James M. Robertson: A Balance Sheet

The recent report of the death of Spartacist League (SL) founder James Robertson on 7 April has occasioned considerable discussion within the shrinking milieu of leftists interested in the fate of the group he led for more than fifty years. In a lengthy article entitled “The Struggle Against the Chauvinist Hydra,” published in the Summer 2017 issue of Spartacist (No. 65), the SL capped several decades of revisionist departures from its Trotskyist past with a wholesale renunciation of Leninism on the national question—an issue which had historically set the SL apart from its centrist competitors who tended to adapt to petty-bourgeois nationalism. The revolutionary SL of the 1960s and 70s, according to the Hydra account, had been guilty of a “perversion of Leninism on the national question, particularly in relation to oppressed nations within multinational states.” This newly discovered deviation, which was attributed to Joseph Seymour, the SL’s leading theorist, resulted in the explicit repudiation of several of his most notable contributions.

Tom Riley of the Bolshevik Tendency (BT) penned two documents in response to this grotesque and incoherent revisionism. The first, entitled “In Defense of (Seymour’s) Marxism,” which originally appeared in 1917 No. 40, addressed the “theoretical” arguments advanced in the Hydra document. Riley’s second document, “From Trotskyism to Neo-Pabloism,” posted on the website of the International Bolshevik Tendency (which had been initiated by a 1990 fusion between the BT  and the New Zealand-based Permanent Revolution Group) dissected the multiple factual errors and political distortions presented in the Hydra document’s account of Spartacist history. Riley discussed Robertson’s central role in the SL’s rise and fall and contrasted the group’s new-found enthusiasm for combatting chauvinism with the founder/leader’s unpleasant proclivity for “pejorative ethnic jokes.”

The following excerpt sketches  Robertson’s valuable contributions and his ultimate failure as a revolutionary leader:

“Robertson is not the first former revolutionary who proved unable to remain true to the ideals of his youth. As a key figure in the Revolutionary Tendency of the SWP [Socialist Workers Party], and the central leader of the Spartacist tendency in its best period, he made some vitally important contributions; but, on balance, his record is not an honorable one – he was too petty, too self-indulgent, too cynical, and inflicted too much gratuitous pain on many who trusted him. His worst crime was the willful and capricious destruction of dozens of dedicated revolutionary cadres.

“Robertson was always good at sizing up people and was attuned to detecting human weakness. He generally took a conservative approach to building the Spartacist tendency; tended to avoid taking too many chances and preferred to avoid risk rather than pursue opportunity. He wanted to scale up the operation, but was very reluctant to lose tight personal control. This is why, even in its best period, every foreign section of the iSt had one or more trusted American cadres in its top leadership.

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“In his youth, in the 1950s, Robertson was a serious and self-sacrificing revolutionist whose careful study of the history of the Trotskyist movement propelled him steadily to the left in an arid period when almost everyone else was moving rightward. Although he ultimately proved unworthy of the big ideas he once ably defended, he, more than anyone else, shaped the politics of the Spartacist tendency which, during the 1960s and 70s, had the distinction of being the world’s only authentically Trotskyist organization.

“In its best period the SL under Robertson’s leadership not only defended the Trotskyist program, but also made some important contributions to it, including the now repudiated approach to the national question, particularly the difficult and complicated challenges posed by situations of ‘interpenetrated peoples.’ The renunciation of much of this history cannot detract from the clarity of the analysis put forward by the revolutionary SL in the 1970s.

“Robertson lacked the character necessary to sustain revolutionary activity as American society drifted relentlessly to the right from the mid-1970s. As prospects of imminent revolutionary breakthroughs receded, he opted for the petty pleasures available to the big frog in the little pond of the Spartacist tendency. Gradually the unaccountable founder/leader’s materially privileged lifestyle was normalized within the group, while other full-timers were expected to eke out an existence on minimal subsidies. This all went hand in hand with the effective elimination of any real internal democracy in the iSt.

“James M. Robertson will end up with a footnote in the history of American Trotskyism, but it will not be one he would have wanted. He will be remembered as a capable, but small caliber, person who, for a time, played a vital role as a link in the chain of revolutionary continuity. But also as someone whose intelligence and strong personality was combined with personal insecurities that led him to abuse many vulnerable, and often very young, revolutionaries, and ultimately to undermine the revolutionary program he once championed.”

Robertson’s role in transforming the once revolutionary Spartacist tendency into a political obedience cult is discussed in some detail in “The Road to Jimstown,” a May 1985 document published by the comrades who founded the BT.  

Robertson’s centrality to the entire Spartacist operation has naturally given rise to considerable speculation about the group’s future without him. “From Trotskyism to Neo-Pabloism” made a few projections about how things may unfold:

“Once Robertson departs this mortal coil we expect to see the ICL [International Communist League, formerly the international Spartacist tendency] membership immediately unite as one to mourn his passing and celebrate the genius of their deceased chieftain. Yet, even as tears flow, paeans of praise are heaped upon the blessed memory of the deceased el supremo, and pledges of eternal fealty to his work ring out, it seems likely that in the background knives will be sharpened and other preparations made for all the horse-trading, double-crossing and backstabbing that will likely accompany the determination of a new pecking order.

“It is hard to imagine the ICL finding a viable niche in the already crowded ecosystem of pro-nationalist pseudo-Trotskyist flora and fauna. Presumably, for a period, it will continue to go through the motions of holding meetings and issuing propaganda. But the chief axis of any struggle for supremacy in the post-Robertsonian ICL seems less likely to focus on programmatic issues than gaining control of the group’s accumulated material assets, which are substantial enough to motivate a few rounds of an in-house ‘game of thrones.’

“Such a struggle is not likely to be particularly edifying, nor would we expect a whole lot of ‘Trotskyism’ to remain once the dust settles, outstanding legal challenges are resolved, the real estate portfolio liquidated and final payouts disbursed. Our hope is that in such an event someone in or around the Prometheus Research Library retains enough interest in Trotskyist history to find a new home for its valuable holdings. It would be a real tragedy if they were to simply be chucked into a dumpster in front of the headquarters, as happened with many SWP materials after Jack Barnes wrote off Trotskyism in the 1980s.”

For all his shortcomings, Robertson, who SWP leader Joseph Hansen once dismissed as a “talented archivist,” remained throughout his life a serious student of Trotskyist history. The Prometheus Research Library, which grew out of his personal library, is probably one of the few things that remains of any real political value in the thoroughly degenerated ICL. Its preservation would not only be a service to the international workers’ movement but also an appropriate tribute to its profoundly flawed founder.

–Bolshevik Tendency, 14 April 2019