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The Socialist Workers Party Formalizes Break from the Fourth International

The following statement was adopted on July 19, 1990 by the National Organizing Committee of the Fourth Internationalist Tendency.

On June 10,1990, the leadership of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party, together with cothinkers from groups in Australia, Britain, Canada, Iceland, New Zealand, and Sweden, sent a letter to the International Executive Committee of the Fourth International stating: “Effective today, each of our organizations terminates its affiliation, fraternal or statutory, to the Fourth International.”

The Fourth International, the World Party of Socialist Revolution, was founded on the revolutionary Marxist perspectives which inspired the Russian Revolution of 1917 under Lenin and Trotsky. It came into being in response to the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet Union under Stalin and the failure of the Third International to respond to the threat posed by Nazism to the workers' movement in Germany and throughout the world. Today it has vital organizations and activists in all three sectors of the world revolution: the advanced capitalist countries, including Western Europe, Japan, and the United States; the imperialist-exploited areas of Asia, Africa, and Latin America; and the workers' states that have degenerated or been deformed under bureaucratic dictatorships. It has endured innumerable blows since it became a force in the struggle for revolutionary socialism, but there are few defections or losses more painful than that of the Socialist Workers Party. In the past the SWP was one of the strongest and most loyal components of our world movement.

Proud History and Tragic Decline

The Socialist Workers Party was founded in 1938 by revolutionaries in the United States, many of whom had been expelled from the Communist Party for supporting the struggle of Trotsky and the Left Opposition against Stalinism. They continued to defend the revolutionary perspectives that the Communist movement represented when it was led by Lenin and Trotsky. The Trotskyists played a vital role in the class struggle in the United States. Their leadership of the 1934 Minneapolis general strike is probably the best known of many contributions. In addition, they did invaluable work in defending revolutionary Marxism and the workers' movement—in the United States and internationally—from the degeneration and lethal assaults of Stalinism, especially in helping to expose the Moscow trials frame-ups.

The SWP under the leadership of James P. Cannon closely collaborated with Trotsky in establishing the Fourth International and in drafting its founding document, The Transitional Program. When reactionary U.S. legislation, passed in 1940, prevented the SWP from holding membership as a section of the Fourth International, the party continued to play a central role in the world movement as a sympathizing group, particularly during the Second World War and its aftermath. The SWP also played an important role in helping to heal the breach which divided the Fourth International between 1953 and 1963. It sought to offer practical and programmatic contributions based on the distinctive insights gained by its veteran cadres from the rich accumulation of experience in the U.S. class struggle and the world revolutionary movement. In the 1950s, despite the ravages of Cold War anti-communism and the deradicalization of the labor movement, the SWP continued to do important work. The SWP distinguished itself in its defense of the East German, Hungarian, and Polish workers when they rebelled against Stalinist tyranny. At the same time, here in the U.S., the SWP was in the front ranks of support to the fight against racial segregation and white supremacy. It also made an immense contribution to preserving revolutionary Marxism, in part through continued educational and theoretical efforts.

The party enthusiastically supported the Cuban revolution led by Fidel Castro, recognizing this as the first successful socialist revolution in the Western hemisphere, with the added worldwide significance that it represented the triumph of a revolutionary, non-Stalinist political current. This was an event (along with common support for the Hungarian uprising of 1956) which helped lead to a reunification of the Fourth International, since Trotskyists around the world sought to learn from the Cuban revolution and also to defend it from the hostile attacks of U.S. imperialism. Another form of defending the revolution involved articulating a balanced analysis of developments in Cuba. For example, the SWP offered critical comments regarding serious limitations on workers' democracy in Cuba, while at the same time supporting the real social reforms and all initiatives which involved the working masses in shaping their own future.

The Socialist Workers Party was intimately involved in U.S. social struggles of the 1960s and '70s. It played a significant role in defending and supporting Black liberation struggles, and it pioneered in popularizing the revolutionary ideas of Malcolm X. The party was a major force in defense of Vietnam against U.S. aggression, helping to lead an antiwar movement which mobilized hundreds of thousands and had an impact on millions of people throughout the United States. Visible and influential in the youth radicalization of the 1960s, it was also part of the rising wave of feminism, especially in the struggle for abortion rights. And during this entire period, the SWP continued to play an active and important role in the Fourth International.

All of these achievements were possible because of the programmatic traditions and internationalist links of the SWP.

In the 1970s, however, a new leadership, originating from the student movement of the early '60s, became consolidated around Jack Barnes. Unfortunately, it had neither the actual class-struggle experiences nor the political and theoretical maturity of the older generations of the SWP. This undermined the new leadership's ability to continue the programmatic orientation and organizational norms of American Trotskyism. Increasingly, a number of factors combined to shape the party's reaction to events. These included a superficial “orthodoxy,” rigidity in theoretical discussions, inflexible organizational norms, and an equally inflexible approach to tactics in practical political struggles. There was a general decrease in party democracy. There was a pattern of making abrupt changes in the functioning of party branches, institutions, and political activities, based on an impressionistic approach to changing realities in the U.S.

The failure of this approach, combined with unrealistic and unrealized expectations that the SWP would quickly gain significant influence in the working class, led to a crisis for the new leadership. This, in turn, generated the greatest crisis ever faced by American Trotskyism. Barnes and his closest circle of cothinkers became demoralized and lost confidence in the perspectives that had been the historic basis for the party.

By the early 1980s—under the influence of the revolutionary upsurge in Central America and the Caribbean—the Barnes leadership concluded that Castroism has greater relevance in the world today than Trotskyism, and that a “New International” led by the Cuban Communist Party should supersede the “semisectarian” Fourth International. More damaging than this shift in orientation was the initial decision of the Barnes leadership to obscure and deny that it believed basic programmatic changes to be necessary. Instead of clearly advancing its new orientation for the democratic consideration of the SWP membership and of the entire world movement, the Barnes leadership resorted to maneuver and manipulation, with extremely destructive consequences. The policies were decided in secret, then introduced to the membership as a whole in the public press. Critical discussion was suppressed. Those who objected were ostracized, framed-up, and expelled.

This now has culminated in a break from the world Trotskyist movement, ironically at the very moment when great events in the USSR are confirming Trotsky's analysis. Indeed, it is on precisely this question—the political revolution for workers' democracy in the USSR and Eastern Europe—that Fidel Castro has shown little understanding or interest. Although the leaders and members of the SWP claim to continue the party's traditions, the past ten years mark a profound discontinuity in the party's history.

Dimensions of the SWP's Break

The Fourth International can be faulted for a variety of imperfections, but it remains the only vital international revolutionary current, one with active sections throughout the world. Its Militants are making important contributions in the struggles of working people, women, oppressed nationalities, peasants, youth, and others striving for a better future in many different countries. It is based on the theory and method of Marx and Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, Luxemburg, and many other revolutionary leaders of the workers' movement. It is a democratic organization, and it has a World Congress coming up in 1991. It would make far more sense for the SWP—if it aspires to provide serious leadership in the world revolutionary movement—to fight for its position in the Fourth International, instead of walking out with small groups of supporters in a few predominantly English-speaking and mostly imperialist countries.

This separation will only increase the SWP's isolation, rather than lead to a genuine regroupment with larger revolutionary forces. SWP members who recognize the need to reverse the party's trajectory face an immense task, because its effects have been quite far reaching:

The SWP has broken with the Fourth International programmatically. It has explicitly rejected the theory of permanent revolution, which explains the connections between democratic struggles and the struggle for working class rule and revolutionary internationalism. It has dropped all programmatic reference to the possibility of political revolution in the deformed and degenerated workers' states, which involves the working people of the USSR, Eastern Europe, and China fighting for socialist democracy against bureaucratic tyranny. It has abandoned a consistent Leninist-Trotskyist commitment to socialist democracy—for example, by supporting one-party rule and restrictions on freedom of expression in Cuba. It has drawn back from the view that there are three interrelated sectors of the world revolution (advanced capitalist countries, less developed countries oppressed by imperialism, bureaucratized workers' states). The transitional method—through which the revolutionary movement approaches working people with slogans that correspond to their present level of consciousness while leading in the direction of more profound conclusions about the need to change society—has been abandoned, despite schematic references to one or another demand of The Transitional Program. This method has been replaced by lectures delivered to workers and activists that they should admire and emulate “the example of revolutionary Cuba.” In place of the Leninist commitment to genuine democratic centralism, the SWP has adopted a Castroist model, with the party's orientation being established from the top down. Questioning, dissent, or debate are actively discouraged. Of course, at one time or another, pragmatic considerations have caused the Barnes leadership to vacillate or even draw back to what might seem to be traditional perspectives on one or another point. But the general pattern of programmatic divergence from the Fourth International is indisputable.

The SWP has broken with the Fourth International methodologically. The cynical manipulation of theory and program that characterizes the present leadership of the SWP is alien to the approach of Lenin and Trotsky by which our movement seeks to guide itself. The Barnes leadership's dishonesty regarding its actual views and intentions, a dishonesty displayed both toward its own membership and toward the Fourth International as a whole, also has nothing in common with the Bolshevik-Leninist norms which our movement embraced at its very inception. The SWP's supercentralized organizational norms, the tendency toward a leadership cult around Jack Barnes, the systematic isolation, intimidation, and bureaucratic suppression of real or imagined or potential oppositional tendencies—none of this has anything to do with the actual “Leninist strategy of party building” or the historic organizational principles of the Fourth International and SWP.

The political-organizational methodology of the Barnes leadership was utilized to expel and otherwise drive out several oppositional currents from the SWP in the early 1980s, including many comrades now organized in the Fourth Internationalist Tendency, Socialist Action, and the FI Caucus of Solidarity. Its most recent victims were former leaders Barry Sheppard, Caroline Lund, and Malik Miah, who embraced Barnes's fundamental programmatic revisions but disagreed on tactical questions and conjunctural political assessments.

Another method foreign to the Leninist-Trotskyist tradition is the use of slander campaigns against other Fourth Internationalists to justify excluding them from party headquarters, bookstores, and public meetings. These dishonest campaigns have prevented SWP members from having contact with critics of the Barnes leadership, and have created a climate of intimidation inside the party in order to protect that leadership from the consequences of open and critical discussion.

The SWP has broken with the Fourth International organizationally. The desire to avoid the risks of clarifying political differences through open and democratic debate also manifested itself in the Barnes leadership's consistent practice of choosing not to advance seriously its revisions of theory and program in the discussions of the Fourth International, at the 1985 World Congress and since then.

The 1985 World Congress demanded, by an overwhelming majority, that the SWP readmit the loyal Fourth Internationalists who had been purged, yet the SWP blatantly ignored this decision and instead stepped up its hostile campaign to create more splits through pro-SWP factions in Britain, Sweden, and other countries. These proved to be disloyal to their own organizations and to the Fourth International as a whole. Over the past several years, these factions have split away from sections of the Fourth International in their countries, and they have chosen to circulate publications put out by the SWP instead of the publications of the Fourth International. They have adhered to the program of the SWP instead of the program of the Fourth International. The SWP's representatives have for more than a year boycotted international leadership meetings of the Fourth International. The SWP was giving clear signs that it would not participate in the upcoming World Congress of the Fourth International, where it would have had an opportunity to present its perspectives to revolutionary activists from around the world, and where it could try to win class-struggle Militants to its ideas through frank and democratic debate. In private conversations and at public meetings since at least 1989, party members and spokespeople were asserting that the SWP was no longer a part of the Fourth International.

The final aspect of the organizational break was the June 10, 1990, letter, signed by the leadership of the SWP and six small “Communist Leagues,” announcing: “incompatible trajectories have been an unambiguous public fact for some time. As expressed through political work, internationalist collaboration, and our place within communist continuity and tradition, our parties have become organizations separate from the Fourth International.”

Build the Fourth International

The fact remains that the SWP still contains cadres who are dedicated to the revolutionary socialist cause, motivated by the highest ideals, capable of critical thought and courageous activism, influenced to a certain degree by the concepts and methodology of scientific socialism, and retaining a residual element of the American Trotskyist tradition. Some of these comrades will find that such qualities are at variance with the orientation of the Barnes leadership.

All of us who are loyal to the traditions and program of American Trotskyism must redouble our efforts to build a strong organization in fraternal solidarity with the Fourth International.

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