National Sections of the L5I:

Socialist Action and the myth of the USFI left wing

Printer-friendly versionPDF version

There’s a rumour going around the circles of dissidents within the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI). The word is that there is a new left wing, spearheaded by the Socialist Action group in the United States of America. The hope that goes with this rumour is that Socialist Action may just be able to rally the left for a fight at the forthcoming USFI 14th World Congress. But, as Mark Twain once said, a rumour is half way round the world before the truth has tied its bootlaces. In an attempt to catch up and overtake the rumour Mark Harrison sets the record straight.

The USFI is in an advanced stage of decay. It is losing sections and members, it is gripped by pessimism about the prospects for world socialism and it is plotting its own dissolution into something called the broader “world revolutionary movement”. 1

In the USA this process is already well advanced. Between 1982-84 the historic party of US Trotskyism, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), openly broke with the International it helped to found. With all the timing of a blindfolded baseball hitter, it went over to Stalinism in the late 1980s. Today, it desperately clings to Castro as its last hope.

The defection of the SWP led to the creation of new groups in solidarity with the USFI 2. Socialist Action was one of those groups. Formed in 1983 by comrades expelled from the SWP, it bases itself on the politics evolved by that organisation in the 1960s and 1970s when the SWP leadership was made up of the “old guard” such as Joseph Hansen and Farrell Dobbs. Hansen and Dobbs claimed they were the true disciples of Trotsky and the veteran US Trotskyist James P Cannon.

They certainly owed a lot to Cannon, but not to the revolutionist of the 1920s and 1930s. They owed far more to the disoriented centrist of the late 1940s and 1950s. And while Socialist Action claims to stand “on the fundamental principles that have guided the Fourth International since it was founded in 1938”3, it would be more accurate to say that they trample them underfoot.

Socialist Action is not the only US group which claims allegiance to the USFI. It shares this honour with organisations it is in sharp competition with. The USFI leadership—remembering its own years of factional strife with Hansen—rarely acknowledges the existence of Socialist Action. In the official English-language USFI journal, International Viewpoint, the articles on the US all come from one of Socialist Action’s rivals; the Fourth International Caucus (formerly the Fourth International Tendency) which itself exists within the broad left organisation, Solidarity.

As if this wasn’t confusing enough another journal, Links, which has leading USFI members on its editorial board, is busy applauding the creation of a new organisation, the Committees of Correspondence (COC). This had a founding conference in July 1994 and announced that it was seeking to draw upon “the insights of non-Marxist philosophies”4 to help it get by.

Such help was close at hand. The founding conference refused to pledge itself to oppose the bourgeois Democratic Party because most of its members are in fact supporters of Bill Clinton’s party. Links informs us that when the movers of a motion to oppose the Democrats saw how little support they would get at the conference they withdrew the proposal.

And the game of musical chairs speeds up. One group of USFI supporters is dissolving itself into Solidarity (some of whose leading members called for the imperialists to bomb Serbia!), while others are sponsoring the building of COC as a left pressure group on the Democrats. No wonder Socialist Action, which at least formally calls for the building of a US revolutionary party, and is cold shouldered by the USFI, appears refreshingly principled.

Socialist Action argues that the revolutionary party is central. Here we find echoes of Joseph Hansen’s polemics in the 1970s when he opposed the USFI leadership’s attempts to dissolve the Latin American sections into guerilla movements.

Nat Weinstein, Socialist Action’s leader of the 1990s, goes further and demands that such a party be “based on a clear, consistent programme”5. At the August 1994 national conference of Socialist Action he took a swipe at the USFI majority leadership:

“Weinstein dealt with the need to build sections of the Fourth International, the ‘world party’ of socialist revolution, in every country (Socialist Action is in fraternal solidarity with the Fourth International).”6

To the leftists in the USFI who have become sickened at the leaders’ habit of winding up their own sections—as happened in the 1980s in Germany for example—this sort of “orthodoxy” is a relief. 7 It appears to bolster their own efforts to build open, independent sections, and it appears to be in hard opposition to the majority leadership.

But it is misleading. The reason is that it leaves out the all important question—what sort of sections?

After all, the USFI could easily accommodate the “orthodox” commitment to a revolutionary party (as it did for years under the leadership of Pablo, and later of Mandel and Hansen) while continuing its liquidationist practice. A section of the Fourth International can be built in every country, but in those countries where other forces predominate—the forces of the so called broader “world revolutionary movement”—that section could easily politically subordinate itself to those forces. It would be a section, but not one based on a revolutionary programme, not one fighting for leadership of the working class against nationalist, Stalinist or (as in Brazil) social democratic organisations.


The key to determining whether or not Socialist Action is a genuinely revolutionary alternative to Ernest Mandel and the USFI leaders does not lie in its ritualistic calls for sections in every country. It lies in its politics. And those politics are every bit as liquidationist as the majority.

Itsvery idea of a party in the States reeks of this liquidationism. The revolutionary party should be a working class party, a party of workers and for workers. This does not exclude members from other classes. But it makes those members subscribe to a working class programme. That programme champions the causes of the workers and the oppressed, but it provides revolutionary working class answers to the oppressed. It does not simply echo the wrong ideologies and programmes that spontaneously arise within the oppressed, such as women or blacks.

The party is not a coalition, it is a combat unit; it has one programme, not a “Pick-and-Mix” selection of programmes designed to appeal to different tastes.

Socialist Action does not share this Leninist conception. It actually advertises itself as a coalition party. In its regular “Who we are” column it declares:

“We are a multiracial party of workers, students, youth, feminists and human rights activists committed to the interests of the working class.”

This is a good description of Socialist Action, but not of a revolutionary party.

Feminism is a spontaneous ideology that arises among those fighting against women’s oppression under capitalism. Like all such ideologies of resistance it contains progressive elements when measured against those who carry out that oppression. But its insights are one-sided and its proposals for social change are utopian and sometimes reactionary. For a start it sees itself as a classless ideology. At best socialist feminists see the class question as separated from the woman’s question. They tend to see a politically autonomous all-class women’s movement as an ally of the working class, not as an integral part of it. The revolutionary Comintern insisted that feminism was not to be confused with Marxism and could never liberate women from their oppression. Modern Marxism, Trotskyism, takes all that it is positive from feminism and transcends its weaknesses.

And why do human rights activists get a special mention? Like feminists there are all sorts of human rights activists. Most of them are good, decent people. Marxists will often find themselves fighting shoulder to shoulder with sincere and courageous democrats. But that does not make them revolutionaries. Indeed many of them are bourgeois or petit bourgeois liberals. Again there is nothing inherently revolutionary about being a human rights activist, as any member of Amnesty International will tell you.

In reality Socialist Action is trying to disguise the element that marks out a revolutionary party from all others—its revolutionary working class programme—in order not to offend the rainbow coalitionism that infects US Left politics. Instead its “party” is a coalition of activists assembled from assorted good causes, most of them having little to do with the working class.

This core defect in Socialist Action reappears in their attitude towards the black struggle in the United States. Instead of posing an integrated revolutionary party as the central instrument of black liberation in the US, Socialist Action repeats the errors of the SWP under Hansen (and George Breitman who was the party’s expert on the black question). It poses the need for a separate black party alongside the revolutionary party. After all, if the revolutionary party is internally a coalition, it is possible that a coalition of parties can bring about the revolution for the benefit of the different social forces within that coalition:

“Therefore, a programme to benefit African Americans must be anti-capitalist and pro-socialist in addition to representing the cultural interests and national self-determination of the masses. A Black political party with a programme representing the interests of the African American masses—which is politically sophisticated enough to form alliances with other oppressed groups locally, nationally and internationally—is the type of organisation that is needed. However, if the working class organises an anti-capitalist party that supports African American self determination, that might negate the need for a separate Black party.” 8

This is sheer sophistry. The Black party must be “pro-socialist”. What does this mean? Various black nationalist parties have been “pro-socialist”, such as the Panthers, but not revolutionary socialist. Is Socialist Action calling for this sort of party? And what about the fact that the majority of African Americans aspire towards integration? Why support a different party espousing self-determination? Last but not least, why is there a need for a separate black party if the working class, including the millions of black workers, form a revolutionary party?

This isn’t just confused thinking on the part of Socialist Action. It is a form of liquidationism. It is a conscious concession to separatism, to black nationalism, to a non-working class “solution” to black liberation.

That is why Socialist Action, while rightly criticising the Nation of Islam for the anti-semitism of some of its leaders, refuses to call on black workers to refuse support to the Nation of Islam and will not counterpose a revolutionary working class party to it. Indeed Socialist Action “reject calling on the Black community and its organisations to disassociate from the Nation of Islam.” 9

What sort of socialist in the black community would flinch from calling for an outright break with the reactionary Nation of Islam (while defending it and its followers from racist attacks) when it spreads an anti-semitic message? How can unity between black and Jewish workers be achieved unless revolutionary socialists refuse to give any legitimacy to the Nation of Islam?

The fact that Socialist Action won’t call for such a break disarms its black militants from fighting for a socialist leadership—against the Nation of Islam—in the black community. This again is a form of liquidationism. It liquidates the fight for a revolutionary party in the black community—an integrated party that can fight the US capitalist class and unite the US working class—and helps preserve the standing of arch-reactionaries like Farrakhan.

This method carries over into the women’s movement. Socialist Action doesn’t call for a women’s party (even though this is methodologically inconsistent with their call for a Black party) but it does the next best thing. It obscures the need for a working class solution to women’s liberation by promoting the bourgeois led National Organisation of Women (NOW). This is where the concession to feminism, encapsulated in the “Who we are” column, comes to life.

NOW is not what the working class needs. It is explicitly a multi-class movement. Always has been, always will be. That cross class character manifests itself in its strategy—electoralist, aimed at getting “good” Democrats elected—that is, those who have not yet had a chance to wear out their credibility in office .

US women facing the fundamentalist Christian death squads who terrorise abortion clinics, women on welfare struggling to bring up children on their own, women routinely harassed at work by male bosses, women in low paid-no rights, part-time jobs—all these need a working class movement to bring them together so they can be united in defending themselves.

Working class women don’t need the patronising leadership of the power dressing Democratic women trying to get into Congress. These ladies oppress their illegal immigrant maids until they get found out by the tax authorities and then do not care a damn if they get shipped back to Mexico. NOW leaders are quite prepared to vote for budget balancing cuts in federal or state spending even if it does hit working class women hard. They are no allies of the working class woman.

Of course Socialist Action rejects such leaders but they do not reject the organisation which produced them. It regards NOW as a “united front” that just needs a new leadership. It argues:

“What is missing [in NOW] are leaders capable of leading. But the organisations are in place—awaiting a leadership equal to the needs of millions.” 10

Wrong. The women who lead NOW are very good at leading it—and it is tailor made for enabling them to do this because it is not a working class organisation.

When it comes to fighting social oppression—of black people and women—Socialist Action prove in practice that its call for a revolutionary party is empty. Its “section” is being built alright. But it is being built on the basis of aiding and abetting separatism. To be a liquidationist you don’t have to oppose the building of “sections of the Fourth International”. You can be in favour of building them as organisations with the proviso that they renounce the right to challenge for the leadership of the struggles of women and black people; that they in effect become support groups for somebody else’s fight. That is the content of Socialist Action’s politics.

On occasion, close examination reveals that even the claim to “orthodoxy” on party-building is hollow. They may say they want to a build a section in every country, but in practice they are not always in favour of doing so—not if that country is Cuba or Mexico. Over the last year Socialist Action has devoted acres of space to the crises in both these countries. Not once has there been an elaboration of the need for, the tasks of and the problems of building a revolutionary party or section of the Fourth International.

Things began brightly after the Chiapas rebellion. The Mexican section of the USFI was praised by Socialist Action for organising solidarity with the Chiapas rebels. The February 1994 edition proudly referred to the “sister party” in Mexico, the Revolutionary Workers Party (PRT).

Then the PRT opted to support the electoral challenge of the bourgeois Cardenas opposition to the PRI government. Within a month the “sister party” became “the very small PRT” which “despite its intentions gives credence to the false idea that capitalist politics provide any solution to the ever deepening crisis of Mexican society”11. Socialist Action ruefully concludes that this will make building a section difficult. Thereafter the PRT does not receive a single mention in Socialist Action, despite the elections in August. The “sister party” just disappears!

This wouldn’t be so bad if Socialist Action had drawn an obvious conclusion from this sorry episode. Namely, that the USFI section had—without the USFI leadership acting to stop it—betrayed the Mexican masses with its support for Cardenas and that a new revolutionary party was needed. But no. Socialist Action maintain a diplomatic silence on the PRT. They vigorously promote the EZLN (Zapatistas) instead.


This movement is engaged in a legitimate and courageous struggle against the Mexican regime. Socialist Action is beyond reproach in offering solidarity with their fight. But there is a world of difference between solidarising with their fight and solidarising with their petty-bourgeois politics and leadership.

Socialist Action refuses to say that an alternative leadership is necessary if the PRI are to be overthrown or even forced to grant meaningful political and, above all, social (land) reforms. Worse, Socialist Action believes that the EZLN will simply transmute into a revolutionary party and save everybody the trouble of building one.

The collapse of Stalinism means that the Zapatistas “have been a little freer to find their way toward a truly revolutionary party”12. This is classic USFI stuff: Ernest Mandel would be at home with it. The EZLN are the “blunt instrument“ that under the pressure of the masses (and with the bonus of Stalinism being weaker) will simply find their way to revolutionary Marxism with a little friendly advice from north of the Rio Grande.

It does not seem to have occurred to Socialist Action that while Stalinism may be discredited as a model the seductive appeal of the liberal bourgeois opposition to the PRI exists to disorient the EZLN members. And while the EZLN far from wholeheartedly endorsed Cardenas in last year’s elections they shared with him an abstract, “non-class” attitude to democracy and political reform. The EZLN, no less than the PRT, “gives credence to the false idea that capitalist politics provide any solution to the ever deepening crisis of Mexican society.” More autonomy for Chiapas (including a purge of the PRI machine) and far-reaching land reform—the programme of the EZLN—does not in itself transcend “capitalist politics”.

But if, in the absence of Stalinism, people can simply find their way to a revolutionary strategy then there is no real need for revolutionary parties at all. Socialist Action doesn’t draw this conclusion. But in Mexico it may as well. For that is what itsposition means in practice. So much for “orthodoxy” on the party question.

With Cuba there is absolutely no mention of the need for a section of the Fourth International. The reason for this is that Castro is a revolutionist, not a Stalinist bureaucrat, according to Socialist Action. His current concessions to capitalism are merely stop gap crisis measures—similar to Lenin’s in 1923 in the Soviet republic.

The report on Socialist Action’s conference discussion noted:

“. . . a few delegates supported the position that Cuba had become ’Stalinist’ [sic]. The majority of delegates, however, reaffirmed Socialist Action’s position that a hardened, privileged bureaucracy has not gained control of the Cuban Communist Party and government. This has been confirmed in recent years by the Castro leadership’s unique resistance to the restoration of capitalism. Socialist Action points out, however, that real workers’ democracy has yet to be institutionalised in Cuba—and that it must be to defend the gains of the revolution.”13.


Castro is not engaged in a tactical retreat towards the market. At the very least he is playing the role that Gorbachev played in the USSR between 1985 and 1991; namely, loosening the regulatory mechanisms of planning and introducing more and more financial and trade measures that subject the Cuban masses to the dictates of the market. Foreign investment in tourist enclaves, the dollarisation of the economy, the promotion of private agriculture—all these are preparatory to capitalist restoration.

As elsewhere they will fatally undermine the co-ordination of the economy, accelerate the break up of Cuban society into competing strata. Whether Castro oversees much of this process, or like Gorbachev, falls victim to it some way short of completion is the only issue. In the absence of a revolutionary, socialist and democratic (workers’ council) alternative—only possible through the overthrow of Castro and his caste—shortages, growing inequality and privately accumulated wealth will grow. Not in the most fevered imagination can this be called a transition to socialism.

Castro and his clique maintain a tight bureaucratic grip on the reins of power. Workers’ democracy has never existed in Cuba because it would directly threaten the existence, as well as the privileges, of this clique. And the longer this situation continues then the more certain it is that capitalist restoration will proceed apace in Cuba.


The only way to stop it is precisely not to rely on the “unique” Fidel, but to overthrow him by means of a political revolution, led by a revolutionary party that avenges the destruction of the Cuban Trotskyist movement perpetrated by Castro. The fact that Socialist Action will have none of this is yet another reminder that its “orthodoxy” is not that of a revolutionary tendency or even of a consistent left wing within the USFI. It is simply an outdated variety of the centrism that flourishes in that faction ridden and decaying organisation.

Socialist Action’s credentials as a left wing in the USFI are utterly fraudulent. On the domestic front its trade union policy demonstrates that if anything, it is rightist vis-a-vis others on the US left. The US working class has undergone a terrible fifteen years. Wages dropped by 10.5% in real terms from 1977 to 1989. In the same period unionisation has fallen to just 15.8% of the workforce, down to 12% in the private sector. Last May Business Week observed:

“Over the past dozen years, in fact, US industry has conducted one of the most successful anti-union wars ever.”14

Today the situation may be just beginning to turn around. There have been a series of strikes, particularly in the factories of the mid-west, but also in San Francisco (newspapers), across the airlines and other transport sectors, and by the strategically vital International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The prospects of this revival continuing look good. New layers of militants are emerging. The working class vanguard is finding new rank and file leaders in struggles that are mainly defensive at the moment, but could go onto to the offensive, reversing the years of givebacks and concessions.


In the Teamsters union the corrupt “old guard” leadership—with its fat salaries, corrupt practices and its links with the mob—has been severely weakened. Years of struggle by the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) have brought about changes (although the victory was tarnished by direct intervention by the Federal government, which now has a say in union affairs).

A new leader, Ron Carey, called a strike last year at United Parcel Services, in defiance of a court injunction. He called another wider strike against the bosses’ attempts to cut wages and replace workers with part timers in large sectors of the industry. The twenty four day strike against Trucking Management Inc. (TMI) could yet prove to be a watershed. It warded off the bosses’ “part timer” offensive and their attempt to get givebacks (wage cuts), but it was sold well short by the Carey leadership. Carey settled for a deal that allowed casuals to be employed at a lower rate than full timers and accepted a no strike clause while grievance procedures were underway.

You don’t have to regard Carey and the TDU as government finks (as the Spartacists do) to recognise that this was a classic trade union bureaucrat in action. Carey sold short a dispute that could have won a lot more concessions. Yet Socialist Action are not revolutionaries on the trade union front any more than they are on the Cuban front. Socialist Action base its union policy on the need to construct a “class struggle left wing”. This sounds fine, linking class struggle and left wing in one phrase. But it avoids the central problem of the trade unions—the divide between the mass of the rank and file and the privileged layer of bureaucratic officials who actually run the unions. This divide is a material one. It is a clash of interests.

At high points of the class struggle it manifests itself in a clash of needs—the need of the rank and file to fight to defend themselves and the need of the bureaucrats to compromise to maintain their privileged position atop the unions. It manifests itself politically in the clash between the tendency of militancy amongst the rank and file to challenge the capitalist order and the tendency of the bureaucracy to restrain that militancy in the defence of an order on which they depend, an order in which they can arbitrate between the working class and the bosses.

The bureaucracy’s organic tendency is towards reformism. And while the rank and file are not spontaneously revolutionary, their spontaneous anger and action against capitalism opens them up in a direct way to revolutionary consciousness, provided revolutionaries intervene on their side with a revolutionary programme of action.

All of this poses the need for revolutionaries to organise the rank and file, to build a rank and file movement organisationally and politically independent of the bureaucracy. If there are “class struggle” and “left wing” bureaucrats all well and good—they have nothing to lose by placing themselves under the control of the rank and file.

The “class struggle left wing” strategy of Socialist Action obscures this, and in practice it pushes Socialist Action towards reliance on left wing bureaucrats.

Just as it seeks the “blunt instrument” of revolution in Cuba and Nicaragua so it seeks the blunt instrument of militancy in the unions. In the Teamsters this takes the form of acting as Carey’s cheerleader. Before the LRCI is accused of sectarianism, let’s make it absolutely clear that in the struggle against the “old guard” we would critically support Carey—although we would categorically demand the ending of federal government interference in the union as well. In the UPS strike Carey was right to defy the court injunction and go ahead with the strike. We are not blind to the possibility of a left bureaucrat leading struggles, and we would critically support such a bureaucrat if and when they did lead struggles.

The key word is critical. For we do not lose sight of our goal which is the independent organisation of the rank and file and through that the fight for working class independence (in the US this would also involve the fight to build an independent workers’ party based on the unions).

For Socialist Action the strategic goal has been achieved in the Teamsters. Carey is the class struggle left wing. In the TMI strike Socialist Action argued that the Carey leadership “struck with all the force at their disposal”. 15 This is not true. The Spartacists rightly pointed out that Carey refused to call out the Master Freight locals, keeping 40,000 potential strikers at work. Socialist Action argued after the strike:

“In summary, Carey was not outsmarted and gave nothing away. What was lost reflected the adverse relationship of forces that the old guard helped create during the past several decades”16

The old guard didn’t try to win this strike. But it was Carey, not them, who negotiated the divisive differential wage rate between casuals and full timers, and it was Carey who agreed to the “no strike” clause during grievance procedures. These were classic examples of how a bureaucrat gives and takes during negotiations. Revolutionaries should point this out, not, as Socialist Action do, peddle excuses for it.

Carey has taken some administrative measures against the old guard, including the abolition of regional conferences (which were bureaucratic jam festivals) and the attempt to direct money towards a strike fund.

During the strike he produced a bulletin and called for “rank and file networks” to distribute the bulletins (the old guard were sitting on them). Good—but this is a long way short of transforming the union into a genuinely democratic organisation.

He has cut his pay, but he does not espouse the demand of paying bureaucrats the average wage of the workers they represent. He fights in elections, but does not demand the recallability of officials. He supports strikes so long as he is in control of them. He does not espouse the running of strikes by democratically elected strike committees. In short, Carey is a left bureaucrat.

For Socialist Action this is enough. In the December issue it printed his speech to the TDU which makes no mention of the need for an independent workers’ party.

Fair enough. He isn’t calling for such a party or using the might of the Teamsters to build one. We can say this openly and criticise him for it. Socialist Action reacted to the speech slightly differently:

“The first speaker, Ronald Carey, did not go that far [to call for a workers’ party—two other bureaucrats did in their speeches]. But the logic of his arguments, it appears to us, pointed in exactly the same direction.” 17


His speech was about Teamster affairs and the fight against the old guard. He didn’t deal with the workers’ party at all. How can you deduce the “logic” of what he thinks on this question if he makes no mention of it. Well if you think he personifies the “class struggle left wing” then you can decide the logic of what he is saying and paint it as pretty as you like.

This is what centrists do with every substitute for independent working class revolutionary action they manage to find. A rosy optimistic picture can be painted which is very comforting but no use at all as a guide to action.

And maybe that is why people see Socialist Action as a left alternative. They are not so “pessimistic” as the majority leadership of the USFI.

They haven’t lost their faith in their revolutionary substitutes yet. But their method has nothing inherently left wing (in USFI terms) in it. It leads them to liquidate the revolutionary programme on every front of the struggle.

Only in this sense is Socialist Action “orthodox”. Its leaders are orthodox followers of the SWP of around 1963.

The only problem is that the SWP had ceased to be a revolutionary party at least ten years earlier. That is not the orthodoxy that real left critics of the USFI will need at their forthcoming World Congress.

1. See Trotskyist International No 2 and No 7 for articles that trace the evolution of the USFI after 1963
2.Left wing groups are denied the right to formally affiliate to international organisations by reactionary US legislation.
3. Socialist Action, September 1994
4. Links, October-December 1994
5. Socialist Action, February 1994
6. Socialist Action, September 1994
7 See E Gallet, “Centrism in its dotage: the USFI 1980-91.” Trotskyist International 7, September 1991 for a full account of this auto-destruction of the sections.
8 Socialist Action, August 1994
9 Socialist Action, September 1994
10 Socialist Action, December 1994
11 Socialist Action, March 1994
12 Socialist Action, September 1994
13 ibid
14 Business Week, 23 May 1994
15 Socialist Action, May 1994
16 ibid
17 Socialist Action, December 1994