ICL & the Russian Question
Prestige Politics & Programmatic Confusion
The following is excerpted from a forthcoming IBT pamphlet.
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.
Long-time readers of 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.”
—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.”
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 (documented in our pamphlet Kurdistan & the Struggle for National Liberation). 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.
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 (The Internationalist, No. 19, Summer 2004) 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.”
—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.”
—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.”
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?”
…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 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” (WV No. 348, 17 February 1984). 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.
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.”
—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.”
—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 elements in 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 shortcut 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….”
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].”
—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.”
—1917 No.10, Third Quarter 1991
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 of these bureaucrats passed up their chance to be brain trusted 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.”
—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 Jan 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.”
—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’.”
—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.”
—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.”
—Spartacist Nos. 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 (WV No. 590, 7 September 1990). 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.”
—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 restoring capitalism. 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; 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, which we reprinted in 1917 No. 12, 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.”
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.”
—WV No. 828, 11 June 2004
True enough, but the “impulse of these workers” was also “far better” than the hypocritical ICL leadership, whose refusal to take sides between the two camps put it in a third one.
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.”
—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, 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.