David North
Marxism, History and Socialist Consciousness

How the ICFI has fought pragmatism

You assert that “Dialectics is a dead letter in the IC” and that we have abandoned the fight against pragmatism. You fail to explain precisely how that has manifested itself in the political line of our movement. We have not, you tell us, produced a single article on dialectical philosophy during the past twenty years. That statement, as a matter of fact, is not true. [7] But even if it were, it would still be necessary to demonstrate how the neglect of dialectics has expressed itself in the political analyses and work of the movement during this long period. Presumably, we have been working with some method. If, as you assert, the death of dialectics within the IC has been accompanied by the abandonment of the struggle against pragmatism, then the work of our movement has been dominated by the latter method. However, you make no attempt to substantiate that claim. In virtually every document you write, you ritualistically invoke Trotsky’s statement that “dialectical training of the mind is as necessary to a revolutionary fighter as finger exercises to a pianist.” When Trotsky wrote these words, they carried the full force of the work of a political genius, whose mastery of the dialectical method found incomparable expression in his brilliant analyses of world events. Unfortunately, when you use them, it sounds more like a couch potato declaiming hypocritically on the importance of aerobics.

Trotsky did not simply tell Burnham and Shachtman that dialectics was important. He demonstrated how Burnham’s pragmatism and Shachtman’s agnostic attitude toward materialist dialectics were manifested in their analysis of the class nature of the Soviet state and their rejection of the defense of the USSR against imperialist attack. In the 1939–40 struggle inside the Socialist Workers Party, the issue of dialectics was not introduced as a means of evading political questions, but in order to clarify them. As Trotsky wrote to Professor James Burnham, “it was not I but you who raised the question of the character of the USSR, thereby forcing me to pose the question of the method through which the class character of the state is determined.” [8] And, as he further explained, “Correct method not only facilitates the attainment of a correct conclusion, but, connecting every new conclusion with the preceding conclusions in a consecutive chain, fixes the conclusions in one’s memory. If political conclusions are made empirically, if inconsistency is proclaimed as a kind of advantage, then the Marxian system of politics is invariably replaced by impressionism—in so many ways characteristic of petty-bourgeois intellectuals. Every new turn of events catches the empiricist-impressionist unawares, compels him to forget what he himself wrote yesterday, and produces a consuming desire for new formulae before new ideas have appeared in his head.” [9]

If Trotsky’s criticism of the pragmatic method retains its validity, you should have no problem in demonstrating the inconsistencies and blunders in the political line of the ICFI over the past two decades. You present no such analysis. Thus, only two conclusions are possible: either method is not important, as it has no discernable effect on the formulation of a political line; or your claim that we have abandoned dialectics and succumbed to pragmatism is a rhetorical flourish without any substance. We believe the second explanation is the correct one. [10]

The source of your problem is that you do not understand, nor are you interested in, the relationship between method and revolutionary politics. It is one thing to declaim on the importance of dialectics and the fight against pragmatism. It is quite another to make this more than an abstract slogan—that is, to relate the struggle against pragmatism to the work of the party. While you somehow manage to acknowledge in your document that “North correctly defended dialectics from the distortions introduced by Healy,” there is no indication, in any of your various writings, that you have actually studied the documents in which I exposed Healy’s fraudulent use of Hegelian phraseology, or that you have assimilated the lessons of that crucial theoretical struggle. To no small extent, this failing is to be explained by the fact that your departure from the movement preceded the development of the American section’s critique of Healy’s opportunist politics and its relationship to his falsification of the dialectical method. When you, Comrade Steiner, left the movement in 1978, you were still in the thrall of Healy’s “practice of cognition,” which was, in essence, a variety of pragmatism, masquerading in a neo-Hegelian costume.

You missed out entirely on the important theoretical development that our movement was beginning to make. On November 7, 1978, a Draft Resolution on the Perspectives and Tasks of the Workers League was issued by the Political Committee. It included a section entitled “The historical continuity of Trotskyism as the basis of cadre training and the struggle against pragmatism.” I will quote from the most important passage in this section:

The orientation of the Workers League to the working class and its struggle to prepare the class for its historic role has not been a matter of a so-called “proletarian orientation” as conceived by Cannon. There can be no real turn to the working class outside of the conscious struggle to preserve the lines of historical continuity between the present struggles of the working class and the revolutionary party as a unity of opposites and the whole content of the objective historical experiences of the class and the development of Bolshevism. It is only from the standpoint of the struggle to base the whole work of the Party on the historical gains of the struggle against revisionism, and the immense political and theoretical capital that is the heritage left behind by Trotsky to the Fourth International, that the fight against pragmatism within the ranks of the Party and, therefore, in the working class itself, can be seriously mounted. As soon as the struggle against pragmatism is detached from the fight to maintain the direct historical connections between the daily practice of the cadres and the whole body of historical experiences through which the Trotskyist movement has passed, it degenerates into the most impotent forms of verbal jousting. Or, to put it even more accurately, it becomes simply another variety of pragmatism itself.

In place of rhetorical appeals for a “struggle against pragmatism,” this analysis invested what had become an empty phrase under Healy and Slaughter with a politically concrete content. The document explained how Marxists, in contrast to the impressionistic and adaptive practice characteristic of pragmatists, seek to consciously locate the daily development of the class struggle and the activity of the party in the broad continuum of its own history and that of the international class struggle. Rather than simply react to events in pursuit of immediate or short-term practical gains, Marxists must identify the essential questions of political principle raised by these new developments, bring to bear, in the analysis of the new political phenomenon, the party’s entire historically-accumulated theoretical capital, and give expression to the long-term interests of the working class as the international revolutionary force in capitalist society.

Four years later, in October 1982, the theoretical and political differences between the Workers League and the Workers Revolutionary Party in Britain emerged into the open. In an essay published in the Bulletin on October 19, 1982, the conceptions originally developed in 1978 were expressed in more precise and pointed form:

The history of Trotskyism cannot be comprehended as a series of disconnected episodes. Its theoretical development has been abstracted by its cadre from the continuous unfolding of the world capitalist crisis and the struggles of the international proletariat. Its unbroken continuity of political analyses of all the fundamental experiences of the class struggle, over an entire historical epoch, constitutes the enormous richness of Trotskyism as the sole development of Marxism after the death of Lenin in 1924.

A leadership which does not strive collectively to assimilate the whole of this history cannot adequately fulfill its revolutionary responsibilities to the working class. Without a real knowledge of the historical development of the Trotskyist movement, references to dialectical materialism are not merely hollow; such empty references pave the way for a real distortion of the dialectical method. The source of theory lies not in thought but in the objective world. Thus the development of Trotskyism proceeds from the fresh experiences of the class struggle which are posited on the entire historically-derived knowledge of our movement.

“Thus cognition rolls forward from content to content... it raises to each next stage of determination the whole mass of its antecedent content, and by its dialectical progress not only loses nothing and leaves nothing behind, but carries with it all that it has acquired, enriching and concentrating itself upon itself...”

Quoting this passage from Hegel’s Science of Logic, Lenin, in his Philosophical Notebooks, wrote: “This extract is not at all bad as a kind of summing up of dialectics.” (Collected Works, Volume 38, p. 230) Nor is this extract bad “as a kind of summing up of” the constant dialectical development of Trotskyist theory. [11]

I will quote one further passage, in which the relationship of dialectics to the struggle for revolutionary leadership in the working class was explained. It appeared as part of my obituary of Gerry Healy, following his death on December 14, 1989:

In the long history of the Marxist movement, the dialectical method has proven itself an irreplaceable theoretical instrument of political prognosis, orientation and analysis. However, while the dialectical method, when utilized properly, facilitates the working out of farsighted analysis and effective tactical initiatives, it provides no once-and-for-all guarantee against political degeneration. Dialectical materialism is not some sort of ideological talisman which, once it has been acquired, bestows upon those who possess it protection against the relentless pressure of class forces. The touchstone of the dialectical method is a critical-revolutionary attitude to the existing production relations of society and the forms of appearance they spontaneously generate. It is a stern science, which demands an unceasing struggle to establish, in program and practice, the independent attitude of the revolutionary working class to every political question raised by the development of the class struggle. A revolutionary party remains “Marxist” only to the extent that it is fighting to overcome the pervasive political and ideological influence of the bourgeoisie and its agents over the working class. The Marxist approach to every significant event entails a reworking of the historical experiences of the international workers movement. Only by relentlessly confronting the fresh problems posed by the objective development of the class struggle with all the theoretical resources at its disposal can a Marxist party replenish and add to its political capital. [12]

These passages present the intellectual foundations of a theoretical-political project that has been pursued by the SEP with extraordinary consistency for more than a quarter-century (taking the perspectives resolution of 1978 as the beginning of this project). The International Committee of the Fourth International has sought to revive and develop the socialist consciousness of the working class, based on a persistent and systematic reworking of the whole historical experience and lessons of the international class struggle in the twentieth century, while, at the same time, seeking to base the practice of the working class on a scientific understanding of the significance and implications of contemporary socioeconomic, political and cultural phenomena. The product of this theoretical work is recorded in the vast body of historical, political, economic and cultural analysis and commentary produced by the ICFI since the break with the Workers Revolutionary Party in 1985–86. The 2005 summer school in Ann Arbor, followed by the 2006 meeting of the International Editorial Board, represented the highest achievement of this protracted and difficult project.

Both events could be succinctly described in theoretical terms as massive anti-pragmatic exercises. If the ICFI had only the lectures and reports delivered at these two events to point to, that would still be sufficient to refute your provocative claim that dialectics is a “dead letter” in our movement and that the fight against pragmatism has been abandoned. [13]


My essay on dialectical philosophy, a detailed critique of Marx After Marxism by Professor Tom Rockmore, was originally published May 2–3, 2006 on the World Socialist Web Site, nearly two weeks before you sent us your document. For reasons best known to yourselves, you chose to ignore it.


Leon Trotsky, In Defense of Marxism (London: New Park Publications, 1971), p. 101.


ibid., p. 73.


The ICFI does not simply talk about the dialectical method. It seeks to apply it as an instrument of political analysis. For example, in a lecture on the nature of trade unionism given in Australia in 1998, I sought to demonstrate how dialectical logic sheds light on the nature of this complex social form. See “Why Are the Trade Unions Hostile to Socialism?” in The Russian Revolution and the Unfinished Twentieth Century, pp. 137–139.


David North, Leon Trotsky and the Development of Marxism (Oak Park: Socialist Equality Party/Mehring Books, 2013), p. 12.


David North, Gerry Healy and His Place in the History of the Fourth International (Detroit: Labor Publications, 1991), pp. 79–80.


The agenda of the 2005 summer school was as follows: Lecture I: The Russian Revolution and the unresolved historical problems of the twentieth century (David North); Lecture II: Marxism versus revisionism on the eve of the twentieth century (David North); Lecture III: The origins of Bolshevism and What Is To Be Done? (David North); Lecture IV: Marxism, history and the science of perspective (David North); Lecture V: World War I: The breakdown of capitalism (Nick Beams); Lecture VI: Socialism in one country or permanent revolution (Bill Van Auken); Lecture VII: Marxism, art and the Soviet debate over “proletarian culture” (David Walsh); Lecture VIII: The 1920s: the road to depression and fascism (Nick Beams); Lecture IX: The rise of fascism in Germany and the collapse of the Communist International (Peter Schwarz).