accepted as a member. I handed that letter to Nick Beams on December 16th, the day that the ICFI suspended the WRP. The day after that I left for Melbourne.

Before I left Cliff Slaughter gave me a short interview in which he explained the situation in Australia – that Jim Mulgrew had been removed from leadership, there had been a number of attempts to expel him, that he had made certain mistakes but these were mistakes of the kind that resulted from the pressures of leadership, and so on, and that he was in an enormous crisis, but that he was supporting the WRP. I was given his phone number and I was given Phil Sandford’s phone number, and that Phil was defending the WRP’s position, and I was told how Sam Pillay who had returned to Australia just before the split had been driven out of full time work and was out of contact.

I learnt that the SLL as a whole was Healyite, that the Political Committee had twice opposed the expulsion of Healy, that Linda Tenenbaum, who was living with Nick Beams, was the most fervent supporter of Healy – and so I returned to Australia really fully prepared not to be even accepted into membership of the Australian section, and certainly not to last very long. I fully allowed for spending a number of years in political isolation.

I spent the first week in Melbourne, mostly just reading – making up for lost time.

Now, I made contact with the SLL in Melbourne soon after I arrived, I went to see Richard Phillips in the Melbourne office. I had a short discussion with him, in the course of which I mentioned that in Britain we did talk to ‘revisionists’, and Richard said ‘Well, we don’t talk to them here’, and clearly signalled to me that I was not going to get any further with Richard.

I saw Lee Henderson’s article on Women’s oppression in the Workers News, and looked forward to meeting Lee. When I asked Phil about it, he was a quite cynical about that article, not believing it to be a genuine attempt to re-examine, but some kind of manoeuvre.

I made a subterfuge to make my own way up to Sydney, and avoid traveling up with the SLL, so that I was able to spend Boxing Day morning with Phil. I knew Phil from Britain of course, and we concurred more or less on perspectives and I have to say that I was actually fairly optimistic compared to Phil, who at this point was very pessimistic about our chances and expected that we would be expelled within a few days of the beginning of the camp.He was preparing for expulsion and have to start to rebuild with 2 or 3. In fact he held that position for a while – he never expected us to last more than another couple of days for some time.

I made contact with the SLL, for them to meet me at the station to drive to the camp. Phil was able to identify who was to travel in the car with me – Clay Robinson and Wayne Wadsworth, and Phil suggested Wayne as being the most likely supporter, and in fact in the course of the 50 km drive to the camp I had Wayne supporting the WRP’s position. So that was a good start.

I arrived at the camp. Of course I knew virtually no-one there. So, it was agreed between Phil and me that I would talk to everyone there for as long as I possibly could without distinction. He was in a position where a majority already of the SLL members wouldn’t talk to him. He was labelled as the ‘petit-bourgeois opposition and all this business, and it was already impossible for him to talk with many of the comrades – so we had this sort of division of labour. I am sure I spoke to every one of the 71 SLL members at the camp.

One of the first people I spoke to was Mike Head, who made a point of welcoming me to the camp and I had been given a copy of his document which I thought showed some small beginnings to try understand what was happening, but his document was already covered with my annotations.

The camp opened with a full day long speech by Nick Beams. This speech was one total fabrication which distorted and misrepresented from beginning to end the entire sequence of events which had taken place in Britain. Supposedly supporting the suspension of the WRP for Healy’s crimes, it was devoted entirely to attacking the WRP’s ‘right wing course'(ie break from ultra-leftism).

Now, as soon as he finished speaking Phil proposed that we break for a day and a half, for general informal discussion before opening the conference discussion, and – this is really typical of how the whole camp went – the Healyites were totally at sea really, they had no opposition to that and that motion was then passed. Linda Tenenbaum vainly said that we should spend that day and a half reading the documents. Of course no-one did. It was a day and half spent in intense discussions in twos and threes and fours. It was during this period that we were able to get to speak to everyone. It was gifts like that that arrived virtually every day in the course of the camp – they made the struggle really quite worthwhile.

Now, I had the impression really, during the camp, that we were winning people over to opposition to the leadership. I now know, in retrospect, that many people arrived there already with considerable determination to oppose the SLL leadership. By the time Phil rose to open the ‘discussion’ we had won over most of those who split with us 2 months later.

In the course of the nine days of the camp what took place was a gradual crystallisation – mostly in fact within the first three or four days. You simply had an aisle down the middle of the hall, and all the Healyites were sitting on one side, all those that supported the WRP on the other, with the exception of three ‘heavies’ who were sat behind Phil.

Phil opened up the discussion. He spoke at some length. I spoke after that, really simply recounting what had taken place during the split in Britain, because it was clearly necessary, if one was going to make any political assessment of what had taken place, any analysis at all, to know in the first place what had taken place. I knew of course, in doing this, that this would be labelled as ‘empiricism’ and so on, and indeed it was. But the Healyites fervently believed that your theory should never be obstructed with any concern for the facts – indeed Mike Head’s analysis of the split had not mentioned any event more recent than a year before the split occurred! The whole method, the quite peculiar method that exists particularly in Australia, was really only a question of the recitation of text and scripture, and ‘The Word from Overseas’, and it never occurs to them that for instance Healyism or any of these phenomena they read about could have any applicability in Australia. All these things were something that happened in another country, in Europe or America , and our job in Australia was simply to repeat the right words and point to the right documents and so on.

The order of speakers after me was Lee, Margaret, Roy, Bob, Clay Robinson, Cheryl Crisp, Sigrid, Len Richards, Anne, .... Of these only Clay and Cheryl Crisp were not opposed to the Suspension of the WRP, and Clay’s contribution was in fact very critical of the Healyites, firstly in saying that destruction of cadre was Healy’s main crime and that continued in Australia, and in opposing the idea that ‘rape was a secondary question’.

I found the speakers supporting us rather equivocal, in that most spoke against the suspension of the WRP, but were unable to defend the WRP. It could hardly have been otherwise – people had been kept ignorant of events in Britain, and were only just beginning to formulate their own critique of Healyism. But after every session we became clearer, and more assured.

Lee pointed out that Beams’ report back on events in the WRP was false

Margaret pointed to the long hours she had had to work in the bookshop as evidence of destruction of cadre continuing in Australia.

Roy gave a very colourful speech about ‘drawing the monster out and killing him’, referring to the struggle against Healyism.

Bob attacked the SLL for denying they had ‘crossed class lines’, and spoke well and at length.

Len raised hackles by saying that nationalism was the least of Healy’s crimes.

Anne supported the assertion that Slaughter had covered up for 3 months. Anne later came with the minority.

Ray Eade created pandemonium speaking after listening to the tapes of the 10th Congress and telling the truth about what the SLL leadership had done to Mulgrew, on Healy’s instructions.

Wayne pointed out how Healy, Mitchell and Redgrave had acted outside of the control of any sections and were the real architects of the betrayals, not the WRP.

Derek criticised rôle of daily paper and Workers News, and pointed out that subservience to the IC is not equal to internationalism.

Tim defended need to tell of experiences, and said that destruction of cadre was main crime, and made revision of theory possible.

Robert V spoke well, on destruction of cadre and revolutionary morality.

In the course of the whole camp, we all became much clearer. What took place was this whole crystallisation. As the it wore on, all the Healyites, one by one, found their way to the microphone, and – it was the most horrendous experience – because one after the other they would read the same quotations from In Defence of Marxism attacking the ‘petit-bourgeois tendency’ and so on. It was totally mindless activity, and it was horrifying to watch really, when you knew that you yourself had been part of this animal, and now you looked at it as something alien and you couldn’t live through that experience without being profoundly shocked.

It was that experience that brought some sort of coherence into what later became ‘The Minority’.

I was totally exhilarated by the camp. I got up at 6am every day, and talked and argued till well into the early hours to anyone I could get hold of.

Certainly, by the end of the camp, I couldn’t say that there was any greater agreement amongst us than that we were opposed to the suspension of the WRP and the need to ‘re-examine’ the SLL. We numbered 20 at that point.

Before returning to Melbourne I arranged to see Jim Mulgrew together with Len Richards. I have to say that the Mulgrew that I met was the same amiable, lively fellow that I knew from his visits to Britain, when I used to pick him up from the airport and take him back again when he went to see Healy. This was obviously a completely different character, I now know, from the Mulgrew known to most people in Australia. I was particularly struck, after such a protracted period of internal struggle to talk to someone that was following the events in the labour movement and the world generally.

The point with Mulgrew was that in the first place he had drawn the conclusion that Healy had been cynical from the beginning – that he had joined the Trotskyist movement for the basest purposes and cynically used the movement for his own benefit. And that consequently the movement that had been built by Healy was of no value. He didn’t agree and wasn’t supportive of continuing the struggle inside the SLL a day longer and had no time for it himself. His position was that we should move to get the assets and split and build a movement with whatever we had – 2 or 3 or 4 people. Also he particularly expressed his opposition to the decision of the WRP to abolish the post of Gen Sec and he believed that you needed to have a leader and he was still of the opinion that he was a suitable person to fulfill that role. That is to say, he defended his own role in the history of the SLL, though he did admit he had made mistakes – he was quite dismissive in fact of the whole history of the SLL – but he didn’t really regard that as being in any degree his responsibility or reflecting on his leadership.

After that I returned to Melbourne. I took with me two addresses that I had off Jim Mulgrew, namely Bert Wainer that I've never been able to see, and Peter and Robyn and I took back the addresses of Naomi and Gia, Phil Shrewry, and of Suyin from Sigrid – these were the contacts I had in Melbourne. All the SLL members that had come to the camp were Healyite to their bones – we didn’t see the slightest sign of any independent thought or glimmer of hope from any of the Melbourne delegation all week. In fact in all the time, the 2 months I spent in the SLL in Melbourne after that, that position, inside the SLL, never improved.

So I came back already very much with a perspective of looking for possibilities for an opposition, either outside the ranks of the SLL altogether, or among members that hadn’t come to the camp, less active members.

During that 2 months my activity was based firstly on proceeding as an ordinary member of the ‘Preston’ branch – covering about a third of Melbourne, in the North Eastern direction – I went on all the paper sales, I attended the various meetings that I was supposed to attend and so on. I always turned up to appointments a little early, so that when Sue Phillips and Rebecca Ponsford, the other members of the ‘branch’ arrived, they always had to begin by apologising to me. When we went on our door-knocks I always got readers for the paper, the others rarely did. I proceeded in this way, simply while persistently putting my support for the WRP and arguing for the need to break from the practices of sectarianism and so on, I acted as a good loyal member carrying out the sort of practices that were expected of me. I didn’t over-exert myself, in a mad round of activity, but I certainly kept up whatever level of activity was asked of me.

Again, the Healyites showed their inability to understand the nature of what was going on. I received a number of ‘gifts’ from them during this period.

The first gift I received was when I was told that ‘an ex-member from Brisbane’ had come to Melbourne and they gave me his name and address to call on him. This was very shortly after I arrived back. They knew I was in opposition. They knew I was working against them, and they handed me the name and address of an ex-member. So I went to see Carl and when I went in, there was Carl with the table covered with articles, papers, books – he was in fact in the process of writing an essay on Healy’s dialectics. He was already beginning to work over the significance of the split himself. So, really immediately I identified Carl as a supporter and he participated from then on in the work in opposition to the Healyites. We agreed that he would re-apply for membership to take up the fight from within the SLL. The Healyites were stupid, but not so stupid, and always blocked him from rejoining.

The next gift I had was when Sue Phillips took a holiday. Probably for a long time previously, like other good Healyites such as myself she had probably gone many years without a holiday. But now that the guru had been blown, she evidently felt that she could have a week’s holiday.

So she took a holiday, and she left Rebecca Ponsford with the complete list of all the contacts in the area, and a short political synopsis of each one, and then left me to drive Rebecca Ponsford around to visit the entire periphery of the SLL in that Northern or Eastern area of Melbourne.

The first thing that Rebecca did was leave the note behind at the end of the first day when I let her out. I copied the list, and in the period after I systematically worked my way around, visiting all the people mentioned on the list with anything indicating that they were at all political.

At exactly the same time as this, Lynn Beaton, who was not known to me then wrote back from England to Phil Sandford, telling him to get in touch with Gerry Beaton and Elvira.

Another gift – I was sent around to Anne Clarke’s place to give her the Workers News that she had promised to deliver for Sue while she was away. So I was actually invited to go and see her. I went there with the papers and Jim answered the door. He was very unfriendly, and I didn’t get a chance to speak to him at all. But I called back shortly afterwards and I was let in and I then met Gerry Beaton and Anne Clarke. In fact they had just received a letter from Lynn, and a number of copies of the Workers Press, either the same day or the day before, so their interest was already aroused.

I very quickly identified them as supportive of the points I wanted to make, I told them all about the events that were taking place in Britain and they showed considerable interest in what I was saying. I also checked out with them the other supporters I had on the list, and they gave me information about all the names that they recognised.

So I already knew of Chris Gaffney when I called around there with Rebecca. Chris having been identified by Sue Phillips’ list, and by Gerry and Anne as a supporter of Mandel, I wasn’t , at that point, planning to bring Chris into my confidence. But outside Chris’ place I was witness to an extremely interesting confrontation between Chris and Rebecca, in which Chris made a whole number of points to Rebecca, both about Healyism in general, and asking questions about the expulsion of Healy. I was struck by the points that he made and agreed with virtually everything that he said. As soon as I got home I telephoned him. Jim and Anne and Gerry had given me his telephone number. I arranged to go and see him and I then went to see him, and I met also Jenny, and I opened up discussions with them.

I had already made contact with Naomi and Gia and discussions were proceeding there. I had been to see Peter Clark and Robyn Lines, and they were also quite supportive of the position that I was putting. They were never, I think, very supportive of the SLL in Melbourne. They tended to have a lot of regard for Jim Mulgrew, and they had really a very cold relationship with the SLL in Melbourne. When I told them what the SLL leadership was doing they were very supportive of the points I made. Their own participation in that was to take great delight in putting direct questions to Richard Phillips, when he eventually, very belatedly came to see them, and watching him squirm, because he of course was under discipline not to say anything about what was going on inside the League, to anyone who wasn’t a member.

I had also made contact with Patricia. Patricia had had a phone call shortly before I got there, from Phil, warning her that I would be calling. But it was rather confusing for her when I turned up together with Rebecca, and in fact she let it out that she had received the phone call from Phil, and this did create a bit of a stir.

Shortly after making my initial contact with Gerry, Anne and Jim I organised a meeting, the first of a series of meetings which were held without the knowledge of the SLL. The first meeting took place at Peter and Robyn’s house. It was attended by Patricia, Jim and Anne and Gerry and Chris and Naomi and possibly Gia and of course Carl and Peter and Robyn.

At the first meeting I went to great lengths to create a relaxed atmosphere – I brought cheese and wine and things – all the people present were, I think, quite tense. They had all, to one degree or another, had bad experiences in the SLL and were somewhat intimidated by such meetings.

It was a very open ended kind of discussion around what the SLL was, and basically a criticism of its sectarian nature, and the way it treated its own members. We didn’t particularly discuss any sort of perspective, but exchanged, allowed people to talk about their experiences in the SLL, the thoughts they'd had but never previously been able to articulate.

We held such meetings mostly weekly after that – two in Brighton, the later ones were in the Preston area.

Anne, told me that she knew this person that she thought would possibly be interested. She phoned Dave McKenzie and got permission from Dave to give me his telephone number. I phoned Dave and we arranged to meet the following day, although he was very cagey on the phone.

I went to meet him in a cafe in Coburg, with Carl. What was striking about Dave was that he was extremely cautious about even discussing with me – the loyalty he had to the SLL and his hesitancy to become involved in an internal struggle which he himself felt, as a non-member, he didn’t have a right to. It was very evident, at the same time, that his thirst and hunger for an understanding of what was taking place was perfectly obvious, and it was the latter which got the upper hand.

I gave him about an inch-thick pile of documents when we parted from this discussion at which I'd done most of the talking, and he would give no commitment as to when he would see us again. First thing the following morning he phoned back to say could he please have some more documents, and I provided him with another inch-thick pile, which he rapidly consumed and Dave from that moment forward became an avid supporter of the minority and the Communist League.

It was Patricia that put me in contact with Steve Payne and Meg. Steve had left the SLL only just before. He knew the actors in Britain, all of whom had supported Healy. AT first I thought I might have been setting up the nucleus of a pro-Healy group, but the drift of the points Steve wanted to make soon reassured me and I ended up giving him a stack of documents to read. Steve then went to work in Canberra for a period, and we didn’t see him again till much later on.

In February we had the publication of the Workers Press with Banda’s 27 points in and so on. This was designed of course to split the IC and it did so of course, prematurely. What happened in Australia was, the SLL leadership brought down a series of motions saying that if we had any contact with the WRP, if we spoke to supporters of the Party or ex-members about what was happening inside the SLL we would be expelled. Later on that you had to ‘recognise the political authority of the ICFI’. This meant that to assert that the ICFI was not already the ‘World Party of Socialist Revolution’ was an expulsion question. Even to assert this within the ranks of the League.

So at this point we decided to form a Minority. I was allowed to travel to Sydney to attend meetings of the Minority, and generally speaking we were never prevented from putting our position inside the League. The occasional pathetic attempt to do so. But generally speaking all our documents were circulated properly, and we were allowed to make our points.

After the minority was formed I had to hold off from distributing documents among the people I was talking to in Melbourne. We were concerned not to provoke a split or expulsions prematurely, but to carry the fight on inside the SLL as long as we could.

Elvira returned to Melbourne at the end of February after being away filming during this whole period and I had left a message for her to contact me when she got back. She came over to see me while I was in the process of moving house and she spent just a couple of hours with me while I was rushing about, and that discussion went very well and in fact Elvira supported the minority immediately from then on.

Now, when we went to the Special Conference on the 2nd of March we fully expected to be expelled before the end of that conference. In fact we weren’t expelled but there was a vote by about a three to one majority that we would indeed be expelled at Easter unless we retracted all the political positions that we put inside the League.

At that point many people inside the minority, in the Sydney area really, were fed up to the back teeth with life inside the SLL and we had to face the choice if we carried on that extra two weeks to the Easter Special Conference where we were going to be expelled we would, in the process, possibly lose some of our members, such as Ray Eade. So we made the decision to split then.

After that conference was over we met in the evening, we voted unanimously to split, and to build a new organisation which would be called the Communist League. We met the following morning and made arrangements for the printing and distribution of a leaflet declaring our position and began work towards publishing all the documents from the internal discussion in a new paper and so forth.

I returned to Melbourne and we began the work of establishing the Communist League.