The ICFI Defends Trotskyism

Letter from David North to the Glasgow North-East Branch of the WRP

December 23, 1985

Dear Comrades:

Comrade Simon Pirani has brought to the attention of the International Committee the resolution passed by the Glasgow North-East branch, and I have been asked to reply to you on behalf of the ICFI.

We have not the slightest disagreement with the spirit of your resolution, which states that you intend to subordinate yourselves to the International “as revolutionary fighters, not unquestioning yes-men.” In fact, the two types are mutually exclusive. Marxism, as a revolutionary doctrine, demands both fearlessness and complete intellectual and political honesty—qualities to which the “yes-men”, by their very nature, never aspire. The Marxist concept of revolutionary discipline has nothing in common with spineless handraising. The disciplined criticisms of a revolutionary fighter, who is concerned about every aspect of party work and of its development within the workers’ movement, is a thousand times more valuable than the compliments of a “yes-man” who, as it usually turns out, is simply using the party to feather his own nest.

As your resolution points out, both the membership of the WRP and the ICFI have this in common: we have had our fill of the rotten Healy regime which systematically denied the rights guaranteed to members under the principles of democratic centralism. This regime rejected the most fundamental conception of Leninist organization: that leadership is always under the democratic control of the Party membership. In defining party democracy, Trotsky emphasized three features: “a) free discussion by all party members of all the most important questions, b) constant control by the party over its leading bodies, and c) the election of responsible individuals and collective bodies, from the bottom up...” (Challenge of the Left Opposition (1926-27), Pathfinder, p. 64)

None of these three features of party democracy have existed inside the Workers Revolutionary Party. In place of democratic centralism, there existed a petty-bourgeois clique which subordinated to its existence all questions of principle and program. Healy was the personal axis of this clique leadership, which utilized and built up his authority in order to free itself of all control by the membership—both within the WRP and the ICFI. Hiding behind the prestige of Healy, this clique—consisting overwhelmingly of petty-bourgeois and declassed elements working full time in the Old Town center (with little direct contact with the working class)—never had to explain or justify its politics in front of the membership. The destruction of democratic centralism had a very definite class content: it subordinated the proletarian forces within the party to the unprincipled middle-class clique which ruled with and through Healy. Inseparably connected with this destruction of democratic centralist norms was the development of revisionist politics. So systematic and advanced was the destruction of workers’ rights within the Party by this clique that it actually violated the WRP Constitution by voting Healy extraordinary powers to do whatever he pleased! This occurred, I believe, at the Fifth Party Congress.

In its dealings with the ICFI, the personal infallibility of Healy was upheld by the British delegates in order to block any critical examination of the policies and practices of the WRP by the international delegates. The real internal life of the WRP was concealed from the International Committee. We now know that the WRP delegates habitually lied to the International Committee about virtually every aspect of the organizational achievements of the British section: its membership figures, finances, work inside the trade unions, YS activities, etc. This served only to bolster the authority of Healy and to unscrupulously depict any criticism of the WRP as an attack on the “historic” achievements of the WRP under Healy’s leadership. At the same time the WRP delegates concealed from the ICFI the real facts about the British section’s relations with bourgeois regimes in the Middle East. Thus, it was impossible for the ICFI to exercise any democratic centralist control over the work of the British section. Instead, protected from criticism by this petty-bourgeois and nationalist clique, Healy could subordinate the interests of the ICFI as the World Party of Socialist Revolution to the immediate practical needs of the movement in Britain—as these needs were defined by the clique.

When the International Committee resolution calls for the “subordination” of the WRP to the decisions of the World Party, it is attempting to do nothing more than reassert the principles of democratic centralism inside the Fourth International. This requires, among other things, that delegates from the WRP provide honest reports to the International Committee about the work of the British section, that they collaborate loyally with their international co-thinkers in developing the program of the Fourth International, that they report to all WRP members the democratically-arrived at decisions of the International Committee, and that they fight to carry out these decisions within the work of the WRP.

This subordination of the WRP to the decisions of the ICFI—the creation of what Trotsky referred to in the statutes of the Fourth International as a “single discipline”—is inseparably connected with the development of democratic centralist methods of work inside the British section. Leaders who are not strictly controlled by the membership of their own section and who are not accountable for their actions will never accept the authority of the international movement within which they work. While paying lip service to the Fourth International, their first loyalty will always remain with the nationalist clique of which they are a part. This anti-internationalism assumed especially malignant forms within the WRP, where the membership was kept totally in the dark about the work of their comrades in different countries. What little it was told was usually of a negative character. The achievements of the “big” WRP were counterposed to the problems of the “little” groups. The weekly or twice-weekly newspapers of the different sections were hardly ever distributed to the WRP branches so that the work of the international movement could be followed by the rank-and-file members in Britain. The historic banner under which we conduct our revolutionary work—“Workers of the world unite!”—became, under the leadership of the Healy clique, an abstraction devoid of real content.

This anti-internationalism had a devastating impact within the WRP itself, because the clique leadership refused to let the membership know about criticisms of Healy’s work that had been made within the International Committee. Instead, working behind the back of the WRP membership, it disloyally suppressed those differences within the IC by threatening to split with those within the International Committee who had raised these criticisms. As a result, the WRP membership was deprived of its vital right to know the opinions held by its international comrades about the work of the leadership within its own country.

To more precisely define what we mean by democratic centralist methods of work, let us refer to the organizational resolution passed by the Socialist Workers Party National Convention on April 5, 1940—in the heat of the struggle against the petty-bourgeois minority led by Burnham and Shachtman. This resolution deals with “The Responsibilities of Leadership” as follows:

“The leadership of the party must be under the control of the membership, its policies must always be open to criticism, discussion and rectification by the rank and file within properly established forms and limits, and the leading bodies themselves subject to formal recall or alteration. The membership of the party has the right to demand and expect the greatest responsibility from the leaders precisely because of the position they occupy in the movement. The selection of comrades to the positions of leadership means the conferring of an extraordinary responsibility. The warrant for this position must be proved, not once, but continuously by the leadership itself. It is under obligation to set the highest example of responsibility, devotion, sacrifice and complete identification with the party itself and its daily life and action. It must display the ability to defend its policies before the membership of the party, and to defend the line of the party and the party as a whole before the working class in general.”

As for “The Responsibilities of Membership,” the resolution states:

“like leadership, membership itself in the party implies certain definite rights. Party membership confers the fullest freedom of discussion, debate and criticism inside the ranks of the party, limited only by such decisions and provisions as are made by the party itself or by bodies to which it assigns this function. Affiliation to the party confers upon each member the right of being democratically represented at all policy-making assemblies of the party (from local to national and international convention), and the right of the final and decisive vote in determining the program, policies and leadership of the party.

“With party rights, the membership has also definite obligations. The theoretical and political character of the party is determined by its program, which forms the lines delimiting the revolutionary party from all other parties, groups and tendencies in the working class. The first obligation of party membership is loyal acceptance of the program of the party and regular affiliation to one of the basic units of the party. The party requires of every member the acceptance of its discipline and the carrying on of his activity in accordance with the program of the party, with the decisions adopted by its conventions, and with the policies formulated and directed by the party leadership.

“Party membership implies the obligation of one hundred per cent loyalty to the organization, the rejection of all agents of other, hostile groups in its ranks, and the intolerance of divided loyalties in general.” (The Struggle for a Proletarian Party, by James P. Cannon, Pathfinder, pp. 229-30)

We suspect that the conception of party organization advanced in the above quotation is a very far cry from what members in the WRP have been taught for many years by the Healy clique and its long-time apologists. In freeing itself from International Trotskyist control, this clique sought to cut the WRP cadre off from the great revolutionary traditions of the Fourth International. Now, working together as comrades within a united World Party of Socialist Revolution, we must revive these traditions and make them live within each section.

In conclusion, turning to your reference to the false perspectives of the 10th Congress, it is absolutely necessary that a new document be prepared. This, however, is not simply a literary job that can be assigned to one or another comrade. We need an exhaustive discussion on international perspectives throughout the sections of the ICFI. The damage done by a decade of revisionist downsliding cannot be overcome so easily. We must reconquer the theoretical positions surrendered by Healy and his clique. We must reject and expose all that was false while opposing any form of scepticism that places a question mark over the revolutionary role of the International Committee of the Fourth International. It will be necessary to prepare and exchange drafts, submit them to mutual criticism, and arrive, on the basis of this collective work, at a scientific revolutionary perspective that will be understood by all the cadres of the Fourth International and correctly guide their work.

Again, on behalf of the ICFI, I send you our warmest revolutionary greetings,

David North