In the 1960s and early 1970s the British Trotskyist movement had exerted an extremely positive influence on the Workers League. The emergence and early development of the Workers League would not have been possible without the invaluable experience of the Socialist Labour League and Gerry Healy. And yet, particularly in the aftermath of the break with Wohlforth, the development of the Workers League proceeded in a manner that was notably different from that of the Workers Revolutionary Party. The central difference consisted in the attention paid by the Workers League to the history of the Trotskyist movement and the lessons of the struggle against Pabloism.
In the aftermath of the break with Wohlforth, the Workers League oriented its work strongly toward the working class. Beginning in the 1970s, it developed a substantial presence in the struggles of the most militant sections, most notably among the coal miners of the UMWA. In 1978 the Workers League decided to relocate its political center in Detroit. The purpose of this relocation was to establish a closer link between the party and the daily life and struggles of the working class. In the years that followed, the Workers League and its newspaper, The Bulletin, played a significant role in the strikes of the air traffic controllers, Phelps Dodge Copper miners, Greyhound drivers, Hormel workers, and numerous strikes in the coal fields of West Virginia and Kentucky. And yet all these struggles were seen, not as occasions for the celebration of trade union militancy, but as essentially political struggles that required the development of socialist consciousness and Marxist leadership within the working class. This work made the Workers League all the more conscious of the importance of a clearly worked out and comprehensive international revolutionary strategy.
The differences between the WRP and the Workers League emerged openly in the autumn of 1982. In an essay published to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the murder of Tom Henehan, David North, national secretary of the Workers League, stressed the significance of history in the education of the cadre of the Marxist movement. He wrote:
The real heart of cadre training is the conscious subordination of all who join the Party to the revolutionary principles through which the historical continuity of the Marxist movement is expressed. By ‘historical continuity,’ we have in mind the unbroken chain of political and ideological struggle by our international movement against Stalinism, Social Democracy, revisionism and all other enemies of the working class...
Revisionists and political charlatans of all descriptions invariably base their politics and policies on the immediate and practical needs of the hour. Principled considerations, i.e., those which arise out of a serious study of the history of the international workers’ movement, knowledge of its development as a law-governed process, and, flowing from that, a constant critical reworking of its objective experiences, are utterly foreign to these pragmatists...
A leadership which does not strive collectively to assimilate the whole of this history cannot adequately fulfill its revolutionary responsibilities to the working class. Without a real knowledge of the historical development of the Trotskyist movement, references to dialectical materialism are not merely hollow; such empty references pave the way for a real distortion of the dialectical method. The source of theory lies not in thought but in the objective world. Thus the development of Trotskyism proceeds from the fresh experiences of the class struggle, which are posited on the entire historically-derived knowledge of our movement.
North submitted to the Workers Revolutionary Party a detailed critique of a pamphlet written by Healy, Studies in Dialectical Materialism. This critique established that Healy’s conception of dialectics involved a repudiation of materialism and a reversion to the type of subjective idealist philosophy that Marx had overcome in his critique of the Left Hegelians in the early 1840s. North wrote:
Cde. Healy’s Studies in Dialectical Materialism suffers from one decisive defect: they essentially ignore the achievements of both Marx and Lenin in the materialist reworking of the Hegelian dialectic. Thus, Hegel is approached uncritically, essentially in the manner of the Left Hegelians against whom Marx struggled. ...
Cde. Healy does not take into account the oft-repeated warnings of both Marx and Engels that the Hegelian dialectic was unusable in the form it was left behind. Thus, Cde. Healy seeks to explain the process of cognition directly from the Hegelian Logic. This is a false approach. The process of thought cannot be explained from the Logic any more than the nature of the State could be explained from the Logic. ...
The phrase “standing Hegel on his feet” should not be used to diminish the profound scientific achievement embodied in this task. What was involved was nothing less than the establishment of the materialist world scientific outlook through which laws of nature, society and consciousness are cognized. The chief concern of philosophy was no longer the “matter of Logic” but the “logic of the matter.”
Marx clearly revealed that the Hegelian logical schema, when utilized as given, leads inevitably to sophistry, via the manipulation of logical categories and the further manipulation of empirical facts to fit the pre-existing categories.
In his conclusion, North summarized his critique of the political evolution of the ICFI under the leadership of the WRP. “Studies in Dialectics”, North wrote, “has brought into the open a crisis that has been developing within the International Committee for a considerable period of time. For several years (in my opinion, this began in 1976 and only began to predominate in 1978), in the name of the struggle for dialectical materialism and against propagandism, the International Committee has drifted steadily away from a struggle for Trotskyism.” The critique of Healy’s theoretical method was linked to an analysis of the WRP’s relations with bourgeois national regimes in the Middle East. “A vulgarization of Marxism, palmed off as the ‘struggle for dialectics,’ has been accompanied by an unmistakable opportunist drift within the International Committee, especially in the WRP,” North wrote. “Marxist defense of national liberation movements and the struggle against imperialism has been interpreted in an opportunist fashion of uncritical support for various bourgeois nationalist regimes.”
The Workers League presented a more comprehensive analysis of the degeneration of the WRP in January-February 1984. In a letter dated January 23, 1984 to Michael Banda, the general secretary of the WRP, North stated that the Workers League had become “deeply troubled by the growing signs of a political drift toward political positions quite similar—both in conclusions and methodology—to those we have historically associated with Pabloism.” He pointed out that the International Committee:
...has for some time been working without a clear and politically-unified perspective to guide its practice. Rather than a perspective for the building of sections of the International Committee in every country, the central focus of the IC’s work for several years has been the development of alliances with various bourgeois nationalist regimes and liberation movements. The content of these alliances has less and less reflected any clear orientation toward the development of our own forces as central to the fight to establish the leading role of the proletariat in the anti-imperialist struggle in the semi-colonial countries. The very conceptions advanced by the SWP in relation to Cuba and Algeria, which we attacked so vigorously in the early 1960s, appear with increasing frequency within our own press.
North amplified the Workers League’s criticism in a report to the ICFI on February 11, 1984, which placed the adaptation of the WRP to bourgeois nationalism within the context of the IC’s decades-long struggle against Pabloism, while also pointing to the WRP’s opportunist relations with reformist tendencies in Britain. North explained:
The International Committee is based upon the traditions and principles established through the political, theoretical and organizational struggles of all previous generations of Marxists-and the way in which this continuity of the IC with these previous generations has developed is through the struggle against every variety of anti-Marxism that has emerged within the workers’ movement, especially within the Trotskyist movement itself.
North noted that the US SWP’s explicit repudiation of the Theory of Permanent Revolution—proclaimed by Barnes in late 1982—vindicated the ICFI’s fight against Pabloite revisionism. In place of the struggle for the political independence of the working class, the SWP promoted bourgeois nationalist and petty-bourgeois movements such as the New Jewel movement in Grenada, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and the Farabundo Marti of El Salvador. Within this context, North stressed the need to examine the political experiences of the ICFI. Noting its relations with national movements in the Middle East, North stated:
It is clear that by mid-1978 a general orientation toward relations with nationalist regimes and liberation movements was developing without any corresponding perspective for the actual building of our own forces inside the working class. An entirely uncritical and incorrect appraisal began to emerge ever more openly within our press, inviting the cadres and the working class to view these bourgeois nationalists as “anti-imperialist” leaders to whom political support must be given.
North criticized the WRP’s support for Saddam Hussein’s repression of the Iraqi Communist Party, including the execution of 21 members in 1979; the praise given to the Iranian regime of Ayatollah Khomeini after an initially correct appraisal of the February 1979 revolution; and the uncritical support for the leader of the Libyan Jamahiriya, Muammar al-Gadafi, between 1977 and 1983. North also cited the relations that the WRP had established with sections of the Labour Party, including Ken Livingstone and Ted Knight, and the Greater London Council.
The Workers Revolutionary Party refused to engage in a discussion of these differences. Instead, it issued threats to sever relations with the Workers League if it persisted in its criticisms. This unprincipled and opportunist course had, ultimately, devastating consequences for the WRP. Within little more than one year, in the autumn of 1985, the WRP was shattered by an organizational crisis that was the outcome of more than a decade of political retreat from the principles upon which the founding of the Fourth International and the International Committee had been based. Its refusal to accept the political counsel of the ICFI, and its pursuit of political interests that were conceived of in entirely nationalist terms, led to the split of February 1986.