The growth of the British and French sections in the aftermath of the Third Congress of the ICFI—and especially after the events of May-June 1968—led to political conflict. But while the British section made correct criticisms of the centrist orientation of the OCI, political differences were emerging within the Socialist Labour League leadership itself. Though it was known that Cliff Slaughter, who held the position of ICFI secretary, had evinced sympathy with the OCI’s call for a “reconstruction” of the Fourth International, the issue was not pursued within the leadership. A similarly evasive attitude was taken toward the uncritical attitude of Michael Banda, another leading member of the SLL, toward Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” and the policies of the National Liberation Front in Vietnam. The reluctance of the SLL leadership to engage in an open discussion of these vital issues reflected Healy’s anxiety that political conflict within his own organization would undermine the practical work and organizational advances being made by the British section.
The avoidance of an examination of crucial questions of perspectives—essential for the development of political program—assumed within the Socialist Labour League a peculiar theoretical form. As differences with the OCI intensified in 1970-71, the SLL leadership argued that the political issues in dispute were merely secondary, even inessential, manifestations of differences over philosophy. The significant truth that philosophical method is revealed in the exercise of political analysis was invoked in a one-sided manner, to justify the dissolution of the concrete examination of political issues into ever-more abstract discussions of philosophical epistemology. When the OCI asserted, incorrectly, that dialectical materialism was not a “theory of knowledge,” this was seized on to shift attention away from an examination of the French organization’s centrist politics. In contrast to the approach taken by Trotsky in the 1939-40 struggle against Burnham and Shachtman—in which the significance and proper use of the dialectical materialist method was clearly related to questions of political perspective—Healy and Slaughter advanced the position that the discussion of dialectics superseded the political issues and even rendered them superfluous.
In the autumn of 1971, the SLL announced a split in the Fourth International, while leaving the political issues unclarified. Despite the plethora of crucial political questions, bound up with problems of revolutionary strategy arising from the crisis of capitalism and struggles of the working class, the SLL declared, in a statement published on March 1, 1972, that the split was “not about tactical aspects of how to build the Fourth International. ... the split is not a question of dozens of detailed points of organization, or even of political positions on various questions.” Rather, the SLL asserted, “It is a political split, going to the foundations of the Fourth International—Marxist theory.” But without the necessary elaboration of the actual political issues in dispute, the invocation of “Marxist theory” was little more than an exercise in abstract rhetoric. The SLL wrote that it had learned “from experience of building the revolutionary party in Britain that a thoroughgoing and difficult struggle against idealist ways of thinking was necessary which went much deeper than questions of agreement on program and policy.” This statement directly contradicted Trotsky, who held that “The significance of the program is the significance of the party,” and that this program consisted of “a common understanding of events, of the tasks...” Now the SLL was claiming that the “struggle against idealist ways of thinking”—a rather vague formulation—was more important than programmatic agreement! Moreover, the SLL’s assertion that it was basing its work on the experience “of building the revolutionary party in Britain”, rather than on the lessons of the Fourth International’s struggle against Stalinism, Social Democracy and Pabloism, expressed a disturbing shift in its political axis—from internationalism to nationalism.
This failure to clarify the political issues that underlay the split with the OCI undermined the work of the International Committee at precisely the point when the crisis of world capitalism required the greatest possible degree of programmatic clarity. The principal task confronting the leadership of the Socialist Labour League was to draw out the implications of the centrist drift in the program, practice and international orientation of the OCI. This was of the greatest importance at a time when new sections of the International Committee were being formed. The Revolutionary Communist League was established as the Ceylonese section in 1968. The Bund Sozialistischer Arbeiter was established as the German section in 1971. The Socialist Labor League was established as the Australian section in 1972. In Greece, the establishment of a new section in 1972 occurred under conditions in which its membership had been divided between supporters of the ICFI and the OCI.
It has now become publicly known that, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the OCI became heavily involved in the behind-the-scenes political maneuvers that led to the creation of the French Socialist Party. Members of the OCI worked closely with Francois Mitterrand as the SP was developed, on a thoroughly opportunist basis, into an instrument of his electoral ambitions. One of the OCI members, Lionel Jospin, became a political aide to Mitterrand, advanced within the hierarchy of the Socialist Party, and eventually attained the office of Prime Minister. It is impossible to determine, retrospectively, whether an open political struggle by the SLL might have arrested the opportunist degeneration of the OCI and its transformation into an instrument of the French state. But such a struggle would have clarified the political issues and alerted the SLL to the dangers posed by opportunist tendencies within its own ranks.