Duncan Hallas

Building the Leadership

(October 1969)

International Socialism (1st series), No.40, October/November 1969, pp.25-32.
Copied with thanks from REDS – Die Roten.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

“Orthodox Trotskyism” and the Political Roots of the Socialist Labour League

The Socialist Labour League (SLL) is noted on the British Left for the activism of its members and for its sharp hostility to all other political organisations. The sectarianism of the League (for example, its refusal to participate in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign) and the lengthy polemics carried by its press against more or less obscure “revisionists” are well known. So, too, are the complaints of ex-members of the allegedly bureaucratic and authoritarian internal regime of the organisation. But the most characteristic features of all are the extreme emphasis the SLL places on the twin themes of “leadership” and “betrayal” together with constant predictions of the imminence of catastrophic economic crisis.

Some of the sharpest criticisms of this group come from those who share some or most of its basic political concepts. They commonly ascribe its deficiencies to the personal idiosyncrasies of its leading figures.

The contention of this article is that such criticism misses the point. The SLL claims to be the embodiment of “orthodox Trotskyism”. The claim has considerable justification. The League’s present policies are rooted in the Transitional Programme of the Fourth International. its errors arise, fundamentally, from the attempt to apply this analysis to a world situation in which it is irrelevant or false.

A serious criticism of the politics of the SLL involves not merely a criticism of the views of the theorists of that organisation but a re-examination of the original Fourth Internationalist tradition of which, in essentials, they are the most consistent defenders in this country.

Of course this consistency has its limits. Before breaking with the leading theoreticians of the post-war Fourth International (Pablo, Mandel, Frank, etc.) in 1953, the forerunners of the League had a period of evolution in common with them. That period (1944-53) was of decisive importance. In it the Trotskyist groupings, faced with a situation very different from that which they had expected, were compelled to attempt an analysis of the revival of capitalism and the spread of Stalinist regimes.

From that period, and especially from 1944-48, dates the hardening of Trotskyism into an “orthodoxy”, containing a number of contradictory ideas, and increasingly remote from the spirit of its founder.

To understand this evolution it is necessary to go back to the foundation of the Fourth International.

Trotsky’s World View: 1938-40

“The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterised by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.”
Trotsky: The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International

In September 1938 a meeting of 21 delegates representing eleven organisations proclaimed themselves the Foundation Conference of the Fourth international, World Party of the Socialist Revolution. [1] None of the organisations represented had any serious base in the working-class. Most were tiny grouplets and the largest, the newly formed Socialist Workers Party (SWP) of the USA, claimed only 2,500 members and was, at best, on the fringe of the American labour movement. The contrast between this meeting of relatively isolated revolutionaries and the foundation conferences of the previous Internationals must have been obvious to all the participants. The moving spirit and brain behind the Congress, the author of the theses it hastily adopted (the whole Congress lasted exactly one day), was Leon Trotsky. In his eyes the formation of an “International” without any mass support was justified by the extraordinary nature of the world situation.

What was that situation? According to Trotsky “The disintegration of capitalism has reached extreme limits, likewise the disintegration of the old ruling-class. The further existence of this system is impossible.” [2] In the words of the Transitional Programme “The economic prerequisite for the proletarian revolution has already in general achieved the highest point of fruition that can be reached under capitalism. Mankind’s productive forces stagnate.” [3] It follows that “Under conditions of decaying capitalism the proletariat grows neither numerically nor culturally.” [4] It is therefore now or never. “If, however, the present war [i.e., the war of 1939-45 – DH] will provoke not revolution but a decline of the proletariat, then there remains another alternative: the further decay of monopoly capitalism, its further fusion with the state and the replacement of democracy wherever it still remained by a totalitarian regime.” [5]

On this perspective there was clearly no future for the reformist social democratic organisations. Reformism, as a mass movement, depends on the possibility of reforms, of an economic expansion of some sort. If this is permanently excluded, as Trotsky believed it was, the mass basis of social democracy must rapidly disappear. He was quite explicit about the impossibility of a successful reformist strategy in the years ahead. “In general, there can be no discussion of systematic social reforms and the raising of the masses” living standards; when every serious demand of the proletariat and even every serious demand of the petty-bourgeoisie inevitably reaches beyond the limits of capitalist property relations and of the bourgeois state.” [6]

As to the Communist Parties: “The Third International has taken to the road of reformism at a time when the crisis of capitalism definitely placed the proletarian revolution on the order of the day ... The bureaucracy which became a reactionary force in the USSR cannot play a revolutionary role on the world arena.” [7] The Transitional Programme speaks of “The definite passing over of the Comintern to the side of the bourgeois order, its cynically counter-revolutionary role throughout the world.” [8]

To summarise: capitalism was incapable of further expansion and was already beginning to decline, the basis for reformism was gone and the Communist Parties were now reformist. The alternatives were revolution or mass pauperisation of the working people and the growth of totalitarian statist regimes. Orwell’s 1984, written a few years later, describes the sort of society Trotsky believed must come unless the proletarian revolution occurred in the near future.

The Degenerated Workers’ State

“A totalitarian regime, whether of Stalinist or fascist type, by its very essence can be only a temporary transitional regime.”
Trotsky: The USSR in War

While monopoly capitalism was in in its death agony, the Stalinist regime in the USSR was, in Trotsky’s view, highly unstable. The ruling bureaucracy he regarded, not as a class, but as a Bonapartist group, “summoned to regulate the antagonism between the proletariat and the peasantry, between the workers” state and world imperialism.” [9] Hence its extremely precarious position. “Bonapartism, by its very essence, cannot long maintain itself: a sphere balanced on the point of a pyramid must invariably roll down one side or the other.” [10]

The right wing of the bureaucracy, the “fascist, counterrevolutionary elements, growing uninterruptedly, express with ever greater consistency the interests of world imperialism. These candidates for the role of compradors consider, not without reason, that the new ruling layer can ensure their positions of privilege only through rejection of nationalisation, collectivisation and monopoly of foreign trade ... From them, i.e., from the right, we can expect ever more determined attempts in the next period to revise the socialist character of the USSR and bring it closer in pattern to ‘Western Civilisation’ in its fascist form.” [11]

The alternatives before the USSR were simple. “Either the bureaucracy, becoming ever more the organ of the world bourgeoisie in the workers’ state, will overthrow the new forms of property and plunge the country back to capitalism; or the working-class will crush the bureaucracy and open the way to socialism.” [12]

Nor was this choice one for the indefinite future. It was imminent. Writing towards the end of 1939 Trotsky enquired “Might we not place ourselves in a ludicrous position if we affixed to the Bonapartist oligarchy the nomenclature of a new ruling class just a few years or even a few months prior to its inglorious downfall?” [13]

Prognosis and Reality

“But we, too, have been shown to have been wrong by history, which has revealed our point of view of that time to have been an illusion. It has done even more: it has not merely destroyed our error of that time; it has also completely transformed the conditions under which the proletariat has to fight.”
Engels: Introduction to The Class Struggles in France

At the time it was made Trotsky’s outline of state and prospect of capitalism was a plausible one. it is now clear that it was mistaken. In the decades after the Second World War capitalism, far from contracting, underwent an unprecedented expansion. As Kidron has pointed out, “the system as a whole has never grown so fast for so long as since the War – twice as fast between 1950 and 1964 as between 1913 and 1950 and nearly half as fast again as during the generation before that.” [14] In consequence the Social-Democratic and Communist parties, far from disintegrating, emerged in the post-War period stronger in numbers and support than ever before. Reformism flourished in the developed capitalist countries on the basis of a rising standard of living.

In the USSR the “restorationist” wing of the bureaucracy proved to be illusory. The USSR emerged from the War stronger than ever, with the bureaucracy firmly in the saddle on the basis of nationalised industry. Worse, it expanded, and imposed regimes on the Russian model in Eastern Europe and North Korea; effectively liquidating the former ruling classes of these countries. In Yugoslavia and Albania local Communist parties took power and created regimes indistinguishable in structure from the Stalinist model. A little later the same thing happened in China and then in North Vietnam.

These developments undermined the original perspectives of the Fourth International. It had been founded on the twin assumptions that events would shortly sweep away the old mass parties, whether Stalinist or Social-Democratic, and that in any case the Stalinist Communist Parties could not achieve a revolutionary transformation of society.

The attempts of the Fourth Internationalist group to grapple with these problems produced a polarisation between what may be described, following the terminology favoured by the SLL, as “orthodoxy” and “revisionism”.

The Evolution of Orthodoxy: 1944-48

“The first characteristic of a real revolutionary party is to be able to look reality in the face.”
Trotsky: The Turn in the Communist International and the German Situation

The original nucleus of the SLL was a minority grouping within the then British section of the Fourth International, the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). Its most prominent members, Gerry Healy and John Lawrence, developed a number of political differences with the majority of that organisation. Healy and Lawrence identified themselves with the views of the American SWP, which were articulated in Europe chiefly by three men, Germain (Ernest Mandel), Pablo and Frank, who constituted the core of what became the International Secretariat of the Fourth international (ISFI). For nearly a decade the SWP and ISFI and the proto-SLL held practically identical positions on all questions.

They constituted a tendency characterised by theoretical primitiveness and conservatism, by a marked reluctance to depart from the letter of Trotsky’s writings which, at times, they elevated almost to the status of sacred texts. Consequently their world outlook came to diverge more and more from reality.

This became apparent at a very early stage. The War did indeed produce a revolutionary upsurge in Europe as Trotsky had predicted it would. This upsurge gave new strength to the Communist and Social-Democratic parties. The policy of the Communist parties was the key factor. They used their mass support to make possible the recreation of the war-shattered state machines. In the West these machines were fundamentally bourgeois, in the East they were fundamentally Stalinist, as events were to prove. In both cases they were crowned by apparently similar coalition governments of Communists, Social Democrats and “left” bourgeois parties. [15] In both cases violent repression, sometimes, as in Greece, on a large scale, supplemented the indispensable ideological support given by the workers” parties to these developments. But only supplemented it. Especially in the key countries – France and Italy – repression, though real, was marginal. It was the Communist Parties, with their greatly increased mass support, that played the decisive counter-revolutionary role.

So far so good. This was exactly what Trotsky had predicted. But without Trotsky to guide them the SWP-influenced Trotskyists at once committed a strategic blunder of the first magnitude. They adopted the perspective that the immediate prospect for Europe was either socialist revolution or military dictatorship. “The experience in the countries ‘liberated’ by the Red Army as in those ‘liberated’ by the Allied Armies already shows that the bourgeoisie, ruined, incapable of making the smallest concessions to the masses and directly menaced by their growing agitation, turns from the beginning to ‘strong’ solutions, to police and military dictatorships, resting on the occupying troops and the national fascist elements who were already used during the Nazi occupation to break the movement of the masses. A relatively long intermediate ‘democratic’ period, lasting until the decisive victory either of the socialist revolution or once again of fascism, will be impossible.” [16]

This grotesque assessment was based, of course, on a literal reading of Trotsky’s last works. It demonstrated that the leaders of the SWP and their European acolytes preferred to recite from the texts rather than to attempt an analysis of the actual situation. The underlying assumption, that “in all the ‘liberated’ countries the bourgeoisie is incapable of restoring economic life,” [17] derived directly from the catastrophic economic perspective of 1938-40.

The mistake was serious. Much more serious was the determination of the emerging “international leadership” to persist in it when its absurdity was more and more obvious. The “International Pre-Conference” of 1946 did exactly this. Its manifesto (drafted by Ernest Mandel) boldly proclaimed “there is no reason whatever to assume that we are facing a new epoch of capitalist stabilisation and development. On the contrary, the War has acted only to aggravate the disproportion between the increased productivity of the capitalist economy and the capacity of the world market to absorb it.” [18] When this pearl of economic wisdom was produced the revolutionary wave had subsided and there was every reason to suppose that economic revival was on the agenda. As the RCP journal stated at the time “The classic conditions for booms are present in Europe today. A shortage of capital goods; shortage of agricultural produce; shortage of consumer goods ... The specific position taken by the International Pre-Conference and supported by the minority of the British Party [i.e., Healy, Lawrence, etc. – DH], that the Western European countries will remain on a level approaching stagnation and slump is entirely false.” [19]

By this time the Healy-Lawrence group had emerged as a well organised faction in the RCP. It had two planks, uncompromising support for the “international leadership” in all the disputed questions and the immediate dissolution of the RCP and entry into the Labour Party. On the latter question it was undoubtedly correct but for reasons entirely opposite to those it advanced. The minority position was that the economic impasse would produce a mass radicalisation of the workers who would flood into the Labour Party. A revolutionary crisis was imminent and there was no time to build an independent party from scratch. The task was to participate in and secure the leadership of the massive left-wing current that the Labour Party was about to give. birth to.

The majority rejected this phantasy, predicting a continuation of the economic upswing that was already obvious but, partly because they underestimated its duration and extent, failed until 1949 to draw the conclusion that an independent revolutionary party could not be built in the period. In 1947 the two tendencies separated, with the agreement of the International; the minority went into the Labour Party where they continued to hold the politics of the SWP-ISFI. So far the attempt to cling to the economics of the Transitional Programme had led from error to absurdity. It soon led to dishonesty. In April 1948 the Second World Congress of the FI took place. By this time the boom was unmistakeable, the Marshall plan had been launched and only a being newly arrived from another planet could fail to see that the “capitalist stabilisation and development’, dismissed out of hand in 1946, was indeed occurring. In these circumstances a serious revolutionary tendency would naturally devote considerable attention to discovering the sources of its mistakes. What happened?

The major document adopted by the Congress unblushingly states “The April 1946 Conference correctly analysed the changes brought about by the second imperialist war ... The immense destruction, impoverishment and inflation caused by the war in Europe, as well as in some of the colonial and semi-colonial countries, and the resulting dislocation of the world market, have been responsible for the extremely irregular nature of the economic revival in these countries, as generally foreseen by the documents of the April Conference.” [20] For to discuss seriously what had actually been written in 1946 – and why it was rubbish – would have led inexorably to the conclusion that the “revisionist” RCP majority (and other oppositional groups) had been right and the “orthodox Trotskyists” completely wrong.

The Camel and the Gnat

“From an uncontrolled caste alien to socialism, the bureaucracy has become an uncontrollable caste mortally hostile to socialism both in Russia and on a world scale.”
The USSR and Stalinism – Resolution of 2nd World Congress of the FI

In 1944-45 the Russian Army gained control of most of Eastern Europe. The state machines in the countries of the area had been reduced to a complete dependence on the Wehrmacht and were destroyed along with it. They were replaced by new structures, erected under Russian auspices, which drew their personnel partly from the underground (and emigré) Communist Parties but also from the personnel who had previously served the German puppet states. [21] As has been noted coalition governments “representing” all the “anti-fascist” tendencies including the bourgeois parties were installed. In fact, from the start, effective power was in the hands of the local Stalinist hierarchies and these in turn were dependent, except in Yugoslavia and Albania, on the Russian Army. The considerable revolutionary movements that had developed were effectively eliminated. [22]

Between 1944 and early 1948 land reforms liquidated the big landowners in those parts of the area where they had been an important part of the ruling-class and the decisive sectors of industry were everywhere nationalised. [23]

In short, the social structure, though not the formal political structure, was transformed into one essentially identical with that of the USSR. Did this mean that Stalinism had emerged from the War stronger than before? Such a view is clearly incompatible with the analysis of the Transitional Programme. Therefore it must be wrong! The 1946 International Conference document dutifully noted “The War has marked for the USSR the abysmal debacle of the nationalist policy of self-sufficiency formulated by the theory of ‘socialism in one country’, and at the same time it marks the beginning of a period in which the fate of the regime established by the October Revolution [the Stalinist regime? – DH] will be definitely and finally decided ... In the test of strength which characterises the present relations between imperialism and the USSR, only the intervention of the proletarian revolution can save the Soviet Union from an early and fatal end.” [24]

This did not, however, dispose of the problem of the class character of the new East European states.

The question was not merely one of semantics. If it is conceded that a whole series of workers” states can be created by the Stalinist bureaucracy, or by the local Communist parties or by a combination of both, then it is nonsense to say that Stalinism is incapable of overthrowing capitalism. Yet this was one of the principle assumptions on which the FI had been founded. If, on the other hand, regimes with a planned economy based on nationalised property relations are capitalist states then it is nonsense to describe the USSR as a workers” state.

Desperate attempts were made to evade the dilemma, arguments rivalling in metaphysical subtlety those of medieval theologians were advanced, but nevertheless a position eventually had to be taken. After all the leadership of the “World Party of the Socialist Revolution” ought to be able to distinguish a workers” state from a capitalist state even if it could not distinguish a boom from a slump!

The Second World Congress took the only decision possible if it was to maintain, not merely Trotsky’s basic line on Stalinism, but also the central core of Marxism – the concept of the working-class as the agency of the socialist revolution. The “buffer” countries, as they were termed, remained capitalist. “The capitalist nature of the economy of the ‘buffer zone’ is apparent ... In the ‘buffer’ countries the state remains bourgeois.” [25] Moreover “The capitalist nature of these countries imposes the necessity of the strictest revolutionary defeatism in war time.” [26] As to the political structure “the state of the ‘buffer countries’ represents at the same time an extreme form of Bonapartism.” [27]

And the USSR? It remains a degenerated workers” state!

“Orthodoxy” had been preserved at the cost of adopting simultaneously two patently contradictory positions. The orthodox had declined to swallow the gnat of “revisionism”. They were soon to have to swallow the camel of the Chinese revolution. As the delegates conferred Mao Tse-tung’s armies were approaching the Yangste. By the end of the year the Chinese Communist Party was in control of all mainland China. The orthodox did not flinch. Russia was a degenerated workers” state, Mao’s China, a capitalist state.

After Mao had been in power a year the theoretical organ of the SWP declared “Some bourgeois commentators have elected to see in the transformation of power from the Kuomintang to the Communist Party a finished social revolution. This thoroughly superficial and completely false evaluation of events takes no account of the popular opposition to Stalinist rule which has developed concomitantly with the ‘Red’ military victory. It ignores, too, the fact that the Stalinist programme itself is dedicated to the protection and preservation of capitalist property relations.” [28]

The Lurch Towards Stalinism

“To believe that a generalised statisation which embraces almost all the means of production, exchange and transportation is compatible with the notion of a capitalist state is a revisionist idea which can only lead its latter-day partisans to the concept of state capitalism.”
Pablo: Yugoslavia and the Rest of the Buffer Zone

Meanwhile the Group, as the Healy-Lawrence faction called themselves, were busy at work in the Labour Party. They had launched, in conjunction with a number of Labour Party left wingers, a paper called Socialist Outlook. It was not a Trotskyist paper but something of the nature of a forum. Various left (and not so left) MPs and trade unionists were induced to contribute, including that future ornament of the NEC of the Labour Party, Mrs Bessie Braddock.

This policy was justified by reference to the perspective of economic crisis and mass radicalisation. Since a mass left wing did not yet exist the role of the paper was to create the framework which would facilitate its development. Into that framework the newly radicalised workers would flow. [29] It was in fact a centrist paper, and as such, quickly found an echo amongst the then quite numerous Labour lefts. No trace of the bitter debates then distracting the FI was permitted to sully its pages. The fundamental political question could wait. The great thing was to build a movement. Sectarianism was the last thing the Group would be accused of in those days!

In 1949 they were reinforced by many of the members of the former RCP majority, after the RCP had voted to dissolve itself, enter the Labour Party and fuse with the Group. Socialist Outlook grew in circulation and influence, especially in the newly reborn Labour League of Youth.

Unfortunately for the Group, the political problems would not lie down and die. On June 28, 1948, the Cominform [30] announced the expulsion of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia. Tito, the model Stalinist leader of yesterday, was soon accused of being (and having been since the time of the Spanish Civil War) a Trotskyite and an agent of Imperialism. The Stalin government instituted an economic boycott of Yugoslavia and a wave of show trials in the “Peoples Democracies” produced the spectacle of prominent Stalinist leaders confessing that their Trotskyist views had led them to enlist successively in the intelligence services of Nazi Germany and the USA. [31]

The Stalin-Tito split threw the FI into confusion. They had just declared that Yugoslavia was a capitalist state ruled by a Bonapartist dictatorship towards which “the strictest revolutionary defeatism” must be adopted in case of war. Now war seemed only too likely, war between Yugoslavia and the USSR which, of course, had to be “unconditionally defended” against imperialism.

One possible position was that which the SWP advanced for a time. “Tito and Stalin want the workers to choose between them ... Regardless of what Tito and Stalin want, the workers will surely reject this trap of choosing between the type of gold braid worn in Belgrade, as against the type Stalin prefers in the Kremlin.” [32] One impossible position, on the analysis adopted, was the support of Tito against Stalin. This was precisely the position taken. On July 1 the International Secretariat addressed an Open Letter to the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (CPY), which stated, inter alia, “You hold in your hands a mighty power if only you persevere on the road of socialist revolution ... Keep up the fight!” After noting that the FI had various criticisms of the CPY (actually that it was a counter-revolutionary Bonapartist clique: but of course the matter was not put in these crude terms!) the letter concluded: “We wish rather to take note of the promise in your resistance the promise of victorious resistance by a revolutionary workers’ party against the Kremlin machine ... Long live the Yugoslav Socialist Revolution.” [33]

For the first time the faithful faltered. After all if the CPY was a revolutionary workers’ party everything Trotsky and the orthodox Trotskyists had written about Stalinism since 1934 was balderdash. As to the Yugoslav Socialist Revolution: the FI had just proved that it had been destroyed by Stalinism – specifically by the CPY!

But the habits of factional solidarity were strong. Oppositional tendencies in the FI had argued for years that the class natures of the “buffer countries” and the USSR were identical. Some (e.g., the RCP) had argued that both were degenerated workers” states, others (e.g., the Chaulieu group) that both were forms of state capitalism. Both views had been “finally” rejected only a few weeks before the Open Letter was dispatched to Belgrade. Indeed the Second World Congress had declared “The parallelism of these two revisionist tendencies strikes the eye. There is no room for them in the revolutionary movement.” [34]

A united front had to be maintained against the “revisionists”. And so the SWP eventually swallowed its words. In September 1949 it declared “Revolutionary militants cannot remain neutral in the struggle between Tito and Stalin and wait until the opposition movement has developed ideological clarity” on all the important questions. We are on Yugoslavia’s side against the Kremlin.” [35]

However, matters could not be allowed to rest here. The contradictions in the official position were now obvious even to some of the orthodox. The lead was taken by Michael Pablo. Yugoslavia, he decided, was a workers” state, deformed yes, but a workers” state. And if Yugoslavia, then by the same token Bulgaria, Poland, East Germany, China, in fact all the Stalinist regimes. That is to say 40 per cent of the world’s population now live in workers’ states and, except for the USSR, these states have not been created by working-class revolutions. Orthodoxy had now given rise to the most gigantic revisionism. Not only Trotsky but Marx and Lenin too had been wrong in thinking that only the working-class could overthrow capitalism.

Recoil At The Brink

“A false political theory bears within itself its own punishment. The strength and obstinacy of the apparatus only augments the dimensions of the catastrophe.”
Trotsky: The Tragedy of the German Proletariat

Pablo’s thesis was received with uneasiness by many of his erstwhile supporters. In the national sections and in the ISFI itself [36] a differentiation began between a fundamentally pro-Stalinist tendency and its critics. Among the latter was Gerry Healy and between him and Lawrence, who supported Pablo, a tension soon developed. This was not apparent to the uninitiated amongst the readers of Socialist Outlook. Lawrence and his supporters controlled the editorial board of the paper, and under their influence, it began to take a more and more pro-Stalinist line.

There was no immediate split. The opponents of Pablo were divided amongst themselves. Some wished to stand by the position that all the Stalinist regimes outside the USSR were capitalist. Some accepted Yugoslavia alone as a workers” state. Still others could swallow a “bureaucratic revolution” in East Europe but drew the line at China. [37]

All of them were trapped in the logic of their position on the USSR. As long as it was maintained that the USSR was a degenerated workers” state Pablo was bound to win in the end. And win he did. The Third World Congress in 1951 decided that, after all, the East European states were “deformed workers’ states”. [38]

This did not solve the problem. On the contrary it produced a sharp internal conflict in the FI. For Pablo now began to make explicit the conclusion that necessarily flows from his position. “In countries where the CP’s are a majority of the working-class they can, under exceptional conditions (advanced disintegration of the propertied classes) and under the pressure of very powerful uprisings of the masses be led to project a revolutionary orientation counter to the Kremlin directives.” [39]

In plain English the Stalinist mass parties are revolutionary parties; for the qualifications are meaningless. No revolutionary party ever takes power except under “exceptional conditions” and without “very powerful uprisings of the masses.

It followed that entry into these mass parties is the policy for revolutionaries. This was urgent because the third world war was imminent. “These organisations cannot be smashed and replaced by others in the relatively short time between now and the decisive conflict. All the more so since these organisations will be obliged, whether they wish it or not, to give a leftward turn to the whole or at least a part of the leadership.” [40]

The wheel had come the full circle. Twenty years earlier Trotsky had declared that the victory of Hitler proved that the Communist international was a corpse, that it was necessary to work for a new revolutionary International. Now the Secretary of that International proclaimed, in effect, that the whole thing had been a mistake!

At this point Healy, together with the majority of the SWP, drew back and broke politically with the FI majority.

Inside the Group a furious struggle flared up. The line of the Socialist Outlook, controlled by the Lawrence faction, became indistinguishable from that of the Daily Worker. The two factions formally split in November 1953; soon after the Healy group regained control of the paper, six months later, the Labour Party banned it. Lawrence and his friends joined the Communist Party.

The very considerable periphery that had been built up was dispersed. Of course at no time had the oft-predicted mass left wing developed – if only because the economic perspective on which it depended proved false yet again. But a fairly large number of Labour Party members and Trade Unionists had identified themselves with the Outlook. The great majority were lost during the faction fight which broke upon their unsuspecting heads. Nothing had been done to prepare them politically for the conflict which was kept for a long time within a closed circle. When it erupted they were confused or disgusted and voted with their feet. The Group was reduced in numbers to much the same strength as they had had at the time of the entry six years earlier.

Founding The League

“And what kind of Marxist movement? Not a group of embittered doctrinaires without roots or perspectives or the ability to learn from their mistakes.”
Labour Review editorial, August-September 1958

The majority of the Healy group had broken with Pabloism but they had done so in the most limited way possible. They accepted the premises of Pablo but rejected the conclusions. Nor had they made any serious re-examination of their economic perspectives. They remained wedded to catastrophism – only the date of the catastrophe had to be put back from year to year. The problem of determining the nature – and hence the limits – of the prolonged capitalist revival did not exist for them.

Their recent experience had made them emphasise more than ever the essential role of the working-class in the transformation of society; but this was the sole positive feature of their evolution. Certainly it was the most important possible feature. it kept them within the central tradition of Marxism at a time when their allies of yesterday were staggering towards semi-Stalinism; but otherwise they failed to develop politically. They remained “orthodox’. This fact was ultimately to determine the character of the SLL. At first, however, this was not obvious.

For two and a half years after the end of the Outlook the Group remained small and relatively isolated. it retained its cohesion and waited for better days. These soon came. The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 produced the first major split in the British CP. Several thousand party members left the organisation. Many moved to the right but the best looked for a revolutionary alternative which would both explain the evident degeneration of the Soviet Union and provide a way forward in Britain.

The Group could do both. The Revolution Betrayed was manna from heaven to newly disillusioned ex-Stalinists and the confident prediction of crisis round the corner stiffened their resolution. Several hundred of them, for the most part talented and devoted workers and intellectuals, came into the Group.

It was the greatest gain Trotskyists in Britain had ever made. It made possible the publication, in May 1957, of The Newsletter. Described as an “independent socialist weekly”, it was, in its early days, a first-class, non-sectarian revolutionary paper with a strong industrial orientation. The response was such that when, in November 1958 The Newsletter called an industrial conference, it was attended by over 600 militants, many of them people of some standing and influence in various industries. The claim that the conference was “a purely rank and file gathering, dominated by no platform, run by no bureaucracy, steered by no officials” [41] was not far from the truth; certainly the level of discussion was high and good practical proposals emerged. [42] One result of the conference was the publication of a number of excellent pamphlets on the problems facing militants in several industries.

At the same time the Group’s theoretical journal Labour Review was publishing valuable polemical and historical articles. In an early issue its editors (John Daniels and Bob Shaw) stated, “We do want, however, to emphasise that Labour Review is not a sectional, Trotskyist journal. We wish to make it the main journal for conducting the principled discussion of every aspect of revolutionary theory ... Our columns are open to all who wish to put a point of view on how Marxist science is to be enriched ... What the Marxist movement in Britain needs above all else is a fundamental, many-sided, uncensored, principled discussion of the problems of the British and international labour movements, a discussion that will educate (not indoctrinate) us all in the strategy and tactics of socialist revolution.” [43] It could be fairly claimed that the early issues of Labour Review made a real contribution to such a discussion.

When, at Whitsun 1959, the Socialist Labour League was founded it started with a cadre of militants superior in numbers, talent and experience to that of any previous revolutionary organisation since the foundation of the CPGB in 1920-21. But 1959 proved to be the high point for the organisation. Though it was soon to gain the major influence in the newly formed Young Socialists [44], its industrial base began to wither almost from the moment of its foundation. Within a few years the great majority of the ex-CP militants had been lost and the SLL had become a sectarian caricature of a revolutionary organisation. It was the unsolved political contradictions of Trotskyist orthodoxy that proved fatal to its healthy development.

The Politics of Catastrophe

“What is the situation in which the Socialist Labour League is born, to inherit and carry forward the best traditions of four international associations of working men? If we were to choose one word to sum up the salient features of this period, that word would be ‘crisis’.”
Labour Review editorial, April-May 1959

In the period 1957-59 the major effort of the Group went into the task of winning the cream of the ex-Stalinists. For this all the necessary theoretical weapons were provided by Trotsky’s writings. There were no awkward past positions to be concealed or explained away. As long as the debate remained at this level the Group could only gain from a full and frank discussion. But once the Group had succeeded in this task, once the League had been founded there was a new problem. it was necessary to apply a Marxist analysis to the world of the sixties. Such an analysis presupposes a serious study of past errors. This the leaders of the SLL could not achieve.

Their conservatism showed first, and most disastrously, in the field of economic perspectives. Ever since the war they had been proclaiming the imminence of a slump. It had failed to materialise. The essence of the problem was a simple one. Marx’s economic model is a closed system. If all outputs re-enter the system, frequent and severe economic crises are inevitable. But, as Kidron has shown, “a leak could insulate the compulsion to grow from its most important consequences ... if ‘capital intensive’ goods were drawn off the rise [in the organic composition of capital – DH] ... would be slower ... could even stop or be reversed. In such a case there would be no decline in the average rate of profit, no reason to expect increasingly severe slumps, and so on.” [45] Such a leak had been found in the permanent arms economy.

The consequences of this fact, the contradictions of neocapitalism, its prospects and its limits; those are the basic problems to be faced by Western revolutionaries today. The difficulty for orthodox Trotskyists is to accept that these are the problems. For if they are Trotsky’s economic catastrophism must be rejected. And with it goes one of the two pillars on which the FI was founded. The tiny grouplets of the FI expected to be swept forward in the tide of economic catastrophe, instead they found themselves stranded on the ebb tide produced by the 20 years of boom. Hence the irrelevance of the whole pretentious apparatus of “World Leadership”, “World Congresses”, “International Executive Plenums” and all the rest of the paraphernalia borrowed from the Comintern.

The Comintern in the 20’s meant something. Hundreds of thousands of militants obeyed its directives, millions were influenced by it. Its decisions, right or wrong, had an effect on the course of history – and therefore there was a feedback. Prior to the Stalinist degeneration, the CI was constantly faced with the necessity of checking and correcting its mistakes because they quickly became obvious in the actual course of the class struggle. If Trotsky’s economic perspective had been correct the FI might have been in a similar position. Since they were wrong there was no feedback. Hence the politics of bluff and deception could – and did – flourish. The leadership of the SLL had broken with the FI without re-examining their own past. So they set up another – and even more ludicrous “international”, the “International Committee of the FI”!

The effect on the work of the SLL in Britain was even more striking. Discussion, which is dangerous to the leadership, can be checked by hyperactivity; and this, in turn, is justified by the nearness of crash. The membership, driven at a frenzied pace, has a high casualty rate. A large proportion is always new – and therefore does not remember the non-fulfilment of past prophecies. A vicious circle is set up which makes the correction of the line more and more difficult. “Building the leadership” – which is, of course, identified with the organisation – becomes a substitute for serious political and industrial work. Serious militants are repelled and the “revolutionary youth” come to make up an ever larger proportion of the activists. The leadership, which alone has much continuity, becomes unchallengeable and finds it less and less necessary to check its policies and practice.

This is also one of the sources of sectarianism. Because the cadre is basically uneducated politically, as it must be in the absence of serious internal discussion, it must be protected from “contamination” by contact with militants of other organisations. Hence the abstentionist policy of the SLL towards VSC. Hence the sectarian development of the “All Trades Union Alliance” as “the industrial arm of the SLL”. Ten years ago Labour Review published a remarkable article by Brian Pearce, Some Past Rank and File Movements, which mercilessly criticised the very type of industrial policy which the SLL now pursues. The SLL has come a long way since then!

There is another source of sectarianism which reinforces the first. The leaders of the League broke with Pabloism and yet retained the basic Pabloite position on the nature of Stalinist states. They certainly drew the opposite political conclusions to those of the FI majority and thus minimised the damage that the false theory produced. But they did so at the cost of maintaining yet another untenable political compromise. The Cuban revolution and the League came into the world at more or less the same time. In due course Castro, like Tito before him, expropriated the bourgeoisie and established what’? Not a deformed workers” state, that is Pabloism and the SLL leadership saw, correctly, the basic contradiction between this tendency and revolutionary Marxism. As one of their theoreticians remarked “But if Cuba is accepted as a workers” state, on the lines laid down in the SWP documents, it will only be a matter of time before the necessary attributes of this state can be assembled for Algeria, and if Algeria why not go off to some other parts of the world? ... There is Egypt. There is Burma.” [46] Quite true but also quite incompatible with the SLL’s position on the USSR, East Europe and China. Yet another reason why the young cadres must be kept away from too much contact with people who might inspire dangerous thoughts.

The result is the development of a peculiar psychology in the SLL militants, a psychology which resembles that of “Third Period” Stalinism. A fanatical party patriotism, a ferocious hatred of other groupings which, by definition, “betray’, an effective insulation from criticism since it always comes from “betrayers’; in short all the marks Of a “true believer’. This psychology has obvious advantages to the leadership. Its only defect is that it makes it impossible to understand reality, impossible to gain a serious and lasting influence in the working-class.


The tragic failure of the SLL to fulfil its early promise is deeply rooted in the premises upon which it was founded. Trotsky described the 20th century as a century of wars and revolution. The failure of his “orthodox” followers to disentangle this correct historical perspective from the errors of his short-term analysis lies at the root of their political bankruptcy. Trotsky’s immense contribution to revolutionary tactics, his uncompromising hostility to Stalinism, to reformism, to every kind of totalitarianism, give him a stature which no mere mistakes can diminish. In that sense a Marxist revolutionary today must be a Trotskyist, just as he must be a Leninist.

The ossification of the living thought of a great revolutionary into a dogma, the failure to apply the methods he applied, to new situations, new problems; in short the erection of an orthodoxy is as much an insult to his memory, as it is incompatible with the spirit of his life’s work.

It is this dogmatism that paralyses the political development of the SLL. In spite of the very considerable space its publications devote to “Pabloism”, in reality to the political degeneration of the remnants of the FI, the discussion does not educate either its membership or the revolutionary left generally. The reason is clear. Speaking at the Fifth Annual Conference of the League in 1963, Cliff Slaughter stated “In order to expose completely this revision of Marxism [i.e., Pabloism – DH], we have advocated a thoroughgoing discussion of all the disputed questions since 1953, in order that theoretical clarification can be achieved”. [47] As this article has attempted to show, the real basis of the degeneration the SLL wishes to fight had already been firmly laid well before 1953. And so long as the SLL fails to understand this, it will not be possible for it to free itself from that fanatical sectarianism which nullifies its efforts to build a revolutionary party.


1. Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed. The two Polish delegates opposed the decision. There is some dispute as to the number present. Another source (Max Schachtman) gives 30.

2. Trotsky, The USSR in War. Emphasis added.

3. Trotsky, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International.

4. Trotsky, The USSR in War.

5. Ibid.

6. Trotsky, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International. Emphasis added.

7. Ibid. Emphasis added.

8. Ibid. Emphasis added.

9. Trotsky, The Workers” State, Thermidor and Bonapartism.

10. Ibid.

11. Trotsky, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International. Emphasis added.

12. Ibid. Emphasis added.

13. Trotsky, The USSR in War. Emphasis added.

14. Kidron, Western Capitalism Since the War. Even in the late 30’s there were signs that the system was not exhausted. Industrial output in Japan nearly doubled between 1927 and 1936. See T Cliff, Russia: A Marxist Analysis.

15. This account is necessarily simplified. Germany was under the military rule of the four powers from 1945 to 1949 when East and West each created a regime in its own image. In Poland and Britain the Stalinists had no mass support and so on. But the general picture was as stated.

16. The Maturing Situation in Europe and the Tasks of the Fourth International. Resolution of the European Executive Committee of the FI printed in Workers’ International News, July-August 1945. Emphasis added.

17. Ibid. Emphasis added.

18. The New Imperialist Peace and the Building of the Parties of the Fourth International. Resolution of the International Pre-Conference of the FI printed in Workers’ International News, November-December 1946.

19. Workers’ International News, November-December 1946.

20. The World Situation and the Tasks of the Fourth International. Fourth International, June 1948.

21. See Gluckstein, Stalin’s Satellites in Europe, Part II Chapter 1.

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid. Part I, Chapters 1 and 2.

24. The New Imperialist Peace and the Building of the Parties of the Fourth International. Emphasis added. An RCP amendment asserting that the Stalinist bureaucracy had been strengthened as a result of the War was rejected by the Conference.

25. The USSR and Stalinism. Theses adopted by the Second World Congress of the FI printed in Fourth International, June 1948.

26. Ibid.

27. Ibid. Emphasis in the original.

28. China: An Aborted Revolution in Fourth International, January-February 1950. Emphasis added.

29. The tactic was similar to the “Farmer-Labour Party Tactic” of the American CP in the 20’s. The Left in the CPUSA (the Foster-Cannon group) and the Russian Left Opposition had denounced it as an opportunistic adventure. See New International, March 1935.

30. The Communist International was dissolved in 1943. After the War a “Communist Information Bureau”, the Cominform was established. It included the East European Parties plus those of France and Italy.

31. Klugman, From Trotsky to Tito. This compilation of lies and slanders is well worth re-reading in view of the author’s current status as one of the CP’s leading “theoreticians” and historians.

32. The Militant, 19.7.48. Quoted in New International, September 1948.

33. Quoted in New International, September 1948. Emphasis added.

34. The USSR and Stalinism. Fourth International, June 1948.

35. The Tito-Stalin Conflict. Statement of the NC of the SWP in Fourth International, October 1949.

36. Mandel and Frank resisted the view that the “Buffer States” were deformed workers’ states for a considerable period. See Mandel’s articles in Discussion of the Class Character of the East European States, SWP, 1966.

37. Wohlforth, The Struggle for Marxism in the United States.

38. The Class Nature of Eastern Europe. Resolution of the Third World Congress of the FI printed in Fourth International, November-December 1951.

39. The Rise and Decline of Stalinism by Pablo (1953). Quoted in A Recall to Order, issued by the ISFI, 1959.

40. Resolution of the 10th Plenum of the IEC of the FI, 1952. Quoted ibid.

41. Labour Review, August-September 1958.

42. Information from participants.

43. Labour Review, March-April 1957. Emphasis in original.

44. The Labour League of Youth had been disbanded for the second time in 1955. The Young Socialists were established in 1960.

45. Kidron, Maginot Marxism: Mandel’s Economics, International Socialism 36.

46. Kemp, Revisionism – The Discussion, in Labour Review, Summer 1963.

47. Slaughter, Revisionism and the Fourth International, in Labour Review, Summer 1963.

Last updated on 24.2.2008