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Behind the Smokescreen

An analysis of the sectarian politics of the Workers Revolutionary Party

A collection of articles first printed in Socialist Press

Written: 1975 / 76.
First Published: June 1976.
Source: Published by Folrose Ltd. for the Workers Socialist League.
Transcription/HTML Markup: Sean Robertson for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

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Behind the Smokescreen

Lessons of our History

By John Lister

(Reprinted from Socialist Press No 18, October 1st 1975).

As the need for new leadership in the working class is shown clearer every day, a crisis now grips the world Trotskyist movement.

This has split the opportunist bloc of the Unified Secretariat into warring factions, and it is reflected in the International Committee by the mass expulsions from its leading section, the British Workers Revolutionary Party, together with the complete disruption of its subsidiary sections in the USA and Australia. We must begin an objective study of the history of these tendencies and of the International, if any clarity is to be found on the way forward.

We therefore intend to examine in this and coming editions of Socialist Press some questions which can lead us nearer a grasp of the problems as they developed in the world Trotskyist movement. Initially we will examine the degeneration of the Workers Revolutionary Party, in order to approach some central questions of programme. We will go on in further articles to look more specifically at some of the theoretical problems which have divided and split the world movement.

The mass expulsions from the WRP in December 1974 marked the determination of the leadership of that party – at the centre of which is General Secretary G. Healy – to defend to the utmost the sectarian method which still continues to liquidate the WRP and all the gains it has made.

It is significant to note that the expulsions began only days after Comrade Thornett had been given authority by Healy at an aggregate meeting to produce a second opposition document. This was to deal with the historical, philosophical an class content of the degeneration of the WRP into sectarianism; show the starting point of the degeneration in a party which contained the core of Trotskyism; and examine in this context the international perspectives of the International Committee.

It was clearly the prospect of these historical questions being subjected to examination which prompted the expulsions in order to suppress the document until Comrade Thornett was out of the party.

What, then, was Healy so afraid of? Why, in a party which continually spoke of the importance of “principle” and “the record”, could no discussion be permitted on the history of that party?

Clearly because the WRP membership had been given a version of that history slanted to project Healy and the leadership in the best possible light, even as infallible leaders who had always stood unreservedly on the right side of every issue.

If an objective study was begun (even if only by one comrade in opposition) it could lead to other members reading an assessing that material and detecting the inadequacies of the Healy leadership. This was begun in Thornett’s Second Document which, though suppressed, was produced and distributed at the First Conference of the WRP.

But further work on the history of the WRP (which was founded in 1973 out of the old Socialist Labour League) has shown that Healy is deliberately concealing important past struggles of the movement in order to protect the WRP’s present sectarian course.

Their current demand “Make the Labour Government resign” is a clear example of this. As we showed in our last edition, such a demand turns away from the necessary struggle to expose the fake left MPs to their supporters by pressing them to fight Wilson and the right wing under conditions where they refuse to lift a finger. Our slogan is “Make the ‘lefts’ fight Wilson”. It has a long history from the SLL.

The demand was central to campaigns run by the SLL, its Young Socialists organisation (after they had been witch hunted out of the Labour Party), and the League’s weekly newspaper The Newsletter. This carried such banner headlines as:

(May 21st 1966)
“Left MPs Must Learn the LESSONS of 1966; Say NO to Wilson”
(December 31st, 1966)

And the correct, if rather uncritical headline:

(April 22nd, 1967)

This policy had been carried forward from the SLL 1965 Manifesto which read:

“Wilson and the betrayers must be removed and a socialist policy implemented. That policy must be bold and direct, and there must be no hesitation in relying on the workers themselves to enforce it along the following lines: . . . ”
(How to Defeat the Tories for Good, September 11th, 1965).

The campaign on this orientation had a great impact in the unions and among the youth, and it was around bold and decisive initiatives including these slogans that the SLL won a considerable periphery of trade unionists in the mid and late 1960’s.

Not only this, but the SLL correctly slammed into their opponents who refused to expose the ‘lefts’. Thus as late as October 1970 Cliff Slaughter wrote in polemic:

“In accordance with this perspective we set course for a daily paper in five year’s time. The essential political preparation for this was to turn to the trade unions with the cadres won from the youth, and to campaign on every political issue facing the working class under the Labour Government.
At the centre of this orientation was our initiative in the whole campaign to defeat the prices and incomes legislation, support the 1966 seamen’s strike, and prevent the anti-trade union legislation.
No other political tendency whatsoever was able to campaign in this way . . . everyone of them . . . opposed . . . building the independent revolutionary party; everyone of them considered it ‘sectarian’ to oppose the Labour government as a capitalist government; they all collaborated with the Stalinists to denounce our initiatives in 1965 and 1966 against the Prices and Incomes Bill, against anti-union legislation, and to make the ‘left’ MPs fight, as premature and sectarian”.
(Reform or Revolution? 1970, p5)

The ‘initiatives’ Slaughter refers to here were not simple sloganeering, but real struggles carried into the workers movement by the SLL. In 1965 and 1966, around the banner of the Lambeth Trades Council, powerful interventions were made by the SLL against Wilson’s first pay laws, which resulted in the TUC suspending Lambeth Trades Council. In the fight against Wilson’s anti-union laws, the SLL spearheaded the fight, itself calling for a strike on May Day 1969 which eventually forced the Stalinists to support and resulted in nearly 900,000 workers stopping work.

Both the Young Socialists and the SLL were able on several occasions in this period to carry out lobbies ranging from 1,000 to 3,000 on working days. Their influence could be seen to extend to directly political campaigns when on May 1st 1970, as a direct result of SLL-YS initiative, Liverpool docks, together with numbers of building and engineering workers struck work in solidarity with the struggle of the workers and peasants in Indochina.


None of the revisionists (particularly the IS and IMG) who have always so readily denounced the SLL as ‘sectarian’ have any comparable record of struggle, More often than not the SLL exposed IS and IMG opportunism in practice. The crime is that the WRP now chooses to obscure its own past for fear of exposing its present bankruptcy, The Workers Socialist League alone is able to assess these past achievements and draw strength from them.

It was not only on the question of demands on the ‘lefts’ and interventions in the unions that the old SLL had a more correct approach than the sectarian WRP.

It is conspicuous that the Healy leadership’s struggle against Comrade Thornett’s call for a return to the Transitional Programme centred very much on devaluing the transitional demands and, most important concealing their relationship to the fight for workers’ control of production.

The vast majority of the rank and file want to fight and change Wilson’s policies, and they can do this whilst still retaining a Labour government in Parliament . . .
The constitution of the Parliamentary Labour Party allows left MPs the opportunity to present their opposition against the leadership of the present government. If this were done, then the rank and file would immediately be rallied in a struggle to change the leadership and policy of the Labour Party and replace it with people pledged to fight for socialist policies . . .
The demand of the Socialist Labour League for making the left MPs fight Wilson for socialist policies is the only realistic policy to rally the mass movement for alternative leadership and expose those inside the Parliamentary Labour Party who talk left but do not want to fight.
At the same time, if on a single issue the Labour government had fought Toryism, we would have given it our critical support insofar as it did this. If the left MPs now break front Wilson and challenge him in the Parliamentary Labour Party, they will also have our critical support. We are concerned here with taking the working class through all the experience, necessary in order to expose the bankruptcy of the right-wing Labour leaders and the fake left MPs thus preparing the way for the building of revolutionary leadership.

(From The Alternative to Wilson by G. Healy, Sept. 1967.)

Not one leading WRP member in the discussion referred to the earlier programme put forward for a long period by the SLL, in which many of the transitional demands were advocated, often along the same lines as proposed by Comrade Thornett.

The contrast between the 1974 sectarian bankruptcy of programme within the WRP, and the surprising concreteness of the 1965 SLL Manifesto for example, must have been too painful for Healy to face.

As an example, in October 1974, the Election Manifesto of the WRP had only this to say on defence of living standards:

“HALT RISING PRICES. Nationalise the food monopolies and the supermarket chains without compensation under workers control. Abolish the speculative commodity markets”.

This “policy”, which raises almost as many questions as it answers, and which can only be regarded as a utopian proposal divorced from any means of achieving it (who is to do the nationalising?) is sharply answered by the SLL’s 1965 Manifesto:

“SLIDING SCALE OF WAGES: Over and above all wage settlements, all employers must be compelled to pay cost-of-living bonuses to ensure that wages are not left behind prices. This policy is the only way to solve the ‘prices’ question in the interests of the working class. Committees of consumers, along with the trade unions, must be responsible for deciding a realistic cost of living Index”. (emphasis added)

Funnily enough, the SLL in 1965 saw protection against rising prices without even mentioning nationalisation!! But the 1965 policy is certainly far more relevant and tangible to the working class than 1974’s abstract demagogy.

Indeed the very call for nationalisation is carefully prepared in the 1965 document. It moves from demands on wages to call for the ending of business secrets, and from this demand expands on the demand for “workers supervision and control of business”. The nationalised industries are examined first:

“ . . . on the railways, the liner trains and other modernisation schemes must be introduced under the control of workers committees, which ensure the sharing of all work, no unemployment, retraining on full pay.
These committees will represent all grades of railway workers and employees who, in fact, understand and run the industry every day . . . They will immediately enquire into all relations between private industry, the banks, and the nationalised industry”.

Here, despite the inadequate formulation (not calling for trade union committees, and not stressing that they must emerge from below, and not be imposed from above by unions or management) the SLL attempted to concretise the demand for workers control and come to grips with the task of taking the management out of the hands of the bourgeois nominees who run state industry.


The specific call for “workers supervision and control” shows that this is a fight to supervise the existing management, in preparation for workers management at a later stage.

Today’s version of this programme in the WRP is the glib phrase “workers’ control” attached to anything and everything. In the October 1974 Manifesto, the demands included:

“A SOCIALIST FUEL POLICY. Workers control and the planned expansion of mining, electricity and gas. Nationalise the fuel monopolies, North Sea Oil and gas.
A SOCIALIST TRANSPORT POLICY. Workers control of the railways, aviation, the docks and the bus service. Nationalise road haulage . . .”

These meagre abstractions point no way forward for the struggle for workers control of industry, a vital step in the development of revolutionary consciousness in the working class.

Indeed the continuous call for nationalisation by the WRP is generally separated from any call to action in the working class.

Thus the 1974 Manifesto:

“. . . Nationalise the food monopolies and the supermarket chains without compensation under workers control . . .
STOP UNEMPLOYMENT. Take basic industry and the banks into public ownership [i.e. nationalise them!] without compensation under workers control. Demand a sliding scale of hours and wages [?!] . . .
HOMES FOR ALL. Nationalise the land, the construction industry and building societies without compensation under workers control with protection for savers . . .
EXPAND THE SOCIAL SERVICES . . . End private medicine and the public schools. Nationalise the drug industry without compensation under workers control . . . ”

Presumably then, to follow the WRP’s logic, putting forward a “programme” is just a question of stringing together a long enough list of monopolies to be nationalised at a stroke from above by a Labour government while the workers sit back and wait.

In this they are effectively at one with the Militant group of opportunists within the Labour Party, who even specify they want the top 250 (not 249, not 251, but 250) firms nationalised. Both maintain a verbal “programme of nationalisation”; but neither group attempts to mobilise the working class along the lines of the Transitional Programme to force such nationalisation.


The SLL 1965 programme did, however, put forward such an attempt:

“In private industry, as a first step to nationalisation, the workers’ representatives, assisted by sympathetic accountants and technicians from the growing white-collar unions, must demand access to all accounts, order books and plans of the big monopolies such as in motor-cars, chemicals and building contracting.”

This is a clear call for a fight to establish workers control of production, before nationalisation, as a preparation for nationalisation itself. If this approach had been developed and not discarded by the SLL in the period following 1965, then the ultimatums which stud the 1974 Manifesto and the present WRP programme would not have appeared.

This is evidence of how the WRP leadership has gone backwards theoretically in the last ten years. As Comrade Thornett’s Second Document pointed out:

“By repudiating the correct use of the ‘workers’ control’ slogan . . . the party is, in fact, blocking the road to the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat. This is not established by a single “leap” from reformism to revolutionary consciousness, but by the working class through its own struggles and the conscious intervention of the revolutionary party, passing through stages of development, each of which is a qualitative development . . .
. . . If the party telescopes these essential stages (or leaves them out) by using the single catch-all slogan “Nationalise industry, banks and land without compensation under workers control”, we open up no road to the working class for the eventual seizure of power and the establishment of its dictatorship. This is, after all, the precise reason why Trotsky developed the Transitional Programme, and why the Fourth International adopted it as its founding document.”

Indeed, as Trotsky states in the programme:

“Only a general revolutionary upsurge of the proletariat can place the complete expropriation of the bourgeoisie on the order of the day. The task of transitional demands is to prepare the proletariat to solve this problem.”
(p. 24) (emphasis added).

Why then did the SLL move away from the attempt to carry transitional demands into the working class in the 1960’s? The answer must be that the SLL leadership increasingly became swayed by surface impressions of the developing situation, and in particular the treachery of the Wilson government, coupled with the refusal of the ‘left’ to fight, along with considerable successes by the SLL.

Increasingly during the life of the 1966-1970 Labour government, the Healy SLL leadership began to minimise the working class support for that government – going on the appearance of increasingly hostility from workers to Wilson’s attacks on the working class.

The expulsion of the YS majority from the Labour Party in 1964, the pay laws and the anti-union laws all strengthened the notion, recurring today in WRP propaganda, that this government was more reactionary than any other Labour government.

When this combined in the late 1960’s with waves of spontaneous working class militancy as a part of a world-wide movement, seeming in Britain to threaten the old leadership within the unions, the hour seemed as Healy saw it, about to strike for the Socialist Labour League after years of propagandising the need for revolution, to step into the leadership of the working class.

Accordingly, less and less attention was devoted to programme and demands, and more and more restating the depth of the crisis and the general question of the ‘need to build the SLL’.


Let us compare some sets of demands to show this process at work. We have examined the transitional demands of the 1965 SLL Manifesto. In the 1966 Conference resolution of the Young Socialists there were similar transitional demands for the Trade Unions:

“* Independence of the trade unions from the state.
* Sliding scale of wages to keep pace with the cost of living.
* Abolition of business secrets. Open the books of industry. Make the bosses pay.
* Suspend all interest payments which burden the nationalised industries, workers control of the mines, railways and docks.”

The programme for youth included the demand for:

“A full programme of public works (hospitals, schools, youth clubs, housing projects, swimming pools) paid at trade union rates under workers management.”


“Work sharing without loss of pay.”

On September 10th, 1967, while the SLL Manifesto still called:

“Through the demand ‘Make the ‘left’ MP’s fight’ there must be a united mass movement inside as well as outside Parliament . . . This movement can and must be built . . . ”

The demands on which the ‘left’ were to fight were:

“1. Repeal Prices and Incomes Act.
2. Restore full employment.
3. Implement a policy of paying full wages whilst working full time.
4. Nationalise the basic industries, including the motor industry.”

Here, important steps in the fight for nationalisation are omitted making the call one for nationalisation from above rather than a struggle from below to force nationalisation, but at the same time, there are concrete demands which workers can fight for in the factories.

By October 1969 the Political Committee statement of the SLL was posing no demands at all except the call to join the SLL itself:

“The British working class will not stay at a purely economic level in its strikes. It already raises the question of the leadership of the unions, the political character of that leadership and its relations with the employers as with the Labour government . . .
The road now opens for the building of the revolutionary working class party which every worker is beginning to recognise is needed.
The SLL . . . calls upon all workers to join with it in the task of constructing that party.”

The passage here reflects a superficial response to the spontaneous movements of the class more akin to the syndicalists of IS than to the political method of Trotskyism. The strike wave opened possibilities of going beyond an economic level – but only through the intervention of Trotskyist leadership. And there is a strong element of nationalism contained in this statement also.

The implied contrast is between the British working class – which is supposedly of its own accord going beyond “a purely economic level in its strikes”, and the huge general strike movement of France in May-June 1968, which was betrayed when no leadership emerged to break workers from spontaneity.

Based on this view, which completely mis-assesses the weight of influence of reformism on the British labour movement, the impressions of the spontaneous strikes of late 1969 become the starting point of an abstract call to “every worker” who is supposedly “beginning to recognise” the need of a mass SLL to join, while any attempt to fight for programme is abandoned.

The re-election of the Tory government as a result of the betrayals of the Wilson 1966 government gave the SLL a period in which programme again seemed to be pushed into the background.

The maximum slogan of “nationalise the economy” could remain and not be put to the test until the re-election in 1974 of the seventh Labour government. Meanwhile, the strong surge of anti-Tory feeling from a betrayed but undefeated working class between 1970-1974 brought a continuing flow of recruits to the SLL on its correct platform of “bring down the Tory government”, which enabled the Workers Press to grow in size and circulation, the apparatus of the movement to grow, and the leadership’s inability to train working class cadres to be concealed.

For this reason, as the verbal adaptation to the Transitional Programme which characterised the last twelve months is increasingly dropped by the WRP, the real weaknesses of the impressionist method are only now beginning to make themselves felt.


And no grandiose “education” schemes, no demagogic displays of phrase mongering by Healy and its leaders can conceal the degeneration of a movement which has become divorced from any real involvement or intervention in the struggles of the working class.

The fight for the method of the Transitional Programme now undertaken by the Workers Socialist League, is for us the very centre of the fight to build an independent revolutionary party to lead the struggle for the taking of power by the working class.

At the same time the struggle against impressionism and for an objective analysis of the balance of political forces in the working class movement is fundamental in the defence of Trotskyism. It was Pablo’s empirical adaptation to the appearance of change in world Stalinism in 1950 – 1953 which caused him to revise the principles of the Fourth International, provoking a split from which the International Committee emerged as the defenders of “Orthodox Trotskyism”.

But, able only a little more than Pablo to probe to their roots the problems of Trotskyism in understanding the role of Stalinism and its relationship with imperialism post-war, the IC became less and less equipped to critically orientate to changing situations.

In the early 1960’s the American SWP as a result succumbed to opportunism and drifted off in search of “natural Marxists” in the form of Fidel Castro and colonial revolutions, and spilt from the IC. But still the SLL was unable to develop beyond defence of “orthodoxy” and left itself exposed to empirical adaptations.

Our task is now to take the historic and theoretical gains of the SLL-WRP into our work of building the WSL and into the necessary discussion on perspectives for rebuilding the Trotskyist Fourth International. At the centre of this is our knowledge that we have to find the road to the masses through building a party along the lines marked out in the method of the Transitional Programme:

“It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demands and the socialist revolution. This bridge should include a system of transitional demands stemming from today’s conditions and today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the taking of power by the proletariat.”
TP, p. 15.

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