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

The founding of the International Committee

126. The post war events posed new political and theoretical challenges for the Fourth International that led to the emergence of new revisionist tendencies. In 1942, a group of German Trotskyists, who had emigrated to the US, had published “Three Theses on the Political Situation and the Political Tasks” which drew very pessimistic conclusions from the defeats of the working class and ruled out the perspective of socialism until the distant future. Rather than comprehending National Socialism as an expression of the decay of capitalism the “retrogressionists” saw it as the birth of a new social system, a modern form of “slave state”, which had propelled human development backwards by generations. Before there could be any consideration of socialism, an epoch of national democratic revolutions was on the agenda, in which the working class would play no independent role, but rather subordinate itself unconditionally to bourgeois-led resistance movements. The theses of the retrogressionists, which had much in common with the pessimistic conclusions drawn at the same time by leading representatives of the Frankfurt School, amounted to an argument in favour of class collaboration of the People’s Front variety.[1]

127. While the retrogressionists and similar tendencies quickly quit the ranks of the Fourth International, the growth of an opportunist tendency led by Michel Pablo and Ernest Mandel produced a major split in 1953. The orthodox Trotskyists, who organised themselves in the International Committee, regarded the stabilization of capitalism as a temporary phenomenon, a product of the combined betrayals of Stalinism and social democracy and the resultant defeats of the working class. They defended the program of the Fourth International and sought ways and means to break the working class from the influence of the bureaucratic apparatuses, and, in this way, prepare for future class struggles. The Pabloite opportunists capitulated to the strengthened bureaucratic apparatuses and ascribed to them a progressive character, thereby liquidating the program of the Fourth International.

128. The conflict developed over the assessment of the states that had been formed at the end of the 1940s in Eastern Europe. The Fourth International hesitated to term the GDR and other so-called “People’s Republics” workers’ states. The nationalizations were not sufficient, by themselves, for such a definition. Equally important was who had carried them out, and in whose favour and under what conditions. Finally, the Fourth International decided upon the definition “deformed workers’ states”. The term “workers’ states” was utilised to acknowledge that capitalist private property had been eliminated through the expropriation of large estates and capital holdings, and that the property relations developed in this way had to be defended. But the emphasis was on the term “deformed”. From their very birth, these states exhibited major deformations, which weighed far more heavily than the progressive character of the nationalizations. They lacked the most important precondition for a socialist society—the active and democratic participation of the working class. There were neither Soviets nor other organs of workers’ democracy. The bureaucracy, a privileged caste, exercised a dictatorship, controlling not only the state and political parties, but also the trade unions. The working class had neither political nor any independent union representation.

129. What weighed even more heavily was the damage caused by the Stalinists’ crimes to the socialist consciousness of the international working class. The catastrophic defeats in Germany, Spain and other countries, for which Stalinism was responsible; the execution of tens of thousands of communists in the context of the Moscow Trials, and finally the suppression of workers’ rebellions in the GDR, Poland and Hungary, repelled millions of workers from supposed communism and pushed them back into the arms of social democracy. “From the world point of view, the reforms realized by the Soviet bureaucracy in the sense of an assimilation of the buffer zone to the USSR weigh incomparably less in the balance than the blows dealt by the Soviet bureaucracy, especially through its actions in the buffer zone, against the consciousness of the world proletariat, which it demoralizes, disorients and paralyzes by all its politics and thus renders it susceptible to some extent to the imperialist campaign of war preparations”, the Fourth International stated in 1949. “Even from the point of view of the USSR itself, the defeats and the demoralization of the world proletariat caused by Stalinism constitute an incomparably greater danger than the consolidation of the buffer zone constitutes a reinforcement.”[2]

130. This evaluation, however, was quickly challenged. Michel Pablo, Secretary of the Fourth International at the time, regarded the deformed workers’ states as the model for the transition from capitalism to socialism, which would take centuries. In place of the class struggle between the working class and the bourgeoisie, he posed the conflict between imperialism and the Soviet Union. “For our movement objective social reality consists essentially of the capitalist regime and the Stalinist world,”[3] he wrote in 1951, and claimed that a forthcoming war between the United States and the Soviet Union would take the form of a world-wide civil war, which would force the Soviet bureaucracy to play the role of midwife to the social revolution.

131. This perspective amounted to the liquidation of the Fourth International and its sections. If the Stalinist bureaucracy could be transformed into a tool for socialist revolution under the pressure of objective events, then the construction of independent revolutionary parties was rendered obsolete, and even a hindrance; then it was necessary to subordinate “all organizational considerations, of formal independence or otherwise, to real integration into the mass movement wherever it expresses itself in each country”. Pablo forced entire sections to dissolve themselves as independent organizations and enter Stalinist parties; a tactic that he called “entrism sui generis”.[4]

132. The Pabloites applied this same perspective to the reformist parties, the trade unions and the bourgeois nationalist movements in the colonial countries. Under the leadership of Ernest Mandel, the Pabloite United Secretariat specialized in finding theoretical and political formulae that ascribed a revolutionary role to the bureaucratic apparatuses and other nonproletarian forces. Pabloism substituted for Marxism the method of objectivism, which denies the significance of the party for the development of the world revolution: “The standpoint of objectivism is contemplation rather than revolutionary practical activity, of observation rather than struggle; it justifies what is happening rather than explains what must be done. This method provided the theoretical underpinnings for a perspective in which Trotskyism was no longer seen as the doctrine guiding the practical activity of a party determined to conquer power and change the course of history, but rather as a general interpretation of a historical process in which socialism would ultimately be realized under the leadership of nonproletarian forces hostile to the Fourth International. Insofar as Trotskyism was to be credited with any direct role in the course of events, it was merely as a sort of subliminal mental process unconsciously guiding the activities of Stalinists, neo-Stalinists, semi-Stalinists and, of course, petty-bourgeois nationalists of one type or another.”[5]

133. Pabloite revisionism met with resistance inside the Fourth International. In 1952, the majority of the French section rejected Pablo’s course and were therefore bureaucratically expelled. In 1953, the American Socialist Workers Party subjected Pabloite revisionism to a devastating critique. In an open letter, SWP leader James P. Cannon turned to all orthodox Trotskyists around the world. He affirmed the principles on which the Fourth International had been based since its establishment, and summarized them as follows:

1. The death agony of the capitalist system threatens the destruction of civilization through worsening depressions, world wars and barbaric manifestations like fascism. The development of atomic weapons today underlines the danger in the gravest possible way.

2. The descent into the abyss can be avoided only by replacing capitalism with the planned economy of socialism on a world scale and thus resuming the spiral of progress opened up by capitalism in its early days.

3. This can be accomplished only under the leadership of the working class in society. But the working class itself faces a crisis in leadership although the world relationship of social forces was never so favorable as today for the workers to take the road to power.

4. To organize itself for carrying out this world-historic aim, the working class in each country must construct a revolutionary socialist party in the pattern developed by Lenin; that is, a combat party capable of dialectically combining democracy and centralism―democracy in arriving at decisions, centralism in carrying them out; a leadership controlled by the ranks, ranks able to carry forward under fire in disciplined fashion.

5. The main obstacle to this is Stalinism, which attracts workers through exploiting the prestige of the October 1917 Revolution in Russia, only later, as it betrays their confidence, to hurl them either into the arms of the Social Democracy, into apathy, or back into illusions in capitalism. The penalty for these betrayals is paid by the working people in the form of consolidation of fascist or monarchist forces, and new outbreaks of wars fostered and prepared by capitalism. From its inception, the Fourth International set as one of its major tasks the revolutionary overthrow of Stalinism inside and outside the USSR.

6. The need for flexible tactics facing many sections of the Fourth International, and parties or groups sympathetic to its program, makes it all the more imperative that they know how to fight imperialism and all its petty-bourgeois agencies (such as nationalist formations or trade union bureaucracies) without capitulation to Stalinism; and, conversely, know how to fight Stalinism (which in the final analysis is a petty-bourgeois agency of imperialism) without capitulating to imperialism.[6]

134. The Open Letter made clear the political consequences of Pabloite revisionism by referring to the GDR uprising of June 17, 1953. Pablo had reacted to the uprising by declaring that the leaders of the communist parties would now be forced to make “still more ample and genuine concessions to avoid risking alienating themselves forever from support by the masses and from provoking still stronger explosions.” The Open Letter commented: “Instead of clearly voicing the revolutionary political aspirations of the insurgent East German workers, Pablo covered up the counterrevolutionary Stalinist satraps who mobilized Soviet troops to put down the uprising. … Instead of demanding the withdrawal of Soviet troops―the sole force upholding the Stalinist government―Pablo fostered the illusion that ‘more ample and genuine concessions’ would be forthcoming from the Kremlin’s Gauleiters. Could Moscow have asked for better assistance as it proceeded to monstrously falsify the profound meaning of those events, branding the workers in revolt as ‘fascists’ and ‘agents of American imperialism,’ and opening a wave of savage repression against them?”[7]

135. The Open Letter came to the conclusion: “The lines of cleavage between Pablo’s revisionism and orthodox Trotskyism are so deep that no compromise is possible either politically or organizationally.” It was time “for the orthodox Trotskyist majority of the Fourth International to assert their will against Pablo’s usurpation of authority.” Cannon’s Open Letter was supported, amongst others, by the British section and by the expelled French majority. It formed the basis for the foundation of the International Committee of the Fourth International.[8]


On the views of the Frankfurt School see point 175; on the “retrogressionists” see David North, The Heritage We Defend.


Quoted in: David North, The Heritage We Defend.