Whatever Happened to the Spartacist League?
Stalinophilia, Stalinophobia, Flinches & Opportunism
In the Spring 2004 issue of Spartacist (No. 58), the International Communist League (ICL) characterizes its recent political record as one of “opportunist lunges,” “sectarian moralism” and an “increasingly abstract and sterile approach to politics,” concluding that: “An inability to deal with the world created by the fall of the USSR, and the consequent retrogression in consciousness, lies at the root of the ICL’s current crisis.” This is a significant admission, given that the leaders of the Spartacist League/U.S. (SL–the ICL mothership) have always claimed a special expertise on the “Russian Question.” Capitalist restoration in the Soviet bloc represented a world-historic defeat for the international workers’ movement, demoralizing millions of leftists. It produced enormous confusion within the ICL, eroded the self-confidence of its cadre and undermined the political authority of the leadership. But it is not the root cause of the SL/ICL’s malaise.
Longtime readers of the current Spartacist may recall a similarly “candid and critical assessment” that appeared a decade earlier in the Autumn 1994 issue (No. 51) following the SL’s Ninth Conference, which reported “flare-ups of philistinism,” “impressionism,” “sectarian posturing,” “time-serving” and the “passive and propagandist (at best) or abstentionist (at worst)” appetites of the group’s “office-bound leadership.” We commented at the time:
“This unflattering self-portrait undoubtedly reflects the thinking of [SL founder/leader] James Robertson, who, from his vantage point of semi-retirement in the Bay Area, can look upon the organization he built with greater detachment. He is obviously not pleased with what he sees. But, precisely because the Spartacist League is his own creature, Robertson cannot provide a plausible explanation of what went wrong.”
—“A Dismal Symmetry,”1917 No. 15, 1995
The 1994 Spartacist piece also attributed the SL’s morbid condition to the demise of the Soviet Union, and complained that the victory of counterrevolution “has ushered in a fundamentally new, turbulent and radically different period in world history” for which there are no “close historical precedents to guide our analysis and political line.” But the ICL’s admitted “inability to deal with the world created by the fall of the USSR” can hardly be explained by the absence of “historical precedents,” as the essential issues were addressed by Leon Trotsky in his brilliant analysis of the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet Union.
Unlike the Stalinist Communist Parties constructed on the basis of loyalty to the Soviet bureaucracy, the Spartacist League identified with Trotsky’s view of the Stalinist ruling caste in the USSR as an unstable, parasitic and historically transitory formation that functioned as the “organ of the world bourgeoisie within the workers’ state.” The revolutionary SL of the 1970s combined intransigent Soviet defensism with denunciations of the crimes of the bureaucracy (see, for example, “Stop Stalinist ‘Psychiatric’ Torture in the USSR!,” Workers Vanguard [WV] No. 96, 13 February 1976).
During the 1980s, however, the SL leadership began to depart from its Trotskyist program with a series of Stalinophilic gestures. The resulting confusion, combined with the leadership’s subsequent lurch in a symmetrically Stalinophobic direction, accounts for much of the ICL’s ideological disarray over the Soviet collapse. Yet why would the cadres of a Trotskyist organization (which the SL was in the 1960s and 70s) swallow such deviations in the first place? The explanation lies in the incremental transformation of the SL from a revolutionary, democratic-centralist organization into a group in which the fundamental organizing principle is unquestioning obedience to the leadership in general, and founder/leader James M. Robertson in particular. The poisoned internal regime of the SL was both the initial departure from Leninism and the framework within which all subsequent deviations developed.
The transformation of the SL took place over several years, during which its internal life was dominated by repeated, and increasingly apolitical, authority fights and purges. By 1982, the predecessor of the International Bolshevik Tendency estimated that:
“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.”
—Declaration of an External Tendency of the iSt [international Spartacist tendency], October 1982
We also observed that the “hyper-centralist, paranoid and personalist characteristics” of the SL’s internal regime “have reached a point where they call into question both the possibility of significantly enlarging the organization and of reproducing Trotskyist cadres within it.” This assessment was confirmed a few years later when Ed Clarkson, leader of the SL’s Chicago branch, publicly complained that “what we tend to get in struggles in the youth are confessionals and denunciations, as opposed to clarifying fights.” Clarkson suggested to the browbeaten and demoralized youth:
“If you’re to develop in the way Lenin proposes, it requires on the level of the individual some capacity for self-assertion, which used to be the hallmark of youth, but which seems to have strangely disappeared in the past decade or so.”
—“Leninist Tactics and the Road to Workers Power,” Young Spartacus No. 131, November 1985
But this passivity was hardly inexplicable given that, in 1978, most of the leaders of the Spartacus Youth League (SYL) had been driven out of the group in an explicitly “sub-political” purge orchestrated by Robertson himself. A new, more obsequious, youth leadership was installed, but the SYL never recovered and was finally mothballed in 1986. This was just the first in a series of leadership-initiated purges that swept through virtually every unit of the international Spartacist tendency (iSt) over the next few years. The result was the qualitative degeneration of the SL/iSt from an organization with a highly political cadre and a healthy internal life into a group in which the leadership openly bragged of its ability to intimidate the membership.
In our 1985 document “The Road to Jimstown“ we sketched the whole process, with reference to the various formal political departures that accompanied it, noting that:
“Such erratic programmatic gyrations in response to immediately perceived interests are characteristic of political banditry–a peculiar and particularly cynical form of centrism.”
“The SL can no longer be viewed as some sort of errant revolutionary organization with a bureaucratic regime. Rather it is the political equivalent of the pre-Qaddafi Healyites of the late 1960s; cynical former Trotskyist political bandits held together by obedience to an authoritarian lider maximo.”
By the early 1980s, the SL was an organization with an arid internal life in which petty authority fights and witchhunts (inevitably directed from the top) took the place of substantive political discussion and debate. Many cadres were forced out, others got tired and quit, but enough stayed to maintain the SL as a viable player on the American left. Yet pressures generated inside the group were increasingly manifest in the peculiar and frequently obnoxious behavior of its members in their public political activity. The problem persists to this day, despite periodic memos from the leadership instructing members to try to refrain from appearing as “pests.”
Loosening the Screws
In recent years the SL leadership has become seriously concerned by difficulties in recruiting and retaining new members. Youth who uncritically accept everything they are told frequently turn out to be of limited value. In an attempt to attract and integrate higher quality individuals, the reins have been loosened somewhat, and more emphasis is now being placed on education and persuasion rather than intimidation. At the same time, the leadership is trying to make the ICL’s political line more coherent by repudiating some of the particularly absurd and outlandish positions taken in the past. While the positions to be corrected, and the parameters of permissible criticism, remain the exclusive prerogative of Robertson and his intimates, by a strange coincidence most of the errors identified happen to be ones that we and/or Jan Norden’s Internationalist Group (IG) have previously noted.
The Spartacist article reports that the ICL’s 2003 conference occurred after an “intense internal discussion” was triggered by our exposure of a vulgar chauvinist reference to Kurds as “Turds” by Robertson 25 years earlier. The attempt by the WV editorial board to sidestep the question resulted in a “pre-conference discussion [that] was dominated by an attempt to grapple with the political drift from our revolutionary purpose that took graphic expression in the WV Editorial Board’s actions.” To rectify this problem, the ICL conference elected a new, more atomized, international leadership designed to be less capable of acting independently.
‘Impatience and Impressionism’
The Spartacist account admits to some pretty serious mistakes in the past period. However, instead of a thorough examination of how these errors originated, and why they have been tenaciously defended for so many years, the article glibly ascribes all problems to a lack of political depth in the ICL cadre: “Impatience and impressionism, epitomized by the likes of Michel Pablo, are the characteristic weaknesses of cadre who have been schooled in only one historical period….”
True enough. But where exactly were the supreme leader and his claque when all these errors were being made? The SL is a very tightly disciplined organization in which all significant policy decisions are made, or at least reviewed, by the top leadership. And the SL’s core cadre, who are now mostly in their 50s or 60s, have been politically active for 30 or 40 years. The political weaknesses of the SL are indisputable, but they can hardly be attributed to youthful inexperience.
Lenin observed that in the socialist movement opportunism tends to originate in an underestimation of the revolutionary potential of the working class. One of the first manifestations of the SL leadership’s “impatience and impressionism” was its conscious decision in the early 1980s to liquidate the group’s trade-union work. In our 1982 declaration we observed that:
“…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….”
—Declaration of an External Tendency of the iSt, October 1982
In June 1983 we produced a pamphlet (Stop the Liquidation of the Trade Union Work!) documenting the withdrawal from the unions that the leadership carried out under the guise of turning the SL into a “70 percent black party.” In fact, as we pointed out, abandoning hard-won toeholds in the organized working class only made it more difficult for the SL to build a base in the black proletariat.
Revisionism on the Russian Question–From Hailing Brezhnev’s Foreign Policy…
While the SL’s oft-repeated assertion that “We Are the Party of the Russian Revolution,” was never taken seriously by anyone outside the group, internally the leadership’s claim to special competence on the Russian question was an important element of its political authority. The SL in the early 1980s distinguished itself from its pseudo-Trotskyist competitors by backing the Soviet Army against the imperialist-sponsored Afghan mujahedin, and also by its forthright opposition to the capitalist-restorationist leaders of Polish Solidarnosc. Yet since then, the SL’s record on the Russian question has been characterized by a continuing series of revisionist zig-zags.
The recent Spartacist article admits to some important deviations on the Russian question, but, in the interest of preserving the prestige of the leadership, makes no serious attempt to politically account for these failures or to trace their origin and development. The IG’s commentary on the SL’s self-criticism contains some insightful observations, but shrinks from any analysis of the roots of the problem, and is largely concerned with showing that prior to their own departure in 1996, all was well in Jimstown. But this does not square with the facts.
To our knowledge, the Robertson leadership’s first consciously cynical revision on the Russian question occurred in September 1981 at the national conference of the Trotzkistische Liga Deutschlands (TLD) when the iSt’s International Executive Committee presented a motion pledging to “take responsibility in advance for whatever idiocies and atrocities [the Polish Stalinists] may commit” in the suppression of Solidarnosc. We commented:
“Trotskyists give unconditional military support to Stalinist regimes battling internal counterrevolution (i.e., Solidarnosc) or external capitalist forces (i.e., Finland 1940). This is quite a different matter than extending political support to the Stalinists. We take no responsibility for the crimes of the Stalinists against the working people–whether in the course of military defense of proletarian property forms or otherwise. Military support is extended despite such crimes.”
—“Poland: No Responsibility for Stalinist Crimes!,” Bulletin of the External Tendency of the iSt No. 1, August 1983
The ICL’s Stalinophilic motion was intended as a loyalty test, and a smokescreen for purging those TLD cadres who refused to blindly endorse this blatant revisionism as Shachtmanites. Meanwhile, in its public press, the iSt maintained a formally correct posture on the question.
This episode prefigured an increasingly Stalinophilic tilt by the iSt leadership throughout the 1980s. The SL’s first consequential error on the Russian question was its decision to “hail” (i.e., uncritically salute) Leonid Brezhnev’s decision to send the Soviet army into Afghanistan in late 1979. This slogan went beyond extending military support to one side in a conflict, as the Trotskyists had in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s or Vietnam in the 1960s.
For years we upheld the “Hail Red Army” slogan, but eventually, when a comrade who objected to it won a majority to his view, we corrected our mistake. In doing so we tried not to exaggerate the dimensions of the SL’s error:
“In fairness, it should be pointed out that the Spartacist League did warn of the possibility of a Soviet betrayal at the time it first advanced the slogan. While the supposed Moscow-loyalists of the Communist Party were wincing and looking for places to hide, the SL advanced this deliberately angular formulation in the face of a wave of anti-Sovietism which was sweeping America. Commendable as this impulse may have been, there is no getting around the fact that taken literally and by itself, the slogan amounts to a blanket political endorsement of the Soviet role in Afghanistan.”
—“On the Slogan ‘Hail Red Army’,” 1917 No. 5, Winter 1988-89
We also discussed the connection between this particular mistake and the SL’s political trajectory:
“The degeneration of a revolutionary organization does not take place overnight. It is only under the pressure of events and in sparring with other political tendencies that revisionist appetites gradually emerge. At the outset of Reagan’s anti-Soviet crusade, the Spartacist League correctly adopted a hard Soviet-defensist stance. But by this time the degeneration of the SL’s internal regime was already at an advanced stage. It was only a matter of time before the SL, having lost confidence in its ability to lead the working class, began to look around for other forces to accomplish this task.”
The tendency to reduce Trotskyism to a sort of leftish Soviet patriotism, which increasingly characterized the SL’s politics in the early 1980s, was, at bottom, a reflection of political demoralization:
“If an organization no longer believes in its own revolutionary capacities, why not play it safe domestically and entrust Marxism’s revolutionary mission to someone else far away–like the ‘Red Army’ in Afghanistan.”
James P. Cannon made a parallel observation regarding the degeneration of the American Communist Party in the 1920s:
“The Stalinization of the Party was rather the end result of a process of degeneration which began during the long boom of the Twenties. The protracted prosperity of that period, which came to be taken for permanence by the great mass of American people of all classes, did not fail to affect the Communist Party itself. It softened up the leading cadres of that party, and undermined their original confidence in the perspectives of a revolution in this country. This prepared them, eventually, for an easy acceptance of the Stalinist theory of ‘socialism in one country.’
“For those who accepted this theory, Russia, as the ‘one country’ of the victorious revolution, became a substitute for the American Revolution.”
“What happened to the Communist Party would happen without fail to any other party, including our own, if it should abandon its struggle for a social revolution in this country, as the realistic perspective of our epoch, and degrade itself to the role of sympathizer of revolutions in other countries.”
—First Ten Years of American Communism
This is in fact exactly what happened to Cannon’s party (the Socialist Workers Party/U.S.) in the early 1960s as it signed on as uncritical publicists for Fidel Castro and the Cuban deformed workers’ state he presides over. The Revolutionary Tendency of the SWP, the forerunner of the SL, originated as a left opposition within the SWP over this issue (see: “Cuba and Marxist Theory,” Marxist Bulletin No. 8).
Our critique of the SL’s decision to “hail” the Soviet military in Afghanistan anticipated a key political error that was to characterize the ICL’s subsequent intervention in the DDR (German Democratic Republic, aka “East Germany”):
“Is the SL implying that the Soviet military somehow embodies the ‘progressive’ side of the Stalinist bureaucracy as opposed to the civilian apparatus of the Communist Party, which represents its conservative side? On this premise alone can the slogan ‘Hail Red Army!’ be seen as an attempt to exploit the ‘contradictions’ of the Soviet ruling caste–by setting the bureaucracy’s left wing (the military) against its right wing (the Politburo).”
“Could the implication of a left/right differentiation between the Soviet military and the rest of the ruling stratum suggest that the SL is giving up hope in the Soviet workers and banking on some bureaucratic faction to redeem the USSR instead?”
—“On the Slogan ‘Hail Red Army’,” 1917 No. 5, Winter 1988-89
…To Hailing Brezhnev’s Successor
While we were slow to identify the error on Afghanistan, we immediately recognized the crude Stalinophilia of naming an SL contingent at a November 1982 anti-fascist rally as the “Yuri Andropov Battalion.” Our criticism drew a reply from Robertson himself who defended this Stalinophilic deviation as perfectly Trotskyist. In the course of the ensuing polemics, the SL leadership declared that our “comparison of Andropov with Stalin and Beria, the mass murderers of tens of thousands of Communists and Red Army officers, is an obscene amalgam worthy of the pages of Commentary.” The same issue featured an in memoriam box for the recently deceased Andropov, giving him a 75 percent approval rating.
Andropov had been the architect of the bloody suppression of the 1956 Hungarian political revolution (see Trotskyist Bulletin No. 1), but in the eyes of the SL leadership, he was a tough guy willing to stand up to the imperialists. In our polemic, we reminded the SL of Trotsky’s observation that “Stalinism and Bolshevism are mortal enemies,” and warned that Andropov and the caste he headed were ultimately unable to defend the gains of October. This was characterized by the SL leadership as virtual Third Campism. During this period the SL cadre gradually internalized the notion that defending the deformed and degenerated workers’ states meant identifying with the more intransigent elements of the bureaucracy.
By the end of the 1980s, the SL leadership was acutely aware of the growing restiveness among thousands of rank-and-file Communist Party (CP) members in West Europe due to Mikhail Gorbachev’s increasingly capitulatory course. In a bid for the “allegiance of dedicated pro-Communist workers throughout the world,” the iSt renamed itself the “International Communist League” in May 1989 (see “Cynics Who Scorn Trotskyism,” 1917 No. 7). To make it easier for the projected CP worker recruits to feel at home in the ICL, the announcement of the name change contained a blanket absolution for Stalinists, past and present, with the exception of Stalin himself and a select few:
“The false identification of Stalinism with Bolshevism provided Stalin with dedicated political agents throughout the world; only Stalin and perhaps a half-dozen cronies (who these were changed over time) knew what it was all about.”
—“International Communist League Launched,” WV No. 479, 9 June 1989
For emphasis the same claim was repeated at the end of the article: “No longer can a Stalin and his half-dozen conscious accomplices wield ‘monolithic’ parties as instruments of class-collaborationist treason in the name of ‘building socialism.’”
This constituted a profound revision of Trotsky’s materialist analysis of the Soviet bureaucracy as a privileged social caste that had a parasitic relationship to the collectivized economy. The suggestion that, apart from an evil half dozen, the murderous bureaucratic machine that exterminated tens of thousands of revolutionaries in the USSR was composed of “dedicated political agents” subjectively committed to Bolshevism, was a good deal closer to Khrushchev’s self-amnestying denunciation of Stalin’s “cult of the personality,” than to Trotsky’s scathing indictment of the “Soviet aristocracy.”
ICL in DDR: Bluster, Wishful Thinking & Centrist Confusion
The ICL’s Stalinophilic drift reached its zenith in the winter of 1989-90 with its solicitation of the bureaucratic rulers of the DDR. The implosion of this perspective and of the DDR itself confused and demoralized the ICL membership, but this campaign is apparently still viewed by Robertson as the high point of his group’s history:
“Individual Marxists will not necessarily live to see revolutionary proletarian opportunities in their lifetime. Nonetheless, many ICL cadre have lived through one such opportunity–the nascent political revolution in East Germany (German Democratic Republic–DDR) in 1989-90.”
—“The Fight for Revolutionary Continuity in the Post-Soviet World,” Spartacist No. 58, Spring 2004
The ICL’s intervention in the DDR was certainly the most significant and sustained mobilization in the group’s history. For a few weeks Arbeiterpressekorrespondenz (Arprekorr), the ICL’s near-daily newssheet that was eagerly read by thousands across the DDR, was a small, but real, factor in the political life of the disintegrating deformed workers’ state. Yet the ICL’s activity, which the recent Spartacist article lauds as a “defining struggle for our party,” was decisively flawed by exactly the “impatience and impressionism” that it warns against.
The ICL’s political propaganda on the DDR was characterized by bluster, wishful thinking and centrist confusion. In “A Chicago College Student Sees It Firsthand–The Political Revolution in East Germany” (WV No. 494, 26 January 1990) an SL neophyte breathlessly reported that upon arrival in East Berlin: “I found myself in the midst of the unfolding workers political revolution against Stalinist bureaucratic rule.” The next issue of WV (No. 495, 9 February 1990) implored readers to send money because: “The fate of the unfolding German workers political revolution hangs in the balance.” Many ICL supporters did send money, and a large proportion of the group’s membership visited the DDR for a week or two to participate in the “revolution.”
But there was no political revolution, as one of our comrades reported after touring the DDR:
“To make such assertions the TLD/SpAD [Spartakist-Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands]simply closes its eyes to political reality. No workers councils are contending for power. No proletarian formations posing, or even aspiring to, dual power have developed in the DDR. The soldiers’ councils are either limited to simply addressing soldiers’ ‘work’ conditions, or they represent pressure groups for professional military personnel, and are dominated by officers.”
—“The Collapse of the DDR,” 1917 No.8, Summer 1990
The ICL’s intervention was profoundly skewed from the outset by two fundamental mistakes–first, the claim that a workers’ political revolution was actually underway, and second, a perspective of some sort of strategic united front with a hypothetical pro-socialist wing of the leadership of the ruling Socialist Unity Party/Party of Democratic Socialism (SED/PDS). These mutually reinforcing errors (which, in an organization where criticism flowed upwards as well as downwards, might have been corrected) disoriented the activities of ICLers on the ground. On the one hand, the ICL claimed to be in the midst of, or poised to lead, an “unfolding” workers’ political revolution against the SED/PDS bureaucracy; on the other, it was simultaneously angling for a bloc with the top leaders of the crumbling Stalinist ruling party. The ICL has never explained how this contradiction could have been resolved.
In a special January 1990 German language 1917, we observed that “the confused program for a non-existent ‘third way’ [between capitalism and socialism] through ‘social market economy’ of the SED/PDS reformers” would “lead sooner or later to a capitalist counterrevolution,” and warned: “Workers in the DDR cannot for long defend themselves against capitalist restorationist forces and/or Stalinism without their own Leninist internationalist party.” In contrast to the ICL’s claim that a workers’ political revolution against (or with!) the decomposing Stalinist apparatus was underway, we noted:
“At this moment there exists a political vacuum in the DDR. Unless workers councils are organized and establish their own organs of administration this vacuum will shortly be filled to the disadvantage of the working class….”
“The urgent task of this moment is to prevent the capitalist reunification through workers soviets to fill the power vacuum in the DDR.”
We also warned against illusions in the SED/PDS bureaucrats:
“Gorbachev, Modrow…and Co. are organically incapable of trusting the working class or of implementing real working class internationalism. Nowhere has even the most ‘reform’ of the Stalinists called for or supported workers’ councils as the basis of state power as Lenin did in 1917. This is no accident. The creation of such bodies can come about only through the destruction of all wings of the bureaucracy.”
None of this was particularly original–it was merely the application of the program of workers’ political revolution that Trotsky and the Left Opposition had elaborated over half a century earlier. That is why it contrasted so sharply with the approach taken by the ICL, which, in true centrist fashion, abandoned the Trotskyist program which they ostensibly upheld in an attempt to find a short cut by nudging the Stalinists to the left.
In October 1989 when Mikhail Gorbachev pulled the rug out from under Erich Honecker, the Stalinist SED was thrown into disarray. A few weeks later, on the eve of a special emergency conference called by the SED for 8 December 1989, the ICL wrote to the Stalinists requesting to address the participants:
“We believe that a new Communist Party of Germany is urgently required, a new party that stands for socialism and is opposed to the crimes and lies of Stalinism, and is against imperialist capitalism, and which has to be forged in the spirit of the founders of the Communist Party of Germany, comrades Luxemburg and Liebknecht and comrade Lenin of the Communist International.
“We believe that many comrades of the SED share these views. Because of this, we would like to present our brief greetings to your extremely important conference.”
—quoted in Arprekorr No. 8, 18 December 1989
On 8 December the SED conference met briefly, apologized to the people for leading the DDR into a “crisis of existence” and suspended proceedings. On 16 December, when the conference reconvened, it decided to change the party’s name to SED/PDS (Socialist Unity Party/Party of Democratic Socialism), elected Gregor Gysi as its new leader, and declared that unification with West Germany would turn the DDR into “an underdeveloped Bundesland with an uncertain social future for its citizens.” The ICL’s 16 December greetings to the reconvened congress denounced socialism in one country as a “cruel swindle,” but couched its criticism of Stalinism in terms echoing those of the SED/PDS leadership:
“They [the workers of the DDR] are rightly outraged about the spectacle of corruption, which has been committed by those who pretended to rule in their name. Without real workers’ democracy the economy cannot survive.”
—Arprekorr No. 8
In a declaration to the SED conference the following day, the ICL’s International Secretariat addressed the economic situation in the DDR, and particularly the issue of workers’ strikes. The ICL’s approach to the question implicitly adopted the standpoint of the SED leadership rather than the disgruntled ranks:
“The ‘right to strike’ of the Soviet miners during the last summer was more than justified. Every strike, especially in the DDR, has to be justified on the basis of its impact on the whole population and the workers.”
—Arprekorr No. 9, 19 December 1989
While making it clear that they supported any workers’ strikes against fascist provocations, the ICL leadership avoided commenting on the economic strikes actually breaking out across the DDR at the time. This was at least an improvement from an earlier declaration by the TLD’s New York-appointed leader, Max Schütz, who at an 18 November 1989 public forum in West Berlin, had declared simply that DDR workers should not strike against themselves! The issue was a difficult one for the ICL to finesse–strikes were likely to be among the first symptoms of a developing workers’ political revolution, yet if the TLD were seen supporting actions that the Stalinists were desperate to squelch, they risked aborting their “unity” maneuver with the SED/PDS. So the ICL leadership, in its wisdom, opted to deal with the issue by restricting itself to ambiguous abstractions.
The thrust of the ICL’s intervention in the DDR was not aimed at splitting away dissident leftist elements from the SED’s proletarian base, but rather was designed to encourage a wing of the Stalinist apparat to move to the left. In “What the Spartacists Want” the ICL denounced “the corrupt parasitic Stalinist bureaucracies” in the abstract, and called for “forging a Leninist-egalitarian party,” but they failed to make the essential point that all wings of the SED/PDS leadership shared responsibility for the impasse. Instead, the ICL proclaimed:
“We stand with those members and recent ex-members of the Stalinist SED, as well as numerous others seeking to build a socialist world, who vow that the heirs of Hitler must not expropriate that which, by the workers’ toil, has arisen out of the ruins.”
—“What the Spartacists Want,” printed in every issue of Arprekorr, reprinted in WV No. 492, 29 December 1989
The complaint, in the same document, that “the communist program and ideals of the Bolshevik Revolution…have for decades been perverted and betrayed by Stalinism” did not prevent the ICL leadership from making flattering overtures to the commander of Soviet forces in the DDR, General B.V. Snetkov. In a 28 December 1989 letter (reprinted in WV No. 494, 26 January 1990) concerning “the peaceful development of the political revolution unfolding in the DDR,” the ICL respectfully suggested to Snetkov that: “We internationalists must combat nationalist chauvinism….”
In the absence of the sort of pro-socialist, anti-bureaucratic mass mobilizations that could have prefigured a political revolution, the Stalinist caretaker regime shifted steadily to the right–a development accurately described at the time by the Gruppe IV Internationale (GIVI–which fused with the International Bolshevik Tendency in 1990):
“A new [DDR Prime Minister] Modrow regime with the bourgeois opposition exerting the dominant influence has, as a pro-capitalist regime, the task of ensuring the safety of the social counterrevolution through the politics of Anschluss with the BRD [West Germany]. Pushed to the wall by imperialist pressure, and threatened with the dissolution of their apparatus of power, the rightist faction of the Stalinist bureaucracy seeks a capitalist ticket to the salvation of their privileges and makes itself the direct agent of the bourgeoisie. Berghofer’s [one of the first SED leaders to join the social democrats] hasty conversion to the democratic counterrevolution exemplifies the attitude of these parasites and careerists in the state apparatus and factory management who don’t want to come away empty-handed from the formation of a new bourgeoisie and the re-establishment of old capitalist conditions. The weak bonapartist Modrow distances himself from the SED/PDS and shows his definitive capitulation with the removal of the last hurdles for West German capital.”
—Bulletin No. 1, January 1990
Unlike the ICL, which aspired to position itself as a junior partner/counselor to the Stalinists, our comrades did not shrink from “saying what is.” In its publication, GIVI openly declared that “a Leninist-Trotskyist faction must be formed in the SED” to combat the Gysi leadership (Ibid.).
Treptow Demo: High Tide for the ICL
Shortly after the wall came down in Berlin, ICL members met Gunther M., a leftist SED cadre from an East Berlin factory, in front of a West Berlin public meeting of the Bund Sozialistischer Arbeiter (BSA), an ostensibly Trotskyist rival of the TLD. A few weeks later, by a fortuitous circumstance, Gunther (still only a contact at the time) was able to get the SED/PDS to endorse the ICL’s idea of a mass protest against the fascist desecration of a Soviet war memorial in Treptow Park. Gunther obtained the Stalinist party’s agreement on New Year’s Eve, when a lower-ranking apparatchik he happened to know was left in charge of the headquarters (the senior leaders had gone off to drown their sorrows).
The official announcement of the demonstration in Neues Deutschlands (the DDR’s leading daily) was enthusiastically received by the SED/PDS ranks, and on 3 January 1990 a surprisingly large crowd of 250,000 turned out. The size and leftist character of the mobilization alarmed both the imperialists and the Kremlin. While the Robertsonites subsequently exaggerated their role in mobilizing the masses—pretending that their agitation had forced the SED/PDS leadership to endorse the event, when in fact the TLD’s call for the demonstration was not issued until after the Stalinists had agreed to sponsor it—the protest would certainly never have occurred without the ICL’s initiative.
The TLD/“Spartakist Gruppen” announcement of the demonstration called for “Workers and soldiers councils to power,” and denounced social-democracy as “the Trojan horse of counterrevolution,” proclaiming: “Throttling the hydra-headed fascist monster now is to blunt this Social Democratic penetration” (WV No. 493, 12 January 1990). Yet, while vigorously attacking the social democrats:
“In the TLD’s call for the demonstration there was absolutely no criticism of the SED-PDS’s course of capitulation, and not one word about Modrow bowing to BRD imperialism and German nationalism. But it was these politics that had initially emboldened the Nazis who had carried out the attacks [at the war memorial].”
—“Robertsonites in Wonderland,” 1917 No. 10, Third Quarter 1991
The presence of an ICL speaker on the platform alongside the various Stalinist officials at the huge Treptow mobilization was as close as the Robertsonites were to come to “unity” with the SED/PDS. The speech delivered at the event by TLD spokesperson Renate Dahlhaus (reprinted in WV No. 493, 12 January 1990) had been written in New York and faxed to Berlin. It was carefully formulated to avoid offending the ICL’s hoped-for partners:
“In her speech at the Treptow demonstration, TLD/SpAD comrade Dahlhaus laid out the ‘SED-Unity’ line in full: ‘Our [!] economy is suffering from waste and obsolescence. The SED party dictatorship has shown that it is incompetent [!] to fight this.’ (Arprekorr No. 15, 4 January 1990). This statement, along with ‘the SED’s monopoly on power has been broken’ was all that was said about the politics of the Stalinists (Ibid.). In Dahlhaus’ speech only Honecker’s SED, which the demonstrators wanted nothing more to do with anyway, was mentioned. But the actual illusions in the ‘reformed’ SED-PDS were not attacked.”
—“Robertsonites in Wonderland“
Instead of pointing out that the SED/PDS’s capitulatory course was encouraging the growth of rightist sentiments, Dahlhaus’ speech concentrated on attacking the social democrats for “selling out the DDR.”
From SED-Unity Fantasies to Fake Mass Posturing
The success of the Treptow demonstration led Robertson to imagine that he had a direct pipeline to the top of the SED/PDS. He demanded that Gunther arrange meetings for him with three top Stalinists: DDR masterspy Markus Wolf, Soviet General Snetkov and SED/PDS leader Gregor Gysi. When all these bureaucrats passed up their chance to be brainstrusted by a small-fry American megalomaniac, and Gorbachev gave the green light for the absorption of the DDR by German imperialism, the ICL was finally compelled to abandon the fantasy of “unity” with the Stalinists. Instead of frankly acknowledging that a fundamental strategic mistake had been made, the whole unity gambit was blamed on incompetent underlings who had supposedly misinterpreted “Jim’s” instructions. In the ICL, as in Pyongyang, nothing can be permitted to put Dear Leader in a bad light.
Without wasting any time, the ICL leadership decreed an abrupt, 180 degree course correction, and announced that the moment was ripe for the direct conquest of the masses. The handful of ICL supporters of the TLD/Spartakist Gruppen were declared to be a new, independent workers’ “party”–the Spartakist-Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands (SpAD). When the DDR news agency picked up the SpAD’s press release announcing its creation, the ICL leadership was so pleased that it reprinted the entire dispatch in Workers Vanguard No. 495, 9 February 1990. And, just for good measure, they quoted the following particularly juicy bit on the front page of the same issue: “The party, founded on January 21 in the DDR, considers itself a vanguard party that will represent the interests of the working class….”
The hope was that the SpAD could somehow galvanize the masses through running a few candidates in the March 1990 elections. In its new guise as a revolutionary mass workers’ party competing directly with the Stalinists, the SpAD’s propaganda was naturally less conciliatory to the SED/PDS than it had been when the watchword was “unity.” For fund-raising purposes, WV ludicrously exaggerated the SpAD’s role in the situation:
“…our comrades of the Spartakist Workers Party stand out uniquely as the conscious Leninist vanguard, the one party defending the workers of East Germany against this [capitalist restorationist] onslaught….
“The fate of the German political revolution hangs in the balance, and there is little time.”
—WV No. 497, 9 March 1990
While the ICL’s publications were widely disseminated and eagerly read by thousands of workers in the DDR, and its members worked as hard as humanly possible, the SpAD never had more than a couple of dozen active supporters. The pretense that it was capable of defending the workers’ interests, and even of shaping the outcome of a non-existent “political revolution,” was, as we remarked in a 15 December 1996 letter to the Internationalist Group, “a notion worthy of a Posadas or a Healy.”
The Bubble Bursts
In our March 1990 election statement giving critical support to the SpAD we reaffirmed our desire to see the DDR workers take the road of proletarian political revolution, but warned:
“While the SED-PDS is in disarray, it is unfortunately not the case that, as yet, the working class is actively engaged in a revolutionary struggle to wrest political power from the discredited Stalinist bureaucrats and the parties promoting capitalist reunification which are already filling the power vacuum. A workers political revolution can open the road toward genuine socialism through instituting proletarian democracy and the rule of workers councils. We urgently hope that the workers of the DDR take the road of proletarian political revolution–but it does no good to mistake our subjective desires for reality.”
—“Critical Support to the SpAD,” 1917 No. 8, Summer 1990
The ICL’s exaggerated claims to have directly mobilized many of the workers who turned up at the Treptow protest led to fantastic projections that hundreds of thousands might vote for the SpAD in the election. But any such illusions were dashed on 6 March 1990, twelve days before the vote was held, when a demonstration called by the SpAD to protest privatization legislation drew no one outside their own ranks. Workers Vanguard (No. 497, 9 March 1990) had devoted most of a page to reprinting their German “party’s” call for mass protest, suitably illustrated with a photo of a section of the vast crowd at Treptow. The next issue did not bother with a story on the non-event, but did run a photo documenting the fact that fewer than 20 people had participated.
In the same issue, WV reported the results of the 18 March election as an overwhelming mandate for Anschluss: “We ran candidates in four districts (Berlin, Halle, Leipzig and Rostock), receiving 0.06% of the vote in those districts” (WV, No. 498, 23 March 1990). With its bubble burst, the ICL leadership sagely intoned: “Responsibility for the fateful results must be laid squarely at the door of Stalin and his heir Gorbachev.”
DDR ‘Political Revolution’–Down the Memory Hole
Even after the landslide for counterrevolution, the ICL was still refusing to admit that no workers’ political revolution had in fact been “unfolding.” Instead, WV puzzled over why the working class had sat out their “political revolution”:
“The DDR political revolution was marked from the beginning by the absence of any organized participation by the working class as such. Why?”
Try Occam’s razor: there was no political revolution. The SED’s proletarian base had not revolted against their leaders, and no section of the working class had participated in anything approximating a struggle for political power. But to admit the obvious would mean that the ICL leadership’s whole orientation had been wrong. So the issue was just shoved down the memory hole where it could be retrospectively re-jigged.
The SL leadership’s new “recovered memory” of its DDR policy was unveiled in its 1995 pamphlet The International Bolshevik Tendency–What Is It?, where the previously “unfolding” political revolution was downgraded to merely a “nascent,” or “incipient” possibility. To avoid having to admit that events had proved us right, we were simply assigned a new position–we had supposedly “declared that [in the DDR] there was no possibility of a proletarian political revolution.”
The article in Spartacist No. 58 alleges that Norden “denigrated and denied the ICL’s role as the conscious revolutionary vanguard [in the DDR], repeatedly intoning that ‘the key element was missing, the revolutionary leadership.’” This comment by Norden in his January 1995 Berlin speech provided one of the central pretexts for his purge the next year. Today the ICL dismisses its boast to having been “the revolutionary leadership” of a non-existent political revolution as a polemical exaggeration invented mainly for the purpose of attacking Norden.
In its 1994 “Perspectives and Tasks” document the SL brazenly congratulated itself for its political flip-flops:
“Programmatically this party kept on track through the Reagan years….The party’s capacity to internally correct political deviations and problems through exhaustive internal discussion and fights is also clear. The extensive discussion and critical examination of our intervention into the DDR events stands out in this regard and politically prepared our tendency for the Soviet debacle.”
—“The Post-Soviet World,” Spartacist No. 51, Autumn 1994
The spectacular collapse of the ICL’s Stalinophilic fantasies in the DDR did indeed “prepare” the group for its subsequent Stalinophobic lurch expressed by a refusal to take sides in the decisive August 1991 showdown in Moscow. It also laid the groundwork for the now-repudiated, Third-Campist claim made in the same document, that: “The Chinese Stalinists…are moving to attempt a cold restoration of capitalism from above” (Ibid.).
A decade later, the ICL is once again re-examining the 1989-90 events in the DDR–this time unanimously repudiating the unanimous conclusions reached after the previous “extensive discussion and critical examination”:
“It is not correct to say ‘the PDS led the counterrevolution in the DDR’ and ‘we were the revolutionary leadership’ in the incipient political revolution in the DDR in 1989-90. These formulations are better: ‘We were the only contender for revolutionary leadership of the working class in the revolutionary situation in the DDR in 1989-90. We can be proud of our fight for revolutionary leadership.’ And ‘When the Kremlin sold out the DDR to West German capitalism, the SED-PDS tops adapted to the betrayal and became the PDS’.”
—“The Fight for Revolutionary Continuity in the Post-Soviet World,” Spartacist No. 58, Spring 2004
It would be even “better” if the ICL leadership could come clean and tell the whole truth. In that case, their motion might read more like this:
“We attempted to suck up to the Stalinist bureaucracy, but were rebuffed. We claimed to have been in the midst of an unfolding workers’ political revolution, but there was no such political revolution. We claimed to ‘stand out uniquely as the conscious Leninist vanguard, the one party defending the workers of East Germany,’ but we were not such a party–we were only a tiny propaganda group without significant influence in any section of the working class, and one, moreover, that was seriously politically mistaken on many of the most crucial issues. On all disputed political questions at the time, the comrades who subsequently formed the German section of the IBT were essentially correct against us.”
We will not, however, see such a statement. Like Robertson’s notion that the top layers of the SED/PDS could somehow be induced to assist in the “unfolding” of a workers’ political revolution, the spontaneous self-reform of the ICL leadership lies outside the realm of the possible. It would indeed have been “better” had the ICL’s leadership approximated our position (which they furiously denounced as “Stalinophobic” at the time). The really important question, which neither the SL nor the IG can address, is how such an elementary mistake could have been made in the first place. The character of the Stalinist bureaucracy of a deformed workers’ state is a long established element of the Trotskyist program. The fact that this position could be tossed aside without generating any internal opposition demonstrates that, in the ICL, formal program and “principle” count for little when they conflict with the whims of the founder/leader.
ICL’s 1990 Postmortem on the DDR
The ICL’s venture in the DDR was by far the most ambitious undertaking in its history–the leadership promised a great deal and the membership made many sacrifices, so the colossal failure of the entire perspective, as well as the inability to realize any appreciable gains, required some explanation. Accordingly, an internal discussion was immediately announced to digest the historical lessons of the collapse of Stalinism. The issues appear to have been posed on a high enough level of historical abstraction to avoid the question of how the ICL leadership’s projections in the DDR could have been so wildly unrealistic. The two contributions deemed most valuable were reprinted in Spartacist Nos. 45-46, Winter 1990-91.
In a 6 September 1990 document, Albert St. John (aka “Al”), Robertson’s longest-serving supporter who seems to have recently slipped into the category of persona non grata, suggested that workers in Eastern Europe had acquiesced to capitalist restoration because they had been atomized and politically disarmed by Stalinism. He denounced the “petty-bourgeois” left in the DDR which had “obscured or avoided any programmatic or social analysis of Stalinism,” and indignantly declared:
“…it wasn’t the case that the workers of the DDR had no leadership. Rather the program of the [DDR workers’] traditional party, in the new colors of the ‘reformed’ PDS, as well as the parallel programs of the other ‘leftist’ DDR groupings, ran at an angle of 180 degrees to the objective interests and periodic impulses of the working class.”
—“For Marxist Clarity and a Forward Perspective,” Spartacist Nos. 45-46, Winter 1990-91
This would have been worth something had the ICL raised it when it mattered. But by September 1990, criticism of the PDS was pretty cheap. It is also worth noting that at this point Al was no longer clinging to the pretense that the tiny SpAD had been leading the working class (although he did cynically revive it a few years later as a factional stick with which to beat Norden). Today the claim has once again been designated “not correct.”
Anschluss for the DDR & the Destruction of the USSR
A second contribution, by SL theoretician Joseph Seymour, was a sensible and well-informed essay explaining why the destruction of the East European deformed workers’ states without civil war did not invalidate the Marxist theory of the state. In his article, dated 10 October 1990, Seymour anticipated that the Soviet Union would soon see a confrontation between Stalinist conservatives and pro-imperialist democrats:
“Faced with the disintegration of Soviet society, the Kremlin bureaucracy splintered, signaled by the splitting up of the original Gorbachev team into mutually hostile figures. Yegor Ligachev became the spokesman for the conservative Stalinist apparatchiks, who desired to maintain the status quo with minimal changes. Boris Yeltsin–Moscow party boss in the early Gorbachev regime–became a pseudo-populist demagogue allied with the pro-Western ‘democratic’ opposition.”
—“On the Collapse of Stalinist Rule in East Europe,” Spartacist No. 45-46, Winter 1990-91
A couple of months earlier, in August 1990, the ICL had sent a final “Letter to the Kremlin” (with a copy to General Snetkov) “demanding” that Gorbachev stop conciliating imperialism. Seymour suggested that, unlike in East Europe, capitalist-restorationists in the USSR would not come to power without a struggle:
“Russian society today is polarized (prefiguring a possible civil war) between the forces of the ‘bourgeois-democratic’ counterrevolution…and an amalgam of conservative Stalinist and Slavophile elements, with the working class divided between the two camps.”
Seymour did not discuss the ICL’s position on the impending showdown in the USSR. However, he did propose that in any future clash in either Romania or Bulgaria between the “leftist” governments comprised of former Stalinists and more aggressively right-wing restorationist elements:
“Our perspective should be to combine united-front military defense against the right with a political struggle to discredit and destroy the workers’ illusions in the present erstwhile-Stalinist-cum-social-democratic regimes.”
This was clearly written prior to Robertson’s Stalinophobic pronouncement that the SED/PDS bureaucrats he had previously been so eager to meet were in fact the leaders of the counterrevolution in the DDR–a position that was soon extended to the Soviet Union and, somewhat later, to China. By March 1991, Workers Vanguard was floating the new line, suggesting that there was little to choose between the Yeltsinite “democrats” and the conservative Stalinist “patriots” who were still clinging to the CPSU:
“Soviet working people must cut through the false division between ‘democrats’ and ‘patriots,’ both products of the terminal degeneration of the reactionary and parasitic Stalinist bureaucracy. Both are enemies and oppressors of the working class in the interests of world capitalism.”
—“Where Is the Soviet Union Going?”, WV No. 522, 15 March 1991
In May 1991, at the Lutte Ouvrière fete, where we debated Workers Power on the Russian question, one of their leaders, Keith Harvey, predicted that in any showdown between the Yeltsinites and the CPSU “hards,” we would find ourselves alone among all the world’s ostensible Trotskyists in backing the Stalinists. Harvey predicted that “even the Sparts” would not be backing the Stalinists this time. We thought it possible that when push came to shove the ICL would come down on the right side, but Harvey’s estimate proved correct. In the final confrontation in August 1991, the erstwhile “Yuri Andropov Brigade” refused to militarily support the Stalinists against the counterrevolution, thus ignominiously abandoning the last-ditch defense of the Soviet degenerated workers’ state. The ICL’s shameful neutrality in this confrontation, a mistake it compounded with the stubborn refusal to admit that Yeltsin’s victory represented the triumph of counterrevolution, has continued to pose awkward political problems for the Robertsonites.
The Spartacist No. 58 article blusters: “At the crucial hour, in sharp contrast to much of the left, the ICL stood at our post in defense of the gains of the October Revolution of 1917.” Paper will take anything written on it, as Stalin observed, but nothing can change the fact that “at the crucial hour” in August 1991, the ICL declined to take a side.
The fundamental incoherence of the ICL’s 1991 position has been a source of continuing confusion, and the conflicting rationalizations and interpretations of the position that have appeared over the years simply don’t add up. While indignantly denying that they were in any way neutral in the August 1991 confrontation, the ICL leaders also claim that neither side warranted military support because both were equally pro-capitalist:
“The IBT attempts to dress up its defeatism in August 1991 by declaring military support for the Stalinist coup plotters–a ludicrous position since the coup plotters, who were just as committed to capitalist restoration as Yeltsin, were not about to undertake the kind of political and military mobilization required to mount a serious opposition.”
—The International Bolshevik Tendency–What Is It?
“If in fact the Yanayevites were ‘just as committed to capitalist restoration as Yeltsin,’ then why should Trotskyists care about whether or not they undertook a political and military mobilization? If the Stalinist bureaucrats (including the heads of the KGB and the military) had been ‘just as committed’ to capitalist restoration as the CIA’s friends gathered around Yeltsin in the Russian White House, then there would indeed have been nothing of great importance at stake in August 1991. Yet, if one asserts that Yanayev et al. were ‘just as committed to capitalist restoration’ as Yeltsin, then it follows that at some point prior to 19 August 1991 the CPSU bureaucracy had been transformed into a formation that was counterrevolutionary through and through and to the core.”
—Trotskyist Bulletin No. 5, 1996
The ICL cannot answer these questions. While admitting that Yeltsin’s victory had opened the “floodgates of counterrevolution,” they adamantly deny that state power (however weak and disjointed initially) from that moment on was wielded by forces committed to capitalist restoration. The Soviet degenerated workers’ state had been smashed, and the whole world knew it. But in the interest of preserving the prestige of their leadership, the SL refused to admit it and spent a year in the company of Jack Barnes of the American Socialist Workers Party, Ernest Mandel of the United Secretariat (USec), Workers Power and an assortment of other revisionists, ludicrously claiming that the Soviet degenerated workers’ state survived under Czar Boris. As time passed and Yeltsin’s grip on power became increasingly assured, this posture became just too ridiculous to maintain, and so, by November 1992 Workers Vanguard was referring to the Soviet workers’ state in the past tense. But to this day, the ICL cannot explain when or how this transformation occurred.
Everyone knows what took place in 1991; but the only thing that changed in 1992 was Robertson’s mind. The catalyst for this, so we have been told, was a written exchange in August 1992 between two Toronto Robertsonites and Marc D., a former USec cadre and prospective ICL recruit who refused to swallow the notion that “the Soviet Union still exists as a degenerated workers’ state.” Upon reading this correspondence, Robertson is reported to have commented that Marc was right, the Soviet workers’ state was no more.
The ICL’s new position solved one problem, but created another. The destruction of the Soviet workers’ state could not be backdated to Yeltsin’s August 1991 victory without admitting that the “renegades” of the IBT had been right all along. Having refused to militarily bloc with Yanayev, Pugo et al, the SL leadership could hardly admit that Yeltsin’s victory represented the end of the workers’ state. So the ICL (and the IG, which also clings to this particular stupidity) embraced the profoundly anti-Marxist notion that in “1991-92” the degenerated workers’ state, under Boris Yeltsin, was gradually and incrementally transformed into a bourgeois state. Trotsky aptly dismissed this sort of nonsense as “reformism in reverse.”
In the summer of 2003 in London, a bright, but unassimilated, secondary school student recruited to the Spartacist League’s youth group in Britain from Workers Power had the temerity to propose adjusting the ICL’s line on this major historical issue to something more closely approximating reality. He was apparently considered promising enough to try to salvage, so instead of receiving the usual treatment dished out to ICL newbies unwise enough to pose awkward questions, an attempt was made to persuade him of the senior party comrades’ profound wisdom on the question. To this end he received a flurry of leadership-patriotic correspondence that is chiefly of interest for what it reveals about the current political incoherence of the ICL cadre on the question. Instead of being overwhelmed by the intellectual force of the arguments arrayed against him, the errant youth replied with a lengthier document reiterating his original argument while taking a few well-aimed shots at his would-be mentors. At this point, further pedagogy was abandoned and a campaign of hysterical denunciation commenced which apparently succeeded, in short order, in driving him out and restoring unanimity to the ICL’s London branch.
The SL’s position on the August 1991 confrontation has occasionally been at odds with its polemics with other groups. For example, WV recently denounced Peter Taaffe’s Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) for dispatching its Moscow supporters to Soviet factories during the coup to discourage workers from backing the Stalinist “hardliners”:
“The adherents to Taaffe’s Militant tendency did not just climb on Yeltsin’s barricades–where they were, in any case, not needed. They went to the factories, where these social-democratic traitors tried to head off workers mobilizations against Yeltsin and Bush’s ‘democrats’:
“‘From the declarations of the [putschist State Emergency Committee] it followed that they were acting against the so-called “democrats,” and that posed the danger of support to the putschists by workers organizations that did not share the principles of the “democrats”–the rule of private property and capitalist power. And that is exactly what happened. Some of the workers organizations were getting ready to send greetings of welcome, and at several factories the workers even tried to organize defense detachments in support of the putschists.
“‘From the morning on, all of our members explained to workers at their workplaces that the position of the Emergency Committee did not coincide with their interests. In addition to this, they connected up with worker activists of other organizations, in order to prevent hasty actions.’
—“‘Where We Were’ [CWI statement]”
“The impulse of these workers was far better than that of the Militant tendency, whose support to Yeltsin put it in the same camp as every imperialist power on the face of the globe.”
—“Taaffeite CWI: From Yeltsin’s Barricades to the Augean Stables,” WV No. 828, 11 June 2004
True enough, but the “impulse of these workers” was also “far better” than the hypercritical ICL leadership, whose refusal to take sides between the two camps put it in a third one. In October 1993, when the Yeltsinites fell out among themselves, we took the view that workers had no side in the victory of either gang of counterrevolutionaries. The ICL initially took the same position, aptly characterizing the whole affair as “a squabble between corrupt and cynical factions” (WV No. 585, 8 October 1993). A month later they published “A Correction to Our View” (WV No. 587, 5 November 1993) denouncing their original position as “abstentionist,” and declared that “it was necessary to call on the working class to actively resist” Yeltsin.
If there was no logical reason why, in 1991, a supposedly Soviet defensist group would refuse to back Stalinist apparatchiks against capitalist restorationists, there was also no reason, two years later, for it to bloc with “lackeys for the corporatist wing of the fledgling bourgeoisie” in “a squabble between corrupt and cynical factions.”
ICL’s Stalinophobic Deviation on China
In 1994 we addressed the popular misconception that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was attempting to slowly transform the Chinese deformed workers’ state into a capitalist one:
“Recent Chinese economic evolution, when carefully examined, shows that the country is not heading in the direction of ‘market socialism.’ Nor is the bureaucracy consciously embarked on an attempt to turn China into a capitalist country, with the 20 million-odd members of the CCP as a new capitalist class…. the highest echelons of the ruling party remain tied to state property.”
—“China: The Gathering Storm,” 1917 No. 14, 1994
In the same article we reasserted our position of unconditional defense of the gains of the Chinese Revolution:
“In any future confrontation we will bloc militarily with those elements of the bureaucracy that attempt to defend collectivized property against the forces of capitalist counterrevolution, just as we sided with the Soviet Stalinists in their last pathetic attempt to cling to power in August 1991.”
The ICL was headed down a different path. Generalizing from its bitter disappointment with the SED/PDS in the DDR, and its equation of the CPSU conservatives with Yelstin’s open capitalist-restorationists, the ICL claimed that the CCP was carrying out a “cold” restoration of capitalism from above. This position was challenged by the IG, and a flurry of polemics ensued:
“The leaders of the Internationalist Group (IG–a 1996 split from the SL), who uphold the Spartacists’ 1991 position on the coup [i.e., that the Stalinist coupsters ‘were just as committed to capitalist restoration as Yeltsin’] for reasons of personal prestige, criticized the SL for taking an essentially identical approach toward China. The SL responded by claiming that the IG were Stalinophiles who ascribed a revolutionary capacity to the bureaucracy. IG leader, Jan Norden, was denounced for having ‘endowed the geriatric Stalinist has-beens [in East Germany] with some kind of instinctive revolutionary appetites’ and for promoting, ‘the illusion that a wing of the Beijing bureaucracy will itself take up the fight against capitalist counterrevolution’ (WV, 11 June 1999). In fact, it is entirely possible that elements of the Stalinist apparatus would side with the workers against capitalist restoration. And revolutionaries would certainly seek to exploit contradictions within the bureaucracy to strengthen the position of workers mobilized for independent political action.
—“China: Towards the Brink,” 1917 No. 26, 2004
The ICL’s error on China, like its assertion that the Stalinists “led the counterrevolution” in the DDR, imputed to the ruling bureaucracy the characteristics of a social class, rather than a brittle and unstable parasitic caste. The ICL began to edge away from its claim that the CCP intended to restore capitalism some time ago, but the recent Spartacist article finally made it explicit:
“In this regard, our 1994 formulation [regarding the CCP’s supposed attempt at a ‘cold restoration of capitalism from above’] was wrong in implying that a restoration of capitalism could take place while the Stalinist regime remained intact. Correcting this, the current conference document noted:
“‘The Stalinist bureaucracy is incapable of a cold, gradual restoration of capitalism from above. A capitalist counterrevolution in China would be accompanied by the collapse of Stalinist bonapartism and the political fracturing of the ruling Communist Party.’”
—“The Fight for Revolutionary Continuity in the Post-Soviet World,” Spartacist No. 58, Spring 2004
This is a description of what happened in the Soviet Union in 1991–the bureaucracy fractured and the capitalist-restorationist elements (headed by Yeltsin) deposed the demoralized “conservative” Stalinist remnants. If the ICL were in fact the “Party of the Russian Revolution,” it would not shrink from telling the simple truth about the fate of the October Revolution. But in Jimstown, programmatic rectitude has long taken second place to the preservation of the leader’s prestige, so we do not expect to soon see the ICL (or, for that matter, the IG) correcting their position on the final chapter in the destruction of the Soviet workers’ state.
Sectarianism Ad Absurdum: ICL Denounces Seattle 1999
In addition to correcting some of the deviations on China and the DDR, the Spartacist article repudiates some of the more outrageous examples of ICL sectarianism over the past decade or so. The most dramatic is the reversal on the 1999 Seattle protest against the World Trade Organization (WTO) that energized “anti-globalization” protesters around the world. Weeks prior to the event, the SL leadership had already decided that it would not:
“participate in, or sell at, the protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle on November 30 which are a circus…dominated by national chauvinism, racist protectionism and counterrevolutionary attacks on the Chinese deformed workers state.”
—“AFL-CIO Tops Push Anti-Communism, Protectionist Poison,” WV No. 725, 10 December 1999
Even after the dust settled and it was clear that, instead of “national chauvinism, racist protectionism and counterrevolution,” most of the youthful protesters were motivated by outrage at the ravages of the WTO, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the SL remained stubbornly in denial.
In a 3 January 2000 internet posting on our website we labeled the WV statement “sectarian idiocy,” and quoted an eyewitness report from an IBTer:
“Seattle was an opportunity for revolutionaries to intersect many people who correctly identify the corporations as enemies, and extend that consciousness to understanding the role of the capitalist state in protecting corporate greed and exploitation. The tragedy is that this elementary socialist consciousness was largely absent in Seattle. The unusual vehemence and brutality of the suppression of the anti-WTO protests had quite a shock effect on thousands of the protesters, many of who are relatively new to confrontation with the state on this level. Most appear to have understood that it was the Clinton administration which probably gave the orders on Wednesday for the reign of terror that did drive protesters off the streets.”
We made the obvious point that Seattle was “an opportunity for Marxists to intervene to win some of these people to a socialist program” and observed:
“If socialists were to follow the Robertsonians’ injunctions, and boycott such protests, the only result would be to ensure the political dominance of the Greens, clerics and purveyors of other brands of petty-bourgeois ideology among broad sections of young militants outraged by the workings of the irrational capitalist world order.”
The SL “explained” that the Seattle protest only resonated internationally “because an array of opportunist ‘socialists’ sold radical activists around the world a bill of goods by painting the chauvinist, anti-Communist frenzy in Seattle as a display of ‘internationalism’.” In a virtual parody of sectarianism, WV proclaimed:
“Our opposition to the chauvinist mobilization in Seattle was an expression of our revolutionary, internationalist and proletarian program. Upholding the class interests of the proletariat requires drawing a sharp line between Marxism and social-chauvinism….”
—“Imperialists Push ‘Open Door’ for Counterrevolution in China,” WV No. 729, 11 February 2000
The same article complained: “the IBT denounces our principled opposition to joining the chauvinist, anti-Communist mobilization in Seattle” and lambasted the IG for going “out of its way to avoid criticizing the Seattle mobilization.” WV did, however, grudgingly admit that a 21 December 1999 statement on the IG website had denounced the Seattle mobilizations as “built on a chauvinist program of protectionism and proletarian internationalists would not participate in them.”
The Spartacist article offers no serious explanation as to how the SL could have been so profoundly mistaken about such an important political event, lamely attempting to excuse its “principled” abstention as a consequence of a “failure to take into account the changes in the terrain on the left in the post-Soviet period, which includes the proliferation of anarchoid groups….” The real reason for the ICL’s hysterical denunciation of the Seattle protesters is clear enough:
“The SL leadership’s abstention in Seattle was not motivated by political principle, but rather by a desire to avoid exposing their youthful members to the political universe that exists outside their ‘party.’ Yet the ripples from Seattle impacted politicized American youth so powerfully that the SL controllers decided to drop their lofty ‘principles,’ and turn up in Washington for the April demonstrations against the International Monetary Fund.”
—“Seattle & the Left,” 1917 No. 22, 2000
The ICL now implicitly acknowledges its political cowardice in refusing to publicly repudiate its error earlier, and admits that its absurd posture on Seattle was indeed “reversed in practice” by its appearance at the subsequent protest in Washington D.C. While admitting “our abstention on principle from the Seattle protests was damaging and disorienting both for our cadre and for those who follow our work” (i.e., it made the SL a laughing stock) the Spartacist article ducks the question of how it managed to confuse idiot abstentionism with Marxist principle in the first place. Presumably the reason the ICL is not interested in probing too deeply into the origin of this particular instance of “principled” stupidity is because the same omniscient geriatric who dictated the correction of this error was its original author.
SL/ICL: Twenty Years of Sectarianism
The root of the SL/ICL’s descent into sectarianism is its leadership’s political demoralization. As the Robertson claque lost confidence in the possibility of revolutionary breakthroughs, the priority shifted toward preserving their own unchallengeable position within the group and maintaining a dues base. This new, conservative, shift was reflected both in the profile of prospective SL recruits and their political training. In the ICL today, questions of political line are generally treated as the exclusive province of the wise leadership. The periodic “fights” rarely have much to do with real political differences and are usually aimed at enforcing “political authority” and making adjustments to the pecking order.
It is hardly surprising that the list of sectarian errors that the SL is now prepared to renounce does not include its attempt to wreck the 1984 boycott of South African cargo by longshoremen in the port of San Francisco. For 11 days, as several hundred members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) refused to unload apartheid cargo from the Nedlloyd Kimberley in solidarity with black workers in South Africa, the SL worked to sabotage the action for the sole reason that it had been initiated by political opponents in the union, particularly supporters of the External Tendency (forerunner of the IBT). In their desperation to derail this important action, the Spartacist leadership had its supporters set up a fake “picket line” in front of the ship the night the boycott began, and provocatively denounced the longshore workers who carried out this valuable labor action as “scabs.”
In the end, the SL-supported Longshore Militant shamefully provided the information used as “Exhibit No. 1” in the federal injunction that ultimately broke the strike. Then, when it was all over, the SL had the chutzpah to turn around and praise the hot-cargoing action it had tried so hard to wreck. This criminal sectarianism (a record the IG uneasily upholds) is discussed at length in the Bulletin of the External Tendency of the iSt, No. 4.
SL and ‘Anti-War Movements’
In 1990 the Spartacist League advanced a novel justification for its refusal to participate in organizing opposition to the January 1991 “Desert Storm” assault on Iraq. A meeting of the Bay Area “Committee Against a Vietnam War in the Middle East” (CAVWME) on 22 September 1990, as the imperialist propaganda offensive got underway, attracted 100 people, at least half of whom had no organizational affiliation. The reformists of Socialist Action (SA–affiliated with the USec), who had called the meeting, were alarmed when IBTers put forward a proposal to turn CAVWME from a reformist propaganda bloc into a genuine united front in which all participants, including Marxists, could put forward their point of view. Had the dozen SLers present at the meeting backed our motion to amend the committee’s basis of unity the Pabloites would have been outnumbered. But instead of supporting our proposal, or putting forward an alternative of their own, to the great relief of SA, the SL members restricted their comments to simply denouncing the committee and its initiators.
The SL held a public meeting in the Bay Area that night at which an IBT comrade raised the issue of the SL’s sectarian abstention:
“If the antiwar movement is a priori left to the leadership of the Marcyites and Socialist Action, then it’s simply a self-fulfilling prophecy to say in advance that it will be dominated by the reformists.”
—quoted in “Communist Tactics and the Antiwar Movement,” 1917 No. 9, 1991
In a classic example of “program generating theory,” Joseph Seymour, the SL’s leading theorist, defended its abstentionism on the grounds that: “There is no antiwar movement independently of an anti-capitalist movement” (quoted in “BT: Pimple on the Popular Front,” WV No. 511, 5 October 1990). In 1917 No. 9 we characterized this as “sectarian drivel” and quoted a declaration from the SL’s 1966 founding conference that stated: “Our role is not to sit on the sidelines and lecture the anti-war movement while refusing to ‘dirty our hands’ in the day-to-day work of the movement….” We asked: “Does the SL now consider that there was no ‘antiwar movement’ in the U.S. in the late 1960s?” The SL has declined to answer, but we were amused to note another article in the very issue that reported Seymour’s sagacious pronouncement referred to the Vietnam “anti-war movement” of the 1960s and 70s. The motivation for the SL’s behavior was hardly mysterious:
“The SL leadership has so little confidence in its members’ ability to function in a broader arena that even the most minor tactical moves or utterances must be dictated from the top. Sustained interaction with members of other leftist groups threatens the leadership’s organizational control of the rank-and-file. Thus the SL ‘intervention’ amounted to a series of criticisms designed to cover its abdication from any serious fight for influence within the emerging antiwar movement.”
—“Communist Tactics and the Antiwar Movement,” 1917 No 9, 1991.
ICL Sectarianism Mars PDC’s Record on Mumia Defense
In our recent pamphlet, The Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, we characterized the role of the SL and the Partisan Defense Committee (PDC–the SL’s legal defense arm) in uncovering the police conspiracy that stands behind the frame-up of America’s foremost political prisoner as “an immensely valuable service to Mumia and the whole workers’ movement.”
Yet even this exemplary work has, on occasion, been marred by sectarianism. In August 1995, with Mumia facing imminent execution, our British comrades proposed an emergency united-front action to the Spartacist League/Britain (SL/B):
“Time is short, but it is still not too late to initiate a sizeable national demonstration before 17th August. Other groups are planning various events, but these will be fragmentary and isolated in the absence of a co-ordinated campaign. There has been considerable coverage of Mumia’s case in the bourgeois press and most of the left groups would probably come on board for united action. The SL/B, of all the groups on the British far left, is probably best positioned to initiate such a united front because of the years of work by your American comrades in Mumia’s defence. We pledge our fullest support in building any such action….”
—letter to the SL/B, 6 August 1995
The SL/B rejected our proposal for reasons spelled out in the subsequent issue of Workers Vanguard (No. 627, 25 August 1995):
“[A] letter from the International Bolshevik Tendency to our comrades of the Spartacist League/Britain argues that we have undermined Mumia’s defense by not setting up a ‘united front committee.’ We don’t know what world the BT lives in, but we have a lot more grasp of social reality and our own social weight than to believe that a ‘Free Mumia Committee’ of ourselves, the BT and a bunch of other small leftist organizations would be able to rally the social forces necessary to win Mumia’s freedom.”
“We don’t know what world the SL/U.S. lives in, but it is precisely the fact that ‘a bunch of other small leftist [and other] organizations’ all began to mobilize around the same issue at the same time, that made the demonstrations for Jamal successful. In order to build the mass support necessary for winning his freedom, it makes sense to organize this cooperation. In New York in July, there were a series of separate demonstrations–some of which the SL initiated and controlled, and some where other organizations played the central role. This is not a good model. True, the combined forces of the left are less than massive. But is the SL suggesting that it alone is capable of mobilizing greater numbers than small groups working in concert?”
—“For United Front Defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal!“, 1917 No. 17, 1996
The ICL has, on occasion, participated in successful common actions for Mumia. In Toronto, in the late 1990s, several united-front demonstrations were organized. In 2002 a large public meeting was held on the basis of the slogans: “Free Mumia Abu-Jamal! Abolish the Racist Death Penalty!” The Trotskyist League (TL–Canadian affiliate of the ICL) sometimes participated in these actions and sometimes refused to. This peculiar behavior, which puzzled various anarchists and other participants at the time, was apparently determined by the internal gyrations of the ICL. When it was on an “anti-sectarian” zig, it would participate. If it was on an “anti-opportunist” zag, it would not (see “Labor: Fight to Free Mumia!“, 1917 No. 21, 1999).
On 24 April 1999, when the ILWU shut down every port on the U.S. West Coast in solidarity with Mumia, WV treated it as a non-event because the action was initiated and supported by former SLers who the Robertsonites regard with special enmity. The SL ostentatiously refused to participate in the mass demonstrations held for Mumia that day in both San Francisco and Philadelphia. The rationalization for this grotesque sectarianism was that the reformist organizers of the events were pushing a call for a “new trial” rather than freedom for Mumia. In a letter to WV, we wrote:
“You prefer the call to ‘Free Mumia!’ So do we. Nonetheless we do not see this as a reason to abstain from participating in national events that are many times larger than any rallies the SL/PDC has been able to organize. Of course we participate in these demonstrations with our own slogans, including the call to ‘Free Mumia!’
“We recall that during the Vietnam War the SL marched in many demonstrations organized around clearly social-pacifist slogans, but carried its own placards calling for victory to the Indochinese Revolution.”
—“Disagreeable Sectarians,”1917 No. 21, 1999
We further observed that as a result of this kind of sectarian behavior:
“Most political activists regard the SL as a slightly ridiculous, frequently hysterical and generally disagreeable sect. The only purpose of the SL leadership’s semi-abstention from the campaign to free Mumia can be to seal off their membership from excessive exposure to other leftists and social reality in general.”
ICL Renounces 1974 Contribution on General Strike
The ICL’s sectarian practice is beginning to find tentative programmatic expression in its shifting position on the question of the general strike. The SL’s insistence that a precondition for calling for a general strike is the presence of a mass revolutionary party constitutes an explicit repudiation of a rather important extension of Marxist tactics that the SL made thirty years ago when it was still a revolutionary organization. In the winter of 1974, Britain’s militant miners’ union, under the leadership of overtly reformist bureaucrats, was locked in conflict with Ted Heath’s Tory government:
“Therefore we have a contradiction: the situation poses the need for a general strike, for mobilizing the entire organized working class to answer Heath’s attacks; a general strike poses the question of power and can easily lead to a revolutionary situation; and the present sellout union and Labour Party/Communist Party leaders will betray a general strike if it challenges capitalist state power. What to do?
“Taking account of the objective need for a general strike and the treacherous present leadership of the class, we have called for a general strike for limited, defensive aims centering on breaking the state wage controls and reversing the measures decreed to enforce them (e.g., the Tory lockout).”
—“Why We Call for a General Strike in Britain Now,” WV No. 39, 1 March 1974
Acknowledging that success could not be guaranteed in advance, WV argued:
“However, it would be the worst kind of scholastic passivity to argue that the workers must accept, without struggle, whatever the Tories do to them because their leaders might betray a general strike that could win….
“The task of revolutionaries in Britain today is to maximize the possibility of winning a general strike (and thereby defeating the bosses’ attempts to load the costs of massive inflation onto the workers) under conditions where a successful insurrection is impossible given the strength of the reformist leadership of the mass workers organizations.”
This policy, entirely congruent with Trotsky’s writings on the question, is one we uphold. Yet the degenerated ICL now insists that a general strike must always be a precursor to a struggle for state power, and therefore cannot be undertaken without the leadership of a mass-based revolutionary party. In Ontario in the mid-1990s, when the trade-union bureaucracy initiated a series of one-day, one-city shutdowns to protest attacks by the right-wing Conservative government of Mike Harris, we wrote:
“The answer to a generalized capitalist attack is a generalized response: i.e., a general strike to defend social programs….But we cannot expect the professional ‘labor statesmen’ to run an effective general strike. Instead it should be organized and controlled by democratically elected strike committees in every workplace coordinated through delegated regional and provincial assemblies.”
—“Resistance and Betrayal,” 1917 No. 19, 1997
The TL disagreed and denounced everyone advocating a general strike as “charlatans,” citing the absence of revolutionary leadership. Spartacist Canada (Winter 1996-97) specifically attacked our leaflet for the Toronto shutdown for omitting “the need to politically defeat and replace the pro-capitalist misleaders in order to achieve a workers’ victory.” We replied:
“Missing from this lifeless schematism is the fact that it is only through their experiences in struggle that the masses of workers will come to reject their existing leaderships and adopt a new, revolutionary alternative.
“….Anyone who can read can see that the concluding paragraph [of the IBT statement] does in fact call for ‘a new workers’ leadership with “revolutionary socialist” politics.’ But regardless of the TL’s careless (or deliberately dishonest) characterization of our position, the key issue is their apparent failure to grasp that the only way for communists to ‘politically defeat and replace’ the bureaucrats is by intervening in the actual class struggle to broaden and generalize it.
“The masses want a general strike. The bureaucrats are afraid to initiate one. In this circumstance, the call for a general strike can both expose the bureaucrats’ cowardice and demonstrate to militant workers (who may even be anti-communist) that, at least on this one question, the communists are right against their existing leaders.”
—“Resistance and Betrayal,” 1917 No. 19, 1997
As we observed in a letter to the IG at the time, the same error characterized the ICL’s propaganda during the mass strikes against government austerity that shook France in November and December 1995:
“We think that the question of the general strike is posed for French Trotskyists in the mid-1990s as well….Yet, while calling for extending the strikes into the private sector, the Ligue Trotskyste de France [LTF–the SL’s French affiliate] deliberately refrained from calling for a general strike, instead asserting that ‘the question of power is posed.’ Its central slogan was a call to build a ‘new revolutionary leadership,’ (i.e., the LTF).”
—“IBT Letter to the IG/LQB,” 15 December 1996, reprinted in Trotskyist Bulletin No. 6
We pointed out that in its revolutionary period, the SL had called for general strikes in many places (including San Francisco, New York and Australia) where there was no immediate prospect of a struggle for state power. In our final, unanswered, reply to the ICL on the issue, we wrote:
“The core of the TL’s polemic is the assertion that a ‘general strike poses the question of power–which class shall rule, the bourgeoisie or the proletariat?’ Having framed the issue in these terms they dismiss our call for a general strike to defeat a capitalist offensive, and bring down the government that is spearheading it, as ‘nothing more than pressure tactics aimed at a parliamentary shake-up.’ The SL’s 1974 article was directed against exactly this brainless syllogism….
“If a general strike were only appropriate in situations where the struggle for power is immediately posed, it would be difficult to justify the Toledo, Minneapolis or San Francisco general strikes of 1934. All of these began as limited and defensive local actions–but they touched off a labor upsurge that finally established industrial unionism in North America….”
—“In Defense of Tactics,” 1917 No. 20, 1998
ICL’s Record of ‘Opportunist Flinches’
The obverse of the SL’s sectarian abstentionism, according to Spartacist, has been a series of “opportunist flinches”:
“The conference took note of opportunist departures that accompanied the pattern of sectarianism. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, the intervention of leading cadre outside our center was crucial to our continued capacity to function under extraordinarily difficult conditions. This entailed an ongoing struggle to combat opportunist flinches as well as empty bombast in our propaganda. The most pronounced example of the former was our failure for a full month to publicly state that Marxists draw a distinction between attacks on institutions like the Pentagon–which directly represents the military might of U.S. imperialism–and random terror against innocent civilians, as in the case of the World Trade Center.”
—“The Fight for Revolutionary Continuity in the Post-Soviet World,” Spartacist No. 58, Spring 2004
Unlike the SL, we made the elementary distinction between the World Trade Center and the Pentagon from the outset. In fact, WV only corrected its error after we raised the issue in an intervention against radical-liberal Tariq Ali on 28 September 2001 at a public meeting in Toronto. After the event, we challenged several TLers on the political significance of this omission from the SL’s statement on the September 11 attacks. Our 18 September statement had pointed to the critical importance of winning American workers to recognize “that their interests lie in opposing the bloodthirsty military adventures of their rulers” and recalled the SL’s 1983 flinch when an earlier attempt to establish a U.S. foothold in the Middle East was blown sky-high by a Muslim truck bomb:
“Marxists differentiate between acts aimed at imperialist military targets and those aimed at innocent civilians. For example, we recognize that the demolition of the U.S. and French garrisons in Lebanon in 1983 by ‘Islamic Jihad’ were defensible blows against imperialist attempts to establish a military beachhead in the Middle East. Some supposed Marxist organizations flinched, including the left-posturing Spartacist League/U.S., which issued a social-patriotic call for saving the surviving U.S. Marines.”
—“U.S. Imperialist Rule: An Endless Horror,” 18 September 2001, reprinted in 1917 No. 24
Whether in Lebanon, Somalia, Afghanistan or Iraq, revolutionaries always side militarily with indigenous opposition to neo-colonial occupation. We don’t care if the imperialist thugs leave on their own or in body bags, the important thing is that they leave.
The SL leadership’s loss of nerve over Lebanon, like its dive on KAL 007 a few months earlier, was driven by fear of the aggressively anti-communist Reagan administration. The same cowardly impulse led to the bizarre offer the next year to send a dozen SLers to “defend” the Democratic National Convention against “Reagan reaction” and “ultrarightist assault.” Workers Vanguard absurdly warned:
“A fitting historical model for Reagan’s exploitation of a ‘terror scare’ to smash political opposition can be found in the 1933 Reichstag…fire, which was…exploited by [the Nazis] to repress political dissidence and consolidate the Third Reich.”
—“Are Cops, Reagan Planning Violence at Democratic Convention?”, WV No. 358, 6 July 1984
In an 11 July 1984 letter, we noted that the SL’s proposal was distinguished from standard Communist Party “unite to stop the right” popular-frontism only by its hysterical Chicken Little tone, and reminded the SL of its historical position that there is “not a dime’s worth of difference” between the twin parties of racism and imperialist war. The SL leadership responded in the 31 August 1984 issue of WV: “Anyone but a blind man can see that there is more than ‘a dime’s worth of difference’ between Mondale and Reagan….”
A year and a half after ludicrously propositioning the Democrats, the SL flinched again when, in January 1986, the accidental destruction of the space shuttle Challenger aborted an important Star Wars mission, killing five members of the U.S. military:
“What we feel toward the astronauts is no more and no less than for any people who die in tragic circumstances such as the nine poor Salvadorans who were killed by a fire in a Washington, D.C. basement apartment two days before.”
–“Challenger Blows Up in Reagan’s Face,” WV No. 397, 14 February 1986
What sort of “revolutionary” feels no more sympathy for impoverished refugees from a right-wing terror regime than for the professional military cadres of imperialism?
Afghanistan 2001: Another Flinch
The Spartacist article refers to “opportunist flinches,” but cites only the Pentagon example. So it’s hard to know if the ICL now regrets its cowardly dive on revolutionary defeatism during the U.S. conquest of Afghanistan in 2001:
“Thus, the call for a U.S. military defeat is, at this time, illusory and the purest hot air and ‘revolutionary’ phrasemongering–and one which derives from forsaking the mobilization of the U.S. proletariat with the aim of the conquest of state power.”
—“No to Bosses’ ‘National Unity’! For Class Struggle at Home!”, WV No. 768, 9 November 2001
As we noted, this contrasted starkly with the ICL’s own recent record:
“The essential issue posed for the left by the attack on Afghanistan is which side to take–should we favor the victory or the defeat of our rulers? Two years ago, when NATO bombs began to fall on Belgrade, the SL answered that question clearly: ‘Defend Serbia! Defeat U.S./NATO imperialism! For workers revolution!’ (WV, 16 April 1999). Why should its answer be different today?”
—“Where is the ICL Going?“, 1917 No. 24, 2002
This is a question the ICL cannot answer. In contrast to the Robertsonians, we did not consider imperialist victory inevitable:
“If the imperialist coalition is compelled to deploy significant numbers of ground troops to finish off the Taliban and its allies in its Pashtun base area, it seems conceivable that the Islamist guerrillas could prolong the conflict long enough, and inflict enough casualties on the U.S. forces, to dampen domestic support for the campaign. This would be a ‘best case’ outcome, and at this point it cannot be entirely excluded.”
With the conflict in Afghanistan in its third year, the ICL leadership’s demoralized speculation about the futility of resistance to the imperialist war machine stands exposed as just one more, as yet unacknowledged, flinch. In 2003, when Bush Jr. launched the invasion of Iraq, the domestic political climate in the U.S. had changed enough for the SL/ICL to revert to an explicitly defeatist position:
“Every victory for the U.S. imperialists can only encourage further military adventures. In turn, every humiliation, every setback, every defeat they suffer will serve to assist the struggles of working people and the oppressed around the globe.”
—“Statement of the Political Bureau of the Spartacist League/U.S.,” WV No. 800, 28 March 2003
Very true, but why was the same position just “hot air and ‘revolutionary’ phrase-mongering” sixteen months earlier? The reason is obvious–the cowardly ICL leaders did not want to appear “unpatriotic” in the aftermath of “9/11.”
The Spartacist No. 58 article begins with Lenin’s famous observation that:
“A political party’s attitude towards its own mistakes is one of the most important and surest ways of judging how earnest the party is and how it fulfills in practice its obligations towards its class and the working people. Frankly acknowledging a mistake, ascertaining the reasons for it, analysing the conditions that have led up to it, and thrashing out the means of its rectification–that is the hallmark of a serious party; that is how it should perform its duties, and how it should educate and train its class and then the masses.”
—‘Left-Wing’ Communism: An Infantile Disorder (1920)
Good advice, but as its recent flip-flops on defeatism demonstrate, the ICL lacks the “hallmark of a serious party.” The self-criticism in Spartacist is not so much “a frank acknowledgment of mistakes,” as an exercise in damage control. By repudiating a few of their more egregious errors, Robertson and Co. are hoping to refurbish their credentials with the critically important, but very thin, layer of intelligent younger ICL members.
One of the most significant indicators of the leadership’s real attitude toward the few mistakes it has so far owned up to is the timetable for their correction. While it took four and a half years to retract the idiotic sectarianism over Seattle, ten years to formally renounce its Stalinophobic deviation on China, and 14 years to finally repudiate the absurd claim that the ICL had led the working class in the DDR, the WV ed board’s failure to defend Robertson’s chauvinist “Turds” slur was “corrected” immediately. In Jimstown, nothing is more precious than the reputation of the perfect master.
Why the SL Mattered
The SL, while still capable of making fundamentally correct observations about the world and doing valuable historical/archival work, is an organization which, when the going gets tough, has a record of determining its positions on the basis of expediency and perceived organizational advantage, rather than Marxist principle. The decline and fall of the House of Robertson would not be worth chronicling were it not for the fact that in the 1960s and 70s the Spartacist tendency represented the living continuity of Bolshevism. In this period, Robertson played a critically important role in preserving Trotskyism and made several valuable programmatic extensions to it. For this he deserves recognition, despite his subsequent devolution.
By the mid-1950s, as Robertson was reaching political maturity, most claimants to the heritage of Trotsky’s Fourth International stood considerably to its right. This was not only true of partisans of the pseudo-Trotskyist “Third Camp,” like Max Shachtman and Tony Cliff, and the “New World Reality” revisionists like Michel Pablo, Ernest Mandel and Ted Grant, but also, by the mid-1960s, of Pierre Lambert, Joe Hansen and Gerry Healy, who for a time had purported to champion “orthodox Trotskyism” against Pablo et al. Robertson and the organization he built stood, by contrast, on the actual politics of the Fourth International under Trotsky. Hansen’s dismissal of Robertson in the 1970s as a “talented archivist,” was a tribute to the fact that he took the programmatic heritage of the Trotskyist movement seriously at a time when few others did.
Having spent the 1950s and early 1960s as a left oppositionist in first Max Shachtman’s Independent Socialist League as it collapsed into social democracy, and then Farrell Dobbs’ SWP as it embraced Castroism, Robertson was not inclined to view political liquidation as the key to success. In his prime, James Robertson was an important link in the chain of revolutionary continuity:
“The Spartacist League was not just one left grouping among many–it was the crystallization of the left-wing opposition to the political destruction by Pabloite revisionism of the revolutionary Socialist Workers Party (SWP)–a party built by James P. Cannon and trained by Leon Trotsky to carry forward Bolshevism amid the destruction of the Communist International by the syphilis of Stalinism.
“Even before it was expelled from the SWP, the Revolutionary Tendency (RT), the SL’s progenitor, underwent a split. Gerry Healy, leader of the British Socialist Labour League (SLL) and erstwhile mentor of the RT, ordered his followers to sign their names to a lie. A majority of the group, led by James Robertson, refused to do so. They broke from almost half their tendency at the cost of substantially reducing their chances of winning over a section of the SWP cadre because telling the truth was more important. It was an honorable beginning.”
—“The Road to Jimstown,” Bulletin of the External Tendency of the iSt No. 4, May 1985
While the revolutionary SL of the 1960s and 70s was rigidly principled, it also worked hard to develop effective tactics to root the program of revolutionary communism within the most advanced sections of the oppressed and exploited. SL cadres participated in all the mass struggles of the day without adapting to the reformist and sectoralist ideologies that predominated in them. In the trade unions, while most of the left sunk into economism or signed up as publicists for left-talking out-of-office hustlers, Spartacist supporters struggled to find ways to make class-struggle politics relevant, and in the process won the respect of many workers as principled militants who “walked the walk.”
The Spartacist League in its best period was easily distinguished from its centrist competitors by its fidelity to revolutionary principle–it put program first. While Gerry Healy and Livio Maitan enthused about Mao’s “revolutionary” Red Guards, the SL correctly described the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” as an intra-bureaucratic power struggle, and observed that Mao’s “anti-revisionist” posturing pointed toward an alliance with American imperialism against the Soviet degenerated workers’ state. Unlike every other ostensibly Trotskyist tendency, the SL also had the distinction of refusing any electoral support (however “critical”) to Salvador Allende’s multi-class Unidad Popular in Chile:
“Any ‘critical support’ to the Allende coalition is class treason, paving the way for a bloody defeat for the Chilean working people when domestic reaction, abetted by international imperialism is ready.”
—“Chilean Popular Front,” Spartacist No. 19, November-December 1970
Nine years later the SL again stood alone on the left when it refused to endorse Iran’s “Islamic Revolution” against the hated Shah. The SL’s policy of “Down With the Shah! No Support to the Mullahs!” scandalized all those who hailed Ayatollah Khomeini’s ascension as a great revolutionary victory, but was tragically vindicated by subsequent events.
Unlike almost all the rest of the world’s ostensible Trotskyists, the Spartacist tendency refused to defend pro-imperialist Soviet “dissidents” like Anatoly Shcharansky. Yet it did not shrink from denouncing the crimes of the Stalinists. In 1973, at the height of veneration for Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese Communist Party, the SL published a valuable, and original, account of the Stalinists’ record of betrayal in Vietnam.
Between 1970 and 1973, as the New Left went into terminal crisis, the SL/U.S. quadrupled in size, regrouping dozens of dedicated militants from a wide variety of radical organizations. These cadres gave the SL the capacity to produce a high-quality, polemical bi-weekly newspaper; to undertake a serious intervention into several strategic unions; and to extend the tendency internationally. By the mid-1970s, the SL was a tightly disciplined organization with a talented, highly motivated membership cohered by agreement to the Trotskyist program. The pristine clarity of its sophisticated and internally consistent political line imbued the youthful Spartacist cadres with a self-confidence and determination that contrasted dramatically with their ostensibly Trotskyist competitors.
But as opportunities dried up and the class struggle turned down in the U.S. during the late 1970s, the SL began to degenerate, Robertson’s lifestyle drifted upward and the group’s internal corrective capacity atrophied as a wave of purges swept the iSt aimed at those thought potentially capable of constituting a political opposition in the future. The results of this “Bolshevization” campaign were soon evident in a series of erratic programmatic wobbles. Today, the members of the ICL have become so habituated to unquestioning obedience that they do not expect to be able to make sense of the group’s political line, or even that the line should make sense.
In a 1995 article, we noted the connection between the SL’s programmatic departures on the Russian question and its highly bureaucratized internal regime:
“The Spartacist League now finds itself in a state of complete confusion regarding the single question that more than any other had defined it as a tendency–the Russian question. This is not simply a case of faulty analysis. The adaptation to Stalinism in the early 1980s, like the social-patriotic deviations, could easily have been reversed in a healthy, democratic-centralist group. Even the misestimate of the situation in the DDR, or the failure to grasp the significance of the August 1991 events, do not in themselves constitute betrayals. Honest revolutionaries can make mistakes. The SL, however, lacks the capacity for correcting these mistakes that only a democratic internal life can provide. It is the doctrine of Robertsonian infallibility, and the adamant refusal to acknowledge that an opponent could be right where it was wrong, that drives the SL to persist in and compound its original errors, to play havoc with reality in the process, and finally to descend gradually into incoherence.”
—“A Dismal Symmetry,”1917 No. 15, 1995
The SL/ICL is an organization in which criticism only flows downward. In cauterizing potential opposition from below, James Robertson and his acolytes originally imagined that they would be able to avoid the costly overhead of faction fights and splits. Robertson always considered that the loss of most of its brightest youth to Shachtman in the 1940 split had permanently damaged Cannon’s SWP. He was determined to avoid making the same mistake, but only succeeded in strangling the once-revolutionary Spartacist League and setting it on the path to political oblivion. The SL/ICL’s current intractable problems demonstrate the inextricable connection between the internal regime of a revolutionary organization and its formal political program. The necrosis of the Spartacist League, like the split between the Russian Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in 1903, demonstrates that in the final analysis, for revolutionaries, the organizational question is a political question.
1. Transitional Program, Bolshevik Publications, 1998, p 62
3. While the IG (which was driven out of the ICL in 1996) is referred to at various points in the Spartacist article, the IBT is essentially ignored (except for the flap over Robertson’s “Turds” comment), even though the SL implicitly accepted our criticisms of their line on both the 1999 Seattle anti-globalization demonstration and the 2001 attack on the Pentagon (discussed below). Part of the reason the SL pays more attention to Norden et al is because the IG’s tendency to exaggerate the ICL’s political errors (e.g., its bogus claim that in 2003 the SL did not take a U.S. defeatist position on Iraq) makes it an easier target for counter-punching, but the main reason is that the IG retains a much closer connection to the SL cadre. The IG’s willingness to defend all the SL’s mistakes prior to 1996 naturally inclines the ICL ranks to view them as closer politically, which they are.
On many disputed issues the IG occupies a position somewhere between that of the IBT and ICL. For example, the IG has so far maintained strict radio silence on Robertson’s chauvinist “Turds” comment which so roiled the ICL. Unwilling to sign his name to WV‘s ridiculous alibi, Norden sees no profit in unnecessarily antagonizing the SL membership just for the sake of telling the truth. So the IG says nothing. We have discussed the IG’s reluctance to address the history of the SL’s political degeneration in Trotskyist Bulletin No. 6 (see in particular our letter of 15 December 1995).
5. In the late 1970s, SL-supported caucuses were the chief oppositional formations in both the Communications Workers of America and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. SL supporters also had a toehold in the United Auto Workers and were active in several other unions as well.
6. In one of his “conversations with Wohlforth” (Marxist Bulletin No. 3 pt. iv, 8 October 1965 session) James Robertson remarked: “’Centrist’ means nothing if not flux, change, motion, heterogenous elements lumped together…. [C]entrism means that in the minds of the members are all sorts of contradictory ideas.”
9. The first publicly anti-Trotskyist act by the SL leadership that we identified occurred a few months earlier when Spartacist League supporters marched under the flag of the military wing of the Salvadoran popular front, the FMLN, in Washington D.C. In our founding declaration we observed that, “some SL’ers in the Anti-Imperialist Contingents carr[ied] the flag of Trotsky’s Fourth International while others held high the banner of the popular front” and asked, “what was the flag of the popular front doing in a Trotskyist contingent?” We characterized this as “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.”
10. Spartacist Canada No. 71, Summer 1988, attacked our assertion that “the key question in Nicaragua today in our view is not the defense of the Soviet Union, that’s not the central question that’s posed there today, but rather the defense of the Nicaraguan Revolution.” According to the Robertsonites this paralleled Max Shachtman’s refusal to side with Russia against Finland in 1939: “For him then, as for the BT now, defense of the USSR was never ‘the central question,’ and thus never to be fought for where it counts.” We replied:
“It’s hard to understand how any ostensible Trotskyists could disagree with this statement two weeks after the signing of the Sapoa accords, where the Sandinistas promised to ‘democratize’ in accordance to the dictates of the Central American neo-colonial rulers and Washington’s mercenary contras. But for the TL this simple observation is evidence of…Shachtmanism!…. “Perhaps to atone for the sins of founder/leader James Robertson, who left the Stalinists for the Shachtmanites just as the cold war was gathering steam in the late 1940s, the Spartacists have decided that Soviet defensism is the ‘central question’ at all times and in all places. Those who don’t agree are automatically denounced as State Department socialists. This travesty of the Trotskyist position of defense of the Soviet Union has one advantage. It is easy to teach to new recruits. But if revolutionary politics were so simple a moderately intelligent myna bird could learn the formula in a matter of weeks.”
—“Dazed and Confused,” 17 September 1988
“But when the question of stopping Solidarnosc was most urgently posed, they [the IBT] went crazy over our statement that if the Kremlin Stalinists intervened militarily, in their necessarily stupid and brutal way, that we would support this and take responsibility in advance for whatever idiocies and atrocities they might commit.”
We reprinted the entire text of the ICL polemic, along with our response to every allegation in it, in Trotskyist Bulletin No. 5.
12. The SL’s Stalinophilic tilt was occasionally contradicted by cowardly flinches intended to deflect the wrath of the American authorities. For example, when a provocative intrusion into Soviet air space by Korean Air Lines Flight 007 was terminated by the USSR in September 1983, the SL dropped all pretense of unconditional defensism and proclaimed that if the Soviets had known that there were innocent civilian passengers on board then “despite the potential military damage of such an apparent spying mission,” shooting it down would have been “worse than a barbaric atrocity” (WV No. 337, 9 September 1983). As we observed at the time, this was far closer to State Department socialism than Stalinophilia.
13. The political logic of the slogan was illustrated at an ICL public meeting in Toronto in 1989 as the Soviet army was retreating from Afghanistan, by Miriam McDonald, a leader of the Trotskyist League (TL–the ICL’s Canadian section):
“In her summary, comrade Miriam, who gave the main presentation for the TL, took the profoundly anti-Trotskyist programmatic logic implicit in this slogan to new depths. She stated that there was always a possibility of betrayal [by the Soviets in Afghanistan] but argued that in major social struggles there is always a potential for betrayal and that specifically, ‘the potential for betrayal was also there in the Russian Revolution’!
“We were dumbfounded to hear an authoritative Spartacist spokesperson put on an equal plane the possibility of ‘betrayal’ by the Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky in 1917 and Brezhnev’s corrupt Stalinist bureaucracy sixty-odd years later. We presume that you disown responsibility for this remark–but it is an example of the confusion created even among your own cadres by blurring the bloodline between Stalinism and Trotskyism.”
—letter to the Trotskyist League, 2 April 1989, reprinted in Trotskyist BulletinNo. 8
14. The polemics exchanged on this issue are reprinted in Trotskyist Bulletin No. 1, “Only Trotskyism Can Defend the Gains of October.” In a piece published in Spartacist Nos. 45-46, Joseph Seymour, the SL’s leading theorist, insightfully observed of the Soviet bureaucracy in the 1970s: “While, of course, paying lip service to the Stalinized version of ‘Marxism-Leninism,’ the actual ideology of the Brezhnevite bureaucracy might be termed ‘superpowerism’.” Following Seymour, we might then designate the SL leadership’s fondness for Yuri Andropov “vicarious superpowerism.”
15. Workers Vanguard No. 348, 17 February 1984. A few years later WV was making the same “obscene amalgam,” describing the succession of rulers in the Kremlin as “the heirs of Stalin” (No. 479, 9 June 1989) and referring to “Stalin and his heir Gorbachev” (No. 498, 23 March 1990). This reflected the fact that, by that point, Robertson no longer felt any special affinity for the CPSU’s leader. In 1993, in a pamphlet entitled How the Soviet Workers State Was Strangled, the ICL wrote:
“Khrushchev served his apprenticeship under Stalin, Gorbachev served his under Brezhnev and Yeltsin and Kravchuk were formed from the same mold. They all came out of the same Stalinist pigsty.”
Five years earlier we had criticized the Spartacists’ relatively upbeat view of Gorbachev and his circle as a “pretty competent leadership” and their tendency to downplay the fact that “perestroika is an anti-working class policy which threatens the gains of the October Revolution.” We were particularly critical of an assertion made in the November 1987 issue of Spartacist Canada that, “Gorbachev shares some political fundamentals with Stalin, but only an idiot could claim they were basically the same.” We characterized this as an “explicit departure from Trotskyism” and observed:
“Of course Gorbachev is not Stalin; he is his successor. In the thirty-five years since Stalin died the contradictions of the bureaucratic regime he consolidated have become more acute, and so the bureaucracy has opted for a change in policies…and a change of personnel to carry them out. Enter Gorbachev. But the political rule of the bureaucracy over the working class remains intact. Its treacherous policy of ‘socialism in one country’ remains the same. Gorbachev is every bit as much a representative of the bureaucratic caste that has usurped political power from the Russian working class as Stalin was. Just as the fundamental features of the relationship between the privileged Kremlin oligarchs and the Soviet working class remain ‘basically the same’ from Stalin to Gorbachev, so too does the program of Trotskyists for the USSR.”
—“Dazed and Confused,” 17 September 1988
“we saw the collapse of Stalinism leading to the absorption of the DDR by German imperialism, which caused a wave of demoralization throughout our entire party internationally….”
17. The description of a disembodied, “unfolding,” political revolution that appeared regularly in ICL coverage of events in the DDR (see, for example, WV No. 492, 29 December 1989), echoed similarly “optimistic” prognostications by the Pabloite United Secretariat (USec) over the years. The teleological notion of history as a semi-automatic process with an inexorably “unfolding” dynamic is alien to Leninism, as Trotsky observed in a 26 February 1935 letter to Henricus Sneevliet: “The whole history of the struggle between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks is dotted with this little word ‘process’.”
18. The ICL indignantly rejected our suggestion that inviting the social democrats to participate in the anti-fascist united front would have provided an opportunity to expose their real character to those layers of the working class in the DDR who had illusions in them.
“At a public talk at Berlin’s Humboldt University in January 1995, Norden amnestied these class traitors [the SED/PDS leaders] by claiming they had been ‘paralyzed’ at the time of the counterrevolution and could not ‘conceive’ of a political revolution–which would have been aimed at their overthrow.”
But what about Robertson’s January 1990 attempt to parley with “these class traitors,” or the ICL’s chummy 28 December 1989 missive to its fellow “internationalist” General Snetkov, on the supposed “political revolution unfolding in the DDR”?
20. See: Trotskyist Bulletin No. 6, p. 13
21. This should not have come as a complete surprise, because the ICL’s two previous public events–a social after the huge Treptow demonstration and a public meeting held after the equally large demonstration organized by the SED/PDS on 14 January 1990 to honor Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht–had been attended by fewer than 100 people.
22. See: Trotskyist Bulletin No. 5, pts 26-28
23. In fact Norden was only stating the obvious. The ICL’s pamphlet The International Bolshevik Tendency–What Is It?, published in August 1995, i.e., eight months after Norden’s talk, observed that capitalist restoration in the DDR was “above all conditioned by the lack of an active, authoritative proletarian pole fighting to defend collectivized property.”
24. The ICL leadership rarely applauds our activities, and certainly did not welcome our criticism and suggestions in the DDR. They particularly resented our warnings to prospective new recruits about the nature of the group they were signing up for. The tactic of the ICL leadership was to attempt to seal off their members with hysterical lies, denouncing us as “highly dubious provocateurs” who:
“appear to dislike American blacks, are solicitous of Zionism and praise the indiscriminate mass killings of Americans. Of the state agencies in the world only the Mossad, the Israeli secret police, has similar appetites.”
—Spartacist (German edition) No. 14, Winter 1989-90 (reprinted in English as “Trotskyism: What It Isn’t and What It Is!”)
The SL, when it was a revolutionary organization, was subjected to similar malicious libels from Gerry Healy and his toady, Tim Wohlforth. Stalinists, social democrats and pseudo-revolutionary charlatans often resort to slandering their leftist opponents when they are unable to deal with them politically.
“It is possible that leading sections of the bureaucracy may attempt at some future point to arrest the process of capitalist restoration. If that happened it would be our duty to side militarily with the ‘conservatives’ against the Yeltsinites. The Stalinist caste is incapable of solving the problems which gave rise to the ‘reforms’ in the first place, but slamming on the brakes could at least buy some time.”
—“Soviet Stalinism In Extremis,” 1917 No. 10, Third Quarter 1991
29. In the early years of the International Left Opposition, Trotsky wrestled with the problem of determining the point at which the political counterrevolution triumphed in the USSR. In a February 1935 article, “The Workers’ State, Thermidor and Bonapartism,” he concluded: “The year 1924–that was the beginning of the Soviet Thermidor.” In “When Was the Soviet Thermidor?” (Spartacist Nos. 43-44, Summer 1989) the SL correctly identified the decisive event as the rigging of the election of delegates to the 13th Party Conference in January 1924. ICL literature has periodically reiterated this position:
“The triumvirate’s victory at this conference [January 1924] marked the decisive point at which the bureaucratic caste seized political power from the Soviet working class. From this point on, the people who ruled the USSR, the way the USSR was ruled and the purposes for which it was ruled all changed.”
—Spartacist No. 56, Spring 2001
Yeltsin’s victory over the Stalinist Emergency Committee marked the triumph of the social (as opposed to the earlier political) counterrevolution. In August 1991, “the people who ruled the USSR, the way the USSR was ruled and the purposes for which it was ruled all changed.” Yet, out of concern for the prestige of its founder/leader, the SL/ICL stubbornly denies this simple historical fact and insists that the transition from a degenerated workers’ state to a bourgeois state took place in a series of small, incremental steps during 1991-92. The notion that it is possible for a state to gradually change its class character was correctly branded “a cornerstone of Pabloism” by the SL in 1973 when it was still a revolutionary organization:
“Also in this connection we note the OCI’s [Organisation Communiste Internationaliste] analysis of Cuba in La Verité No. 557, July 1972. The OCI’s refusal to draw the conclusion from its analysis–which until that point parallels our own–that Cuba, qualitatively, is a deformed workers state indicates the potential departure from the Leninist theory of the state in favor of a linear, bourgeois conception as of a thermometer which simply and gradually passes from ‘bourgeois state’ to ‘workers state’ by small increments without a qualitative change. Such a methodology is a cornerstone of Pabloism. According to this conception, presumably the reverse process from ‘workers’ to ‘bourgeois’ state by small incremental shifts could be comparably possible. Trotsky correctly denounced this latter idea as ‘unwinding the film of reformism in reverse.’”
—“Letter to the OCRFI and the OCI,” Spartacist No. 22, Winter 1973-74
30. The depths of the ICL’s political disarray on this world-historic event is evident in their inability to effectively counter the arguments of one bright teenager. We have reprinted the entire exchange as an appendix to this document.
32. In February 1988 our Toronto comrades cooperated with leftist USec members and others in building a successful united front that drew 300 participants to a demonstration against funding for the CIA’s Nicaraguan contras. The Trotskyist League, who had been invited to participate and offered the possibility of speaking at the event if they helped build it, refused, claiming that the demo was a cover for “counterrevolutionary machinations.” The whole episode is documented in Trotskyist Bulletin No. 4.
34. The SL’s scandalous call to save the Marines in Lebanon was the subject of an extended series of polemics, all of which are reprinted in Trotskyist Bulletin No. 2.
35. This letter is reprinted in Bulletin of the External Tendency of the iSt No. 4, May 1985.
37. As we pointed out in “The Emperor Has No Clothes” (reprinted in Kurdistan & the Struggle for National Liberation) WV‘s tortured alibi for Robertson’s chauvinism is “so ridiculous that even hardened SL hacks appear embarrassed by it.” Only ICLers who embrace the credo of St. Anselm of Canterbury and “believe in order to understand” can take the official story seriously.
38. The two volumes of James P. Cannon’s writings published by the SL’s Prometheus Research Library are significant contributions to the history of the Trotskyist movement, as are the titles so far published in the Prometheus Research Series.
39. The history of the SL’s trade-union work in the 1970s is one of the brightest chapters in its revolutionary past. We documented some of the highlights of the group’s attempts to build programmatically-based caucuses in strategic unions in our edition of Trotsky’s Transitional Program.
“The Spartacist League has consistently, throughout its history, called for military defense of the NLF/DRV, including in times or places where this has not been a popular demand…. At the same time, as Trotskyists we hold high the banner of permanent revolution and expose the repeated betrayals of the Vietnamese Stalinists.”
This article was one of a series that the SL reissued in 1976 as a pamphlet entitled Stalinism and Trotskyism in Vietnam.