Leon Trotsky
Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (Sri Lanka)

The political degeneration of the British SLL

19-1. The disagreement between Balasuriya and Healy over the significance of the RCL’s history was symptomatic of a broader international process. The new sections of the ICFI—the Workers League in the US, the Bund Sozialistischer Arbeiter in Germany in September 1971 and the Socialist Labour League in Australia in November 1972—were formed on the basis of the lessons of the 1953 and 1961–63 splits. At the same time, however, the SLL was turning away from the principles for which it had previously fought in the 1950s and early 1960s.

19-2. In the aftermath of the ICFI’s Third Congress in 1966, the French section of the ICFI, the Organisation Communiste Internationale (OCI), which had supported the SLL at the time, began raising again the need to “reconstruct” the Fourth International. Behind this phrase was an adaptation by the OCI to centrist outfits that denied the fundamental importance of the ICFI’s struggle against Pabloism. The SLL opposed the OCI, but was coming under similar class pressures. In his 1966 document “Problems of the Fourth International”, Gerry Healy argued that the central task of the SLL was to build a strong political party in Britain that would “inspire” revolutionists to do likewise in other countries around the world. This nationalist conception marked a significant retreat from the internationalism underpinning the building of the Fourth International: that national sections could only be constructed as part of the international struggle of the world party against all forms of national opportunism.

19-3. The SLL’s turn away from the struggle against Pabloism led to a weakening of its defence of Trotsky’s Theory of Permanent Revolution. As David North later wrote: “In the late 1960s, [Mike] Banda’s writings on Vietnam, China and the revolutionary movements in the backward countries in general rejected two central tenets of the theory of permanent revolution: (1) that the democratic revolution in the backward countries can be completed only through the dictatorship of the proletariat, and (2) that the establishment of a socialist society is inconceivable without the worldwide overthrow of capitalism by the international proletariat. Banda’s writings assumed the character of an apology for the colonial bourgeoisie and an acceptance of the Stalinist two-stage theory of revolution.”[1]

19-4. Writing in the Newsletter in January 1967, Banda uncritically hailed Mao’s so-called Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, declaring: “The Mao leadership with the support of the Red Guards is fighting against this group under the banner of ‘egalitarianism’. They are fighting against privilege, against autocratic powers, for democracy in China; for the right to criticise and to act on the criticisms; the right to tell the judges, the police and the ministers what the people really think about their policies and to throw them out if they don’t mend their ways.”[2] Mao’s launching of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 had nothing to do with egalitarianism, or for that matter, culture or the proletariat. He had mobilised the Red Guards as part of his factional struggle within the Chinese Communist Party leadership. As soon as workers became involved, most notably with the appearance of an insurrectionary uprising in Shanghai, Mao, who was always fearful of any independent movement of the proletariat, rapidly turned to the military to bring the protest movement under control.

19-5. In an editorial in the Fourth International in February 1968 entitled “The Vietnamese Revolution and the Fourth International”, Banda eulogised the “protracted people’s war” being waged by Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam and hailed Mao as “the foremost exponent of ‘guerrilla struggle’ today.” The Virodhaya group in Sri Lanka wrote to the SLL pointing out that this adulation of Maoism could only mislead workers and youth throughout Asia. The subsequent issue of the Fourth International published a small note declaring that the editorial had been the “personal opinion” of Mike Banda, but presented no critique of the views expressed. The SLL’s live-and-let-live attitude to Banda’s pro-Maoist positions marked a serious retreat from the principled defence of the Theory of Permanent Revolution during 1961–63 against the SWP and an adaptation to the glorification of the “armed struggle” of Castro, Mao and Ho Chi Minh by the Pabloites.

19-6. The SLL’s shift away from the Theory of Permanent Revolution was to have a serious impact of the political work of RCL, as a section of the ICFI based in a backward capitalist country. Sharp differences between the SLL and the RCL emerged in 1971 over the Indo-Pakistan war. The SLL published a statement in the name of the IC giving “critical support” to the Indian army intervention into East Pakistan in the name of supporting of the Bangladesh liberation movement. The RCL statement, by contrast, declared that “the task of the proletariat is not that of supporting any one of the warring factions of the bourgeoisie, but that of utilising each and every conflict in the camp of the class enemy for the seizure of power with the perspective of setting up a federated socialist republic which alone would be able to satisfy the social and national aspirations of the millions of toilers in the subcontinent.”[3]

19-7. Still working under conditions of state repression, the RCL only learned of the IC statement proclaiming “critical support” a week after drafting its statement opposing the Indian military intervention. Balasuriya immediately wrote to the ICFI secretary Cliff Slaughter stating: “It is not possible to support the national liberation struggle of the Bengali people and the voluntary unification of India on socialist foundations without opposing the Indo-Pakistan war. Without opposing the war from within India and Pakistan, it is completely absurd to talk about a unified socialist India which alone can safeguard the right of self-determination of the many nations of the Indian subcontinent.”[4] Balasuriya pointed out that the reason for the Indian military intervention was precisely to suppress a revolutionary struggle to unify East and West Bengal and to uphold the reactionary state system established in 1947–48.

19-8. Having stated the RCL’s firm opposition to the IC stance, Balasuriya accepted the political authority of the ICFI and sought a discussion of the issues involved. After explaining that the RCL had withdrawn its own statement, he wrote: “It need not be stated that it is difficult to defend the IC statement. Nevertheless clarity inside the international is more important than anything else for it is impossible for us to build a national section without fighting to build the international.”[5] Far from opening up an international discussion, however, the SLL did not circulate the RCL’s letter to other sections of the ICFI and increasingly set out to isolate the RCL.

19-9. The SLL’s refusal to discuss the political issues surrounding the Indo-Pakistan war was part of a broader turn away from the program of Trotskyism. In November 1971, the SLL had announced a split with the French OCI, the only other longstanding section of the ICFI. While the SLL’s characterisation of the OCI and its political line as centrist was correct, the SLL made no attempt to clarify the underlying political issues and instead insisted that the split had taken place over “Marxist theory.” David North later wrote: “The precipitous split with the OCI in the autumn of 1971 provided the occasion for [Cliff] Slaughter to argue that ‘the experience of building the revolutionary party in Britain’ had demonstrated ‘that a thoroughgoing and difficult struggle against idealist ways of thinking was necessary which went much deeper than questions of agreement on program and policy’. ... Trotsky had always insisted that the program, through which Marxist theory finds its expression, builds the revolutionary party. But Slaughter, setting theory up against the program, called into question both the validity and viability of the parties produced by the struggle for the Trotskyist program.”[6]

19-10. The SLL’s political backsliding was to be expressed in the transformation of the SLL into the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP) in November 1973. The WRP was founded without any discussion in the ICFI or any of the necessary programmatic clarification and on the basis of a national tactic orientated to the developing mass anti-Tory movement in Britain. The WRP’s subsequent adaptation to the Labour and trade union bureaucracy in Britain was accompanied by a complete abandonment of the Theory of Permanent Revolution and its betrayal of the fundamental principles of Trotskyism.


The Heritage We Defend, p. 423.


Ibid., p. 425.


Fourth International, Volume 14, No. 1, March 1987, p. 37.


Ibid., p. 42.


Ibid., p. 43.


David North, Gerry Healy and his place in the history of the Fourth International, (Detroit: Labor Publications, 1991), p.58–59.