Socialist Equality Party (Australia)
The Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (Australia)

The struggle against Pabloism and the growth of the ICFI

162. Just as the stabilisation of world capitalism in the aftermath of World War II created the objective conditions for the emergence of Pabloite opportunism and the liquidation of Trotskyist parties in many parts of the world, including Australia, so the deepening disequilibrium of the post-war order became the driving force for the radicalisation of a new generation, and the turn by the most conscious layers to revolutionary Marxism.

163. The emergence of new sections of the ICFI in the period between 1966 and 1972 was not, however, a spontaneous or automatic outcome of the deepening world crisis. It was prepared by the ICFI’s political and theoretical struggle against Pabloite opportunism, embodied in Cannon’s Open Letter of 1953 and the struggle undertaken by the Socialist Labour League, the British section of the ICFI, from 1961 to 1963 against the political backsliding of the American Socialist Workers Party and its moves towards reunification with the Pabloite International.

164. In 1954 Cannon had summed up the essential issues that he had elaborated in the Open Letter. The problem of leadership, he insisted, was “a question of the development of the international revolution and the socialist transformation of society. To admit that this can happen automatically is, in effect, to abandon Marxism altogether. No, it can only be a conscious operation, and it imperatively requires the leadership of the Marxist party which represents the conscious element in the historic process. No other party will do. No other tendency in the labor movement can be recognized as a satisfactory substitute. For that reason, our attitude towards all other parties and tendencies is irreconcilably hostile.”[1]

165. By 1961 the SWP, through its increasing adaptation to the American middle-class radical milieu, had abandoned this outlook. It now glorified Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba as a “workers’ state” claiming it had been established by “unconscious Marxists”. The British Trotskyists exposed this as an outright rejection of the revolutionary role of the working class, and of the necessity of resolving the crisis of revolutionary leadership. They also demonstrated the objectivist method that underpinned it. Criticising the SWP’s perspectives resolution, Cliff Slaughter wrote: “The fundamental weakness of the SWP resolution is its substitution of ‘objectivism’ i.e., a false objectivity for the Marxist method. This approach leads to similar conclusions to those of the Pabloites. From his analysis of imperialism as the final stage of capitalism, Lenin concluded that the conscious revolutionary role of the working class and its party was all-important. The protagonists of ‘objectivism’ conclude, however, that the strength of the ‘objective factors’ is so great that, regardless of the attainment of Marxist leadership of the proletariat in its struggle, the working-class revolution will be achieved, the power of the capitalists overthrown. It is difficult to attach any other meaning than this to the SWP resolution’s formulations about the ‘impatience’ of the masses who cannot delay the revolution until the construction of a Marxist leadership. This means that the existing leaderships of the anti-imperialist forces will be forced ‘by the logic of the revolution itself’ to undertake the revolutionary leadership of the proletarian struggle for power. The SWP has not fully developed this theory, but in its attitude to Cuba it accepts exactly these notions. In the early 1950s the basis of the Pabloite notion that the Communist Parties and the Soviet bureaucracy would ‘project a revolutionary orientation’ followed from precisely this approach. A Marxist analysis must insist on this deviation in the SWP Resolution being thought through to the end. If the petty-bourgeois leadership in Cuba has been forced by the objective logic of events to lead the proletariat to power (the SWP says Cuba is a ‘workers’ state’, which can only mean the dictatorship of the proletariat) then we must demand an analysis of the present world situation which shows how this type of event has become possible, so that the Leninist theory of the relation between class, party and power, must be discarded.”[2]

166. In a letter to the SWP dated January 2, 1961, the British Trotskyists warned: “The greatest danger confronting the revolutionary movement is liquidationism, flowing from a capitulation either to the strength of imperialism or of the bureaucratic apparatuses in the labour movement, or both. Pabloism represents, even more clearly now than in 1953, this liquidationist tendency in the international Marxist movement … Any retreat from the strategy of the political independence of the working class and the construction of revolutionary parties will take on the significance of a world-historical blunder on the part of the Trotskyist movement… It is because of the magnitude of the opportunities opening up before Trotskyism, and therefore the necessity for political and theoretical clarity, that we urgently require a drawing of the lines against revisionism in all its forms. It is time to draw to a close the period in which Pabloite revisionism was regarded as a trend within Trotskyism. Unless this is done we cannot prepare for the revolutionary struggles now beginning.”[3]

167. Throughout the mounting conflict in the ICFI, the SWP refused to review the fundamental issues of program and perspective that had led to the split in 1953 with Pablo and Mandel. In 1963 the party followed the logic of its political positions and reunified with the Pabloites. The implications of the reunification did not take long to reveal themselves. In 1964, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), the Sri Lankan section of the Pabloite International, entered the bourgeois coalition government of Madame Bandaranaike—the first time a party claiming to be “Trotskyist” had played such a direct role in maintaining bourgeois rule. The LSSP’s Great Betrayal laid bare the essential class logic of Pabloite opportunism.

168. The Third Congress of the ICFI, held in 1966 under immensely difficult circumstances, assessed the lessons of the Pabloite reunification. Over the previous decade Pabloism had been responsible for liquidating the majority of the sections of the Fourth International. In the preparation for the congress, a position emerged that the Fourth International had been destroyed and had, therefore, to be “reconstructed.” Opposing this conception, the congress resolution reaffirmed the historical significance of the struggle against revisionism, insisting that the “historical continuity of the Fourth International was ensured by the International Committee, for it alone was able to carry out the theoretical and practical fight against revisionism, indispensable for the building of the revolutionary leadership.”

169. Following the congress, the Workers League was founded in the United States from a minority within the SWP that had opposed the party’s reunification with the Pabloites. Working under the guidance of Gerry Healy, a grouping led by Tim Wohlforth had demanded a discussion on the LSSP’s betrayal, whereupon it was expelled from the SWP in 1964. Another grouping led by James Robertson, which claimed to be in support of the ICFI, had been earlier expelled. The British Trotskyists worked for a clarification of the political issues and, if possible, a principled collaboration between the Wohlforth and Robertson groups. That proved to be impossible. Robertson openly attacked the historical significance of the struggle against Pabloism at the Third Congress and went on to form the petty-bourgeois, pro-Stalinist sect, Spartacist. In November 1966 the tendency led by Wohlforth founded the Workers League as the new Trotskyist party in the US, in political solidarity with the ICFI. In Sri Lanka a group within the LSSP that opposed the LSSP’s betrayal responded to the British Trotskyists, who explained that the degeneration of the LSSP was the outcome of Pabloism, against which it was necessary to wage an international struggle. This tendency went on to found the Revolutionary Communist League as the Sri Lankan section of the ICFI in 1968.

170. While the French section of the ICFI, the Organisation Communiste Internationale (OCI), had supported the positions of the SLL at the 1966 congress, it soon began to argue that the Fourth International had to be “reconstructed.” Behind this formulation lay a centrist shift. In a letter to the OCI in June 1967, the SLL pointed to the signs of a growing radicalisation in France and warned that at such times there was a danger that “a revolutionary party responds to the situation in the working class not in a revolutionary way, but by adaptation to the level of struggle to which the workers are restricted by their own experience under the old leaderships, i.e., to the inevitable initial confusion. Such revisions of the fight for the independent party and the Transitional Program are usually dressed up in the disguise of getting closer to the working class, unity with all those in struggle, not posing ultimatums, abandoning dogmatism, etc.”[4] The formulations of the OCI, which rejected the analysis of the 1966 congress and the centrality of the fight against revisionism, had to be analysed against this background. The differences between the SLL and the OCI widened, especially after the events of May–June 1968, in which the OCI had pursued a centrist orientation, leading to a split in 1971. In Germany, a minority tendency in the Internationale Arbeiter Korrespondenz (IAK), which had been established by the OCI in 1965, supported the criticisms of the SLL and established the Bund Sozialistischer Arbeiter (BSA) as a section of the ICFI in September 1971.


David North, The Heritage We Defend: A Contribution to the History of the Fourth International, Labor Publications, Detroit, 1988, pp. 249–250.


Ibid., pp. 380–381.


Ibid., p. 376.


‘Reply to the OCI by the Central Committee of the SLL, June 19, 1967’, Trotskyism versus Revisionism Volume Five, London, New Park, 1975, pp. 113-14.