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

The “Open Letter” and the Formation of the International Committee

The factional struggle that developed in the Fourth International culminated in November 1953 with the issuing of an Open Letter, written by Cannon, to Trotskyists throughout the world. This letter formed the programmatic basis for the formation of the International Committee of the Fourth International. Supported by the Trotskyist organizations in France and Britain, Cannon’s action was wholly justified by the circumstances that confronted the world movement. At stake was the defense of the essential political principles upon which the founding of the Fourth International had been based, and its survival as an independent revolutionary organization. Cannon’s letter, in explaining why there could be no compromise with Pabloism, summarized these principles:

The death agony of the capitalist system threatens the destruction of civilization through worsening depressions, world wars and barbaric manifestations like fascism. The development of atomic weapons today underlines the danger in the gravest possible way.

The descent into the abyss can be avoided only by replacing capitalism with the planned economy of socialism on a world scale and thus resuming the spiral of progress opened up by capitalism in its early days.

This can be accomplished only under the leadership of the working class in society. But the working class itself faces a crisis in leadership although the world relationship of social forces was never so favorable as today for the workers to take the road to power.

To organize itself for carrying out this world-historic aim, the working class in each country must construct a revolutionary socialist party in the pattern developed by Lenin; that is, a combat party capable of dialectically combining democracy and centralism—democracy in arriving at decisions, centralism in carrying them out; a leadership controlled by the ranks, ranks able to carry forward under fire in disciplined fashion.

The main obstacle to this is Stalinism, which attracts workers through exploiting the prestige of the October 1917 Revolution in Russia, only later, as it betrays their confidence, to hurl them either into the arms of the Social Democracy, into apathy, or back into illusions in capitalism. The penalty for these betrayals is paid by the working people in the form of consolidation of fascist or monarchist forces, and new outbreaks of war fostered and prepared by capitalism. From its inception, the Fourth International set as one of its major tasks the revolutionary overthrow of Stalinism inside and outside the USSR.

The need for flexible tactics facing many sections of the Fourth International, and parties or groups sympathetic to its program, makes it all the more imperative that they know how to fight imperialism and all its petty-bourgeois agencies (such as nationalist formations or trade union bureaucracies) without capitulation to Stalinism; and, conversely, know how to fight Stalinism (which in the final analysis is a petty-bourgeois agency of imperialism) without capitulating to imperialism.[1]

The Open Letter pointed out that all these principles had been rejected by Pablo:

...In place of emphasizing the danger of a new barbarism, he sees the drive toward socialism as “irreversible”; yet he does not see socialism coming within our generation or some generations to come. Instead he has advanced the concept of an “engulfing” wave of revolutions that give birth to nothing but “deformed,” that is, Stalin-type workers’ states which are to last for “centuries.”

This reveals the utmost pessimism about the capacities of the working class, which is wholly in keeping with the ridicule he has lately voiced of the struggle to build independent revolutionary socialist parties. In place of holding to the main course of building independent revolutionary socialist parties by all tactical means, he looks to the Stalinist bureaucracy, or a decisive section of it, to so change itself under mass pressure as to accept the “ideas” and “program” of Trotskyism.[2]

Cannon’s letter ended with a warning and a call to action:

To sum up: The lines of cleavage between Pablo’s revisionism and orthodox Trotskyism are so deep that no compromise is possible either politically or organizationally. The Pablo faction has demonstrated that it will not permit democratic decisions truly reflecting majority opinion to be reached. They demand complete submission to their criminal policy. They are determined to drive all orthodox Trotskyists out of the Fourth International or to muzzle and handcuff them. ...

If we may offer advice to the sections of the Fourth International from our enforced position outside the ranks,[3] we think the time has come to act and act decisively. The time has come for the orthodox Trotskyist majority of the Fourth International to assert their will against Pablo’s usurpation of authority.[4]


“The Open Letter of the Socialist Workers Party, November 16, 1953,” in: Trotskyism Versus Revisionism, Volume One (London: New Park, 1974) p. 299-300.


Ibid., p. 301.


The American Trotskyists since the 1940s have not been able to affiliate formally with the Fourth International due to the provisions of the reactionary Voorhis Act.


Ibid., pp. 312-13.