Despite—or rather, inseparably connected with—these advances, new problems arose within the International Committee in the aftermath of the split with the Socialist Workers Party. As early as 1966, differences began to emerge between the SLL and the OCI in relation to the role of the ICFI. The difference which first arose at the Third Congress of the ICFI in April 1966 over the question of the historical continuity of Trotskyism was a clear indication of centrist deviations within the world movement. While the OCI fought alongside the SLL against the Robertsonites and the Voix Ouvriere group who openly rejected the struggle against Pabloism as the essential criterion of historical continuity, the differences between the two sections grew wider. The French insistence that the Fourth International had to be “reconstructed” was not merely a dispute over terminology. It suggested a political orientation toward centrist forces under the cover of an international regroupment, and thus placed the gains of the fight against Pabloite revisionism in jeopardy. By making concessions to those who claimed that the Fourth International was “dead” and had to be “reconstructed,” it was declaring, if only implicitly, that the lessons of the past struggles against revisionism were not of decisive importance. Thus, it led directly to the political swamp of centrism, where everyone could get together regardless of the political records of the tendencies they represented.
Under conditions of the upsurge of the working class and student youth in France in 1968, these centrist vacillations assumed immense importance in the political development of the OCI and the ICFI. The French organization, which had for years been struggling to simply pay its bills and establish a presence within the labor movement, suddenly grew like an inflated balloon. By 1970 it was able to organize a rally at Le Bourget airport in Paris that was attended by 10,000 workers and youth. However, the OCI leadership of Lambert and Just adapted to the petty-bourgeois elements, such as Charles Berg, who flooded into the movement. Before long, the right-wing tail was wagging the Party dog.
Throughout this period, the differences between the SLL and the OCI developed over a wide range of principled questions, ranging from the refusal of the French organization to support semi-colonial Egypt against the Zionist state in the 1967 war to the syndicalist and abstentionist line of the OCI during the May-June General Strike and the 1969 Presidential elections.
Having experienced considerable growth in spite of themselves, the OCI leaders felt increasingly self-confident and disdainful toward the International Committee. After relocating themselves in a massive fortress-like structure befitting their new self-importance, Lambert and Just proceeded to establish their own international operation based on dealings with centrists all over the world. Among their most unprincipled relations was that which they cultivated with the Bolivian POR led by G. Lora, an organization which had a long history of collaboration with bourgeois nationalists and which had supported Pablo in 1953.
In July 1971 the OCI organized a youth rally in Essen, Germany, on a completely centrist basis, inviting representatives of not only the POUM—the centrist organization which played a major role in the defeat of the Spanish proletariat—but also of the Robertsonites and the US National Students Association, which had received CIA funding. In the course of that rally, which the SLL had agreed to attend, a resolution was presented by the British YS delegation which called on youth to devote themselves to the struggle for the development of dialectical materialism. The OCI, which had argued with the SLL against presenting the resolution, voted publicly against it.
One month later, the Bolivian army staged a coup which resulted in the overthrow of the “left” military regime of General Torres and the destruction of the Popular Assembly. Having supported the Torres government and expected that the military regime would supply the working class with arms in the event of a coup, Lora was deeply implicated in this political disaster. Tim Wohlforth, who was then secretary of the Workers League, published, with the agreement of the SLL, a critique of the policies of the POR.
The OCI responded by calling a meeting of its international faction in Paris and issuing a statement which denounced the SLL and the Workers League for capitulating to imperialism by attacking the POR publicly. Moreover, it had the audacity to claim that Lora was a member of the ICFI.
The ICFI majority, led by the SLL, responded to this attack by declaring a public split with the OCI on November 24, 1971. There is no question that the characterization of the OCI as a centrist organization was politically correct and the criticisms of the French organization’s political line were entirely justified. Moreover, on the question of philosophy, the SLL correctly opposed the attempt by the OCI to deny that dialectical materialism was the theory of knowledge of Marxism and to claim that the Transitional Program rendered superfluous any further development of Marxist theory.
However, unlike the struggle with the Socialist Workers Party—which was waged throughout the party ranks over an extended period of time—the split with the OCI was carried out without any extensive discussion within the ICFI or among its cadre in the national sections. The international ramifications of the split were given only cursory treatment, which bore no resemblance to the international fight that had been waged by the SLL between 1961 and 1966. It need only be pointed out that the ICFI did not win a single member from the French organization, despite the theoretical and political bankruptcy of the Lambert-Just leadership, and what was even worse, no attempt was made to develop a faction within the OCI. In not one document did the SLL go so far as to make an appeal to the French membership for support.
In contrast to the enormous patience and tenacity with which the SLL conducted the struggle against the degeneration of the SWP—which continued even after the split (the American supporters of the ICFI remained in the SWP for another year)—the break with the OCI was carried out with a political haste which could only leave a legacy of confusion that played into the hands of the French centrists. It should be pointed out that there had been no congress of the ICFI for five years prior to the split, and the break occurred just a few months before the next full congress, the fourth, was scheduled to take place. The OCI called for an emergency meeting of the International Committee and repeatedly demanded further discussion. This was unilaterally rejected by the Socialist Labour League, which simply declared that the split was inevitable and historically necessary.
Under these conditions the split—considered from the standpoint of the education of the cadre of the International Committee and the clarification of the most advanced sections of workers all over the world—was decidedly premature. It represented a retreat by the Socialist Labour League from the international responsibilities it had assumed in 1961 when it took up the fight against the degeneration of the Socialist Workers Party. However necessary the critique of the methodological roots of centrism, and despite the subsequent claims that the split was over essential questions of philosophy, the issue of dialectical materialism neither exhausted nor superseded the fundamental political and programmatic questions that remained to be addressed.
While the split was directly precipitated by the Bolivian events, the SLL was soon claiming that they were only of secondary importance, and that the split within the ICFI had already taken place at Essen when the OCI opposed the resolution on dialectical materialism. This was a false polemic. The events in Bolivia—in which the OCI provided a political cover for Lora—were of immense historical importance for the international working class, above all for the proletariat of Latin America. It was absolutely essential that the ICFI should have analyzed this experience in the most minute detail—just as Trotsky analyzed the events in China, Germany and Spain—in order to expose the counter-revolutionary implications of centrism in the present period. It was not enough to state that Lora and the OCI were wrong. More important from the standpoint of Marxism and the development of the ICFI as the World Party of Socialist Revolution would have been to raise this event to the level of a strategic experience of the international proletariat. This was all the more necessary in as much as the Bolivian proletariat had a long association with the Fourth International. In 1951 Pablo had sanctioned a parliamentary road to power in Bolivia, thus paving the way for the defeat of the 1952 Revolution. At the Fourth Congress of the ICFI in April 1972, the Bolivian events were barely referred to.
The SLL could correctly point to the serious mistakes which the OCI had made in France in 1968-69. But the problem was that these differences had not been discussed within the IC prior to the split. Moreover, the critique of the OCI ended before it reached the point of developing, on the basis of a Marxist analysis of the OCI’s abstentionism, a concrete revolutionary perspective for the French proletariat.
This is a fundamental question. The task confronting leaders of the Fourth International is not only to unearth the betrayals and expose the mistakes but to discover the correct road. In the course of the fight against the SWP, the SLL restored to its rightful place in the practice of American Trotskyists the tactic of the Labor Party. Later, it corrected a tendency within the Workers League to adapt to Black nationalism and encouraged serious theoretical work on the development of a correct programmatic attitude toward this question.
Despite the strategic importance occupied by France in the development of the World Socialist Revolution, all work on the perspective of the ICFI for that country came to an end once the split was completed. Thus, despite the deep historical connections of the Trotskyist movement with the proletariat of that country—and whose problems had been the subject of some of Trotsky’s greatest writings—the SLL simply abandoned the French working class.
Why, then, did the Socialist Labour League proceed in this way? The answer must be found first of all in the political development of the class struggle in Britain and the work of the British section. The sharpening of the class struggle under a Tory government produced an elemental upsurge in the working class which, as we have already noted, enabled the SLL to recruit hundreds of new members. But despite the many organizational successes, as important as they were, a process of political adaptation to this spontaneous upsurge of the working class in Britain began to take place—and it was reflected in political terms almost immediately in a change in the attitude of the British leaders toward the International Committee of the Fourth International.
Ironically, the SLL leadership responded to the growth of their own organization in much the same way as the OCI had responded to their political advances. Healy, Banda and Slaughter began to look upon the ICFI as an auxiliary to the practical work that was being carried out within Britain. The growth of the SLL was increasingly viewed as the basis for the future development of the ICFI, rather than seeing the building of the ICFI as the precondition for consolidating and advancing the gains of the movement in Britain. Their attitude toward the ICFI and its small and politically-inexperienced sections resembled the contempt with which the “big” ILP of the 1930s had viewed the Fourth International.
The haste with which the SLL carried through the split with the OCI—without an exhaustive struggle against centrism throughout the International Committee and within its own ranks—represented an adaptation to the spontaneous upsurge of the British labor movement and marked a serious retreat from the struggle to build the Fourth International. Despite the warning which it had made a decade earlier, the SLL failed to develop the political struggle against centrism within the Fourth International and make the lessons of that struggle the basis for the political education of its own cadre. This could not have happened at a worse time. Precisely because broad new layers were entering the SLL, it was more necessary than ever to base these forces on the historical foundations of the world Trotskyist movement and its long and on-going struggle against all forms of revisionism.
This retreat inevitably undermined the gains which had been made by the SLL. Inasmuch as the new forces were not grounded in great international principles, reinforced by a clear understanding of the world perspective, relations within the party inevitably assumed an increasingly pragmatic character based on limited tactical agreements centered on immediate goals (“Bring down the Tory government”. Moreover, politically-unclarified members were vulnerable to changes in the moods of different class forces to which the leaders themselves, having failed to theoretically comprehend the principal lessons of the struggles of the previous period, began to adapt.
Thus, within a very short period of time, the SLL, beneath the pressure of powerful class forces unleashed by the eruption of the world capitalist crisis in 1971-73, began to develop rapidly in the direction of centrism. This was the enormous price the Healy leadership paid for the failure to keep the pledge it had made to the Fourth International in 1961.