Based on the lessons of the Third Congress, the American Committee for the Fourth International completed its preparation for the establishment of a new Trotskyist party, in political solidarity with the ICFI. The founding congress of the Workers League took place in November 1966. The growing opposition to the war in Vietnam among masses of students, the eruption of violent protests by African-American workers and youth in major cities, and the militant strikes by substantial sections of the working class were indications of the crisis of American capitalism. The Socialist Workers Party, repudiating its Trotskyist heritage, responded to these developments by adapting to petty-bourgeois tendencies that dominated these movements. Its opportunism found expression in its promotion of Black nationalism as an alternative to the struggle for the unity of the working class on the basis of a socialist program. The SWP’s espousal of Black nationalism, including the demand for a separate Black nation, reflected its dismissal of the American working class as a revolutionary force. This perspective expressed the influence of the New Left, which derived much of its theoretical inspiration from the anti-Marxist conceptions of Herbert Marcuse, a leading representative of the “Frankfurt School,” who characterized the working class as a “proto-fascist” element in American society.
The founding of the Workers League, rooted in the struggles of the Fourth International since 1953, marked a milestone in the fight for Marxism in the United States. The development of Marxism could only proceed on the basis of the recognition of the revolutionary character of the American working class and its decisive role in the struggle against US imperialism. This perspective could be realized only on the basis of an irreconcilable struggle against the myriad petty-bourgeois radical tendencies, promoting various forms of racial, ethnic, sexual and gender “identity” politics, that flourished in the 1960s and early 1970s. In his greetings to the Workers League’s founding congress, SLL leader Gerry Healy stated:
The working class in the United States is the most powerful in the world, and it is within this class that you must build your party. This is a basic principle of Marxism and one which applies with particular urgency to the conditions existing inside the United States. It is not Black Power or the dozens of peace and civil rights movements which extend throughout the country which will resolve the basic questions of our time, but the working class led by a revolutionary party. It is at this point that we separate ourselves completely from the revisionists. We emphatically reject their idea that the Negroes by themselves as well as middle-class movements can settle accounts with American imperialism. Whatever critical support we are called upon from time to time to extend to such movements, the essence of our support must be based on making clear our criticisms of their shortcomings.
The central task confronting the Workers League was to fight for the political independence of the American working class from the bourgeoisie and its political parties, especially the Democratic Party. This assumed the form of the demand, in the conditions then prevailing in the United States, that the mass trade union organizations of the AFL-CIO form a labor party based on socialist policies. This demand, which arose out of the experiences of the 1930s, and which had been initially proposed by Trotsky, had been largely abandoned by the SWP in the 1950s, as it reoriented itself to the middle-class protest movements. It was revived by the Workers League, which declared, in its principal resolution at the founding congress:
The working class must be shown that it must of necessity go beyond isolated economic struggles to a fundamental political struggle against the ruling class and its political instruments. The labor party demand thus becomes the unifying demand of all our work in the United States. It must permeate all our propaganda and agitation: among the working class youth, in the trade unions, among the minority peoples, around the war question...
We must struggle for a labor party which will unite black and white workers in a common struggle against the common oppressor rather than concede to race politics. The concept of a labor party must be taken into the anti-war movement. The struggle against the war policies of the US imperialists cannot be separated from the other anti-working class policies of the imperialists. Middle class political parties set up on a “classless” basis to fight the “war issue” are futile efforts and serve to obscure the class issues involved rather than to explain them.
The fight for the formation of a labor party, based on the trade unions, would play a major role in the struggle waged by the Workers League, over the next 25 years, against the subordination of the working class by the AFL-CIO bureaucracy to the Democratic Party. This demand was not conceived as a proposal for the building of a reformist alternative to the revolutionary party—i.e., an American version of the British Labour Party or the Canadian New Democratic Party—but as a means of developing a revolutionary political movement of the working class and breaking the stranglehold of class collaborationist policies. Moreover, as long as the AFL-CIO functioned, even if in only a limited way, as an instrument of working class struggles, and commanded the allegiance of significant sections of class conscious workers, the demand for the building of a labor party, committed to socialist policies, provided a clear political lead to the working class, indicated a path beyond the limits of trade unionism, and played a significant role in the development of revolutionary and socialist class consciousness. Later, changes of an objective character in the nature of the trade unions and their relationship to the working class—the product of developments in the structure of global capitalism and the cumulative impact of massive betrayals of working class struggles by the trade unions—would compel the Workers League to withdraw its demand for the labor party.
The escalating conflict between Trotskyism and revisionism unfolded against the backdrop of increasing economic and political instability. The overwhelming economic preponderance of the United States at the end of World War II—which was critical for the restabilization and reconstruction of world capitalism—eroded in the course of the 1950s and 1960s. The export of American capital overseas had, by the 1960s, produced a dollar crisis that signaled the breakdown of the postwar equilibrium. Repeated efforts to contain the crisis proved futile, and on August 15, 1971, the United States destroyed the foundation of the Bretton Woods system by ending dollar-gold convertibility. The Socialist Labour League recognized that the breakdown of the Bretton Woods systems would lead to new economic and political convulsions, but unresolved issues within the International Committee, and within the SLL itself, would soon begin to exact a heavy political toll.