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

Growing political disorientation in the SLL

180. These were the events for which the British Trotskyists had long prepared. The SLL saw a growth in its influence, due to its determined efforts to develop the mass movement against the Heath government. It made important interventions, such as a challenge to the Stalinist leadership of the 1971 Upper Clyde Shipyards dispute and its perspective of organising a “work-in” to divert from a political struggle against Heath. The SLL also led the fight against the imprisonment on conspiracy charges of the Shrewsbury Two, Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson, following the 1972 builders’ strike. These initiatives enabled it to make organisational advances, including the expansion of the daily Workers Press, raising its political profile.

181. Of greater significance for the longer-term development of the movement, however, was the SLL’s manifest impatience with the complex problems associated with the construction of the International Committee. This was most clearly expressed in its attitude to the conflict with the OCI. In July 1971, the OCI had invited representatives of the Pabloite Partido Obrero Revolucionario (POR) in Bolivia, the Spartacist group and the National Students Association of the US, which had received funding from the CIA, to its youth rally in Essen, Germany. In the course of the rally, the OCI publicly voted down an SLL amendment declaring that the theoretical struggle waged by the International Committee was the only basis for constructing an international revolutionary youth movement. One month later, the Bolivian army staged a coup, overthrowing the left military regime of General Torres. The POR had supported Torres, but the OCI opposed any examination of its political line.

182. On November 24, 1971, the SLL declared a split with the French section. While many of its criticisms of the OCI were correct, it undertook no systematic examination of the crucial questions of perspective that were posed. In contrast to the patient struggle it had conducted against the SWP, the SLL made no attempt to develop a faction within the French section. Healy was reluctant to wage such an exhaustive struggle, because he feared it would cut across the practical interventions of the SLL into the emerging crisis in Britain. His fears were amplified by the fact that positions similar to the OCI’s had been voiced within the central leadership of the British section. At the 1966 World Congress, Cliff Slaughter had initially supported the OCI’s formulation on “reconstructing” the Fourth International, before being persuaded to change his mind by the political implications made apparent by Robertson’s positions. For his part, Banda had repeatedly evinced a political fascination for such figures as Mao, Ho Chi Minh and Gamal Abdel Nasser. In an editorial for the Fourth International, Banda had praised the Vietnamese National Liberation Front as being akin to the Bolshevik Party. Healy avoided a conflict with Banda, merely sanctioning a short statement in the subsequent edition of the journal, declaring that the editorial had represented the personal view of its author.

183. The SLL’s political evasions centred on its insistence that the issues in dispute with the OCI were merely secondary manifestations of differences over philosophy. In its statement about the split in March 1972, the SLL claimed that it had learned “from the experience of building the revolutionary party in Britain that a thoroughgoing and difficult struggle against idealist ways of thinking was necessary which went much deeper than questions of agreement on programme and policy”. This statement directly contradicted Trotsky, who held that “The significance of the programme is the significance of the party,” and that this programme consisted of “a common understanding of events, of the tasks….”

184. Its reference to the “experience of building the revolutionary party in Britain” indicated that the SLL was moving away from the lessons derived by the Fourth International in its fight against Stalinism, social democracy and Pabloism, towards national and more empirically determined considerations. Its failure to confront and correct the political mistakes it had made in the split with the OCI left it open to the enormous social pressures that were acting upon it. This undermined the work of the International Committee at precisely the point when a deepening crisis of world capitalism required the greatest possible degree of programmatic clarity in the struggle to train and educate the new forces that had been attracted to the IC in different parts of the world.

185. A further sign of the SLL’s drift from its Trotskyist moorings was the statement written by Michael Banda on December 6, 1971, on the Indo-Pak war. In contrast to the SLL’s principled stand against the intervention of the British state into Northern Ireland just two years earlier, Banda’s statement lent support to Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s decision to send troops into East Pakistan, ostensibly in support of the Bengali liberation movement. The RCL in Sri Lanka, under the leadership of Keerthi Balasuriya, took an opposed position—insisting in a statement published on December 8, “the task of the proletariat is not that of supporting any one of the warring factions of the bourgeoisie, but that of utilising each and every conflict in the camp of the class enemy for the seizure of power, with the perspective of setting up a federated socialist republic, which alone would be able to satisfy the social and national aspirations of the millions of toilers in the subcontinent.”

186. Having been made aware of the SLL’s stand, Balasuriya responded in two letters. The first stated, “It is not possible to support the national liberation struggle of the Bengali people, and the voluntary unification of India on socialist foundations, without opposing the Indo-Pakistan War.” The second warned that Banda’s enthusiastic support for Gandhi’s intervention pointed to the danger of an “abandonment of all the past experiences of the Marxist movement regarding the struggle of the colonial masses” that tended to move “in the direction of revising all the capital gains made by the SLL leadership in the fight against the SWP during the 1961-63 period.” The RCL’s criticisms were not circulated within the International Committee. Instead, the SLL used its leading position to politically isolate the section.

Trotskyism versus Revisionism (1974), New Park Publications, Volume Six, p. 83.

Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Programme for Socialist Revolution (1977), Pathfinder, pp. 207-208.