The ICFI Defends Trotskyism

Letter from David North to Cliff Slaughter

December 27, 1983

Dear Comrade Cliff:

Thank you very much for your recent letter which Comrade Mike has passed on to me. I appreciate the time you have taken to analyze the political and theoretical issues which arose at the last meeting of the International Committee. Your contributions to the political development of the Workers League are always welcomed and respected.

I take with extreme seriousness your concern that my report on October 30, 1983 indicated a drift toward pragmatism in the work of the American section, and that, despite my claims to the contrary, the failure of the Workers League, in your judgment, to take a clear stand for the defeat of US imperialism is the outcome of this rejection of the conscious struggle for the development of the dialectical method.

You write that my report—with its “heavy emphasis on the ‘political independence of the working class’”—“showed the dangers that we are not holding fast to these very basic lessons of Trotsky’s last struggle and the whole struggle of the International Committee.”

Considering the entire history of the Fourth International and, within that, of the Workers League, I could not imagine a more serious admonition. Every struggle within the movement since 1939-40 has demonstrated that the rejection of the dialectical method MUST lead—sooner rather than later—to an abandonment of the principles of Trotskyism, no matter how loudly and frequently programmatic orthodoxy is proclaimed. The great achievement of the International Committee has been its defense of materialist dialectics against all forms of bourgeois ideology. It has been on this basis that the IC has withstood and defeated every challenge to Trotskyism. Whatever the problems in its own political development, the Workers League strives each day to base its work on the lessons of this history. The OCI’s denial of the necessity of a specific study of the dialectical method as the Marxist theory of knowledge and its attempt to liquidate theory into program was no less reactionary than Hansen’s effort to equate dialectical materialism with his so-called “consistent” empiricism. From somewhat different standpoints, both Hansen and the OCI—later to be joined by Wohlforth—were arguing for complete freedom from scientific method, that is, for pragmatic adaptation to the line of least resistance based on an uncritical worshipping of the surface appearance of phenomena.

The IC never rested on purely verbal affirmations of the dialectical method. In all the fundamental struggles against revisionism, it has—as Trotsky did in 1939-40—demonstrated the essential link between method and political conclusions. As Trotsky insisted and as the IC has repeatedly shown, the method may be conscious or unconscious but it makes itself known.

For this reason, I found myself in complete agreement with your letter’s opening remarks on the ideological implications of the development of the world capitalist crisis. However, it is with the way in which you relate these general conclusions to the problems of the Workers League that I take exception. It is one thing to urge that every effort be made to develop the dialectical materialist method. It is quite another to presume it is being abandoned and then base a set of political conclusions upon that assumption, without demonstrating either point or establishing the inner connection between false method and wrong conclusions.

While you state that it was my political report at the IC which raised your concerns, you say very little about the substance of that report. It dealt with the political implications of the latest stage in the development of Pabloite revisionism in the United States—in which the SWP’s repudiation of the theory of Permanent Revolution is being accompanied by an ever-more open orientation toward the Democratic Party. I then attempted to explain the political basis for the decision of the Workers League to intervene for the first time in its history in a national Presidential election.

This is not a minor political step, and I thought it necessary to stress that the basis of this intervention must be the fight for the political independence of the working class. I also pointed out that opposition to this perspective was inseparable from revisionist skepticism about the revolutionary role of the working class, and it was within this context that I quoted the extremely important observation made by Trotsky on pages 14-15 of In Defense of Marxism. Permit me to add that I also stated, quite explicitly, that neither the political independence of the working class nor its revolutionary role could be grasped or established at the level of empiricism.

Nevertheless, you warn that the “heavy emphasis on the ‘political independence of the working class’ ... will become a weapon in the hands of all those who retain the mark of pragmatism, because it will be treasured by them as something more ‘concrete’ than the explicit struggle to develop and comprehend the categories of dialectics as the method for that life-and-death matter of grasping the rapid and all-sided developments thrown up by the world crisis.”

You find in our response to the American invasion of Grenada the justification for this special warning.

Though you state that you are “not raising this here as a matter for political dispute,” it would have to be and should be an urgent matter for discussion within the International Committee if the Workers League had drifted away from a clear position of revolutionary defeatism. But I do not agree with your analysis of our position.

In the issue of October 28, 1983, the political content of both the Political Committee statement (entitled “Mobilize Labor Against US Imperialism”) and the front page statement itself took a clear defeatist line against the American invasion. Nothing in this issue justifies the very serious political accusation that the Workers League is retreating from a principled stand in defense of the colonial people against US imperialism on the basis of a policy of revolutionary defeatism. In this very issue, no less than 7 pages out of 16 were explicitly devoted to the struggle against the US invasion of Grenada.

Rather than simply take one issue, however, let us review the political content of the Bulletin in the two months prior to the American invasion.

ISSUE OF SEPTEMBER 6, 1983: There is a Political Committee statement entitled “Imperialist Provocation Against the USSR” which explicitly defends the USSR against the anti-communist hysteria whipped up over the shooting down of the KAL jet.

ISSUE OF SEPTEMBER 9, 1983: The headline is “Reagan Launches Lebanon War.” It calls for the revolutionary mobilization of the working class to overthrow imperialism, and explains that the first step toward this goal is the building of a Labor Party.

On page 3, there is an article on the KAL incident, which declares: “The Workers League, as the Trotskyist movement in the United States, unconditionally defends the USSR, despite the Stalinist bureaucracy, as part of the struggle to mobilize the working class against imperialism.”

ISSUE OF SEPTEMBER 13, 1983: On pages 2 and 3, there are articles defending the USSR in the KAL incident. One of these articles is an analysis of the anti-Soviet frame-up by Ron May.

ISSUE OF SEPTEMBER 16, 1983: Headline is “US Troops Out of Lebanon” and the article declares: “The American labor movement must come to the defense of the Lebanese and Palestinian masses against the Reagan Administration and its Zionist and Lebanese fascist clients. Labor must demand the immediate withdrawal of all US, Israeli and other imperialist forces from Lebanon and the eastern Mediterranean and the cutting off of all aid to Gemayel and Israel.” The statement then denounces the “unspeakable pro-Zionist policy of the Kirkland bureaucracy.”

This issue carries a front-page ad announcing a September 25th meeting entitled: “Defeat Reagan’s War Drive! Build a Labor Party!”

ISSUE OF SEPTEMBER 20, 1983: Headline is “Democrats Back Reagan’s War” and the article declares that “The struggle of the Lebanese National Movement deserves the full support of the American working class and youth.” It concludes with the call for the mobilization of the working class “against the imperialist policies of Reagan and the Democrats” on the basis of the fight for a workers’ government.


ISSUE OF SEPTEMBER 27, 1983: carries a full page report on the WL Public meeting. It reports the statement of Cde. McLaughlin that “the WL stands for the defeat of US imperialism and its imperialist, Zionist and fascist allies in Lebanon and for the military victory of the Lebanese National Movement and the PLO.” The article also carries extracts from my speech at the meeting, which emphasized both the program of revolutionary defeatism and the unity of the struggles of the colonial masses, the working class in the advanced capitalist countries, and the working class in the workers’ states. It denounced pacifism and explained the Leninist policies of revolutionary defeatism. In a direct quote, the speech included the following:

ISSUE OF SEPTEMBER 30, 1983: The Bulletin provided a full page of detailed coverage of the Nicaraguan Sandinista leader’s UN denunciation of US aggression in Central America.

ISSUE OF OCTOBER 4, 1983: A full page article on Page 5 entitled: “Defeat US-Syrian Conspiracy Against PLO!”

ISSUE OF OCTOBER 7, 1983: An article on the AFL-CIO Convention, concentrating on its support for imperialist foreign policy.

ISSUE OF OCTOBER 14, 1983: The editorial is entitled: “Kirkland Meets Major Blowtorch,” and it denounces the AFL-CIO President’s connections with US imperialism’s role in Latin America. The connection between his alliance with the imperialist butchers and his betrayals of American workers is clearly made.

ISSUE OF OCTOBER 18, 1893: The headline is “Stop Terror Against Nicaragua” and the accompanying front-page article is a PC Statement. It again clearly calls for the mobilization of the working class in defense of the Central American masses and for the replacement of Kirkland and the CIA stooges in the labor movement.

ISSUE OF OCTOBER 25, 1983: Headline is “Withdraw Troops From Lebanon.”

This is the record of the Bulletin in the period directly prior to the US invasion of Grenada. It shows very clearly that the WL continuously raised the issue of mobilizing the working class in the United States against imperialism and in support of the masses of the semi-colonial countries. I do not claim that this record, in itself, is a decisive reply to the criticisms which you have made. Great events do produce sudden changes in program and perspectives that reflect the pressure of powerful social forces upon the revolutionary vanguard.

But this record does show that the campaign against American imperialism and its war preparations did constitute the central political theme of the Bulletin and the political work of the Party. We directed this fight toward the working class in direct struggle against the AFL-CIO leadership, which, we are proud to say, has acknowledged our efforts by attempting officially to proscribe the Bulletin in the trade union movement. As for the impact of the invasion itself, there is no sign whatsoever that the Workers League retreated from its position of revolutionary defeatism.

However, you find inadequate the sentence with which point 9 of the statement begins: “US imperialism’s naked aggression in Grenada and throughout the world cannot be defeated through protest, but only through mobilizing the strength of the working class in struggle against the capitalist system.” I think this statement is clear enough, as we are directly speaking of the political means through which the working class will defeat imperialism. Moreover, your criticism that we failed to stress the unity of the struggles of the colonial masses and the workers in the advanced capitalist countries is simply contradicted by the paragraphs in section 9 to which you fail to refer.

Were it only a matter of taking exception to your criticism of our position, this letter would not be necessary. However, in the conclusion of your letter it becomes clear that there is a substantial difference between the perspectives of the Workers League and those which you advance.

Please reread. Comrade Cliff, how you formulated the central tasks of the Workers League in relation to the imperialist invasion of Grenada:

“It is correct IN GENERAL to insist, as your resolution’s concluding section does, that ‘The central issue facing the American working class is the necessity to establish its political independence through the formation of a Labour party, and the struggle for a workers’ government committed to abolishing the capitalist system and establishing socialism.’

“Yes, but the road right now, to ‘establishing the political independence of the American working class’ is by recognizing that the ‘central issue’ is to fight for the defeat of the US imperialist invasion of Grenada and its coming attack in Nicaragua.

“That is what is established by a dialectical cognition of the crisis’ latest manifestations and the consequent Party tasks. Grenada and Lebanon are real developments and must be comprehended as the suddenly rapidly developing drive to war and US imperialism’s ‘global responsibilities’.”

I am astonished by this argument, which goes against everything that we have been taught by the International Committee and by you, personally. Taking issue with our assertion that the task at hand is the fight for a Labor Party and a workers’ government, you argue, “Yes, but the road right now ... is to fight for the defeat of the US imperialist invasion of Grenada and its coming attack in Nicaragua.”

This approach, which explicitly separates the fight for the defeat of the US invasion of Grenada from the struggle to establish the political independence of the working class, is identical to that of every revisionist and Stalinist group in the United States. Wasn’t it against this invidious distinction that the Workers League and the IC based their struggle against the opportunist Pabloite conception of the “antiwar” movement? Do they not always claim that our “sectarianism” consists of our principled approach to all political developments, and our refusal to abandon a strategical line worked out over many years to suit what is happening “right now”? As Trotsky insisted in his reply to Shachtman, our politics is of a principled and not of a conjunctural character. Proceeding from the opposite standpoint, the SWP has always attacked our “fixation” with the Labor Party issue. Tom Kerry thought he was delivering a powerful blow against us when he noted sarcastically that the “hotshots” of the Workers League not only call for the Labor Party on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, but on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday as well.

Revolutionary defeatism is not simply a slogan which we print in our newspaper. It is a perspective that is bound up with definite practices within the workers’ movement. As we understand revolutionary defeatism, it means that a Marxist party MUST WORK for the defeat of its own ruling class during war. In practical terms, this means that the Workers League must fight for the maximum development of the class struggle within the United States, and at the forefront of this fight must be the struggle for the political independence of the working class from the bourgeois-imperialist parties through the building of a Labor Party.

You state that “Grenada and Lebanon are real developments ...” Do you mean to suggest that the fight for the political independence of the working class in the United States is any less real? Is this not the classical form of pragmatic argument which counterposes “concrete” political events to “abstract” matters of principle and program? Far from being an example of “a dialectical cognition of the crisis’ latest manifestations and the consequent Party tasks,” your formulation calls to mind the impressionist worshipping of the “realities of living events” against which Trotsky so frequently warned.

I do not want to write more sharply than is necessary, but the approach you suggest would lead, if accepted by the Workers League, straight toward outright opportunism. After all, if Grenada and Lebanon are to be counterposed as “real developments” to the strategical line of the fight for the political independence of the working class, why not proceed in the same manner toward every other important new development in the class struggle.

For example, in the case of the Greyhound strike, we insisted that the central task is the industrial and political mobilization of the working class against the Reagan Administration and its Democratic Party allies. To which the SWP and various revisionist tendencies (such as the followers of Thornett) reply, “Yes, that is true in general, but right now we must fight for the victory of the strike.” And on this basis they refrained from making any criticism of the trade union bureaucracy, silently walked on the picket line without selling their newspapers or identifying themselves politically.

Of course, you would never suggest such a political line, but your formulation, however unintentional, has a logic of its own.

As you certainly know, the “fight for the defeat of the US imperialist invasion of Grenada”—however “concrete” this slogan may appear to the pragmatist—is, from the standpoint of Marxism, little more than abstract phrasemongering when separated from the Labor Party struggle. Had the Bulletin of October 28, 1983 repeated 100 times the call for the defeat of US imperialism but left out the issue of the Labor Party as the central task facing the American working class, the Political Committee statement would have represented a centrist evasion of the real concrete tasks.

No matter how “abstract” the political independence of the working class may appear to revisionists, it is the only historically concrete strategical basis for a real struggle against imperialism. Though this is certainly not your intention, this perspective is belittled in your letter. For example, you refer to US imperialism’s “coming attack in Nicaragua” as if it were already an accomplished fact. No doubt, such preparations are already at a very advanced stage. But we do take seriously the IC’s insistence on the undefeated character of the working class in the imperialist centers, and it is our belief that the best-laid plans of the Pentagon can be disrupted by the development of the class struggle within the United States.

You also take exception to our statement that “The main target of the policy of global counter-revolution is the enormous power of the American labor movement.” Taken entirely by itself, this statement could appear one-sided. But within its entire context, the statement is essentially correct, and, incidentally, it makes the very point that you claimed was lacking: “that the struggle of the workers in the US ... and of the colonial and ex-colonial peoples is one ...” The main enemy of the American bourgeoisie is at home, in the sense that US imperialism cannot establish global hegemony—a goal which requires the complete militarization of American industry—without smashing the labor movement in the United States. Unlike the revisionists, we firmly believe that this task is beyond the capacity of the Reagan Administration. The historically-necessary transition to more direct forms of Bonapartist military-police rule will not be accomplished without enormous internal crises which will facilitate the development of a revolutionary situation within the United States.

Finally, Comrade Cliff, you note “a tinge ... of reservation about the anti-imperialist content of the colonial revolution, a tinge of reservation about the unity of the proletarian revolution in the advanced capitalist countries and the colonial-national liberation movements.”

I do not see why emphasis on the class struggle in the United States should be interpreted as a “reservation” about the historical and political significance of the struggles in the semi-colonial countries. Let me assure you that no such reservation exists. But is there any point in discussion of this issue at such a level? Neither of us believe that abstract declamations about “the unity of the proletarian revolution in the advanced capitalist countries and the colonial-national liberation movements” is a worthy substitute for a scientific political estimate of the class forces and the leaderships involved in each of the struggles. There is, without any question, a powerful anti-imperialist content within the colonial revolution, but that is not the only element within this historical phenomenon. All colonial-national movements are a unity of antagonistic class forces, and the relationship of each of these class forces to the main imperialist powers is by no means identical. The pressure of imperialism does not mitigate but rather intensifies the class struggle within the semi-colonial countries.

Again in contradistinction to the Pabloites and the Stalinists, we hold that the anti-imperialism of the colonial bourgeoisie is of a relative and not an absolute character, conditioned by the level of development of class contradictions within each of the oppressed nations. The objective anti-imperialist content of the colonial revolution and its historical unity with the proletarian struggles in the metropolitan centers must be strengthened and actualized through a consistent struggle against the bourgeois-nationalist leaderships of the mass movements within the oppressed countries.

This perspective of building independent Trotskyist parties to win the leadership of the national anti-imperialist struggle does not detract one iota from our unconditional defense of national movements in the oppressed countries, whatever the character of their existing leaderships. Our concept of unity is dialectical, i.e., it contains difference within it, and it is on the basis of the building of revolutionary parties of the working class in all countries that we establish, as revolutionary Marxists within the class struggle, the unity of all the oppressed.

At the very conclusion of your letter, you write:

“The two issues in the discussion—the issue of the dialectical method in training the cadres, and the issue of our line on the Grenadan invasion—are connected after all. The concentration on dialectical method and the great questions of program, strategy and tactics cannot be separated.”

We do not deny this connection, but it is not explained by purely formal references to the dialectical method. Of that any pragmatist is quite capable. What must be studied and developed is the correct application of the dialectical method and historical materialism. However, this is by no means undermined by “heavy emphasis” on the “political independence of the working class.” I believe that a serious study of all of Lenin’s works—and, most explicitly, his earliest economic and philosophical studies—will reveal the inner connection between his concentration on the correct application of the dialectical method and his “heavy emphasis” on the political independence of the working class.

I must admit that I am disturbed by the very suggestion that an emphasis on the “political independence of the working class” could be characterized as “very heavy” within the International Committee—especially in relation to the report from a sympathizing section in a country in which the working class has not yet broken politically from the liberals. All the organizational, political and theoretical tasks of a Marxist party—above all, in the United States—are directed precisely toward the achievement of this political independence.

While you suggest that this emphasis “will become a weapon in the hands of all those who retain the mark of pragmatism,” I see nothing that supports this conclusion. The whole fight against the SWP since 1961—not to mention the entire history of the struggle of Bolshevism—has hinged on this very issue. Far from embracing the concept of the political independence of the working class, it is under relentless attack by Stalinists and revisionists all over the world today. The neo-Stalinism of the SWP does not originate in the head of Mr. Barnes, but is a very definite response of US imperialism to the new stage of the capitalist crisis and the revolutionary upsurge of the world proletariat. In this way Pabloism serves as a medium for the transmission of imperialist pressures into the workers’ movement. As I have heard you insist so many times in the past, it is at precisely such a point that the International Committee must be on the alert for any trace of the revisionist outlook within its own ranks and at the same time intensify its political and theoretical assault against Pabloism. As you will certainly agree, this fight against Pabloism is by no means behind us.

It is precisely for this reason that I believe that a clarification of the issues you have raised in your letter is very necessary.

Comrade Cliff, we do not doubt or deny that the struggle against pragmatism is not a finished question inside the Workers League. However, we feel strongly that we have been able to develop a correct political line on Grenada and on other major developments because we have attempted to learn from the IC’s struggle for dialectical materialism.

With warmest fraternal regards.
David North
Comrade Gerry
Comrade Mike