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

A Further Comment on the Cause and Significance of the Split in the ICFI

As in 1953, the split in the International Committee that developed between 1982 and 1986 anticipated enormous changes, which were to shatter, in the last half of the 1980s, the structure of world politics as it had existed in the four decades following the end of World War II. The protracted crisis of the WRP was a complex and contradictory process. Its basic source lay not in the weaknesses of one or another individual, but in changes in the relationship of class forces on an international scale. It is not uncommon that a political party, which for many decades has played an immensely positive role in the development of the working class, enters into crisis in a later period as new conditions emerge and new tasks are posed. The most tragic examples of this historical phenomenon are the German Social Democracy and the Bolshevik Party. But their historical achievements are not erased by their ultimate fate.

Nor are the achievements of the SLL/WRP and its principal leader, Gerry Healy, obliterated by the later degeneration of the organization. In insisting on an objective appraisal of the history of the SLL\WRP, it is worth recalling advice that Healy gave to Wohlforth in December 1972, after the death of Max Shachtman. Wohlforth had written an obituary of Shachtman in which he denounced, as was appropriate, the deceased’s betrayal of socialism and the working class during the final decades of his life. But Wohlforth included in his condemnation the following declaration: “Shachtman died a traitor to his class and a counter-revolutionary. That is the long and short of it.” Replying to Wohlforth, Healy noted: “This phrase itself seems at once paradoxical because Shachtman didn’t just die, he also lived. Naturally the memory of someone who finally betrayed disgracefully does not give rise to kind feelings. However, we are not here to attribute responsibilities, but to understand.”[1]

For many years, particularly after the SWP’s return to Pabloism in 1963, the British Trotskyists stood virtually alone in their defense of the program and heritage of the Fourth International. With the OCI an increasingly unreliable ally and, by the late 1960s, a political opponent, the SLL intransigently opposed the efforts of the Pabloites to liquidate the Fourth International into the milieu of Stalinism, bourgeois nationalism and petty-bourgeois radicalism. With little international support, the SLL opposed Pabloite liquidationism by developing, to the best of its abilities, a powerful revolutionary organization in Britain. Into this project Healy threw his extraordinary gifts as a revolutionary organizer and orator. While the Pabloites insisted that Trotskyism had no independent political role to play, the SLL engaged in relentless political warfare against the British Labour Party and captured the political leadership of its youth movement, the Young Socialists. When the British Labourites sought to counter this offensive by proscribing Keep Left, the newspaper of the Young Socialists, the SLL and its supporters in the YS fought back and built up a circulation of 10,000 readers. Finally, the Young Socialists became officially the youth movement of the Trotskyist movement in Britain. The Pabloites responded to the advances of the SLL by organizing vicious political witchhunts, enthusiastically backed by the Stalinists, who sought to label the SLL as a “violent” organization.

Given the conditions of political isolation, the SLL came increasingly to see the development of the Fourth International as a by-product of the growth of its organization in England. The successes of the movement in England, it reasoned, would provide the basis for the growth of the International Committee. Thus, over time, the forms and habits of work assumed an increasingly nationalistic coloration. What was, in fact, a temporary relation of political forces—one which imparted to the work in Britain an overwhelming weight within the International Committee—was apotheosized into an increasingly nationalistic conception of the relationship between the SLL\WRP and the Fourth International. The various forms of opportunist practices that were developed by the WRP in the 1970s and into the 1980s were justified by Healy, at least to himself, on the grounds that by “building the party” in England, he was, in the long run, laying the foundations for the international expansion of the ICFI. Even though there had been a substantial political development in the 1970s and early 1980s in different sections of the International Committee, the WRP tended to view the international organization as little more than an adjunct to its own British-based organization.

The essential problem with this approach was that it was based on a nationalistic premise that ran counter to the political traditions of the Fourth International and collided with objective processes of global socio-economic and political development. The crisis of the WRP was part of a broader process that was sweeping through all the mass parties and trade union organizations based historically on the working class. Whatever their differences in organizational structure and political allegiances, the Stalinist, Social-Democratic and reformist organizations were all based on a nationalist program. This essential similarity connected even such apparently irreconcilable enemies as the American AFL-CIO and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. While the latter’s program based itself on the socialist potential of the productive forces of the USSR, the former’s reformist aspirations were premised on the supposedly inexhaustible resources and wealth of American capitalism. Both organizations entered into crisis when developments in technology, and the resulting changes in production and the circulation of capital, rendered the national-reformist perspectives of the post-World War II era obsolete.

These fundamental changes in world economy and their impact on the international class struggle were reflected within the International Committee and, in the final analysis, led to the split. The basic difference in political perspective—between, on one side, revolutionary internationalism and, on the other, national opportunism—emerged clearly well in advance of the organizational split. In a letter to Michael Banda, dated January 23, 1984, North wrote on behalf of the Workers League: “No matter how promising certain developments within the national work of the sections may appear—such as our own experiences in various trade union struggles—these will not produce real gains for the sections involved unless such work is guided by a scientifically-worked out international perspective. The more the Workers League turns toward the working class, the more we feel the need for the closest collaboration with our international comrades to drive the work forward.”[2]

The opposition of the Workers League to the national opportunism of the WRP was in theoretical alignment with social and economic processes that were already in an advanced stage of development, and which were about to blow apart the existing structures and relations of world politics. To the extent that large sections of the international cadre had been drawn to the ICFI in the 1960s and early 1970s, on the basis of the British Trotskyists’ defense of the internationalist perspective of Permanent Revolution, the criticisms advanced by the Workers League, once they became widely known in the international movement, found overwhelming support. It was this that accounted for the relatively rapid political realignment that took place within the International Committee in the autumn of 1985. It established a new basis for the work of the international movement. The subsequent development of the ICFI was the conscious response of the Marxist vanguard to the new economic and political situation. The reorientation of the movement was based on a systematic struggle against all forms of nationalism, a reorientation that was inextricably tied to the development of an international perspective. All opportunism is ultimately rooted in definite forms of national adaptation. In the struggle against other tendencies and within its own organization, the ICFI reasserted the conceptions developed in their highest form by Trotsky-the primacy of the global developments of world capitalism over the particular manifestations in any given nation-state, and the primacy of international strategy over national tactics.


The Fourth International and the Renegade Wohlforth [Trotskyism versus Revisionism, Volume Seven] (Detroit: Labor Publications, 1984), p. 228.


Fourth International, Volume 13, No. 2, Autumn 1986, p. 38.