Why Things Fell Apart
The following is a slightly edited version of a document circulated to close contacts and supporters to explain our decision to dissolve the 1990 fusion with the New Zealand Permanent Revolution Group (PRG) and resume our separate existence as the Bolshevik Tendency. In our 2 October 2018 letter to the former PRGers and their cothinkers, as well as those in the IBT who have explicitly repudiated the entire tradi-tion of the Revolutionary Tendency/international Spartacist tendency, we observed:
“Thirty-six years ago, three of us (Jensen, Nason and Riley, plus comrade Harlan, who is with us politically but no longer able to actively participate) published the ‘Declaration of an external tendency of the iSt’ and attempted to launch a struggle to reverse the ‘process of degeneration’ which threatened to destroy what we considered to be the only Trotskyist organization in the world. A few years later, after the Spartacist League attempted to wreck the historic labor boycott of apartheid cargo initiated by cde. Harlan in the Bay Area, we concluded that it was ‘over the brink’ and published ‘The Road to Jimstown’ analyzing its decline and fall. We set about building a new, competing organization, the Bolshevik Tendency and in 1986 began publishing 1917 as an expression of our commitment to uphold the programmatic heritage of the RT/iSt in the face of the irreversible degeneration of its historic leadership.”
We summed up our decision to resume independent existence as follows:
“So, given a choice between remaining as a revolutionary minority in a tiny organization that is deeply divided programmatically and seems certain to remain so into the indefinite future, or attempting to go forward in a programmatically homogenous, but significantly smaller group, we choose the latter.”
After a Decade of Political Struggle in the IBT
Why Things Fell Apart
When Georgian president Saakashvili moved troops into South Ossetia in August 2008 his intent was to assert control over a territory that, while nominally part of Georgia, had a population that not only identified much more closely with Russia, but, like their Abkhazian counterparts, had enjoyed virtual autonomy after the destruction of the USSR. In response to Saakashvili’s provocation, Vladimir Putin surprised the world with an overwhelming military response that swiftly pushed Georgian troops out of Ossetian territory, and destroyed several billion dollars worth of new military hardware provided by Tbilisi’s American patron. Saakashvili was well connected in Washington, but he had overplayed his hand and foolishly presumed that the U.S. would block any significant Russian response. When push came to shove, Washington was not prepared to risk a global showdown over South Ossetia.
This event signaled that the Yeltsin era of passive acquiescence to America had come to an end, a development which had major implications for global politics. The Russians did not formally annex South Ossetia, despite the pleas of the population, but neither did they permit Georgian forces to reenter the region (or Abkhazia), and thereby effectively integrated both into the Russian federation.
The leadership of the International Bolshevik Tendency had no difficulty agreeing to a position on the conflict—opposing both Georgia’s intervention in South Ossetia and the entry of any Russian forces into ethnically Georgian territory. But the conflict triggered a serious division within the group, which has now lasted for a decade, that began when cde. Bill Logan proposed that the Georgian conflict marked Russia’s emergence as an imperialist power in its own right.
During the next several months of intense internal discussion, lines were drawn and positions hardened. This unprecedented development threatened the stability of the group, particularly as the polarization saw members of the IBT’s core founding groups take opposite sides. All but one of the former members of the New Zealand Permanent Revolution Group (PRG) supported Logan’s position, while everyone from the External Tendency/Bolshevik Tendency (ET/BT) opposed it. By this point only one member of the German Gruppe IV Internationale (the third component of the IBT at its 1990 launch) remained in the group. He initially supported the “imperialist” position, although later changed his view.
While the difference over Russia created considerable heat initially, both sides looked forward to eventually winning over those who disagreed with them. The discussion was conducted in an intense but, with few exceptions, comradely fashion. After several months of informal exchanges it became clear that one problem with the discussion was a lack of clarity on what exactly characterized imperialism.
In an attempt to break the impasse, or at least reset the terms of the debate, both sides agreed to present a short compilation of their materials to Murray Smith, who had a long history of loyalty to the historic RT/iSt program, as well as expertise in Marxist economic analysis. On 11 November 2008 Smith sent a response with some useful observations that helped shape subsequent discussions. Of particular value was his comment that:
“An imperialist power, then, is a mature capitalist country seeking to resolve ‘the internal contradiction through an extension of the external field of production and consumption’ (to para-phrase Marx) – and, to some extent at least, one that is able to mitigate its own economic problems at the expense of other components of the capitalist world economy (for example, by accessing primary commodities at low cost in order to ‘cheapen the elements of constant capital’– one of Marx’s “counter-tendencies” to the rate of profit to fall).”
Smith did not, however, ultimately come down on either side of the issue:
“I haven’t been able to arrive at a definite position concerning which side is right in the debate. Both sides have produced strong and at times compelling arguments, and I must admit to having been swayed from one side to the other as I read and re-read the various contributions. This testifies, I believe, to the complexity of the problem under consideration.”
Smith commented on “the impressively civil and comradely tone of the debate,” which is not usually how hotly contested issues are discussed in far-left organizations. This is in part attributable to the fact that the core cadres of both the PRG and ET/BT had experienced, and rejected, the destructive internal practices of the Robertson regime in the Spartacist tendency. It was also because leading members on both sides recognized that if not handled properly this issue could produce a destructive split and result in two far less viable groupings. While this has now occurred, at the time both those who considered Russia to be imperialist (the “Imps”) and those who did not (the “Nimps”), felt they could afford to be patient, and wait for their errant comrades to eventually see the light.
In an attempt to lower the factional temperature and perhaps make some progress toward a common understanding, it was agreed to suspend the discussion in the organization as a whole and continue it solely within the leadership. This did not produce any breakthroughs, but at least it allowed the group to focus on other questions.
When the discussion resumed prior to the IBT’s Sixth International Conference in 2011, it was clear that the division was as deep as ever. Faced with the possibility of a debilitating split both sides agreed to the very irregular procedure of putting the issue on the agenda for discussion without bringing it to a vote. The Georgian situation had calmed down and the conflict in Ukraine, which subsequently posed the issue very acutely, was several years in the future. The discussion of Russia at the conference was somewhat perfunctory and not particularly illuminating. Both sides expected that future developments would vindicate their analysis.
After the 2011 conference the Russia discussion was resumed within the IBT leadership. This time some progress was made—several key issues were identified and seriously considered. The first involved the nature of Tsarist imperialism circa World War I. The Nimps had argued that it was essentially dynastic and semi-feudal and thus had a fundamentally different character than that of the modern “finance capitalist” imperialism Lenin described. The Imps admitted that Russian imperialism during the Tsar’s reign did not share all the characteristics of contemporary German or British imperialism, but pointed out that Lenin and Trotsky tended to place it in the same category, and argued that this precedent should be a model for understanding Putin’s Russia: essentially imperialist in character, despite the absence of various features of its more developed rivals.
The discussion took a step forward when cde. Josh Decker cited “War or Peace?”, a pithy article Trotsky wrote in March 1917 which clearly identified Russian capitalism as modern imperialism. After carefully examining Trotsky’s argument, the Nimps concluded that Russia’s capitalists had indeed been operating in a modern imperialist fashion in relation to Persia and other less developed countries in their “near abroad.” Trotsky pointed to the failure of the 1905 Revolution to clear the semi-feudal obstacles to capitalist development domestically as the reason the Russian bourgeoisie invested so heavily in exploiting more backward adjacent nations. The Nimps codified their reevaluation in a draft which was unanimously approved and eventually published in 1917 No. 39 as “Imperialism, Tsarist Russia & WW I.”
A second issue involved reaching agreement on defining imperialism. In his 2008 commentary Murray Smith provided the following useful formula:
“In the last analysis what distinguishes a semi-colony from an imperialist country (of whatever rank) is the fact that, over the long term, the former suffers a net outflow of ‘value’ while the latter experiences a net inflow. These flows of value are mediated by several mechanisms – direct investment, portfolio investment, unequal exchange in world markets – that systematically favor more advanced capitalist countries, evincing high productivity, over more backward ones.”
A Nimp statement entitled “What Is Imperialism?” sketched a basic Marxist description of the phenomenon of imperialism which also briefly touched on developments since Lenin’s time. The Imp comrades, while expressing reservations about this text, particularly what they saw as a tendency to over-emphasize the economic aspect, ultimately endorsed it and it subsequently appeared in 1917 No. 39 as “Roots & Fruits of Imperialism.”
No similar progress was made on the third issue, the question of “Russian Imperialism,” which there-fore emerged as the central issue at the 2014 conference. The discussion was reopened when Riley sub-mitted a 2 June 2013 document entitled “Is Russia Imperialist?” which, among other things, discussed several issues raised in an earlier (6 April 2011) document by Decker. On 19 June 2013 Decker and cde. Barbara Dorn produced an annotated response to Riley in which they explained why they had “not been convinced” by his document and presented evidence to rebut some of its central propositions. Riley replied with “For a ‘Concrete Analysis of the Concrete Situation,” (15 July 2013), which he introduced as follows:
“Some comrades may find it frustrating to read contributions from both sides of this dispute, each of which seems plausible and apparently factually documented. But we cannot both be right. So the only way to work through this problem is to really study the question and actually read and consider the arguments and expert testimony submitted by each side (and perhaps do some further investigation).”
The Imps made no response to this document.
The next major contribution, “Twenty points on the imperialism discussion,” was circulated by Logan on 18 September 2013. In introducing his document he observed:
“In the very weak state the IBT now finds itself in, our failure to either resolve the argument about Russian imperialism or to set it aside for the time being threatens to be a critical blow to the organisation. The silence of many comrades is probably reflective of a sense that the stakes are very high here.”
Riley sent an annotated response to Logan’s “Twenty points” on 26 October 2013.
During the next six months an intensive discussion took place, much of which centered on questions of capital flows and patterns of Russian foreign investment. Toward the end of the discussion there was a lively exchange over whether Russia’s energy sector was generating “superprofits,” which Lenin considered to be a characteristic feature of imperialism. A Nimp comrade, HaPe Breitman, cited a study produced for the right-wing U.S. Heritage Foundation on value flows in the oil sector between Russia and the other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (i.e., Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine.) This relationship is uncharacteristic, to say the least, of those between imperialist powers and neocolonies:
“Russian oil companies’ export earnings have grown nearly six fold in the last 10 years, but over 90% of revenue is generated by deliveries to non-CIS countries. In 2010, 26.6 million tons out of 250.7 million tons of the total crude oil exported went to CIS countries. This amounts to 10.6% of crude oil exported from the Russian Federation by volume. The average price per barrel of crude was $20.04 less for countries of the former Soviet Union than the rest of the world. This amounts to $1,090.9 million worth of oil sold at a discounted rate. To put it another way, if Russia charged CIS countries the same price as the rest of the world in 2010 for crude, it would have made an additional $3.891 billion in revenue from exports.”
—Ariel Cohen, Politicized Oil Trade: Russia and Its Neighbors, p5
In response Decker noted that in Imperialism, “Lenin discussed how imperialist monopolists engage in ‘systematic price cutting (to ruin “outside”’ firms, i.e., those which refuse to submit to the monopolists. Millions are spent in order to sell goods for a certain time below their cost price….’” The Nimps replied that such tactics were designed to establish a monopoly—a situation that Russian companies already had within the CIS where there were no significant “outside [oil] firms” to ruin.
While the Imps repeatedly asserted that Russia conformed to Lenin’s model of “finance capitalism,” they never seriously addressed the evidence presented in “Is Russia Imperialist?” that suggested that the status of Russian banks is closer to those of “developing” Brazil than “developed” (i.e., imperialist) countries like the U.S., Britain or Canada. This issue arose during a Skype discussion on 2 March 2014, roughly six weeks before the conference.
[6:22:03 PM] Tom R.:I actually spent some time investigating Russian banking
[6:22:14 PM]Bill: me too
[6:22:14 PM]Tom R.: and put forward a few assessments of it
[6:22:31 PM]Tom R.: which are roughly that it is comparable to Russian manufacturing
[6:22:40 PM]Tom R.: not world competitors
[6:22:53 PM]Bill: American banks are far more primitive
[6:23:02 PM]Tom R.: If I missed something I am happy to revise my estimate
[6:23:27 PM]Tom R.: Chase Manhattan, Morgan Stanley more primitive than Russian banks?
[6:23:30 PM]Tom R.: news to me
[6:23:39 PM]Bill: until recently American banks could not operate interstate
[6:23:49 PM]Tom R.: What relation to they have to Wall street I ask myself
[6:24:07 PM]Tom R.: and what relationship does Wall Street have to the Moscow Bourse
[6:24:28 PM]Bill: and what relation to the Russian banks have to the owners of Russian property
[6:24:34 PM]Tom R.: and how does each compare in terms of the claim to be “rulers of the uni-verse.”
[6:25:06 PM]Tom R.: I have material on Russian banks in several documents
[6:25:07 PM]Bill: Putin is the represent[ative] of the consensus of the oligarchs
[6:25:13 PM]Tom R.: do not recall a lot of commentary on it
[6:25:20 PM]Barbara: Tom, if Russia is not gaining [anything] from Ukraine, why in your eyes is Russia doing this.
[6:25:37 PM]Tom R.: Please send me the best 4-5 articles or book titles on Russian banks
[6:25:45 PM]Tom R.: I do not claim to be an expert
A few days later Riley, reiterating the Nimp view that “Russia’s status as a great power does not derive from the revenue flows from its global investment portfolio or its status as a financial center,” repeated his request for evidence to the contrary:
“In our Skype conversation a few days ago we touched on the question of Russian finance capital as you will recall. I mentioned that I had spent some time looking into Russian banking and had included what I had found regarding Russia’s status in the global finance capital community in my contribution last summer (roughly that it is in a comparable position to Brazil, i.e., not in the ‘first division’ on a global scale.). No one ever commented on this.
“You mentioned that you had also investigated Russian banks and found that (in some ways at least) they were less primitive than US banks. I expressed surprise and asked: ‘Please send me the best 4-5 articles or book titles on Russian banks.’ I look forward to going through this material when you get a chance to forward it.”
Logan replied on 5 March 2014:
“As much as reading five books on the history of Russian banking would be good for my soul, it wouldn’t be all that helpful in understanding the development of the Russian financial bourgeoisie (ie the oligarchs). That development is certainly pertinent to this discussion, and we should sketch it briefly. For the purposes of this argument, however, the question really reduces itself to whether the Russian bourgeoisie is in fact dominated by the oligarchs.”
“I was not suggesting you read some books. You have long asserted confidently that there is Russian finance capital and that the Russian banks are evidence of it. You indicated that your reading on the subject had led you to different conclusions than mine had. I have cited a number of the things I have read that led me to that conclusion and was merely asking for you to point me to materials that support your contention. I take it that you are unable to do so and I have to say I am not entirely surprised because after my investigations I had concluded that such materials probably do not exist—at least as serious sources.”
Comrade Logan did not reply.
At the IBT’s Seventh Conference in April 2014, a clear majority of the delegates endorsed the Nimp documents “Is Russia Imperialist?” (2 June 2013) and “Why Russia is not imperialist” (23 March 2014). Roughly a third of the delegates supported the Imps’ counterposed motion which asserted, among other things, that “inter-imperialist rivalries between Russia and American-led western imperialism are an important feature of contemporary international politics.”
While there was no agreement on whether Russia is “imperialist,” there could be no doubt about the rivalry—as the Ukrainian crisis came to a boiling point in the weeks prior to the conference. On 3 March, Riley replied to a query from Dorn regarding the Nimp attitude toward a possible military con-flict: “If there is a civil war in Ukraine between two qualitatively similar bourgeois opponents we would not have a side,” but in the event of a move “to forcibly seize the Russian base and assert Ukrainian na-tionalist/Nazi western imperialist government control” we would “side militarily with Crimean resist-ance and any Russian troops to repel the invaders.” Two days later (5 March 2014) Dorn, Decker and Logan presented a draft statement on Ukrainian events which included the following: “We demand the immediate expulsion of Russian forces from the territory of Ukraine (including its naval base at Se-bastopol), and of any Western forces or ‘observers’ that may intervene militarily.” Russia’s expulsion from its chief naval base on the Black Sea would have represented a major strategic setback for the Kremlin and a huge gain for U.S. imperialism, because the rightist regime in Kiev would have immedi-ately handed the facility over to NATO.
The Imps and Nimps disagreed about whether the population of the Crimea had a right to leave Ukraine and rejoin Russia. There were also significant differences over Russia’s intervention in Syria. The substantial articles published in 1917 on these questions, (“Ukraine, Russia & the Struggle for Eurasia” [No. 37] and “Middle East Chaos” [No. 38]) represent the Nimp position. To their credit the Imps publicly defended these positions whenever challenged in an exemplary fashion, despite their political reservations.
Islamist Regimes vs. Military Coups: Morsi, Erdogan & Khomeini
When the Egyptian military, with considerable popular support from the urban population, deposed Mohamed Morsi’s elected Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013 the IBT leadership agreed (with the notable exceptions of comrades Mikl and Decker) to a position of defeatism on both sides. Some leading comrades accepted this with reservations, but no motion was passed, nor was the position formally documented.
Three years later, when a section of the Turkish military attempted to oust Erdogan, this issue resurfaced. In light of the attempted coup in Turkey several comrades who had gone along with a dual defeatist position in 2013 changed their minds. On 5 August 2016, a few weeks after the attempted coup, Decker posed the issue in these terms:
“The more important question is whether or not the pre-coup regime fell into the category of bourgeois democracy (i.e., permitted space for open working-class political activity). If it did, then we had a duty to intervene to defeat the forces that were attempting to replace it with a military dictatorship, and our intervention would have included shooting in the same direction as Erdogan’s forces and not, at that moment, at those forces.”
Riley responded the same day:
“The mullahs [in Iran in 1979] posed as the agents of liberation and issued a lot of vague promises of increased freedom and respect for workers rights etc. Much of the left latched on to that while the iSt pointed to the reactionary core of the Islamic Republic project. For a short period there was indeed a lot more freedom under the mullahs than there had been under the Shah—roughly as long as it took for the Islamic state to get properly organized. The intent of Morsi to operate a dictatorship of the pious against the ungodly was unmistakeable. Likewise Erdogan.”
A few days later (8 August 2016) Decker replied:
“As we’ve indicated several times, we don’t accept the analogy of Iran 1979, since in that case the existing government (the Shah) was already a dictatorship, and it was a question of an equally undemocratic movement (the mullahs) attempting to replace it. You begin by equating the two sides in Turkey, and then work backwards to say that Iran 1979 is the precedent for determining our position on this sort of thing – except that that assumes what needs to be demonstrated, i.e., that we are comparing apples with apples and not oranges.”
“I suspect that it might be easier to make a case for Khomeini’s movement in January 1979 rep-resenting democratic rights than Erdogan’s in July 2016. There was, as I have noted, the legalization of unions and leftist press and even the creation of Islamist workers’ councils, all of which the fake left celebrated. The analogy seems apt to me at least to the extent that the SL dual defeatist position did not imply ‘staying at home’ …. our differences seem to revolve around our concrete estimate of what the two sides represented.”
At the commencement of the 2017 preconference discussion Riley submitted a document (“Revolutionary Continuity & Islamic Reaction”) in which he attempted to show a fundamental identity between the core issues posed in Iran in 1979 and in Turkey in 2016. The Nimps considered that this document convincingly demonstrated that the Iranian left and workers’ movement had considerably more democratic space following Khomeini’s victory than Turkish workers had under Erdogan in 2016. The Imps with-held comment until, in her final summary at the conference just before the vote was taken, Dorn, “after prompting, responded that the reason there had been no response to the document was because she and her co-thinkers agreed with ‘most’ of it. Except, obviously, the essentials” as noted in the introduction to “Erdogan, Pilsudski & Khomeini,” (13 May 2017), the text of Riley’s presentation to the conference on this issue.
The comrades who advocated defending Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic regime in July 2016 never explained why we should not have the same position on Iran in July 1980 when a similar coup was at-tempted against Khomeini. In both cases a section of the military attempted to depose Islamic regimes which claimed electoral mandates. In both cases parliamentarians were targets of the coupsters. In both cases the coup failed because a majority of the officer corps withheld support. One outstanding dif-ference, as noted in the introduction to “Erdogan, Pilsudski & Khomeini,” was that, “The Khomeinites, unlike Erdogan’s AKP, won a parliamentary majority in an election which all parties, including leftist ones, agreed had accurately reflected the views of the electorate.”
The comrades who wanted to defend Erdogan’s regime tended to portray it as a flawed bourgeois democracy—roughly analogous to the Spanish popular front government in 1936 which Franco attempted to overthrow. This assessment was challenged in a lengthy, and carefully documented, contribution by Breitman and Riley which began by sketching the history of the deep divisions within Turkey’s ruling elites between traditionalist clericalists and modernizing, secular-nationalists centered on the officer corps who identified with Kemal Ataturk (“On Erdogan’s Bonapartist Regime,” 8 March 2017). Breitman and Riley also pointed to the similarity between Erdogan’s pseudo-democratic regime and that of Joseph Pilsudski in Poland in the 1920s and 30s. The gradual evolution of Erdogan’s political project from relatively liberal bourgeois-democratic to overtly reactionary Islamist with a democratic veneer was also traced. They concluded that by 2016 this transformation was qualitatively complete.
The Imp comrades made a single contribution on this issue during the preconference discussion (“Turkey and the Tactic of the Military Bloc,” Dorn and cde. Adaire Hannah, 27 March 2017) which reiterated the claim that, despite considerable imperfections, Erdogan’s regime was still operating within a bourgeois democratic framework and therefore had to be defended. Dorn/Hannah ignored the comparison between Erdogan and Pilsudski, as well as the evidence that there had been considerably more democratic space for the workers’ movement in Iran in 1979 than in Turkey in 2016. It was pretty obvious why the Imps did not feel they had to engage seriously—a chunk of the Nimps, led by cde. Mikl, declared themselves to be in favor of defending Erdogan, so that position clearly had a majority. In the course of the discussion on Turkey Mikl’s grouping, which had no prior connection to either the ET/BT or the PRG, gradually emerged as a third faction within the IBT.
The first clear indication of this came after a 2 October 2016 contribution by Riley in which he suggested:
“I think that the discussion on the Turkish coup is [a] very important discussion, not so much because we are under great pressure to come up with a clear and unambiguous answer on our attitude to the coup/countercoup (clearly, at this moment at least, we are not). But because it is important for us to think clearly about the factors that determine our approach to this sort of issue. Making such evaluations is going to be critical to our ability to correctly orient to issues that arise in the future (just as it has been to those that presented themselves in the past). And it is not possible to have a simple formula that will give us the right answer automatically.”
Mikl’s 9 October “7 point response to Tom,” included the following highly significant passage (emphasis added):
“Some comrades have tried to prove the ‘anti-democratic’ character of Erdogan, which we all agree with, based on the data after the July and argued that we should have taken the neutral position [in] July. I have argued that that kind of abstentionism is wrong since 2013. But even [if] Erdogan and the forces which attempted the coup were exactly [the] same, we should have opposed the coup even in that case too.”
In an 18 October 2016 reply to Mikl, Riley identified this as “the nub of our difference”:
“Of course we oppose the coup. The question is, should we defend Erdogan’s government, the coup’s target. If the two wings of the exploiters that come to blows are exactly the same we think it is does not make sense to side with either—therefore our position should be one of opposition to both. This is the significance of the Iranian example, although of course there are im-portant differences. In Iran one side was supported by the left and workers’ movement and op-posed by imperialism and its local henchmen. But we did not support that side militarily in the conflict because its program, qualitatively, was no better than the grisly dictatorship of the blood-drenched Shah.”
Riley pointed out that Mikl’s indifference to the issue of whether there was any real democratic space under Erdogan was not shared by his bloc partners:
“Unlike you, other comrades who lean to a position of siding with Erdogan against the coupsters have not viewed Erdogan as having an anti-democratic orientation. Their argument, as I understand it, is more along the lines that while his regime had serious flaws it was fundamentally upholding bourgeois democratic rights and therefore needed to be defended against the coup.”
Decker indignantly rejected Riley’s suggestion the next day (19 October 2016):
“I think Tom has misunderstood what we have been saying (and therefore interprets Mikl’s comments as something new), and on this basis he incorrectly makes a distinction between Mikl and the rest of us. For my part, I don’t see a difference. We have all, as Mikl said, viewed Erdogan as ‘having an anti-democratic orientation.’ The difference between us and Tom is that we do not, unlike Tom seems to do, frame the problem in terms of trying to quantify how much commitment Erdogan had to bourgeois democracy.”
In a 7 November 2016 response to Decker, Riley asked: “If we were to ‘quantify how much commitment Erdogan had to bourgeois democracy’ as something approaching zero would it really make no difference? Why would Josh wish to defend him in that case?” These questions were never answered. Prior to this the entire debate had revolved around the issue of whether or not, in Decker’s original formulation, Erdogan’s regime “fell into the category of bourgeois democracy (i.e., permitted space for open working-class political activity).”
In fact at this point neither Decker nor Riley (nor any of their co-thinkers) had much of a handle on how Mikl was approaching things. This only came into focus when, during the course of the discussion, Mikl responded to suggestions that our approach should be modelled on the iSt’s to the 1978-79 confrontation in Iran by indicating that he did not necessarily agree with the Spartacist position on Iran. As we noted at the conference, while we completely disagreed with his conclusion, Mikl was “
quite right to see the key issue posed in Iran in 1979 as essentially the same as in Turkey in 2016.”
The discussion continued after the conference. On 4 June 2017 Mikl sent Riley a short note stating that he and his co-thinkers considered that revolutionaries should have supported Khomeini in 1979, despite the reactionary clericalist character of his movement. Acknowledging that the Khomeini regime evolved into an Islamist theocracy, the comrades claimed that for the first few years this was only one of several possible outcomes.
This provided a basis for several intense discussions in the months that followed. On 28 June 2017 Ri-ley sent Mikl a document entitled “On Khomeini & Counterrevolution” which defended the iSt position and provided evidence that a) the Khomeinites had emerged as the leadership of the anti-Shah move-ment by October 1978 (several months before the collapse of the old regime); and b) that during the next few years Khomeini’s regime systematically eliminated any possible opposition and consolidated a theo-cratic dictatorship. In July 2017 comrades Roxanne Baker and Breitman visited Mikl et al for a week of discussion. A few months later Riley and Logan held a series of intense on-line discussions with Mikl in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade him that the iSt had been right about Khomeini.
Mikl’s 29 May 2018 document, entitled “Iran, nationalism and imperialism,” asserted:
“Tom et al have argued that the iSt’s neutralist position in 1979, ‘Down with the Shah, Down with the Mullahs’, should apply to Egypt and Turkey as well. From the point of view of the political components, Egypt and Turkey’s situations in 2013 and 2016 were quite similar to [Iran’s] in 1979, so that might be formally logical and consistent, but that position is tactically incompetent and ultra leftist.”
Mikl et al believe that revolutionaries must automatically side with the neocolonial regimes like those of Ukraine or Syria against domestic opponents who have any sort of connection to U.S. imperialism. In fact, as we pointed out, the rulers of such regimes (like Khomeini) often have a history of similar connections. Marxists defend these regimes against aggression by imperialists or their proxies, but we do not take sides in intra-bourgeois squabbles when both sides are qualitatively similar. Mikl characterized this policy as:
“neutralism on the maneuvers to change the disobedient colonial regimes by imperialism in Libya, Ukraine and Syria are recent examples. Defining actions against regimes when the imperialists are acting through domestic forces as merely civil war, and taking the side of the targeted regimes only when the imperialists are involved directly in combat is not revolutionary.”
Mikl admits that this “might be better than the IS’s [International Socialist Tendency] position which describes the imperialist proxy forces as ‘revolutionary,’” but concludes that “practically it is also in the service of imperialism.” Describing the iSt of the 1970s as “a nasty racist organization” because of the chauvinist remarks by James Robertson cited in our commentary on the ICL’s recent auto-critique, Mikl and his co-thinkers declare:
“The ICL’s ‘The Struggle Against the Chauvinist Hydra’ gives a useful hint to us on where the frequent neutralism on imperialist involvements found in the iSt tradition comes from: ‘Despite all his [Robertson’s] efforts, part of the American leadership developed a chauvinist, anti-internationalist line, opposing national liberation struggles in multinational states.’”
Mikl’s group’s position was rejected by the other Nimps as well as all the Imps. Decker, Dorn, Breitman and cde. Christoph Lichtenberg co-signed a response to him noting:
“Our organization was founded on the basis of a nuanced analysis of the degeneration of the Spartacist League, in which elements of future degeneration were present during a period where it was qualitatively revolutionary and uniquely defended and developed revolutionary politics—on Iran 1979 and on the national question in particular, as well as issues of special oppression and trade union work based on the transitional program, to name but a few.”
“Comrades of the IBT have dedicated our political lives to upholding and continuing the revolutionary heritage of the RT/iSt, and you are not going to convince us to change our minds on issues that are so fundamental to that tradition. This opens up a wide political gulf between your politics and ours, one which seems ultimately impossible to sustain in a common organization.”
After more than a year of serious and intense discussion it is abundantly clear that, a) there is no prospect of reaching agreement with Mikl et al, and that b) continuing these discussions can only be a sterile and pointless exercise. As outlined in our statement of 2 October 2018 we have been forced to come to the same conclusion regarding the Imp comrades. After a decade, it is very clear that there will be no convergence on the issue of “Russian imperialism,” a question at the heart of many contemporary global conflicts. Moreover, as our recent disagreements over Islamist regimes in Egypt, Turkey and Iran demonstrate, the political gap between us is widening. There is a rather profound “methodological” divergence which seems very unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. We therefore have concluded that it is necessary to undo the 1990 fusion with the former PRG comrades and resume independent existence as the Bolshevik Tendency.
Political clarity is an essential attribute for a small revolutionary propaganda group if it is to play a positive role in the struggle to forge a viable Leninist leadership rooted in the working class. We uphold the political contributions of the RT/iSt in its revolutionary period as well as the entire published record of the IBT to date. We are only breaking with comrades with whom we have worked for decades be-cause, after a lengthy and protracted series of discussions and debates, it has become clear that defending and advancing the Trotskyist program requires a new organizational framework. We are well aware that our activities will initially be barely noticed beyond a very small circle, but we are convinced that the political heritage we represent will be an essential ingredient in the future resurgence of a genuinely Trotskyist international workers party. We look forward to future regroupments with other Marxists who have the courage to swim against the stream, and to struggle for the rebirth of the Fourth International.
24 October 2018