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

The aftermath of the 1985–86 split

246. The defeat of the national opportunists in the split of 1985–86 opened a new era in the history of the Fourth International. The victory of the internationalists signified a shift in the international balance of forces in the post-war struggle against opportunism. In the final analysis, Pabloism rested upon the domination of Stalinism over the workers’ movement. But as the struggle within the IC was underway, the Stalinist apparatus was descending into a state of terminal decline, culminating in the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991—an event that changed the entire structure of world politics.

247. The split in the International Committee was the most comprehensive in the history of the Fourth International. The statements, documents and analyses published by the IC, most notably How the WRP Betrayed Trotskyism 1973–1985The ICFI Defends Trotskyism 1982–1986, and The Heritage We Defend by David North, laid the foundation for the training and education of the international cadre, and for overcoming the impact of the degeneration of the WRP in all the sections of the IC.

248. In the Australian section, the split revealed that the principled foundations of the SLL had remained intact. Throughout its history, the party had schooled its membership in the lessons of the ICFI’s struggles against Pabloism. The continued emphasis on the historical experiences of the Trotskyist movement was a critical antidote to the WRP’s opportunism, despite the impact of the WRP leadership’s attacks on the SLL and its political line. It was this that enabled the party to defeat the liquidationist tendency that emerged within its own ranks.

249. The victory of the internationalists in the IC and in the SLL established the basis for the resolution of longstanding political problems that had not only plagued the SLL, but had dominated the Australian labor movement from its earliest days. The new IC leadership, led by David North and the Workers League, established an unprecedented level of international collaboration, creating the conditions for the sections to overcome the powerful pressures generated by the national milieu within each country.

250. The IC statement of October 1986 on the political line of the SLL contained critical insights for the development of the work of the Australian section. Failing to develop a unified international analysis and perspective, based on a thoroughgoing review of the experiences of the working class, the WRP, from the early 1970s onwards, promoted instead the concept of the “undefeated nature of the working class.” This concept, as the IC statement explained, constituted a “repudiation of the most fundamental scientific conceptions and principles upon which Trotskyism is based.” “In the course of the 1970s,” it continued, “the WRP sought to make ‘the undefeated nature of the working class’—not the crisis of revolutionary leadership—the central axis of work of the International Committee. What was, in reality, an essentially conjunctural assessment of the workers’ movement, was made an abstract (i.e., devoid of historical content) universal principle from which the perspective of the ICFI in every country was to be derived. This is absolutely contrary to the method of Marxism. A correct definition of the ‘nature’ of the working class can only be derived from the historical analysis of its unique position in the capitalist mode of production, which establishes that the modern proletariat is, as the bearer of new and higher social relations of production, the gravedigger of bourgeois society, i.e., that it is a revolutionary class. It is the recognition of this ‘nature’ of the proletariat that provides the Marxist party, regardless of the ebbs and flows of the class struggle, its central axis. This axis cannot be replaced with the evaluation of the immediate circumstances which confront the proletariat. Whether the proletariat is ‘defeated’ or ‘undefeated’ may affect the tactics of the revolutionary party: it cannot alter its fundamental principles and its central historical prognosis.”

251. The statement explained that this concept had been at the centre of the opportunist twists and turns of Healy and the WRP leadership. “For Healy … the ‘undefeated nature of the working class’ became a substitute for all historical analysis and served as the point of departure for an opportunist redefinition of the tasks of the International Committee. Each and every experience of the working class was taken as a fresh verification of the ‘undefeated nature of the working class.’ The successful replacement of strikers by scabs, the installation of a military junta, the expulsion of the PLO from Lebanon, the Iran-Iraq war, the election of Thatcher, etc.: the essence of all these developments was the same ‘undefeated nature of the working class.’ The resolution of the crisis of revolutionary leadership was divested of its real Trotskyist content, and was reinterpreted to mean that the sections of the ICFI had to do nothing more than express the constantly changing forms in which the ‘undefeated nature’ was spontaneously manifesting itself. In other words, the line of the ICFI sections was to be based on purely conjunctural considerations worked out through the medium of ‘dialectical’ cognition. The test of the political line was utterly opportunist: the magnitude of the practical results it produced. What concerned Healy was not the correspondence of the political line to the historical interests of the working class, but rather the realization of immediate organizational gains. Thus, emphasis was placed not upon the winning of the vanguard of the working class to Trotskyism, but rather on acquiring, without the necessary preparatory work, a mass paper membership.”

252. The statement continued: “Inasmuch as this method glorified empirical adaptation to conjunctural conditions, the work of sections was deprived of any stabilizing historical axis. In some sections, such as the Workers League and the Revolutionary Communist League, the existence of definite programmatic traditions derived from the long history of Trotskyism in the United States and Sri Lanka, provided a counter-weight to the unrestrained tactical opportunism advocated by the WRP. The comrades of the SLL, through no fault of their own, had to work out their perspectives without the benefit of firmly established traditions, and it is this—under conditions of systematic sabotage by the WRP—that has made the development of a clear political line toward the vexed problem of Social Democracy so difficult.”

253. The consequences of the opportunist conceptions advanced by the WRP gave rise to a tendency, within the Australian section, to belittle the struggle for socialist consciousness in the working class and to replace the ongoing assimilation and review of the strategic experiences of the party and the working class with an emphasis on activism. Under conditions where work on international perspectives had been abandoned by the WRP from the early 1970s onwards, this led to a tendency to separate the immediate tactics developed by the party from its overall strategy, i.e., the independent mobilisation of the working class on the perspective of world socialist revolution.

254. In many ways, in the absence of an ongoing collaboration with the international movement, the difficulties of the SLL in relation to the “vexed problem of Social Democracy” replicated those that had faced the Communist Party in its first years, and the early Trotskyist movement: a tendency, on the one hand, towards syndicalism—to adapt to the spontaneous militancy of the working class by simply raising more militant slogans and ignoring the necessity for a political struggle—and on the other, during periods of relative quiescence in the working class, towards parliamentarism—directing political demands to the parliamentary “lefts”, rather than seeking to develop the political struggle of the working class around demands aimed at exposing the Laborites and their left-talking centrist apologists, and assisting the working class to break from them.

255. In January 1987, the SLL central committee advanced a new political line aimed at the political education of the working class through the exposure of the Labor ‘lefts”. The SLL raised the demand, directed toward the most advanced sections of the working class, for the convening of an emergency Labor Party conference to carry out the sacking of the Hawke-Keating right wing from the Labor Party and to demand that the “lefts” form a workers’ government to carry out socialist policies. The aim of this tactic was to provide a principled platform from which to fight for the mobilisation of the working class in a struggle against the attacks of the Labor government. It provided a bridge between the ongoing struggles of the working class and the establishment of socialism and workers’ power. Against any conception that the formation of a government by the Labor “lefts” represented some sort of necessary stage on the way to a workers’ government and socialism, the tactic sought to provide a means to fight for the historic tasks of the working class within the given political situation.

256. As Trotsky had explained in the Transitional Program, the demand systematically addressed to the existing leaderships of the working class that they “break with the bourgeoisie” and “enter upon the road of struggle” for a workers’ government was an “extremely important weapon” for exposing their treacherous character. And so it proved in this case. Advanced under conditions of mounting opposition in the working class to the pro-market policies of the Labor government, the SLL’s policies won support and a new level of respect from important layers of workers and youth. The publication of the central committee statement, however, drew hysterical opposition from the “lefts” because it exposed their demagogic claims of “opposition” to the government as nothing but a cover for a refusal to fight the Hawke-Keating right wing.