In 1973 the campaign was launched to transform the SLL into the revolutionary party. This was an event which clearly had historic implications for the International Committee of the Fourth International. However, this was not the way in which this decision was approached by the SLL leadership or explained to the rank and file.
The founding of the Socialist Workers Party in 1938 was preceded, under the supervision of Leon Trotsky, by the preparation of hundreds of pages of documents which Presented, first and foremost, the historical foundations of the American section of the Fourth International and its international perspective. All the crucial questions of program and principles were elaborated. The creation of a new revolutionary party was conceived of as an historical conquest of the most advanced sections of the proletariat, not as an episodic tactical maneuver to facilitate recruitment. It was presented as the outcome of a protracted international struggle within the communist movement and the most advanced sections of the proletariat.
The founding of the WRP, however, was explained in a very different way. A Central Committee resolution, dated February 1, 1973, offered a perspective for the transformation of the SLL into the party without even mentioning the central Trotskyist strategy of the World Socialist Revolution. It did not state the basic programmatic positions of the Fourth International, nor did it relate the decision to found the party to the theoretical conquests won in the struggle against Pabloite revisionism.
Nothing in the draft perspectives indicated that the transformation of the SLL into the Workers Revolutionary Party was based on anything more than practical considerations related to the growing anti-Tory movement within the working class. The document was clearly written from the standpoint of adapting to the general level of trade union consciousness, and the program it outlined was limited almost entirely to demands of a democratic character. Not a word was said about the dictatorship of the proletariat as the strategical goal of the socialist revolution in Britain. The perspectives did not explain and expose the class nature of bourgeois democracy—the first requirement of a revolutionary program for the British working class.
The document had nothing to say about the struggle against British imperialism, nor did it say anything about the relationship of the British working class to the national liberation and anti-imperialist struggles throughout the world. The programmatic section of the document did not call for Irish self-determination.
In its content and underlying conception, the program upon which the WRP was founded had nothing whatsoever to do with Trotskyism. There was not a single passage which went outside the precincts of centrism. This was bound up with the essentially nationalist perspective with which the WRP was launched. In calling for the transformation of the SLL, the Healy leadership proclaimed that it had only one goal: the election of a Labour government to replace the Tories!
“The Socialist Labour League, transformed into a revolutionary party, will undertake a specific political task: to unite the working class behind a socialist programme to throw out the Tory government and replace it with a Labour government; to lead the struggle to expose and replace the Labour leaders who serve capitalism; to take the mass anti-Tory movement through the struggle for socialist policies under a Labour government; in this fight, to win many thousands to Marxism and throw out the reformist leaders of the trade union and labour movement.
“Such a revolutionary party will work in the factories, the trade unions, youth movement, tenants’ movement, among the unemployed, among students—wherever there is a struggle against the Tory government—in order to present the real socialist alternative to these forces.
“Members of the party will be the most active and leading fighters in every struggle on wages, on jobs, on rents, on the social services and on democratic rights. But in these struggles they will be fighting first and foremost to build the political movement to throw out the Tories, at the center of which is the assembling and training of the forces of the revolutionary party itself.” (Fourth International, Winter 1973, p. 132)
This was the first time in history that a Trotskyist party was founded for the specific purpose of electing a Social Democratic government! A more provincial perspective could not be easily imagined. In his Critique of the Draft Program Trotsky had written: “In our epoch, which is the epoch of imperialism, i.e., of world economy and world politics, under the hegemony of finance capital, not a single communist party can establish its program by proceeding solely or mainly from conditions and tendencies of developments in its own country.” (Third International After Lenin, New Park, p. 3)
But in 1973 the SLL was proposing to establish a party on the basis of an election program! Moreover, in asserting its right to form a revolutionary party, the SLL presented itself as merely the most consistent fighter against Toryism and for democratic rights. It explained the revolutionary party almost entirely in terms of the necessity of defending “basic” rights, whose class content were not specified:
“Today, when the Socialist Labour League calls for support to transform itself into a revolutionary party, it does so on the basis of its own record in defense of these basic rights and the struggle for alternative leadership...
“The present SLL grew out of the whole struggle on basic policies and defense of basic rights like the right to work.” (Ibid., p. 130)
For a while, Healy toyed with the idea of calling the new organization the “Basic Rights Party”! Fortunately, he gave up on this proposal, but the political outlook which had given rise to that idea permeated the founding document. In the program section of the document, which appeared as if it had been borrowed from the policy committee of the T&GWU, the basic rights were enumerated as follows: the right to work, the democratic right to strike and organize in trade unions, the right to defend rights won in the past and change the system [!], the right to a higher standard of living, the right to health and welfare benefits, and the right to decent housing.
The transformation of the League into the party was organizationally spearheaded by a mass recruitment campaign, in which all who agreed with this program were welcome to join the British section. But this program was written in such a way that membership would be open to anyone with even the vaguest Social Democratic sentiments. Thus, the transformation of the SLL into the WRP was bound up with a dangerous lowering of the political qualifications for party membership. Recruitment was organized not for proletarian revolution, but for the election of a Labour government and the enactment of a Social Democratic program.
Moreover, the document hardly identified the Socialist Labour League with the International Committee of the Fourth International. Precisely four brief paragraphs were devoted to the history of the Trotskyist movement. As for revisionism, it was referred to only in its British guise, the International Marxist Group, and no reference was made to the historic struggles of the previous decade. Thus, those who joined on the basis of this program would not have necessarily known that they were becoming members of an international communist organization, nor would they have had to agree with the perspectives of the ICFI and its authority over their political work. In explaining the growth and political development of the SLL during the previous decade, it made no reference to the struggle for proletarian internationalism against the betrayals of Pabloite revisionism.
The decision to found the Workers Revolutionary Party was not discussed at the Fourth Congress of the International Committee. It was approached as a national endeavor unrelated to the international struggle against revisionism. The transformation of the SLL into the WRP was not consciously fought for as the culmination of the protracted struggle against Pabloite liquidationism and OCI centrism through which the continuity of Trotskyism was preserved and defended. Instead, the “transformation” was utilized as a way of debasing the program and blurring the historical principles for which the SLL had fought. Thus, in the very founding of the WRP the impact of the turn away from the building of the ICFI was already felt within the British section.
However, it was not wrong to found the Workers Revolutionary Party nor would it be correct to say that the centrist character of the program meant that the new party was not Trotskyist. A series of incorrect and inadequate documents do not by themselves change the character of a movement which was the product of decades of struggle within the working class. But the manner in which the WRP was founded was marred by an opportunist deviation which expressed the pressure of the growing mass movement upon the party—specifically, an adaptation to its trade union level of consciousness. The form of this adaptation was directly related to the failure to develop the struggle against centrism within the Fourth International. Once again the old truth was being verified: those who carry out a hasty and theoretically uncompleted split with the centrists wind up adopting their platform.