Declaration of an external tendency of the iSt
Jim: “…either the party is as you said it is, filled with the fundamental contradiction of actually having a bureaucratic, abusive, personalist cult-leadership while proclaiming itself to be for socialist democracy.
Karen: “That’s a contradiction.
Jim: “Yes, that’s a contradiction. Or you’re in contradiction.”
—”Excerpts from Transcript of Taped Discussion between Karen Allen and Jim Robertson,” SL IDB No. 30, page 34
The SL/US – iSt today is an organization with a profound contradiction. It is a degenerating, but still revolutionary organization which is nonetheless the only contemporary organizational embodiment of the program of Bolshevism. As such it has enormous importance for the future prospect of socialist revolution on this planet. Yet while the SL’s program remains revolutionary, its leadership collective increasingly exhibits hyper-centralist, paranoid and personalist characteristics. These tendencies on the part of the leadership have reached a point where they call into question both the possibility of significantly enlarging the organization and of reproducing Trotskyist cadres within it.
Nonetheless the Spartacist League continues to demonstrate an ability to intervene intelligently and effectively, and not merely formally correctly into the political life of the United States. This has been demonstrated recently by its successful broad-based anti-Nazi demonstrations and its political intervention into the El Salvador mobilizations. However, both campaigns have been flawed on occasion by incorrect orientations to the SL’s ostensibly revolutionary competitors—mistakes which threaten to undermine the ability of the tendency to utilize the enormous political capital of the Trotskyist tradition on which it stands. On Afghanistan and Poland, the organization has flamboyantly demonstrated its unflinching determination to defend the gains of the October revolution in the heartland of anti-Soviet reaction.
Recently there have been some symptomatic political departures from the historic program of the iSt in an opportunist direction. In forming its “Anti-Imperialist Contingents” the SL has sought the protective colouration of the FMLN—the military wing of the popular front in El Salvador. The contradiction of some SL’ers in the Anti-Imperialist Contingents carrying the flag of Trotsky’s Fourth International while others held high the banner of the popular front was not lost on the Shachtmanite LRP, which noted that “Trotsky carried one flag only. ‘Many people forget a very simple but absolutely irrevocable principle,’ he stated: ‘that a Marxist, a proletarian revolutionist, cannot present himself before the working class with two banners’” (Socialist Voice, Sept. – Oct. 1981). A good point, and not one that the SL could reply to except to sputter that they carried flags of those whom they wished to win in the civil war.
The opportunist intention of the flag gambit was underlined by the fact that while the SL felt comfortable with the banner of the FMLN popular front and also carried the flags of the Cuban and Vietnamese Stalinists, it did not march under the flag of the rather less popular Russians, despite the official line that defense of Cuba and the U.S.S.R. begins in El Salvador. When confronted on carrying the FMLN banner the SL’s response is usually to try to sidestep the issue by pedantic (and irrelevant) lectures on the class character of the Cuban and Vietnamese deformed workers states. But the question remains: what was the flag of the popular front doing in a Trotskyist contingent?
The popular front, as Trotsky noted and WV has endlessly repeated, is the question of the epoch. The iSt has always made its position of hard opposition to all forms of popular frontism a central part of its international regroupment tactic. Thus the decision to carry the flag of the Salvadoran popular front (which was made at the highest levels of the organization) is significant. While it does not represent a reversal on the question of the popular front, it is a disturbing indication of the organization’s willingness to blur the edges of an essential question of principle, at least episodically, in the interests of short-term popularity. After all, as Jim Robertson has often noted “nothing is more popular than a popular front.”
The Picket Line Question: A Split Issue
“Motion (PB): Picket lines are a crucial historical and necessary means of struggle for the economic advancement of the working class—they are battle lines of the class war—and therefore crossing picket lines, or any argument however sophisticated justifying crossing them, is a betrayal of the class struggle of an elementary sort. The issue here is not a defense of Leninism as opposed to trade-union consciousness, but of a defense of basic trade unionism. Therefore we struggle to root out such attitudes and arguments for betrayal from the working class.”
Vote: Brule, Cobet abstaining
Remainder in favour
“Motion: To endorse the TUC motion of 8 March 1976:
“Motion: That the Mid West BI fraction had to have three rounds of discussion on whether it is unprincipled to cross a picket line is deplorable. It is a matter of principle that we do not cross picket lines! The fraction is also to be condemned for failure to report the existence of the question to the party. This is a split issue: crossing picket lines is punishable by expulsion.”
Vote: Brule, Cobet abstaining
Remainder in favour
—On the Picket Line Question: Excerpt from 7 April 1976 PB Minutes, in DB/TUC No. 2, November 1976
Workers Vanguard characterized the PATCO strike as the most important labor struggle in the U.S. since the 1978 miners’ strike. Reagan’s attempt to bust PATCO by firing its entire membership was the opening round of his war against labor and thus of his anti-Soviet war drive.
Unfortunately the government was able to scrape up enough scab air traffic controllers to keep the airports open without PATCO. As an elementary act of solidarity with the embattled strikers all labor militants should have refused to fly from the day the strike was launched. Instead the SL chose to use the struck services and fly with the strikebreaking pilots.
George Foster, deputy national chairman of the SL, even attempted to rationalize the position at a San Francisco local meeting in early August, 1981 as a form of support for the strike! He argued that the scab air traffic controllers did not have the experience to handle a full schedule of flights and thus if enough people flew and overloaded the airports, Reagan could be beaten.
When PATCO and its supporters organized mass pickets around the passenger terminals on August 21, the strike entered a new stage. The SL joined the picket lines, called for their continuation and expansion and marched under the banner “Picket Lines Mean Don’t Cross.” Clearly the pickets had a dual purpose: to keep out both the consumers and the pilots, flight attendants, ticket sellers, etc. who entered through the terminal doors. Yet inspite of publicly acknowledging the legitimacy of the PATCO lines, the SL leadership announced internally that the pickets around the passenger terminals were merely “consumer boycott” picket lines and that it was still o.k. to fly for vacations or any other purpose. It was clearly not a question of flying only in the case of emergency. In November while the pickets were still up, the SL leadership encouraged the ranks of the youth to fly to Chicago for an SYL gathering. Lisa Sommers was ridiculed for taking a bus from the Bay Area instead of flying, while the SL national leadership flew into Chicago for an expanded CC meeting, concurrent with the SYL conference.
Revolutionaries do not advocate consumer boycotts as a strategy but rather call for effective, militant labor solidarity as the key to winning strikes. Workers Vanguard’s call that “Labor Must Shut Down the Airports” as the key to winning the strike was right on the mark. The SL was also right to emphasize that the reason the labor bureaucracy’s strike “support” focused on honoring the consumer boycott was precisely in order to provide a “militant” cover for their cowardly refusal to lift a finger to defend PATCO by closing down the airports.
However, when the SL leadership argues that the PATCO boycott was like the grape and lettuce boycotts of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers in 1973, they willfully ignore the crucial difference with the UFW: PATCO neither called off its strike nor took down its pickets. With regard to the UFW boycott “The SL Political Bureau of 20 November 1973 passed a motion… noting that we support the boycott while opposing the boycott strategy, and that participation in boycott committees was a principled, if not always tactically advisable, way to polarize the membership and win over those militants who agreed with a class-struggle approach to the farmworkers’ strike” (RCY IDB #12, 15 June 1974).
PATCO’s calls for a consumer boycott were always coupled with calls to join the picket lines. In spite of the efforts of Robert Poli and the other PATCO tops to push the consumer boycott as a substitute for effective labor solidarity the membership saw it as a way to increase the strike’s effectiveness. Irregardless of the bureaucrats’ calls for consumer boycotts, the airports remained struck and PATCO maintained its pickets to the limits of its ability throughout the strike.
In the Bay Area PATCO picketed the San Francisco passenger terminal on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and then, due to shorthandedness, picketed San Jose, Oakland and Fremont on Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends. Despite the fact that the union did not have the forces to maintain picket lines at all terminals at all times, they were all struck. If workers on strike at a big factory are not able to picket all entrances, it does not mean that it is o.k. to sneak through an unpicketed gate or window. One entrance picketed means all entrances are picketed – and that means: DON’T CROSS! This is (or was) ABC Spartacism.
In responding to internal critics, the SL leadership attempted to camouflage its policy behind a smokescreen of militant-sounding rhetoric attacking consumer boycottism. But they took care to keep their position of flying during the strike internal—as well they might! How would workers on the picket lines have reacted to a WV salesman proposing “more militant” tactics to win the strike if they knew that he planned to return the next day when the pickets were elsewhere to catch a flight to Chicago?
The decision to keep the position secret demonstrates an awareness of how politically vulnerable the SL would be, given its record for pilloring others for failing to honour “hopeless” strikes, if word leaked out to the OROs. One can only imagine the glee with which Peter Sollenberger and Alan Thornett in particular will eventually receive the news. Unlike the FMLN flag question, the decision to fly during the PATCO strike was not even born out of a desire to “get rich quick”—but presumably simply for the convenience of those SL’ers who don’t enjoy travelling on the ground (i.e., the leadership).
While, for the most part, the leadership of the SL has maintained the programmatic integrity of the tendency, it should be noted that both of these positions, the FMLN flag and PATCO, are conscious departures from long-established positions. On these and other questions the leadership shows no capacity for self-criticism and correction but instead aggressively defends its mistakes as a matter of prestige.
Troublemakers and Idiots
The central expression of the degeneration of the SL however has been the series of sub-political (and depoliticizing) “fights” (aka “purges”) launched by the central leadership to rid itself of imaginary, or at least only potential, internal enemies. At least from the famous “clone purge” of 1978 , the SL leadership has shown an accelerating tendency to rip up whole areas of work and significantly weaken the tendency through driving out talented, political cadres on charges which were of secondary importance or irrelevant when they weren’t entirely bogus. This practice has not been restricted to the SL/US but, like everything else in the Spartacist tendency, has been “exported” to all the other branches of the iSt.
Like salt in porridge “pruning” an organization is a dialectical question. Too much and the plant is stunted—a little more it’s dead; not enough and it grows in all directions and loses its shape. At this point the iSt has been stunted. Even from the false perspective of bureaucratic expediency, this practice has become counterproductive as it has unnecessarily destroyed cadres and weakened the organization in important arenas.
It is simply not possible to build a viable revolutionary organization without a spectrum of personalities, political experiences and inclinations and especially without a significant layer of people with leadership ability and independent authority. Such people generally have the capacity to potentially generate political disagreements and even lead splits (which, in general, are undesirable). However they have the advantage of being able to think and lead. As Comrade Robertson himself is reported to have said “After you get rid of the troublemakers all you’ve got left are the idiots.” The problem in the iSt today is that the “troublemakers” have been taking a lot of pruning without having made any trouble. Doubtless some of the clones and subsequent purgees would have been out in any case by now. But there are more than a few who would not, and experienced, commited communist cadres do not grow on trees, as the recruitment drives of 1979 and 1981 demonstrated.
Where there is a threat of a split posed by a “troublemaker” it is best to address it directly, fight it out politically and in so doing consolidate the ranks around the program. In the event that an oppositionist is defeated, it is reasonable to even try to have room for them inside the organization—depending on cases, of course. Cannon didn’t want to keep Shachtman in ‘32 but deferred to Trotsky who correctly said there was no political differences sufficient to warrant a split. “Iron party discipline is essential for us—as under Lenin. But intraparty democracy is also essential for us—as under Lenin” (“Declaration of the Eighty-Four,” May 1927). Through most of the mid-1970’s the internal regime of the SL/US continued to operate within the parameters of Leninist organizational norms. The fights which occured were generally for political clarity and to enhance the organization’s ability to intervene with its program. For the most part, these fights were aimed at making the cadres better communists—not destroying them. Today, without formally renouncing the norms elaborated in the founding documents of the tendency, the leadership increasingly subordinates the struggle for real political demarcation internally to considerations of its own “authority.”
From Cunningham to the Clones
The last substantial group of oppositionists in the SL/US was the Moore-Stewart-Cunningham-Treiger lash-up of 1972. Unhappy with the regime but with no articulated programmatic disagreements they tried to organize a mutiny. They were highly placed in the organization and rather discreet because it was a traumatic shock for Robertson when they came to the surface. Ever since he has been anticipating treachery and duplicity—a necessary sense in politics but one that can have negative repercussions if too highly developed in a lider maximo.
In drawing the lessons of the Cunningham fight, Robertson told the Boston local that:
“In a real sense the SL has lost its innocence. But we must resist this—we want to educate the comrades out of this clique experience, we do not want to and will not institutionalize bureaucratic forms—for example, the SLP has an effective device against cliques. No member of a local SLP unit can send a letter to another member in a unit except by going through the N.O. first with the letter, where it is opened and read, and either held or sent on. Of course they have cliques anyhow, they just use other methods.”
—SL IDB No. 18, page 65
However the real lesson that Robertson drew from the Cunningham experience seems to have been that pre-emptive strikes are the easiest means of settling internal differences. So other “norms” were introduced to monitor the opinions of the members. In 1974 all private political correspondence between members of different national sections had to be shown to the leadership. In 1980, in Toronto at least, a new regulation was put forward that a precis of all political telephone calls between members of different sections had to be prepared for the leadership.
As it has become increasingly difficult to detect would-be oppositionists (because they tend to learn from previous examples) the identification gets less precise and leans more on psychological profiles and other incidental factors. At the PB meeting where the clone purge was conducted Robertson said that he had decided to go after the “clones” when he and George Crawford had noticed O’Brien, Lewis and Seymour going to dinner together. He said he wondered what they talked about. According to the formula the SYL is supposed to be organizationally independent of the SL. But such an organization could produce young cadres with leadership ability and their own political base. This is a risk which the leadership is not prepared to run.
The entire clone purge was designed to break up an indigenous youth leadership which was beginning to develop its own chain of command and informal network of young “intellectuals” headed by Sam Lewis, centred around the YSp writers and ultimately looking to Seymour (the “original”) as their party leader. The proposal to industrialize a chunk of them was not necessarily a bad idea—but it was not implemented with a lot of sensitivity for the “complete organizational independence” (sic) of the youth nor in a very political or pedagogical fashion.
The whole affair was conducted on a rather ad hominem basis (as befits a “sub-political” purge). One of the new innovations of the clone trial was the use of the spectacularly non-specific charge of “sexual manipulation.” This designation was subsequently to play a major role in the trial of Logan and was also dragged into the witchhunt in Toronto. Presumably it has appeared elsewhere since to spice up otherwise dull purges.
The great “victory” scored over the clones resulted in a long-term crisis in the editorial offices of YSp. On the plus side however, Robertson could take comfort in having shattered Seymour’s natural constituency (and having humbled those who survived).
When Robertson walked into the SYL’s post-clone gathering in Chicago in April, 1978 and announced a youth campaign to recruit 200 new members by Christmas there was not a peep of dissent. While it was perceived as unachievable by a substantial layer of the cadre, no one dared make any criticisms because to do so would have been to challenge JR’s authority (and that is usually terminal). A few months later Robertson “fired” the elected national secretary of the youth for her failure to satisfactorily carry out his proposal. (So much for “organizational independence”). Finally, as the deadline approached and it became clear that there was no possibility of reaching even a quarter of the target, the inexperienced young women whom the SL leadership had elevated to the national leadership of the de-cloned SYL, were blamed for the failure.
“So sick that probably only analysis would help”
The “blow-out” in the WV ed board in 1978 was another example of the Robertson school of nipping “factionalism” in the bud. When Gordon characterized as “unbalanced” an article which Robertson had co-authored “He accused the critics, including Gordon, who was leading them, of being liars and sick, so sick that probably only analysis would help.” (SL IDB No. 30, page 13). Robertson concluded this hysterical outburst by spitting on the floor and storming out of the room. This despite the fact that Gordon had explicitly stated in advance that articles were criticized every week in the ed board meeting on tone and balance without questioning the author’s motives.
The fact that a minority of the editorial board had dared to raise a criticism of an article which he had co-authored was seen by Robertson as a split issue. (He reportedly arrived home and told his wife that they had better get ready to leave the CC apartment they lived in). Of the charge of “liars” nothing more was heard. The ed board, duly chastened, hastened to vote approval of the article in all its drafts.
Why No Factions?
In the shadow world which increasingly constitutes the real internal life of the SL/US the leadership occasionally feels it necessary to reply to doubts, questions and criticisms which have never been explicitly articulated by anyone but which are thought to lurk in the minds of many. In the aftermath of the Gordon affair, Seymour churned out an internal article entitled “Comrade Robertson and the Spartacist tendency” in which he took up the thorny question of why the last faction fight in the SL occured in 1968. Seymour asserts that “In a homogeneous organization factional struggle almost always occurs only when changed objective circumstances require a fundamental change in political line or organizational perspectives.” (SL IDB No. 30, page 44). He uses the example of the Bolshevik party which was “demonstratably not a cult nor personalist organization. At every major turn Lenin encountered resistance or outright opposition from among the leading cadre.” The fact that this has not been the case in the SL/US for ten (now fourteen) years asserts Seymour:
“is conditioned by the absence of objective circumstances which required major changes or breakthroughs in political line or unanticipated organizational turns….
“Our tendency has existed in an organizational framework which has limited it to propagating the Trotskyist program and worldview…. [the SL/US] has never seriously challenged, even episodically, the bureaucratic leadership of the working class….”
Very neat….all factional struggles in the iSt await the day when the organization wins a mass base in the working class. Until then the leadership will look after loose ends by pre-emptive strikes against proto-dissidents and savage attacks on any who do dare to disagree on so much as “balance” of an article if, in any way, their disagreement can be construed as lese majeste. In such cases the “disloyal” ones are questioned in “what-stands-behind-it” fashion. Those who don’t crawl are deemed guilty of having an anti-party attitude and (if there is more than one) cliquism.
What of the history of the Left Opposition? Was Trotsky not required to make fundamental turns in his tiny international organization despite the fact that it remained in a framework which “limited it to propagating the Trotskyist program”? Were there not plenty of tendencies and factions in the 12 years from its formation to the murder of its founder? Trotsky’s method of dealing with intra-party political struggle was quite different than that of the present leadership of the iSt. Political differences were fought out politically and where possible attempts were made to re-integrate oppositionists. Seymour makes the same observation as regards the Bolsheviks.
The fact is there is something pretty unhealthy about a Trotskyist organization in which there have been virtually no political tendency or faction fights for a decade and a half. (In the past there have been intense and fruitful discussions on interpenetrated peoples, guerillaism and the state/the Cuban question, transitional organizations, the woman question, Eurocommunism, etc. But even that kind of vigorous non-factional internal debate has largely disappeared). Seymour’s attempts to develop a supra-historical law of non-factionalism in propaganda groups is clearly a case of program generating theory.
Intimidation as a Bolshevik Norm
Seymour took his theorizing on the organizational question one step further during the purge in Canada when, in response to an allegation that the leadership was attempting to intimidate some members (who were uneasy about supporting charges they knew to be false), he asserted that the “intimidation” of the membership by the leadership was good, normal and healthy in a Bolshevik organization.
The substitution of intimidation and fear for consciousness as the mechanism for ensuring political homogeneity of the revolutionary vanguard is in fact increasingly the norm in the Spartacist tendency. Seymour was not proposing anything new here—simply putting a theoretical gloss on the accomplished fact. This provides an index of the degeneration and the depoliticization of the organization. As Marx noted in another context “Since fear paralyzes the mind, people educated and held in fear can never develop and elevate their minds.” Stalin approached the same question from a different angle in the early thirties when he told Yagoda that it is better to be supported out of fear rather than from conviction because convictions can change. Intimidation is not a good norm in a Bolshevik organization.
The parallels between the effects of intimidation on internal life in the bureaucratically degenerating Russian Communist Party of 1923 and the SL/US today are startling:
“Members of the party who are dissatisfied with this or that decision of the Central Committee or even of a provincial committee, who have this or that doubt in their minds, who privately note this or that error, irregularity, or disorder, are afraid to speak about it at party meetings, and are even afraid to talk about it in conversation, unless the partner in the conversation is thoroughly reliable from the point of view of ‘discretion’; free discussion within the party has practically vanished; the public opinion of the party is stifled.”
—Platform of the Forty-Six
One only has to read through the contents of the internal bulletins for the past few years to see how the internal life of the organization has increasingly come to revolve around a series of purges, house cleanings, and show trials, virtually all initiated at the top. There has been no substantive political discussion in the bulletins (except, of course, in the sense that the series of organizational atrocities are political) for years. This of course reflects reality: there is less and less discernible internal political life in the SL/US today.
Rather than protecting the SL from the pressures of the Reagan years, the leadership’s “pre-emptive strikes” simultaneously pre-empt necessary political struggles within the organization and lay the basis for real cliquist splits, as any member with questions or doubts about any aspect of the regime soon realizes that to raise them openly is to call into question his membership.
Not all the strikes have necessarily been pre-emptive. Even long-time regime loyalists are potentially at risk, as Paul Collins and Judy Morris discovered. Unlike Brosius in the Bay Area, neither of them had much of a personal base in the membership. The leadership made no particular secret of the fact it had known all about the methods of the Detroit regime but had done nothing about it as long as the “trains ran on time.”
The Question of Logan
The genesis of the fall of Logan is contained in the post-resignation statement of Schaefer in which he is reported to have suggested that if he and Y. Rad blocked on a question they would be “a real force within the tendency.” This was characterized as a proposal for a bloc against the international.
In the course of building the British section and winning the left wing of the WSL, Logan acquired a substantial and independent base in the membership. Unfortunately for Logan’s own ambitions however, in the iSt any authority which is not delegated from New York is seen as a potential threat to the leadership. Accordingly, Robertson set out to establish New York’s authority in the British section by undermining Logan’s. When he clashed with the IS over money and then failed to show sufficient enthusiasm for a slate proposal of Robertson, a pre-emptive strike was launched. After hesitating briefly, Logan acquiesced to his own removal as the British National Chairman and was sent to New York under a cloud.
After he was safely in New York the lid was removed in Australia and the membership came forward with genuinely agonized accounts of organizational abuse and atrocities at the hands of Logan. Robertson and Co. piously denied any knowledge of the nature of the Australian regime and organized the famous international trial which duly expelled Logan from the tendency as a sociopath guilty of “gross moral turpitude” who should never have been allowed in the workers’ movement.
Logan was undoubtedly guilty of running a grossly abusive regime—but the nature of the abuse in his Australian operation was only a linear extrapolation of the internal regime of Robertson’s American section. How else can one explain the fact that none of the SL/US cadres who lived under the Logan regime blew the whistle? In recent years the SL/US has produced a regime in Chicago which was formally characterized as Stalinist; regimes in Los Angeles and Detroit charged with serious abuses; while in the Bay Area, which is repeatedly held up as the model, Nelson threatened two leading comrades with a potentially lethal instrument.
In fact the revelations of life in the SL/ANZ came as no surprise to the bulk of the senior cadres of the tendency, as the Logans [sic] had made no particular secret of most of their actions. Foster and other leading comrades had visited the Australian section and talked to the members in the midst of these horrors without noticing anything amiss. In fact Logan, the malevolent genius, was even supposed to have duped poor gullible Foster into helping him get rid of John Ebel, his only internal critic. Not only did Logan and Foster force Ebel out but they also got him to sign a confession which was to be used against him if he ever opened his mouth about life in the Australian section!
During the Stalinist purge trials in Smolensk province there was a trial of the first secretary of the party in Belyi named Kovalev. During the trial “Questions from the floor pointed out that everyone approved of Kovalev at the time and asked why they [his accusers] had not said anything earlier. But one of Kovalev’s more sophisticated accusers claimed that he had been silent because Kovalev had, for four years, forbidden him to speak.’” (Robert Conquest, The Great Terror, Page 334). And so it was in Australia—Logan was somehow supposed to have prevented his victims (with the exception of the unfortunate Ebel) from communicating the “real story” to the visiting international leadership. The truth is, of course, that Logan was not operating so very far outside the norms of the tendency at all, so there was nothing to report, particularly little that wasn’t known anyway. This doubtless explains the ferocity which met the centrist Samarakkody’s observation that the international leadership should take some responsibility for the behaviour of its Australian section.
The reason that the Logan question is such a highly charged issue for the leadership is that it is in a certain sense a set of “emperor’s clothes.” Logan’s was indeed a brutish regime but no one of normal intelligence and not subject to the enormous internal pressure of the organization could take seriously the proposition that New York knew nothing about it.
Officially Logan was unanimously drummed out of the iSt and the workers’ movement but it is a curious fact that virtually every cadre who has left the organization since has at least expressed doubts about the question of iSt pre-knowledge of the grossly abusive organizational practices of the SL/ANZ under Logan. Many have also questioned whether Loganism was not just an extension of Spartacist internal norms. Probably there are many who remain in who also have their doubts, but know that to mention them is to commit political suicide in the iSt.
For its part the leadership seems fully aware that the Logan trial “forgot” something. In reflecting on the charges most of the cadres asked themselves the following dangerous question: how could a communist with a correct political program run an abusive, non-democratic regime? The SL leadership has traditionally attempted to handle this question by stridently asserting that any legitimate criticism of the regime must first be able to demonstrate how the organization has programmatically departed from Bolshevism. But how to explain Healy circa 1966, or Logan’s SL/ANZ?
The SL/US learned by its failure to rewrite Logan’s political history. Since then most of those who have been forced out have first been given a new political biography. In many cases, to “protect” the organization, the technique of confessions written by the leadership and signed by the future ex-comrade has even been employed.
The Regime Question is a Political Question
“…the experience of the [April 1966, London] conference, taken together with other evidence from the history of the SLL, demonstrates that the Healy-Banda machine subordinates real political issues of agreement and disagreement to the exigencies of organizational issues and personal prestige politics. That organizational tendency is itself a political issue of the first order.”
—Spartacist No. 6, June-July, 1966
The critical aspect of the current stage of development of the iSt is that it is an organization with a deep contradiction between a coherent, rational, Marxist worldview and program and an increasingly abusive (and irrational) internal regime. And the process through which this contradiction will be resolved is incomplete. In his discussion with Karen Allen, Robertson suggests that if his regime really is abusive and bureaucratic then it should be overthrown. At the same time of course, he works overtime locating and pulverizing those inside the organization whom he thinks capable of arriving at such a conclusion.
The norms of membership have been adjusted in accordance to the policy of enforced homogeneity. The chant with which the 1980 National Conference of the SL/US was concluded “Our party—love it or leave it,” accurately reflected the mood of the leadership regarding any inchoate criticisms arising from the ranks. At the same time it was hardly an expression of determination to uphold the historic norms of democratic centralism. In fact the “love it or leave it” dichotomy is the inevitable corollary of”100% regimism” (—one of the many crimes of Logan, Collins etc.). This is of a piece with Robertson’s aphorism that “good Catholics make good communists” i.e., from the point of view of the leadership a “good” member is one who understands the doctrine of infallibility. No doubt Gerry Healy, Jack Barnes and Milt Rosen would all agree with the sentiment.
It can hardly be accidental that the increasing organizational abuses and non-political purges in the Spartacist tendency parallels the stagnation of its major section. The 1974 Perspectives and Tasks Document of the SL/US was written for an organization that had tripled its size in the proceeding three years and had a tenfold increase in income in the same period. The SL/US had also by 1974 been able to successfully implant a sizeable number of cadres in key industries and had gone from a semi-annual press to a high quality bi-weekly. Most importantly “The prospect of a labor upsurge intersecting the construction by the SL of a number of trade-union fractions offers us enormous opportunities to root ourselves firmly in the proletariat and to take a qualitative leap toward our goal of becoming a vanguard party” (SL IDB No. 22, page 23).
Hopes for a breakthrough (a “Minneapolis”) centred on the fractions—particularly those in the Bay Area as they had the deepest roots and were operating in a milieu with a tradition of working class militancy. Unfortunately neither the upsurge nor the qualitative leap materialized despite the years of heroic effort by the WV ed board to maintain a weekly and the equally heroic efforts of the trade unionists to intervene in the working class with the Transitional Program. Despite considerable international expansion since 1974 the “main chance” for the iSt has always been its American section and the frustration of eight years of stagnation and increasing isolation in a rightward-moving political milieu disoriented the leadership considerably and caused it to increasingly turn on its own over whom, at least, it can exercise its will and exert power.
Destruction of SL/US Trade Union Work
The industrialization program of the early 1970’s which was a crucial part of the “transformation,” represented a major step forward in establishing the SL/US as a stable propaganda group. Over the years the organization invested a great deal of time and effort building the fractions and caucuses which, in a limited but important way, provided cadres with experience in leading political and trade union struggles in the working class.
In several important industrial unions the caucuses were able to develop authoritative spokesmen and were seen by both the ranks and the bureaucrats as increasingly viable embryonic alternative class struggle leaderships. The successful trade union work also had enormous propaganda value for the entire tendency. One of the reasons that recruiting progressed steadily in the Bay Area for the five or six years when the trade union work was at its height was the appeal of an organization with real, if slim, working class roots to young would-be revolutionists. The SL’s exemplary union interventions in the United States also played an important part in recruiting cadres from the WSL in Britain, the French LCR, the German Spartacusbund, etc.
In recent years, however, the central leadership of the SL/US has been running the film of fraction building in reverse. This was foreshadowed by their repeatedly expressed fears that the independent sense of social reality gained by cadre with a modest but real base in the workforce could someday provide a focus for opposition within the organization. Under the banner of “trade union consciousness is bourgeois consciousness” and with many references to the spectre of Bert Cochran, Foster, Nelson and Robertson proceeded to attempt to demoralize, politically destroy and eventually drive out most of the SL’s leading working class spokesmen (particularly on the West Coast) and many of the trade union cadre. Important fractions like BI and LI have also been weakened by transfers of key cadres to “party work.” The Detroit purge of 1981 got rid of a big chunk of what remained of the auto implantation. In addition to the policies of the SL leadership, the recent wave of layoffs and plant closures have also taken their toll. Entire caucuses and fractions have collapsed and disappeared. Those which remain are weaker and more isolated.
Coincident with the bureaucratic destruction of the fractions a political shift in the assessment of the trade unions began to emerge within the leadership. In the spring of 1981 Al Nelson put a motion forward at an East bay local meeting which characterized the unions as so completely in the grip of the cowardly bureaucracy as to render them impotent and ineffectual vehicles for working class resistance to the mounting capitalist attacks. Nelson’s motion made no differentiation between the trade union bureaucracy and the ranks. When comrade Harlan commented that members should not take the motion to mean that the SL regards the unions simply as instruments of the bourgeois state whose only role is to stifle workers struggles (as does the Maoist RCP) Nelson angrily countered that Harlan’s comments derived from his anti-leadership impulses.
Around this time the leadership began to drop hints that trade union caucuses had turned out to be more trouble than they were worth. Early this year long-time T-2 fraction members were telling caucus contacts that union issues (speed-up, job erosion, employer victimizations) are not important—that what is important is El Salvador, Reagan’s anti-Soviet war drive and fascism. Reflecting this kind of thinking, caucus leaflets are tending to downplay the perspective of building alternative class-struggle leaderships in the unions. In place of the united front action campaigns of the past the caucuses now tend to substitute sterile witnessing or shrill calls to action under SL leadership.
Last year the American labor movement staged the biggest demonstration in its history in Washington in support of PATCO. This year’s Labor Day parades had the largest and angriest contingents of workers in decades. The long-awaited and inevitable upsurge of American workers will come and when it does it will be expressed through the only working class organizations in the US, the trade unions. Without an early political and organizational corrective, the SL/US will be in no position to take advantage of it, thereby losing the opportunity to build the core of a Bolshevik workers party.
The depoliticization of the internal life of the SL/US has its reflection in the organization’s approach to its external opponents. This takes the form of losing sight of the political contradictions which exist within centrist and even reformist formations, and increasingly treating them as homogeneous groupings of conscious class traitors. People new to politics don’t generally join YAWF, the RSL or the RWL in order to betray—but rather on the basis of their revolutionary pretensions. Consequently these formations will tend to attract elements whose subjective impulses conflict with the real program of the organization to which they have attached themselves. In a period of generalized rightward motion within the left, prospects for regroupment of such people are necessarily diminished but the tactic remains an important one, particularly for depriving these outfits of their healthier contacts and recruits.
In the 1970’s the SL’s hard application of the Leninist tactic of regroupment produced both respect and cadre gains from its opponents. The SL successfully sterilized the Healyite Workers League as well as a welter of centrist groupings like the Class Struggle League and the Mandelite Internationalist Tendency through meeting them head on in political combat. The failure to do the same to Sollenberger’s RWLin Ann Arbor cannot be attributed entirely to the incapacities of the Detroit branch. After correcting the policy of benign neglect, the subsequent deluge of polemics focussing on the allegedly weird, cult/sect character of the RWL’s internal regime have been a spectacular failure. The polemics addressed to the ultra-cultist NCLC in the early 1970’s were by comparison considerably more political, and more effective.
The State of the Cadre
The membership of the SL/US today is roughly composed of two generations: the younger members recruited out of the organization’s recent campaigns who have little, if any, prior political experience and the older cadres, many of whom have been in the organization for a decade or so and generally came to politics through the radicalization in the 1960’s. The new members are currently being miseducated by the leadership as to the proper internal functioning of a Leninist organization. Those who do not “vote with their feet” or become targets of future apolitical fights will inevitably learn to excel in the leadership’s organizational methods. While the years, and the internal regime, have taken their toll, the “older generation” probably still constitute the bulk of the membership and in any case, the overwhelming majority of the cadre.
The cadres are inevitably predisposed to give the leadership the benefit of the doubt—particularly in cases involving organizational disputes in distant localities. It is not only easier to survive in the tendency if one does not make waves, but there is also a natural subjective desire to want to believe that things, in the big picture, are o.k. and that Big Daddy (an image that Robertson cultivates assiduously) knows best.
Inside the iSt the “organization question” is only sometimes a political question. For those who are committed to the shining historical truth of the SL’s Trotskyist program, any particular instance of bureaucratic abuse, or even dishonesty, which they witness can seem like a small thing by comparison. Knowing that opposition to the leadership over anything leads out of the organization, most will put “politics first” and try to swallow it, ignore it or at least keep quiet about it.
The regime naturally seeks to broaden the base of participation in the various purges, etc. In this fashion the cadres are educated in the new techniques and also encouraged to get a little blood on their own hands. Non-participation, or even unenthusiastic participation, in one of the leadership’s internal campaigns never goes unnoticed and can considerably shorten one’s life expectancy in the iSt. Despite the moral damage which inevitably accrues to those who participate in (and survive) purges, show trials, etc., which they know to be dubious at best, and despite the corruption of a layer of regime-loyal hatchet-wielders to whom the line between truth and falsehood has become meaningless, the bulk of the cadres of the SL/US remain loyal to the organization and its leadership for political reasons. They want to make a revolution and correctly see the SL as the only group with the political capacity to lead one. A real test of the health of these cadres will come as the leadership makes fundamental programmatic departures.
Homogenizing the International
Given that the leadership of the tendency internationally and the leadership of the American section are virtually identical, it is hardly surprising that the paranoid hyper-centralism of the SL/US has been visited on the non-American sections as well. Within the American section the leadership has been able to homogenize the membership by periodically dispersing sections of it by internal transfers. This has not been possible in the case of most of the international sections, particularly the non English-speaking ones. Instead the leadership has opted for homogenization through attrition, flying in “IEC delegations” for a split or purge. During the last two years the IEC has managed to lose between a quarter and a third of its Canadian and Australian sections and almost half of the German section in what appears to have been essentially apolitical authority contests. Even the carefully handpicked IEC members themselves have fallen victim to New York’s pre-emptive strikes. At the IEC meeting in London in September 1981, IEC members from the German, Australian and British sections were summarily removed on the initiative of the SL/US leadership.
Judging from the materials we have at hand the 1981 German purge seems to have been conducted in a particularly politically demoralizing fashion. The IEC reportedly prepared a surprise “for internal consumption only” motion pledging the TLD to “take responsibility in advance for whatever idiocies and atrocities they [i.e., the Stalinist bureaucrats] may commit” in a military intervention to crush the capitalist restorationists of Solidarnosc. Failure to support this Marcyite position was then reportedly used as the political basis for purging a third of the section. We note also that the motions of the (now) ex-members on this question seem politically correct against those of the IEC.
The British section, which began life with great promise after the 1978 fusion with the former left-wing of the centrist Workers Socialist League, has gone from marking time to falling behind its centrist opponents. Despite very considerable opportunities (including a potentially important regroupment with a left current within the IMG) the group has stagnated. This is attributable to the weak but subservient (the two qualities are frequently found together) leadership installed by New York after the successful demolition of the Logan regime.
The apparent incapacity of the British section to fulfil the minimum functions of a Trotskyist propaganda group is most strikingly evidenced by its response to the war over the Falklands. Despite an approximately correct orientation in the pages of Spartacist Britain (defeatism on both sides, the main enemy is at home) the policy of the section throughout the crisis seems to have been chiefly characterized by obliviousness. Apart from participating in Tony Benn’s peace marches, it appears that the SL/B undertook no special activity around the question of the war. Instead the section resolutely maintained a “business as usual” stance of abstract propagandizing. The scheduled class series in basic Marxism all went ahead as planned, as did a speaking tour by Ed Kartsen on organizing transit workers in New York to fight Ronald Reagan. But despite the myriad opportunities posed by the war for interventions into the fake Trotskyist milieu in and around the Labour Party, the SL/B held no forums and organized no speaking tours on the question and, for the whole crucial month of June, even suspended its newspaper!
One of the inevitable consequences of the installation of leaderships internationally on the basis of “loyalty” to New York is that they are so well adapted to carrying out instructions from “the centre” that faced with a new turn of events domestically their response is a compound of equal parts passivity and routinism. Such was the case with the SL/B and the Falklands crisis.
Canada: A Bit of Party History
In Canada the major purge conducted in the summer of 1980 had as it object establishing the authority of Vetter, New York’s designated National Chairman. Unlike Samuels, his predecessor, Vetter did not possess much personal authority within the section. When he failed to win a majority on a minor organizational question within the Toronto executive, New York decided that the Canadian leadership had to be purged. All that remained was to find a suitable pretext for doing so. Accordingly, at the Chicago SYL gathering in March 1980, Vetter opened a campaign against Nason, the Toronto organizer, who he characterized as a kind of brutal and insensitive neo-Collins. The membership of the TLC was bewildered by these outrageous and nonsensical allegations and at the social that evening many of them heatedly and openly advised Vetter that they disagreed with him. After this setback, Vetter made a tactical retreat and proposed that the whole question not be discussed further within the TLC.
A few months later the “struggle” was begun anew. This time it was claimed that Nason and Riley, the indigenous component of the leadership, were running a “conservative” and “cliquist” operation. These false and unsubstantiated charges provided the basis for the ensuing hysterical witchhunt for “clones,” “cliquists,” “sexual manipulators,” “beautiful people,” “parochialists,” etc. The result of this campaign was that a layer of cadres were driven out of the organization. This necessitated a comparable number of in-transfers to keep the section operational.
The success of the SL/US leadership in conducting the purge in Canada was aided by the extreme organizational loyalty and consequent disorientation of their victims. Knowing the charges to be false, yet continuing to support the leadership and, most importantly, the program of the tendency, the targets of the attack responded passively in a futile attempt to remain in the organization. As in Germany, the hemorrhaging has continued since the major purge. Today the Trotskyist League of Canada is unable to publish a regular newspaper and appears to be only marginally viable.
For the Rebirth of the Fourth International!
The failure of the leadership of the SL/US to build an effective leadership in any of its foreign affiliates, much less any semblance of a collective international leadership in the tendency, recalls:
“the Healyite practice of constructing ‘mini-SLL’s’ in other countries—fake ‘sections’ which possess no authentic roots in the indigenous class struggle and whose leadership derive their only authority from the London ‘franchise’”
—SL IDB No. 22, page 52
While the iSt today cannot accurately be characterized as Healyite there are disturbing parallels with some of Healy’s practices. Today the paramount importance placed on the necessity for complete organizational subservience of the sections of the iSt to the leadership of the SL/US stands as a roadblock to the construction of authoritative national leaderships and consequently a real international tendency.
As Trotsky observed every regime develops an internal logic of its own, and a bureaucratic regime develops it faster than any other. Accordingly he characterized as “crude self-deception” the notion that once embarked on the road of bureaucratic organizational reprisals against internal opponents:
“…it will be possible subsequently to expand the framework of party democracy. On the basis of its entire experience the party cannot place any more faith in this consoling legend. New cracks and fissures are in the making as a result of the techniques of mechanical repression, new dismissals of people from their posts, new expulsions from the party, and new pressure tactics applied to the party as a whole. This system will inevitably narrow down the ruling clique at the top, lessen the authority of the leadership, and thereby force it to replace ideological authority with doubled and tripled application of pressure.”
—”Declaration of the Thirteen,” July 1926
Those who founded the RT and fought for two decades to build the iSt have made an invaluable contribution by bringing the program of Trotskyism to a new generation of revolutionaries. But now they have begun to destroy their own work. It is still possible that the membership will correct the leadership—presuming that the leadership doesn’t decide to get a new membership first—but the central core of the leadership of the SL is today too consciously cynical to be capable of spontaneous self-reform. The fact that the organizational abusiveness of the regime has developed largely as a means of bureaucratically short-cutting the expenditure of time, energy, cadres and opportunities which is demanded by the repetitive educational process by which a Bolshevik party retains and develops its older members while politically assimilating its newer ones, (not to mention the draining effect of a faction fight) does not make it any less destructive.
The iSt remains a revolutionary organization. Its members constitute the largest repository of Trotskyists in the world. It is neither a cult nor a sect (although it increasingly manifests some of the attributes of both) because its membership remains centrally defined by adherence to the program of revolutionary Marxism. Many of the top cadres could continue to have important roles to play in the future of the Trotskyist movement. At the same time the SL/US – iSt is a revolutionary organization which is degenerating and the process of degeneration appears to be gaining momentum.
The practices and policies of the present leadership which are disorienting and destroying the iSt from within must be reversed! To this end, we constitute ourselves as an external tendency of the iSt. We call on those who still wish to fight for the rebirth of the Fourth International not to become demoralized by their experience in the iSt but to join us in this struggle.
“It might be said ‘All this is more or less true, but it isn’t “tactful” to talk about it.’ Such an argument is absolutely false. Precisely in order to protect the party, especially its most farsighted elements, from demoralization, it is necessary to say what is. Of course we must do this in such a way as to be understood correctly, that is, we must offer a perspective for overcoming on the morrow the negative features of today. This perspective must include both objective and subjective aspects. But to close our eyes to the basic features of the present situation—that is not our kind of politics.”
—L.D. Trotsky, February, 1927
- Michael Cranston: former member Spartacist Canada editorial board
- Bob Edwards: former T2 fraction head; served six years as exec board member T2 union local; former CC candidate SL/US convenor ANCAN 1980
- Howard Harlan: executive board member T2 union local since 1975; former member Central Control Commission SL/US
- Ursula Jensen: former member TLD; former member SL/US
- Cathy Nason: former CC TLC; former Toronto organizer; former member London Spartacist Group
- Tom Riley: former CC, CC alternate TLC; former editor Spartacist Canada; former executive member London Spartacist Group
- Lisa Sommers: former member SYL
October 15, 1982