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

Political crisis in the ICFI

220. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the SLL fought to deepen its orientation to the working class, intervening in many of the most militant struggles against the Fraser and Hawke governments and winning members and support among important layers of workers and youth. The party’s twice-weekly newspaper Workers News was widely circulated in all the major cities and played a significant role in the strikes and struggles of steelworkers and miners, Queensland electricity workers, builders labourers, dockworkers, metal workers, railway workers, postal workers and teachers. However the coming to power of the Hawke Labor government posed new challenges to the SLL in the development of its political line and tactics, which it was not equipped to meet. While the SLL, as distinct from every other political tendency, fought to expose the Accord, the role of the Hawke government, and the Labor “lefts” and their Stalinist accomplices, its interventions increasingly tended to focus on encouraging militant union struggles, rather than deepening the party’s political analysis. This tendency expressed a certain adaptation to the pressures and national traditions of the labour movement itself. More than ever, what was needed was guidance and discussion, grounded on the strategic experiences of the Marxist movement, in the complex and difficult struggle against social democracy. But instead, the lack of collaboration on the part of the WRP leadership that had characterised the early period of the SLL’s development, now became a conscious campaign of disorientation and disruption. From October 1982 onwards, faced with principled criticisms of its theoretical and political orientation by Workers League national secretary David North, the leadership of the WRP suppressed the criticisms and worked consciously to isolate and ultimately destroy the ICFI and its sections.

221. In the mid-1970s, a growing divergence had begun to emerge between the political orientation of the Workers League and that of the Workers Revolutionary Party. In 1975, the Workers League responded to the desertion of its former national secretary, Tim Wohlforth, by deepening the struggle against Pabloism and placing the assimilation of the historical experiences of the Trotskyist movement at the centre of the party’s work. In a related development, the Workers League began to play an increasingly central role in the international campaign launched by the ICFI into the circumstances surrounding the assassination of Leon Trotsky. The investigation into Security and the Fourth International and the line-up of every middle-class radical and revisionist tendency against it, further underscored the significance of the struggle against Pabloism. The investigation was followed closely in the SLL, with ongoing reports published in Workers News. Public meetings were held on a regular basis to explain the findings, along with internal party education clarifying the significance of the investigation on the basis of the struggle waged by the ICFI against Pabloism. In 1977, Workers League national secretary David North conducted an Australian tour to explain the historical significance of the investigation. The meetings demonstrated the class gulf between Trotskyism and the entire petty-bourgeois radical milieu, when all the various revisionist organisations picketed the meetings to try and prevent workers and youth from attending, and explicitly defended the GPU agent Sylvia Franklin.

222. In October-November 1982 North submitted a detailed critique of Healy’s Studies in Dialectical Materialism, demonstrating that the WRP leader’s philosophical positions constituted a reversion to the kind of subjective idealism that Marx had overcome in his critique of the Left Hegelians. In a series of political criticisms North also pointed to an “unmistakeable opportunist drift” in the work of the WRP leadership noting that “for all intents and purposes” Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution had been treated as “inapplicable” to an analysis of the situation in the Middle East. Any possibility of discussion was stopped in its tracks after WRP general secretary Michael Banda and ICFI secretary Slaughter joined with Healy in threatening to immediately sever relations with the Workers League if North persisted with his criticisms. Revealing the class issues at stake, in December 1983, Slaughter wrote to the Workers League criticising its “very heavy emphasis” on the political independence of the working class. In his reply to Slaughter, North pointed out that “all the organisational, political and theoretical tasks of a Marxist party … are directed precisely toward the achievement of this political independence.” In a letter to Banda in January 1984, North expressed concern that “the International Committee is now in danger of losing the gains of many years of principled struggle” and that the Workers League was “deeply troubled by the growing signs of a drift towards positions quite similar—both in conclusions and methodology—to those which we have historically associated with Pabloism.” North further elaborated his criticisms at a meeting of the International Committee in February 1984, to which neither SLL nor Sri Lankan IC delegates had been invited. The WRP again refused to discuss the differences and repeated its threats of a split. Following the meeting Slaughter and Healy exchanged letters congratulating each other on what a good job they had done in defeating their “enemy” in the Workers League “with no holds barred.” Hostile to the program of Trotskyism, on which they themselves had once fought, the leaders of the WRP were now fighting to liquidate the ICFI.[1]

223. Just three months after the IC meeting, in May 1984, the WRP sent a letter to the SLL demanding that the party launch a campaign for the bringing down of the Hawke government. The letter insisted that the government was not merely “capitalist” but “counter-revolutionary”. The purpose of the communication was not to bring clarity to the complex tasks confronting the SLL but to provoke a crisis in the leadership and the party as a whole. The outcome was succinctly reviewed in the IC’s 1986 Resolution on the perspectives and tasks of the Socialist Labour League: “The full impact of the WRP’s degeneration was felt upon the Australian section once the crisis of the Fraser government posed the return of a Labor government. From 1983 on the SLL groped for a correct political line—a task made impossible by the disorienting directives handed down from London. The letter written in May 1984 by Geoff Pilling, instructing the SLL to campaign for the bringing down of the Labor government, was a criminal blow aimed at destroying the Australian section. … The next stage in the attempted demolition came in September 1984 when the WRP denounced the SLL for not accepting that Hawke’s government was the last before the socialist revolution. In the ensuing confusion, the SLL defined the Hawke government as a Bonapartist government, a definition applauded by Healy at the 10th Congress [of the ICFI in January 1985]. When this line came under criticism at the congress, Healy created a diversion and cut off discussion on the perspectives of the Australian section. In all its interventions, the WRP worked consciously to make it impossible for the Socialist Labour League to mount a consistent and politically coherent struggle within the workers’ movement against Social Democracy and on this basis win the vanguard of the working class to Trotskyism.”

224. By the beginning of 1985, the SLL was in deep political crisis. Its leadership had been destabilised and undermined by the accelerating series of WRP interventions aimed at blocking discussion and clarification. Unresolved political differences and tensions had deepened, reflecting the existence of opposed class positions and signifying that the SLL was no longer a homogenous party. The crisis could not be resolved within the national sphere. It required nothing less than the reestablishment of the programmatic foundations of Trotskyism at the centre of the work of the ICFI.


Fourth International, vol. 13, no. 2, 1986.