The following speech by David North was delivered to an International Rally for Socialism in Detroit on November 10, 1991 on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Workers League. It examines the struggle of the Workers League in the context of the history of the fight for Trotskyism in the United States against Stalinism and opportunism.
We are today celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Workers League. On this occasion we have a right to be proud of what this party has achieved. For a quarter century we have upheld, in the center of world imperialism, the banner of Marxism and socialist internationalism. We derive great satisfaction from the fact that in the course of this long struggle we have not only made many friends, but we have also made the right enemies. The Workers League welcomes the hatred of the bourgeoisie and its lackeys within the trade union bureaucracy and among opportunist scoundrels all over the world. If we were ever to find ourselves the object of even the mildest praise in those disreputable circles, we would wonder what we had done wrong. Thus far, I am pleased to report, nothing our enemies have had to say about the Workers League has given us the slightest cause for concern.
However, the Workers League is by no means alone in the celebration of this anniversary. Indeed, the fidelity of our party to the revolutionary principles upon which it was founded 25 years ago finds its most eloquent confirmation in the greetings which we have received. We feel deeply honored by the political tributes addressed to the Workers League by the sections of the International Committee of the Fourth International. There is no achievement we treasure more than the contribution the Workers League has been able to make to the development of the Fourth International—despite the efforts of the American bourgeoisie to make illegal, in the form of the reactionary Voorhis Act, the practice of socialist internationalism.
We have never considered the fulfillment of our international political obligations to be an impediment to the development of our practical activities in the United States. Rather, the work of our party over the last 25 years has been grounded in the unshakable conviction that a mass revolutionary workers party can take shape on American soil only as an integral part of a politically unified world socialist organization. Only a party based on an international program that represents the interests of the proletariat as an international class can lead the struggles of workers in this country.
The Workers League has proved the correctness of this political thesis not only in theory, but also in practice. Not even our most bitter enemies can deny the fact that the Workers League attracts to its banner the most courageous sections of the working class. Indeed, on several occasions the police-infested Socialist Workers Party has expressed alarm over this well-known tendency in its own press. And their fear, which faithfully reproduces the concern of their ruling class masters, is not misplaced. Wherever the class struggle in America has found its most ruthless expression and workers have seen the ruling class at its most brutal and vindictive, they have come to recognize the Workers League as the staunchest defender of their interests.
That is why greetings have been sent to this anniversary meeting by Juanita Tyler, whose son, Gary, the victim of an outrageous frameup, has languished in jail for 16 years, that is, one-half his entire life; from Barbara Thornsbury, whose husband, the Kentucky miner David Thornsbury, has been in jail since 1987, along with three union brothers, in another vicious antilabor frame-up; from Steven Morgan, a miner who was severely wounded in the same ambush back in January 1990 that killed the miner John McCoy; from Larry Massey, who was one of the nine miners from Milburn, West Virginia, whom the government attempted to railroad to prison; from Dr. Jorge O’Leary, the popular leader of the heroic strike of Phelps Dodge copper miners; and from Dan Blaise, the construction worker who was blacklisted for leading the bitter 19-month wildcat strike against Boise Cascade in International Falls, Minnesota.
And finally, the relation of the Workers League to the struggles of the working class finds its most direct expression today in the presence on our platform of two men who have proved, as militants and class war prisoners, their devotion to the cause of the working class—Ron May and Roger Cawthra. We’re very happy and honored to have them with us today.
Though we take justifiable pride in the work and achievements of our party, we have not called this meeting to congratulate ourselves. No one is going to receive an award this afternoon. Nothing is more dangerous to the health of a revolutionary workers party than self-satisfaction and smug complacency. We know very well that the greatest and most difficult tests lie ahead. This party was formed not only to propagate correct ideas, but to organize the workers, on the basis of those ideas, to take power and put an end to the capitalist system. And not only do we believe that the workers in this country are closer than most people even imagine in their wildest dreams to the realization of this goal; we in fact are convinced that despite all the immense problems that confront the working class, it is closer than ever to the realization of that historic objective.
That is why it is so important that we take the opportunity provided by this anniversary to review the essential struggles out of which the Workers League emerged. For to understand what the Workers League is and what its real goals are, it is necessary to study its history.
In beginning this review, permit me to observe that it is especially appropriate that this 25th anniversary celebration of the Workers League falls on the eve of another crucial event in the history of the world movement with which we are so closely identified, the Berlin conference against imperialist war and colonialism which is being held this coming weekend by the International Committee of the Fourth International. The relationship between these two meetings is not merely one of coincidence. All the critical episodes in the history of the world Trotskyist movement, both positive milestones and crises, have generally found the most profound resonance in the activity of its co-thinkers in the United States. This political phenomenon, which itself has definite objective significance, can be traced all the way back to the earliest days of the Trotskyist movement.
This history, of course, predates by many years the founding of the Workers League. Today we observe the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Workers League, but the work of Trotskyists in the United States did not begin in 1966. The Workers League arose on the foundations of a political struggle that began some 38 years earlier, in 1928. That was the year of the Sixth Congress of the Communist International, which James P. Cannon attended as a leader of the American Communist Party, which had been formed in 1919 in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution.
When Cannon arrived in Moscow in 1928 to participate in that congress, he was preoccupied with the factional feuds that dominated the life of the American Communist Party. Neither he nor the leaders of the other factions inside the Communist Party really understood the political source of the divisions inside their organization. They had no idea that the crisis inside the American Communist Party was bound up with the struggle that was raging inside the leadership of the Russian Communist Party, which, as a result of its incomparable revolutionary experience, exercised vast influence inside the Third International. As long as the Russian party was led by Lenin and Trotsky and upheld the internationalist program upon which the October Revolution had been based, this influence was of a decisively positive character. Indeed, it was the influence of the Russian Revolution which had revived the socialist left in America and provided it, for the first time, with the possibility of developing a scientifically-grounded perspective and understanding of how to organize the struggle against capitalism in the United States.
Prior to arriving in Moscow, Cannon, like the other leaders of the American CP, had paid little attention to the political struggle that had been raging inside the Russian Communist Party. Little was known about the issues that underlay the split between the dominant Stalinist faction and the Opposition leaders, led by Trotsky, who had been expelled in late 1927 from both the Russian Communist Party and the Communist International.
At any rate, when Cannon arrived in Moscow, he was assigned to work on the Program Commission of the Communist International. As a member of that body, he received a copy of a large document which Trotsky had written in his place of exile in Soviet Central Asia and dispatched to Moscow as his contribution to the proceedings of the Sixth Congress. It was called “The Critique of the Draft Program of the Communist International.” It was a critique of the official program written by Bukharin. In what turned out to be one of the most fortunate accidents in history, the bureaucratic functionaries organizing the work of the Program Commission routinely translated this semi-illegal document into English and gave Cannon a copy to read. Another copy was given to Maurice Spector, a member of the Canadian Communist Party, who had also been assigned to the Program Commission. In his own inimitable style, Cannon later described what happened next:
We [Cannon and Spector] let the caucus meetings and the Congress sessions go to the devil while we read and studied this document. Then I knew what I had to do, and so did he. Our doubts had been resolved. It was as clear as daylight that Marxist truth was on the side of Trotsky. We made a compact there and then—Spector and I—that we would come back home and begin a struggle under the banner of Trotskyism.
What did Cannon find in this document, written by an exiled leader of the Soviet Communist Party, that led him to make that fateful decision? What did he find in the program of the Russian Opposition that was so vital for the development of the revolutionary movement of the American working class? Permit me to quote from the second paragraph of Trotsky’s document:
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 even mainly from conditions and tendencies of development in its own country. This also holds entirely true for the party that wields the state power within the boundaries of the USSR. On August 4,1914, the death knell sounded for national programs for all time. The revolutionary party of the proletariat can base itself only upon an international program corresponding to the character of the present epoch, the epoch of the highest development and collapse of capitalism. An international communist program is in no case the sum total of national programs or an amalgam of their common features. The international program must proceed directly from an analysis of the conditions and tendencies of world economy and of the world political system taken as a whole in all its connections and contradictions, that is, with the mutually antagonistic interdependence of its separate parts. In the present epoch, to a much larger extent than in the past, the national orientation of the proletariat must and can flow only from a world orientation and not vice versa. Herein lies the basic and primary difference between communist internationalism and all varieties of national socialism.
In this passage Trotsky defined the basic orientation of his critique, which was a systematic indictment of the Stalinist program of “socialism in one country,” which claimed—in a fundamental departure from the internationalist perspective upon which Bolshevism had based its struggle for power—that the realization of socialism in the USSR did not depend on the victory of the proletarian revolution beyond the national boundaries of the Soviet state. Trotsky demonstrated the catastrophic implications of this new nationalist theory for both the Soviet Union and the international working class. The program of “socialism in one country,” Trotsky warned, would lead to the collapse of the Communist International, terrible defeats for the international working class, and, ultimately, to the destruction of the Soviet Union.
Cannon smuggled this document out of the Soviet Union; and its publication in the United States played a critical role in the transformation of the Left Opposition in Russia into a international revolutionary organization. Looking back over the last 63 years, it is indisputable that the durability and strength of the Trotskyist movement in the United States is derived to a large extent from the fact that its origins lie directly in this international struggle for Marxism. This created an internationalist tradition and orientation that provided the foundation for the education of revolutionary cadre in the United States and penetrated deeply into their consciousness. Without this foundation, from which was derived the conviction that the problems of American workers cannot be solved except on the basis of an international perspective and as part of a world movement, it would not have been possible for the Trotskyist movement to take root and develop in the United States, the most powerful of all imperialist countries.
It must also be stressed that this international orientation provided the theoretical and political basis for the unrelenting struggle which the Trotskyist movement has waged against Stalinism, which we have always seen as the chief political obstacle to the revolutionary education and mobilization of the working class within the United States and internationally against imperialism. But from the very origins of the Trotskyist movement in the United States, we have based our struggle against Stalinism on the defense of the historical principles, program and traditions of the great October Revolution. That is why we neither capitulated to Stalinism when it exercised tremendous influence within the American labor movement and enjoyed the sympathy of broad sections of the liberal intelligentsia nor bent beneath the pressure of the anticommunist hysteria fomented by the bourgeois politicians and promoted by the labor bureaucracy over the last 45 years. As Cannon said it so well, the Trotskyists knew how to fight imperialism without capitulating to Stalinism, and how to fight Stalinism without capitulating to imperialism.
Between 1928 and 1933, the International Left Opposition and its American representatives, organized as the Communist League of America, fought to overcome the influence of Stalinism within the Communist International and return it to its Leninist foundations. But after the defeat of the German working class by Hitler, for which the Stalinists bore the principal responsibility, Trotsky concluded that it was necessary to build a new, Fourth International. This change in the international orientation of the Trotskyist movement produced a corresponding shift in the work of the American Trotskyists. The work which led to the founding of the Socialist Workers Party on January 1, 1938 was an organic part of the preparation for the founding of the Fourth International eight months later, on September 3, 1938.
For the next 15 years, the Socialist Workers Party was to play a critical role in the life of the Fourth International. The outbreak of the world war in 1939 and then the assassination of Trotsky in 1940 placed immense international responsibilities upon the leadership of the SWP. It sought to fulfill those responsibilities; and the work which it carried out was of enduring significance. The work conducted by the SWP during World War II, even as its leaders were being prosecuted and jailed for sedition by the Roosevelt administration for its opposition to the imperialist war, inspired Trotskyists throughout the world. In that period, The Militant played a critical role in providing an orientation for all the cadre of the Fourth International.
The difficulties which arose inside the Fourth International in the aftermath of World War II were not the result of mistakes made by leaders of the SWP, but of fundamental changes in the world situation. The betrayals organized by the Kremlin bureaucracy at the end of the world war provided American imperialism with the breathing space it required to effectively utilize its vast economic resources in order to politically stabilize and then reconstruct the world capitalist order. The beginning of the postwar boom encouraged the growth of conservative tendencies within the working class which were then exploited by the labor bureaucracies in Europe and the United States for the most reactionary political purposes. At the same time, despite its betrayals, the Kremlin bureaucracy and its affiliated Stalinist parties in Asia and Europe exercised immense political influence. At least on the surface, world politics seemed to be shaped by the Cold War struggle between American imperialism on the one hand and the Soviet Union on the other.
But it was precisely this surface appearance that provided the inspiration for the growth of opportunism inside the Fourth International. 1116 “successes” of Stalinism in Eastern Europe, where regimes installed by the Kremlin overturned capitalist property, led to the theory, articulated by Michel Pablo and Ernest Mandel, that socialism would be eventually realized not through the independent revolutionary activity of the working class, led by the Fourth International, but through the actions of the Stalinist bureaucracy. According to this theory, which was based on a complete repudiation of the founding program of the Fourth International, Stalinism still had a historically progressive role to play. The Eastern European regimes were merely the first wave of “deformed” workers states which, in the course of a process lasting several centuries, would lead to the triumph of world socialism.
In order to justify this glorification of Stalinism, Pablo and Mandel began inventing scenarios in which the Soviet bureaucracy would be—as they usually put it—”compelled” to lead the working class in the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. The most bizarre of these scenarios was that the outbreak of nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States would be transformed, under the leadership of the Kremlin, into a worldwide revolutionary uprising against capitalism. Mandel actually wrote a document in which he proclaimed that a thermonuclear world war would be a small price to pay for the victory of socialism. It never seems to have occurred to Mandel that one of the best reasons to have a socialist revolution would be to prevent such a war from actually taking place.
By the time Cannon and the leaders of the SWP were preparing to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their work as Trotskyists inside the United States, the Fourth International and the SWP itself were being ravaged by the growth of opportunism. The conclusion which flowed logically from the theories of Pablo and Mandel was that the formation of the Fourth International in 1938 had been a mistake and that the working class did not require a Marxist leadership to come to power. Rather, the sheer force of objective events, they argued, such as a war, would inexorably drive the existing mass popular organizations, under Stalinist or whatever other leadership happened to be in place, to establish socialism.
The fact that this opportunist conception found a very wide response throughout the Fourth International reflected the enormous pressure of imperialism at that time on the Trotskyist movement. To the extent that its cadre had lost confidence in the revolutionary capacities of the international working class and the viability of the historic perspectives of the Fourth International, it became susceptible to anti-Marxist theories which saw socialism not as the outcome of the revolutionary action of the politically independent workers movement, but as the product of the actions of petty-bourgeois social forces and their various leaderships.
In the United States, this bankrupt perspective found its most complete and, in its own way, honest expression. Given the backward political environment of the United States, where opportunism does not really have to bother itself with finding an especially elegant expression, the American supporters of Pablo and Mandel came out with the slogan: “Junk the old Trotskyism.” Cannon, they declared, was an old fogy who was nothing more than a relic of an irrelevant past. To become part of a real mass movement, it was necessary, they shouted, to ditch the old “sectarian” program; and to put it more bluntly, to find one’s way back into the Democratic Party.
The Pabloites mobilized their supporters all over the world and the battle reached its climax just as the Socialist Workers Party was preparing to celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary. To demonstrate their contempt for Trotskyism, the supporters of Pablo and Mandel decided that they would boycott the anniversary celebration that the SWP had scheduled. Cannon responded to this provocation by making his greatest contribution to the cause of world Trotskyism since he had returned from Moscow in 1928 with a copy of Trotsky’s Critique of the Draft Program. First, he expelled the Pabloite minority from the SWP and then wrote an “Open Letter” to all orthodox Trotskyists throughout the world, urging them to take similar actions within their own sections. In order to prosecute this struggle, he spearheaded the establishment, with the support of the Trotskyists in Britain and France, of the International Committee of the Fourth International.
This was the decisive turning point in the postwar history of the Fourth International; and it set into motion the events which led not only to the founding of the Workers League in 1966, but also to all the other organizations which today comprise the International Committee of the Fourth International.
It is not possible to review in detail the process which led to the decline of the SWP, but by the late 1950s it was rapidly moving toward the very positions it had opposed so heroically in 1953. And when one considers the protracted degeneration of the Socialist Workers Party, its shameful abandonment of the revolutionary perspective, one finds that underlying this process was the same basic problem: a loss of confidence in the revolutionary capacities of the international working class and, flowing from that, a loss of confidence in the possibility of winning the American working class to Marxism; that is, they saw only the strength of American imperialism, but not its contradictions.
This led the SWP to search for an alternative to the conscious struggle for Marxism in the working class. And this search led them in the early 1960s to the discovery that a workers state had been created in Cuba under the leadership of Castro and his petty-bourgeois group of guerrillas.
The fact that the struggle for power had not been led by a Marxist party did not matter in the least. Castro, the SWP proclaimed, was a “natural” Marxist. Moreover, his guerrilla group had taken the place of an organized mass revolutionary movement of the working class. And so the basic method of Pabloism was applied not only to write off the role of the Fourth International in the struggle for socialism, but to reject the revolutionary role of the working class itself.
More than a hundred years earlier, in the earliest days of the development of Marxism, Marx and Engels had explained that the conquest of power and the establishment of socialism cannot be the work of a small group of conspirators. Rather, it is a question of educating the working class, imbuing the working class with socialist consciousness, with making the working class conscious of its tasks as a historic force, and on that basis, organizing the working class for the task of putting an end to capitalism and creating a socialist society.
Marx had insisted that the liberation of the working class is the task of the working class itself. No substitutes can be found. One of the worst lies and distortions of the ruling class is that Marxism practices some sort of elitism and substitutes a party for the working class. That is a lie. For a Marxist, the party is the product of the development of Marxist consciousness within the working class. The party arises out of the education of workers, who come to understand the necessity of establishing the political independence of the working class as an international class from the bourgeoisie and all its political agencies.
The SWP had been steeped in these great theoretical traditions of Marxism and had defended them. But by the late 1950s, they had forgotten them. They capitulated to the apparent strength of American capitalism and to the illusions generated by the economic boom. They decided that the realization of socialism, if it was to be realized at all, would have to come through the activity of other class forces and other political organizations.
It was a tribute to the powerful internationalist foundations upon which the SWP had been based that there emerged within the Socialist Workers Party an opposition to this betrayal of Marxism. It was through this small opposition, consisting at first of only nine people, that the thread of political continuity was preserved.
It must be stressed that the opposition which emerged inside the SWP never could have become a genuinely Trotskyist opposition if it had not received vital political support from beyond the borders of the United States. Just as Cannon found the answers afflicting the American Communist Party in the great theoretical and political struggle that was being waged inside the Communist International, the young and relatively inexperienced representatives of the minority inside the SWP received their real political education from the International Committee.
Although we have long since broken with Healy, Banda and Slaughter, we will never forget that they and their comrades in the Socialist Labour League in Britain—who had themselves played a critical role in the founding of the International Committee back in 1953—explained to the American minority the significance of the struggle inside the SWP. The issue was not simply one of American perspectives or even the question of Castro. Rather, it was the fate of the international working class and the defense of the historic traditions upon which the Fourth International had been founded.
I must say—and I’m sure Comrade Fred Mazelis would bear me out—that if the leaders of the Socialist Labour League succeeded in getting anything into our heads—and at that time it was difficult to interest American socialists in theoretical questions—it was that the basis for building a revolutionary party was internationalism. As things turned out, we learned this lesson much better than Healy, Banda and Slaughter would have wanted us to.
There was a protracted process of political clarification. Our party did not emerge overnight. The leaders of the British movement urged Comrade Fred and others to show a great deal of patience, not to push political struggle ahead too rapidly, to fight for clarification, to do everything possible to turn the SWP back to the road of revolutionary Marxism. But that was to prove impossible. In 1963, the Socialist Workers Party reunified with the Pabloites. And in 1964, the political significance of Pabloism and the political consequence of the reunification engineered by Mandel and the SWP was shown when the Ceylonese section of the Pabloite international, the LSSP, entered into a bourgeois coalition government—the first time in history that an organization claiming to be Trotskyist had actually entered into a government of the ruling class.
The Workers League will always be proud of the fact that it was the protest organized by the supporters of the International Committee inside the SWP against the betrayal of the Ceylonese Pabloites that set the stage for the founding of our movement. On June 30, 1964 Tim Wohlforth, Fred Mazelis and others addressed an open letter to the membership of the Socialist Workers Party demanding a discussion on the political significance of the betrayal of the Ceylonese Pabloites. But for having the effrontery to demand nothing more than a democratic discussion inside the SWP on the most critical political question, the minority was suspended. That made it clear that it was necessary to form a new party. So the decision was made to officially establish the ex-minority as the American Committee for the Fourth International.
But some time was to pass before the Workers League was formed. The American Committee for the Fourth International was not the only opposition tendency which had emerged from the SWP and claimed to support the International Committee. There was also a group led by James Robertson, which called itself the Spartacist tendency. He also claimed that he opposed the betrayals of Pabloism. But even before his tendency was expelled from the SWP, Robertson had refused to accept the political leadership of the International Committee. While claiming to agree with its political positions, he refused to accept its discipline. Instead, he insisted that his opposition to the SWP had to be based on those issues which affected his own work within the United States most directly; and that he would not accept under any conditions the political authority of the International Committee over the activity which he conducted inside the United States. In other words, while paying lip service to the International Committee, he was nothing more than a petty-bourgeois American radical.
However, the International Committee continued to hope that a way might be found to unify the Spartacist tendency and the American Committee for the Fourth International as a single unified section. Both groups were invited to attend the Third World Congress in 1966. But Robertson’s behavior at the Congress exposed him for what he really was. After he delivered a report criticizing a number of positions of the International Committee, he chose not to attend the next session at which delegates of the International Committee replied to his report. He claimed that he was just too tired. In fact, Robertson was simply making it clear to the ICFI that he was not interested in its criticisms of his own positions. As far as Robertson was concerned, what he planned to do once he was back in the United States was none of the IC’s business!
When Robertson was simply asked to apologize to the delegates of the International Congress for having absented himself from a session without permission, he arrogantly refused. It was obvious that this was a man completely hostile to the most basic principles of proletarian internationalism; so the delegates voted to expel Robertson and his clique from the Congress. The ICFI took this firm action because it had learned from bitter experience that those, like Robertson, who placed their own petty nationalist interests above those of a world movement could never play a progressive, let alone revolutionary, role in the struggles of the working class.
The experiences of the last 25 years have vindicated the stand taken by the ICFI. Spartacist is nothing less than the most diseased and degenerate expression of American middle class radicalism. Its politics is characterized by a morbid pessimism and contempt for the revolutionary capacities of the working class. In its worshipful attitude to the Stalinist bureaucracy, Spartacist outdoes all the other Pabloite groups: Spartacist hailed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980, printed a page of mourning upon the death of Andropov in 1982, became known in Germany more recently as the favorite party of the East German Stalinist secret police, and, just three months ago, lamented the failure of the Stalinist putsch in Moscow. All these positions flow from the hostility to Marxist internationalism which has always characterized the Spartacist group.
The Workers League was founded in November 1966, and it might not have appeared to have been a very auspicious start to superficial observers of the political scene. We did not begin as a large organization with many members or a big treasury. But we did begin with Marxist principles and an international perspective, and that provided the Workers League with a powerful basis for revolutionary work in the United States.
When the Workers League was founded some 25 years ago, American imperialism seemed to be at the height of its power. Johnson was promoting his “Great Society,” which he claimed would lead within just a few years to the disappearance of poverty in the United States. Such were the pretensions of the American ruling class at the height of the postwar boom that they believed that not only could they eliminate poverty in the United States, but that they could impose through force of arms a Pax Americana all over the world. Just as Johnson began his so-called “War on Poverty,” he unleashed the war against the people of Vietnam. It was not long before the hollowness of the demagogic reformism of Lyndon Johnson was exposed by the eruptions within the United States.
During that period, the Workers League fought to elaborate a revolutionary perspective for the working class here in the United States. In that early period, Healy told us something that we never forgot. He said at that time, when he himself was still a revolutionist, that all revisionists leave out of their calculations the most powerful revolutionary force in the world—the American working class. We subscribed to that position—not in the sense that we consider American workers better than workers anywhere else in the world, or more revolutionary than workers anywhere else in the world, or more important than workers anywhere else.
Rather, when we speak of the revolutionary potential of the American working class we have in mind not only the obvious physical power of this class in the largest capitalist country in the world, but also the political fact that a movement of the working class in the citadel of world imperialism would have the most profound revolutionary reverberations in every part of the globe.
Allow me to illustrate this point. I’ve just returned from the Soviet Union. And in the discussions I had with many workers in the course of that trip, they would listen with amazement when I described the conditions which exist in the United States. Not only do they find it hard to believe—and the only information they have is that provided by the Gorbachev-Yeltsin regime—that poverty exists in America; they cannot believe that there’s a class struggle. When I spoke to workers about the case of Roger Cawthra, they listened in amazement. When I described to them the struggles of miners in West Virginia and Kentucky, they were stunned.
One miners leader from Siberia told me that he had personally met with Lane Kirkland during one of Kirkland’s trips to the Soviet Union. Kirkland had told him that there was no need for the class struggle in America because everything is solved by peaceful arbitration and mediation. I just happened to have with me at the time a copy of the book written by Comrade Jerry White on the life and death of John McCoy. The best answer to the claims of Mr. Kirkland were the pictures in this book. And while this miners leader did not read English, he knew what a coffin looked like, and he knew what a tombstone was. When he saw pictures of Kentucky miners dressed in battle fatigues on the picket line, he understood very well that he had received from the mouth of Lane Kirkland the same sort of lies he had heard all his life from Stalinist bureaucrats in the Soviet Union. Really, they’re not very different at all.
Any movement of the American working class will pass through the international working class like a shock and contribute enormously to the development of a revolutionary movement all over the world.
Another experience which I think is significant came when I addressed a meeting of perhaps the most ignorant section of the Soviet population—that is, its professors, longtime hacks who had faithfully peddled the Stalinist line. I’m sure all of these men would have unanimously supported resolutions only a few years ago on the counterrevolutionary nature of Trotskyism. That’s no longer possible, so I found myself with an invitation to address a group of professors whose specialty, believe it or not, is scientific communism. At any rate, I explained the perspectives of our movement and the struggle which it has waged. When I had completed my presentation, the dean of the faculty got up and said with a cynical laugh—as if the very idea of a revolutionary party in the United States was outlandish—that he wanted to express his hope in the victory of the socialist revolution in North America. This evoked a guffaw from his learned colleagues. This reaction to the presentation of a Marxist perspective was just what one would expect from bankrupt Stalinists.
Things are very different than they were in 1966, or, for that matter, in 1953. As we hold this anniversary meeting of the Workers League, the United States has not merely passed its peak. It is in drastic decay. The present crisis is not merely a fluctuation of the business cycle. It is not just another recession. It is an expression of the breakdown of both the world position of American capitalism and of the whole postwar order. The resources upon which American capitalism could rely so often in the past simply do not any longer exist. This is the first major recession which the United States confronts as a debtor country. In the past, the American bourgeoisie could overcome the impact of such recessions through the manipulation of the money supply and by inflating the economy. After all, the dollar was a law unto itself. It traveled through the world with a diplomatic passport, seemingly unaffected by any international restrictions. It was the world reserve currency, the medium through which world trade was conducted. The United States could print as many dollars as it wanted, relatively confident that the world would use these dollars to finance world trade. Thus, the American ruling class had at its disposal a lot of room for maneuvering.
But that is no longer the case. Should the credit spigots be opened, the international position of the American dollar will weaken still further, and have on the economy just the opposite effect of that which the expansion of the money supply and the expansion of credit has had in the past. American capitalism and the American ruling class face a situation which is, at least in the twentieth century, without any historical precedent. This change, reflected so dramatically in the deterioration of the conditions of the working class and even broad sections of the middle class, sets the stage for the most violent eruptions of class struggle in the history of this country.
In the struggles that will unfold in the period we are now entering, growing numbers will begin to understand the importance of Marxism. Throughout the postwar period, the great wealth of capitalism enabled the bourgeoisie to act as if the laws of value discovered by Marx did not apply here. But the nostrums of “American exceptionalism” are worn out. Thousands of American workers will turn to Marxism for the same reason that those who have come under attack have turned to the Workers League—because they will find no other way to solve the social crisis. Before us lies a period of intense political education. As workers enter into great struggles, they will respond only to that party which is capable of answering all the fundamental questions posed by this epoch.
The Workers League is able to do this. No other party in the United States can make this claim; and it is justified not only because of the struggles which the Workers League has conducted within the United States over the last 25 years. That claim is justified, above all, by the historical vindication of the struggle waged by the International Committee, from which the Workers League itself emerged, against Pabloite opportunism.
When we consider this long and difficult struggle, we can see that there is yet another respect in which this anniversary is quite different from that of the Socialist Workers Party in 1953. When the SWP observed its twenty-fifth anniversary, the Fourth International was entering into a profound crisis. It had, as Cannon recognized, ceased to be a politically homogeneous organization and it was split. By 1966, it had become necessary to found the Workers League because the Socialist Workers Party had itself been destroyed by this crisis. And the cause of that crisis was the growth of opportunism within the Fourth International. For a long time Trotskyism was on the defensive. The position of those who adhered to genuine Marxism became weaker and weaker. One after another the sections of the old Fourth International had gone over to opportunism. Only within the International Committee, within this revolutionary minority, were the basic principles defended and upheld.
When the Workers League was founded in 1966, we conducted our own work under the shadow of the Socialist Workers Party. The SWP could organize and lead antiwar demonstrations attended by hundreds of thousands. We, with difficulty, would organize small contingents in opposition to the political line of those mass demonstrations.
But today the situation is very different. It is Trotskyism, not opportunism, which is on the offensive. And when we review the history of the last 25 years, the Workers League is most of all proud of the role which we were privileged to play in the fight to cleanse the Fourth International of opportunism. The high point of the history of the Workers League was precisely the struggle which we were able to wage against the betrayal of the Trotskyist principles of the International Committee by Healy, Banda, Slaughter and the Workers Revolutionary Party.
That political fight led to the overwhelming defeat of the opportunists and to the reconsolidation of orthodox Trotskyist control of the International Committee. It has paved the way for a tremendous step forward in the development of the work of the Fourth International. This climactic struggle against opportunism coincided with the breakup of the Stalinist bureaucracies; and therefore strengthened the Fourth International at the very point when it became possible for Trotskyism to win a mass audience in the working class.
This is the context within which we hold this anniversary meeting and we prepare for the Berlin conference. The significance of this conference is that it will record the transfer of political authority within the Fourth International decisively to the International Committee. The International Committee is not simply a faction within a broad Trotskyist movement: it is the Trotskyist movement. The International Committee has proved in the course of an extended struggle that it alone represents the traditions and program which Trotsky elaborated in preparation for the founding of the Fourth International.
We are able to state on this, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Workers League, that the crisis in the Fourth International which erupted on the eve of the SWP’s twenty-fifth anniversary is now being brought to a close. The Fourth International under the leadership of the International Committee is once again a politically unified organization. And this will clear matters up in the international working class. When the International Committee speaks, workers will know that it is doing so as the political leadership of a unified world movement.
As we have continuously insisted, the problems of the working class can only be solved on the basis of international struggle. The working class needs an international party which coordinates and politically directs the far-flung struggles of workers all over the world against international capital. The class struggle will manifest itself more directly than ever before as an international process. Workers will come to recognize that it is only through international political unity and organization of the working class that they can deal the necessary blows against their class enemy. And here in the United States, when workers join the Workers League, they will know that they are joining an integral part of a world party whose international program provides the answer to their problems and which can show them the way forward.
Comrades and friends, we are very proud of what this party has achieved. We celebrate this twenty-fifth anniversary confident that the Workers League will play a crucial role in the international unification of the working class in the coming period.