David North
The Workers League and the Founding of the Socialist Equality Party

The New Tasks of the International Committee

The implications of the world crisis

The old equilibrium of world capitalism has broken down. We are rapidly moving into a new and protracted era of international capitalist disequilibrium. The global productive forces that have developed on the basis of capitalism since the end of the war are incompatible with the nation-state system and private ownership of the means of production. The breakdown which is now unfolding is, in historical terms, as profound and potentially explosive as that which emerged at the beginning of the century. Ahead of us lie wars and revolutions.

It follows from the crisis of capitalism and the breakup of the old parties, organizations and movements that for so long dominated the working class that there now emerges the possibility of establishing the authority of the sections of the International Committee within the working class.

In a historic and programmatic sense, the sections of the International Committee are the revolutionary parties of the working class. In our organizations are concentrated a powerful tradition and vast experience. Outside of the International Committee, there is not a revolutionary tendency deserving of the name. But our sections have worked, for the most part, under conditions that were not favorable for the development of mass revolutionary parties. We still must establish, in practical terms, the political authority of the International Committee within the working class.

Marxism is a science. But there exists no set of formal instructions which can explain, in advance, the precise steps which must be followed in the building of a revolutionary party. Moreover, it is in the nature of the historical process that the past provides no exact guide to the future. One can draw lessons and inspiration from the traditions of the past But the future will not take shape as a pale imitation of the past.

The development of the International Committee requires of its cadre a creative response to the specific problems of the present epoch. We yield to no one in our defense of the historic program upon which the Fourth International is grounded. But that program was itself continually enriched in an unrelenting struggle to create the organization through which the working class would finally establish socialism.

For many decades objective conditions denied our movement the possibility of leading masses of workers. We conducted work, and we say this without any embarrassment, that was primarily of a propagandist character. We waged our struggle, for the most part, on an ideological plane. However, and this particularly distinguished the whole history of the Workers League, we continuously sought, even under the most unfavorable conditions, to link our work, to the maximum extent possible, with the living experiences of the working class. Indeed, there have been many occasions when the activity of the party directly influenced broad sections of the working class. The campaigns in defense of Gary Tyler and the Washington Post workers; the central role played by the Workers League in the miners strikes of 1974 and 1977-78; and the leading role played by our party in the PATCO strike and the Phelps Dodge strike; the defense of Roger Cawthra; the work of the Mack Avenue Committee, and, most recently, the defense of the school bus drivers. These are only the most notable of the many campaigns through which the Workers League has deepened its influence within the working class, particularly among its most politically-advanced sections.

Marxism and sectarianism

For decades our enemies among the petty-bourgeois radicals have denounced us as sectarians. By that they meant our devotion to principles, our uncompromising hostility to Stalinism, our antagonistic attitude toward the middle-class radicals, our refusal to make peace with the politics of class collaboration. Healy, who had frequently and forcefully expressed to me his admiration for the practical verve of the Workers League, also buried against us the accusation of “sectarianism.” He arrived at this conclusion fresh from private meetings with Arthur Scargill and on his way to an audience with Mikhail Gorbachev in the Kremlin!

Used scientifically, and not as an epithet, sectarianism is a term that denotes a tendency that finds it impossible—and even may consider it impermissible—to concretely relate the principles of Marxism to the experiences and needs of the workers movement. In the development of the Fourth International, Trotsky had occasion to do battle against such tendencies, and we consider what he said in these struggles part of our political heritage.

“Marxism,” Trotsky wrote in 1935, “has built a scientific program upon the laws that govern the movement of capitalist society and were discovered by it. This is a colossal conquest! However, it is not enough to create a correct program. It is necessary for the working class to accept it. But the sectarian, in the nature of things, comes to a stop upon the first half of the task. Active intervention into the actual struggle of the masses of workers is supplanted for him by propagandistic abstractions of a Marxist program.

“Every working class party, every faction, during its initial stages, passes through a period of pure propaganda, i.e., the training of its cadres. The period of existence as a Marxist circle invariably grafts habits of an abstract approach onto the problems of the workers movement. Whoever is unable to step in time over the confines of this circumscribed existence becomes transformed into a conservative sectarian. The sectarian looks upon the life of society as a great school, with himself as a teacher there. In his opinion the working class should put aside its less important matters, and assemble in solid rank around his rostrum. Then the task would be solved.

“Though he may swear by Marxism in every sentence, the sectarian is the direct negation of dialectical materialism, which takes experience as its point of departure and always returns to it. A sectarian does not understand the dialectical action and reaction between a finished program and a living—that is to say, imperfect and unfinished—mass struggle.... Sectarianism is hostile to dialectics (not in words but in action) in the sense that it turns its back upon the actual development of the working class” (Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1935-36 [New York: Pathfinder, 1977], pp. 152-53).

There is no sectarian tendency within the Workers League or the International Committee. However, there does exist the danger that after so many years of enforced isolation, worsened by the grotesque decay of the trade unions and the reformist political parties, the Workers League and its sister parties might fail to act upon their analysis of the objective situation and detect the new opportunities for the development of the revolutionary movement. By failing to introduce into its practical work initiatives that are indicated by the objective logic of events, the party may fail to actualize the potential that exists within the given situation.

Within even the most revolutionary organization, there exist powerful inertial tendencies. In the Trotskyist movements of the postwar period, how could they not develop? Indeed, the stubbornness of our organizations, their uncompromising defense of doctrine and tradition, their resistance to faddish innovations in the face of superficially-conceived “new world realities” was an essential element of the revolutionary character of the International Committee of the Fourth International. But there is the danger that these tendencies, in the face of genuinely profound changes that require bold and creative initiatives, can become a cover for conservatism and complacency. Nothing can be more difficult for a revolutionary movement, as strange as this may seem, than to recognize that times have changed and that forms of work which have prevailed for years are no longer appropriate for the new existing conditions; that the time of somewhat abstract propagandistic explanations of the general goal of our movement has been overtaken by events. Not that propaganda is no longer necessary, that we must not carefully explain what we stand for, but we must understand that it is not simply a question of commenting on our general conception of the broad pattern of historical development and the place of the revolutionary movement, conceived of in an abstract sense, within it, but taking the leadership of these struggles.

The formation of leagues

The forms of the party are not eternal; they are determined by and must reflect the historic conditions in which we work. Indeed, history demonstrates that the revolutionary potential within a given historical situation can only find progressive expression to the extent that the forms of party work are directed consciously toward its development. Or, to put it somewhat more sharply, the social revolution must be extracted from the hard matter of history within which it is encased.

It is the development of the contradictions of world capitalism and the class struggle as an objective historical process that determines the organizational forms within which our activity develops. These forms, and the relation to the working class that they express, bear a specific relation to the historic conditions under which they arose and initially developed. The formation of leagues, from the Socialist Labour League in Britain in 1959, the Workers League in 1966, the Revolutionary Communist League in 1968, to the formation of the Bund Sozialistischer Arbeiter in 1971 and the Socialist Labour League in Australia in 1972, was bound up with definite historical conditions and strategic conceptions of the development of the revolutionary movement of the working class.

The central strategical problem that confronted the Trotskyist movement in this early period in the development of the ICFI was the active and militant allegiance given by the most advanced sections of the working class to the mass Stalinist and social democratic parties and trade unions.

The political activity of our sections therefore assumed, despite variations in tactics, that the starting point of a great new revolutionary reorientation of the working class would proceed in the form of a radicalization among the most class-conscious and politically-active elements within the ranks of these organizations. Out of that movement, in which the sections of the International Committee would play a catalytic role as the most intransigent opponents of Social Democracy and Stalinism, would arise the real possibilities for the establishment of a mass revolutionary party. Our tactics were based on this conception. This strategical orientation was diametrically opposed to that of the Pabloites, who oriented their organizations toward the bureaucratic leaders, to whom they attributed revolutionary potential. We sought, in a sense, to revolutionize these mass movements from below, while they sought to influence via the bureaucracies from above.

The Socialist Labour League was formed in May 1959 as a tendency within the Labour Party. As was stated in the political resolution of the founding conference:

“The Socialist Labour League is an organization of Marxists within the Labour and trade union movement, dedicated to fighting for socialist policies in place of the present policies of class betrayal....

“The Socialist Labour League will continue to fight for working-class policies inside the Labour Party, despite bans, proscriptions and expulsions, and will continue to demand the right to be affiliated to the Labour Party....

“The Socialist Labour League is not an independent revolutionary working-class party. But its work and activities are laying the foundation for a future party of this kind, which is essential to the overthrow of capitalism and the achievement of working class power in Britain.

“Meanwhile the Socialist Labour League aims to win to its ranks all those workers in the Labour Party and Communist Party who want to build a revolutionary alternative to the betrayals of reformism and Stalinism, together with all other workers of like mind” (Labour Review, July-August 1959).

In the case of Sri Lanka, the strategic problem posed by the domination of the old organizations assumed especially acute form in that the mass party, the LSSP, was linked historically to the Fourth International. In Australia, the form of our political development was determined by the dominant position of the Labor Party, which in 1972, on the eve of Gough Whitlam’s accession to power, enjoyed the active support of broad sections of the working class. In Germany, similarly, the formation of the BSA in 1971 took place in the heyday of the Brandt era, only months before an attempt by the CDU to remove the SPD from power through a parliamentary coup nearly provoked a political general strike.

In that period the constitution of our sections as political parties, in the formal sense of that term, would have represented an evasion of the concrete political tasks that were posed to the revolutionary movement A militant working class was still in the process of testing out organizations and parties with which they strongly identified. To have proclaimed ourselves, at that point, a party, before the working class had really begun to see the need for a new organization, would have been, regardless of the radical phraseology with which it was justified, a form of sectarian abstentionism.