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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

The WRP School of Falsification

(Reprinted from Socialist Press No 2, Feb 20th 1975).

Since its foundation in 1938 in opposition to the international betrayals of Stalinism, the Trotskyist Fourth International has always been a living leadership. Part of that life is the struggle to grasp objectively its own history, with all its strengths and its limits.

As Trotskyists, we can never let pass falsifications and distortions of our own history.

That is why we take up immediately some of the central distortions contained in the Workers’ Revolutionary Party’s four-volume so-called ‘documentary history’ Trotskyism versus Revisionism (1974, edited by Cliff Slaughter) and the review of it (four months later, by the previously unheard of ‘Richard Bryant’) serialised in Workers Press of January 31st to February 8th 1975.

A fuller account will be published shortly by the Workers Socialist League, but some points must be taken up at once.

The key political crisis in the International developed between 1951 and 1953. In 1951 the Third World Congress adopted many of Michel Pablo’s revisionist positions on Stalinism, with only the French leadership opposing him. Pablo’s line, put simply, was that under pressure of class forces, the Stalinist bureaucracy could lead revolutionary movements, and could reform itself.

Bill Hunter of the British SLL, was able in 1957 to summarise the essence of Pablo’s revisionism in this way:

“Then in 1947-53 came the period of the Cold War. The: question was constantly posed: could we build revolutionary parties in time before war was upon us? During this period certain prominent individuals in the Trotskyist movement, headed by a man named Pablo – under combined pressures of European Stalinism and world imperialism – began to revise and reject the fundamental principles, criteria and method of analysis of the Trotskyist movement. The result of all this was a profoundly pessimistic world perspective and a false orientation based on a sceptical rationalization: the imminence and inevitability of the Third World War. This prognosis presumed not only the organic incapacity of the American and Western European working class to prevent such a war (and thereby dismissed its revolutionary potentialities) but conversely it also attributed to the imperialist bourgeoisie a power, homogeneity and stability which it did not possess. Trotsky’s prognosis of Socialism or Barbarism was consequently replaced with the Pabloite schema of Barbarism first, Socialism afterwards”.
“Pablo developed the theory that since the next war would be against the Soviet Union, it would by its very nature be transformed almost immediately into an international civil war. Under these conditions, so the argument went, the Stalinist Parties would move to the left and in certain circumstances could be expected to take the power as has happened in Eastern Europe and China”.
(Trotskyism v Revisionism, Vol. 3, page 3, emphasis added).

Early in 1952 Pablo bureaucratically expelled the leadership and majority of the French section when they refused to follow his directive to liquidate the Trotskyist party by “deep entry” into the Stalinist Communist Party.

Pablo was supported to the full in this by both James Cannon and the Socialist Workers Party leadership in the USA, and by Gerry Healy in the leadership of the British section.

Only in the autumn of 1953, after it had become clear that Pablo was supporting a faction (the Cochran-Clarke faction) within the SWP, did Healy and Cannon take up a political struggle against Pablo.

This struggle very soon resulted in a split. Following the famous Open Letter of the SWP leadership (November 16th 1953), Cannon, Healy and Lambert (leader of the expelled French majority) came together to form the International Committee of the Fourth International against Pablo.

The International Committee, therefore, although it was based on a wholly principled opposition to Pablo’s liquidationism, had also great weaknesses (some of which are only now coming to the surface!).

It did not come out of a thorough and developed theoretical struggle within the world movement, and two of its main leaders (Healy and Cannon) had supported Pablo almost up to the last minute.

How do Cliff Slaughter and ‘Richard Bryant’ deal with this crucial period? They try to prove that Gerry Healy and the British majority were essentially right all along, and that the real blame lay with Cannon. Slaughter writes:

“From the start the British section viewed the struggle as the organic expression of conflicting class interests within the Fourth International . . . There was not a trace of idealism in this attitude which was totally opposed to treating the opposition administratively, as a conspiracy, or to any propagandistic view of the factional struggle as a point scoring debate”.
(Trotskyism v Revisionism, Vol. 1, p. xiv)

Of Cannon, on the other hand, Slaughter says:

“What is abundantly clear is that the SWP leaders were only too eager to get an unprincipled compromise with Pablo based on a re-definition of Stalinism . . . while allowing Pablo a free hand in Europe to liquidate the Trotskyist movement into a Stalinist milieu”.
(Vol. 1, p. xix).

Cannon’s support for the expulsion of the French majority Slaughter calls ‘two faced and incredibly unprincipled’ (Vol. 1, p. xviii)

Yet neither in Slaughter’s volumes nor Bryant’s review is there one single mention of the fact that Gerry Healy, as a member of the international leadership in 1952, also backed Pablo’s expulsion of the French. In fact Slaughter is unable, in the whole four volumes, to quote a single word of opposition to Pablo from Healy or the British leadership before a (confidential) letter to Cannon of May 27th 1953.

This seems bad enough – but there is worse distortion, since the four-volume series deliberately suppresses at least one letter written by Healy in February 1953 which not only supports the politics of Pablo, but also the expulsion of the French, and describes Pablo as the best international secretary the International had ever had!


Since the WRP is too embarrassed to reprint this letter, it was left to the SWP to print it in their selection of documents on the split.

Appropriately, they group it together with the documents written by supporters of Pablo (the International Secretariat), and not with those of the future International Committee.

We reproduce it here in full:

Feb. 19, 1953
Dear Morris, Farrell and Joe,
Please excuse my delay in commenting on your recent letter which M. showed me. I have also seen the letter from E.G. and P. to you and in addition it has been possible for me to discuss with them on the spot. This letter, however, is purely personal, although John expressed himself in agreement with the general line I take.
From your letter and minutes the situation appears extremely sharp. Something big is coming up the line – or all our past experiences of such things count for nothing. On occasions such as this we must bring all our thoughts to bear upon the overall picture of our world movement. The problem is not simply Cochran – all sorts of questions can be posed, with serious consequences for our whole work.
First, the war seems to be getting very near. Since the end of the last one, our sections in Western Europe have had a rough time, splits and sharp internal fights have taken a severe toll, both in England and France. In other countries, lack of cadres has held us back considerably. Over the past year, it is my distinct impression that the picture on an overall scale has distinctly improved (despite the PCI split). Some very serious work in the mass movements is being done now, and in France in particular. Everyone wants to get on with the job and the nearness of the war adds to their determination.
My first feeling, therefore, is one of extreme worry – are we threatened with another international split? If so we must avoid it at all costs. Our movement must not go into the war smashed up and divided.
Please do not misunderstand me. I am for the fullest political clarification – this is basic, but it is not wrong to consider all things in an objective way before the fight starts. This is the worst possible time for yourselves and the International. It is not 1939. The steady activity of the Secretariat has co-ordinated and guided our work to a semblance of world organisation entirely unknown then. Whatever happens with you will have almost instantaneous repercussions over the most important countries.
Let me add one thing more. I am fully aware that our secretariat has some defects, but it is the best – the very best we have ever had. Their letter to you, in my opinion, is not too good. What it says politically is OK, but there was no need for a sermon on Stalinism. The line is what is important. There is agreement to support the SWP against a propaganda orientation towards Stalinism. There is agreement on the line of the 3rd Congress – these are the things which are most important (emphasis added). So far as we are concerned here, we will stand firm on these two planks.
I realise that there may be some comrades in your majority who oppose the 3rd Congress resolution on Stalinism. That is a complication. Negativism on this point could very well feed people in the Cochran camp who may be dithering about on the Stalinist issue. We must have clarity all round, no matter whose toes may be trodden on. For instance: S. (Sam Gordon) here took it upon himself to bring to G’s notice that he opposes the 3rd Congress on Stalinism. OK, but it is not our line and we should certainly defend the line of the International if called upon to do so.
It is absolutely necessary to proceed as cautiously as possible (I know you are doing your best) because we do not wish to have a split on our still very weak international movement.
Best wishes,

Notice Healy uses the term “PCI split” to refer to France – whilst having been personally involved in carrying out the expulsion of the majority of that section.

Healy seemed blind to the impact of these actions. His May 1953 letter, mildly critical of Pablo, says, for instance:

“Pablo suffers badly from isolation in Paris. That French movement is a ‘killer’. It really is impossible to hold an international centre together when you have no national section to help it”.
(Vol. 1, p. 113).

What Slaughter and Bryant want at all costs to conceal is that Healy had backed Pablo (and Cannon) in ‘killing’ ‘that French movement’ through bureaucratic abuse before, only to reunite with the so-called ‘killers’ six months later.

Bryant’s review, rather more sophisticated than Slaughter’s introduction, attempts the impossible, he seeks to prove that Healy analysed and fought Pablo’s revisionism before the SWP leadership and Cannon. He tries, therefore, to quote from Healy’s scanty and non-political letters.

The one quote he manages is itself a brazen distortion and an attack on Marxism. The distortion is that he omits the sentence immediately following his quote which says the very opposite of what is implied in the review.

The omitted words are here italicised:

“The trouble with Pablo, Jim, is that he is a little disappointed with our terrible struggle to build an international. It must be said, however, that he has been at the forefront of the fight. Great progress has been made over the post-war period in organising a proper functioning international organisation”.
(Healy to Cannon, May 1953).

Yet Bryant is suggesting that Healy was sharply critical of Pablo!

The attack on Marxism emerges as Bryant, desperate to find some hint of insight in Healy’s letters, attributes Pablo’s opportunist capitulation to Stalinism and wholesale revision of Marxism to his subjective “impatience” saying:

“ . . . This impatience with the concrete struggles to build cadres was the origin of Pablo’s search for ‘short cuts’ and his abandonment of the Marxist method”.

If this were true, the question remains, what was the origin of Pablo’s impatience? Or does Bryant want us to believe that moods and consciousness determine history, as all idealists believe?

Hastily rushing past this ‘analysis’ Bryant finally resolves to smuggle in a quotation from Healy, not from 1953 (the time of the split) but from 1966 (a mere 13 years later!), which offers a hindsight on the split.

Bryant struggles to backdate Healy’s questionable analysis by the incredible statement:

“This retrospective judgement was altogether consistent with the estimation of Pablo that the British Trotskyists came to during the heated activity of the months before the split”.

This of course, cannot be proved in any way by reference to what is written – in fact the British Trotskyists, if the documents are complete, produced no theoretical analysis of Pablo’s revisionism until 1957 – four years after the split, and six years after the first theoretical attack on Pablo by a member of the French section.

Bryant’s job however is to falsify history, not to analyse it, and so his theoretical bankruptcy is covered over.

Slaughter’s volumes and Bryant’s review abound in similar distortions and evasions. They sweat to prove that there is (and always has been), some ‘infallible’ leadership, just as they did in expelling our own leading comrades on the eve of the WRP conference last December.

For us, the Workers Socialist, League, the history of the Fourth International is not to be cynically manipulated. It exists, with all its gains, its limits and its mistakes, and it is the property of the whole working class.

We take up the study of it with all the care and honesty it needs. We shall defend the memory of James Cannon against fabrications. And we shall defend the principled opposition built by Cannon, Healy, and Lambert in 1953 against Pablo’s attempt to liquidate the International. But we shall do that with the truth.

But basic questions immediately face the leadership of the WRP. Will they now publish the essential documents and correspondence from before 1953, especially that relating to the expulsion of the French majority?

And will Gerry Healy, who above all lived through that crisis, repudiate the distortions of Trotskyism v Revisionism and publish his own account of the 1951-53 split?

As Healy himself wrote in Labour Review (May / August 1952):

“Our workers cannot abide any cult of ‘infallible leaders’ whether they are named Pollitt or Stalin. They want to maintain full right of free and fair discussion in their organisations”.

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