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

The BSA under the influence of the WRP

164. In contrast to the enormous patience and tenacity with which it had conducted the conflict with the SWP in 1963, the SLL made little effort to clarify the political questions that had led to the split with the OCI in 1971. The split was carried out in great haste and without detailed discussion in the International Committee and in the membership of the sections. The SLL made no serious attempt to develop a faction within the OCI. Instead, the split resembled a mutually agreed divorce. From the point of view of the education and clarification of the cadre, the split was “decidedly premature”, as the International Committee determined later in an analysis of the WRP’s collapse. “It represented a retreat by the Socialist Labour League from the international responsibilities it had assumed in 1961 when it took up the fight against the degeneration of the Socialist Workers Party.”[1]

165. The SLL later justified its avoidance of clarifying programmatic questions with the claim that the political differences with the OCI were only a by-product of philosophical differences. The split was not a question “of political positions on various questions”, but went “to the foundations of the Fourth International—Marxist theory”. The SLL had learned “from the experience of building the revolutionary party in Britain that a thoroughgoing and difficult struggle against idealistic ways of thinking was necessary which went much deeper than questions of agreement on programme and policy.”[2] Thus, the SLL twisted the statement—correct by itself—that philosophical method is manifested in political analysis, and substituted a concrete investigation of political questions with an abstract discussion of philosophical problems. Trotsky, on the contrary, had always insisted that the significance of the party lay in its programme, which had, as its content, “a common understanding of the events, of the tasks”.[3] When he raised the question of dialectical materialism in the conflict with Burnham and Shachtman in 1939-1940, Trotsky did so in direct connection with issues of political perspective.

166. This lack of interest in the clarification of political questions was closely bound up with the organisational successes the SLL had made as a result of its struggle against opportunism in Great Britain. In 1963, the SLL assumed the leadership of the youth organisation of the Labour Party, the Young Socialists, and following its expulsion from the Labour Party, established the YS as its own youth organisation. In 1969, after a five-year campaign, the SLL launched its daily paper, Workers Press, which won a large audience among workers, intellectuals and artists and brought hundreds of new members into the party. This inflow of new forces made more urgent the task of clarifying the fundamental political principles that differentiated the International Committee from petty-bourgeois opportunism. Only in this way would the new membership be politically educated to withstand the pressure of hostile class forces. Instead, the SLL adapted to the spontaneous upsurge of the working class in Britain. “But the conviction gradually took hold within the SLL leadership that the material growth of the British section, rather than the strengthening of its international political line, was the decisive precondition and essential foundation for the development of the International Committee; and from this flowed an incorrect and increasingly nationalist conception of the relations between the SLL and the International Committee of the Fourth International. The SLL proceeded from an increasingly organisational conception which held that the practical successes of the Socialist Labour League in Britain were the prerequisite for the further development of the world Trotskyist movement.”[4]

167. The lack of clarification of the issues that had led to the split with the OCI constituted a heavy burden for the young German section. Its cadre was only superficially familiar with the lessons that the International Committee had drawn from its long political struggle against opportunism. The SLL did not encourage the BSA to turn to these programmatic and historical questions. The International Committee admitted the BSA as a section without requiring it to submit its own perspectives document. Instead, the SLL placed the emphasis on the practical side of party building—on recruitment campaigns, the publication of a newspaper, which appeared fortnightly from February 1972 as Der Funke and weekly from October 1976 as Neue Arbeiterpresse, and the building of a youth organisation.

168. The BSA grew rapidly in its first year. The Federal Republic was shaken by a series of social and political eruptions. In April 1972, the CDU-CSU tried to oust the Brandt government with a no-confidence vote that provoked strong resistance. Factory workers followed the debates in federal parliament and prepared a general strike in defence of the Brandt government. Sales and distribution of Der Funke and the BSA’s leaflets shot up. In the following federal election campaign, in which the SPD obtained the best result in its history, new branches of the BSA and its youth organisation Sozialistischer Jugendbund (SJB) were developed in more than 20 cities and suburbs.

169. The BSA called for “an SPD government, pledged to socialist policies”. It called for a vote for the SPD, while advancing at the same time its own socialist programme, and demanded that the SPD break with the FDP and adopt a programme in the interests of the working class. This tactic was based on the fact that large sections of workers still held illusions in the SPD. The tactic aimed to expose the real role of the SPD to workers, based on their own experiences. It was anchored in the experiences of the SLL, which had, in the 1960s, effectively intervened into the Labour Party with the demand “Labour to power on socialist policies,” and on the Transitional Programme, which characterised “the demand, systematically addressed to the old leadership: ‘Break with the bourgeoisie, take the power!’ ” as “an extremely important weapon for exposing the treacherous character” of the reformist and centrist organisations.[5] However, to the extent that this tactic was not linked to a well-thought-out revolutionary strategy, it exposed the party to the danger of swimming with the tide of opposition to the conservatives, and of being unprepared for the political challenges resulting from an election victory for the Social Democrats.

170. The British SLL succumbed to precisely this danger when it founded the Workers Revolutionary Party in 1973. The WRP based itself on a programme whose “content and underlying conception had nothing whatsoever to do with Trotskyism” and that did not go beyond the boundaries of centrism.[6] The main task of the new party consisted, according to its own declarations, of uniting “the working class behind a socialist programme to throw out the Tory government and replace it with a Labour government.” The SLL based itself on widespread sentiment against the Tory government of Edward Heath, and expected that the return of a Labour government would quickly bring it into conflict with the working class, thereby opening up new revolutionary possibilities. Reality turned out to be more complicated, however. IMF credits provided the Labour government with room for manoeuvre. The WRP faced a deep crisis; many new members, won on the crest of an anti-Tory wave, turned away from the party. Under such conditions, neglect of the clarification of international programmatic questions avenged itself.

171. The German section faced similar problems. After the triumph of 1972, Brandt was unable to dampen the expectations created in the election campaign. In the winter of 1973-1974, 12 million workers took part in wage conflicts. In the middle of the international oil crisis, public servants enforced an 11 percent wage increase. The SPD leadership and the FDP responded by engaging in a plot to dump Brandt. They utilised the unmasking of a GDR spy close to Brandt in order to force his resignation and his replacement by Helmut Schmidt. Schmidt, in close cooperation with the trade union bureaucracy, immediately proceeded against the working class, introducing austerity measures. This rightward turn of social democracy, which took similar forms in Britain, France, Italy and other countries, was the prelude to a counter-offensive of the bourgeoisie that has continued to this day. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher was elected head of government in Britain; Ronald Reagan became president of the US in 1980. Both began an open confrontation with the working class and were successful, due to the betrayal of the trade unions. Since then, the living standards of the lower- and middle-income brackets have stagnated and sunk, while incomes at the top have exploded.

172. In the BSA, the SPD’s change of course produced a crisis. Many members, who had regarded the BSA as a kind of pressure group and hoped for a continued left-wing development by the SPD, turned their backs on the party. The crisis worsened when IC Secretary Cliff Slaughter came to Germany in May 1974 and insisted on a new political line. Slaughter argued that the Schmidt government would quickly come into conflict with the working class, and that the BSA must demand its ousting and the immediate calling of fresh elections. This was a break from the past line, which had taken into account the social-democratic illusions of many workers. Instead of intensifying the conflict between these workers and the SPD leaders, the new line meant an adaptation to petty-bourgeois tendencies that rejected a patient fight in the working class, which had defended the SPD government against a no-confidence vote just two years before. The demand for new elections meant that a settling of accounts with the SPD was no longer seen as the task of the working class, but of the electorate as a whole. In all probability, this would have led to the return to power of the CDU-CSU. This political line cut the BSA off from workers and caused huge difficulties.

173. In Britain, a few months after the founding of the WRP, a miners’ strike led to the fall of the Tory government and brought a Labour government under Harold Wilson to power. Within the British section, a major conflict erupted with Alan Thornett, the leader of the trade union wing of the WRP. Thornett spoke for those members who had regarded the WRP primarily as an instrument to return the Labour Party to power. He opposed the development of a more critical line towards the Labour Party and collaborated secretly with the French OCI. The WRP’s failure to draw the political lessons from the split with the OCI now avenged itself. Rather than patiently clarifying the political differences, the WRP leaders expelled Thornett and lost a majority of its members who worked in the factories. When, in the summer of 1975, the Wilson government imposed a wage freeze, the WRP changed course and adopted the line it had previously forced upon the BSA: it called for the overthrow of the Labour government. That represented, as the International Committee later determined, “a fundamental programmatic break with the proletarian orientation for which the British Trotskyists had fought for decades. To call for the bringing down of a Labour government, under conditions in which the revolutionary party had not yet won the allegiance of any significant section of the working class, and in which the only alternative to Labour was a Tory government, which the working class had brought down little more than a year before, was the height of adventurism.”[7] The new orientation was “a profoundly disturbing expression of the class shift that had taken place inside the leadership of the WRP…. A predominately petty-bourgeois leadership, upon whom Healy was now resting, had quickly become disillusioned with the Labour government and was impatient with the tempo of development in the political consciousness of the working class.”[8] The WRP now turned—as the Pabloites had done two decades before—increasingly to non-proletarian forces: national liberation movements, national regimes in the Middle East, and sections of the trade union and labour bureaucracy, until finally rejecting its own history and openly breaking with Trotskyism 10 years later.

174. The WRP exerted increasing pressure on the German section to proceed in the same direction. Between 1977 and 1983, it organised a number of youth marches across Europe that absorbed a large part of the BSA’s resources and energies. Gerry Healy represented these marches as a turn to the working class; as a “new practice” aimed at overcoming the political and organisational crisis of the section. They were, in reality, a turn to the bureaucratic apparatuses. Programmatically, the marches did not go beyond the demand for jobs for unemployed youth. Even the Marx march from Trier to London, to commemorate the centenary of the death of the founder of scientific socialism, was organised in such a way that it did not offend Stalinists and left social democrats. From the point of view of cadre development, the marches were a school of opportunism. The marches had to maintain close relations with the bureaucratic apparatuses because they could not remain on the road without their material support. That excluded from the outset a political conflict or the open advocacy of Trotskyism. In countries such as Germany, where the trade unions and SPD reacted with icy enmity, the marches were dependent on humiliating handouts from the churches. Later, an International Committee inquiry found out that Healy had also used the marches to bolster his credentials with nationalist leaders in the Middle East.

175. When a broad peace movement developed around 1980, against the stationing of the nuclear medium-range Pershing II missiles on German soil, the WRP pressured the German section to adapt to this pacifist movement. In the event, the BSA participated in the peace marches, but not in the manner the WRP had planned. It printed a brochure containing the writings of Lenin and Trotsky against war and led a campaign against the pacifism of the Stalinists, who politically dominated the peace movement.

176. On Healy’s urging, the German section acquired an expensive printing press in 1979 in order to publish its own daily paper. At the time, the BSA lacked the political support and material resources necessary for the realisation of such a project. A daily paper would have been feasible only if it had become the platform of an accumulation of trade union bureaucrats, pacifists, Greens and petty-bourgeois radicals—which was probably Healy’s secret intention. In fact, a new daily paper actually saw the light of day that year in Germany, the taz, which soon developed into the unofficial organ of the Greens and is still published today. When it became clear that the BSA rejected such an orientation and could not bear the cost of a daily paper from its own resources, the WRP’s attacks took openly destructive forms. Under various pretexts, party leaders were expelled and the section was forced to make financial donations driving it to the edge of ruin. Only the cadres’ loyalty to internationalist principles prevented a collapse of the section. At the same time, the American Workers League began to develop a thoroughgoing criticism of the opportunism of the WRP, which provided the basis for the re-orientation of the International Committee and its German section.

177. The political problems that confronted the Fourth International at this time had their roots in the stabilisation and expansion of capitalism after the Second World War, which had thoroughly altered class relations. In order to regulate the class struggle, the imperialists relied on a broad layer of petty-bourgeois elements, who formed the social basis for the growth of opportunism. The Pabloite revisionists reflected the social pressure that these layers exerted on the Fourth International. They developed the theoretical and political formulae that served to justify the subordination of the working class to the petty-bourgeois agents of imperialism. After the capitulation of the American SWP, the British SLL, and in particular Gerry Healy, undertook the responsibility of defending the programme of the Fourth International against this revisionist attack. While the Pabloites hailed Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Mao Zedong and left talkers in the trade union bureaucracy, the SLL defended the perspective of permanent revolution and fought for the political independence of the working class. In the 1970s, the influence of these petty-bourgeois layers reached its high point. When the WRP collapsed in 1985, the balance of power between revolutionary Marxism and opportunism had already fundamentally changed. That has been underscored by the enormous theoretical, political and organisational progress the International Committee has made since.

178. The importance of the BSA in the 1970s was the fact that it resumed, in Germany, the historical thread that had been severed by the Pabloites. Regardless of the difficulties, weaknesses and errors it confronted, it avowed itself unreservedly to the perspective of the world socialist revolution. Trotsky’s writings on National Socialism and his analysis of the counter-revolutionary role of Stalinism played a crucial role in the recruitment and education of the founding cadre. The BSA consistently opposed the Stalinists, Maoists and anarchist groups that emerged from the student movement, and the anti-Marxist theories that dominated in the universities. It opposed “the long march through the institutions” taken by the Jusos (Gerhard Schröder) “the Spontis” (Joschka Fischer), the Maoists (Antje Vollmer, Ulla Schmidt, Jürgen Trittin) and the Pabloites (Harald Wolf), who all ended up in the highest state and government offices. It also rejected the reactionary methods and perspectives of the Red Army Faction terrorists.


ICFI, How the Workers Revolutionary Party Betrayed Trotskyism 1973–1985.


Statement by the International Committee (Majority), March 1 1972 in Trotskyism versus Revisionism, Volume 6, London 1975, p. 72, 78, 83.


Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, Pathfinder, p. 171.


David North, Gerry Healy and his place in the history of the Fourth International, Labor Publications 1991, p. 47.


ICFI, How the Workers Revolutionary Party Betrayed Trotskyism 1973–1985.