The struggle within the Fourth International both reflected and anticipated changes in the world situation. Even as the split was unfolding, the Kremlin regime was gripped by crisis. The bloody purge trials in Eastern Europe and the infamous arrests of Jewish physicians in the Soviet Union made it all too clear, even within Stalin’s entourage, that the dictator’s raging paranoia was blocking any coherent policy response to the crisis of post-war Soviet society. Stalin’s sudden death in March 1953, under murky circumstances, created an opportunity for a shift in policy. After a brief factional battle within the Politburo, Lavrenti Beria, the head of Stalin’s secret police, was ousted from power and executed. With this act, the bureaucracy, which owed its power to Stalin’s destruction of the revolutionary cadre of the Bolshevik Party, expressed its desire to enjoy its privileges without the ever-present danger of purges, arrests and executions. But the bureaucracy’s hold on its privileges faced a greater challenge from the growing discontent of the working class within the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe. In June 1953, workers in East Germany rose up against the Stalinist bureaucracy and were suppressed by Soviet military forces. In February 1956, Nikita Khrushchev delivered his “secret speech” to the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party, in which he denounced some of Stalin’s crimes, but deliberately excluded from his list of victims the leaders of the Trotskyist Left Opposition and those condemned to death at the Moscow Trials. As the leader of the Stalinist bureaucracy, Khrushchev could not give an account of the origins of Stalin’s crimes and resorted to a facile apology: Stalin’s henchmen in the bureaucracy and the entire Soviet population had been in thrall of a “cult of personality.” That same year, the Hungarian working class revolted, setting up workers’ councils that were the embryonic form of a political revolution. The uprising was brutally suppressed as Khrushchev sent Soviet tanks into Budapest. This action revealed once more the thoroughly counter-revolutionary character of Stalinism. The unrelenting opposition of Stalinism to any revolutionary movement of the working class had not been altered by the death of Stalin himself.
The crisis of Stalinism provided a real possibility for the clarification of central political questions. The British Trotskyists, under the leadership of Gerry Healy, stressed the importance of clarifying the great political issues that underlay Trotsky’s struggle against Stalinism. This entailed deepening the struggle against the Pabloites, who interpreted every Stalinist political maneuver as an example of progressive bureaucratic “self-reform.” It was precisely at this point, however, that the SWP leadership began to retreat from the irreconcilable opposition to Pabloism that Cannon had advocated so forcefully in 1953-54. By 1957, Cannon was expressing interest in the possibility of a reunification with the Pabloites, on the false grounds that differences between the ICFI and the Pabloite Secretariat had diminished over the years. This shift in the attitude of the SWP toward the Pabloites reflected a definite rightward drift in its general political line. In the late 1950s, the SWP indicated interest in participating in a “regroupment” of various radical tendencies. The turn to the Pabloites expressed a shift in the class axis of the SWP, away from its traditional “proletarian orientation” and toward alliances with political representatives of the radical sections of the petty bourgeoisie.