Jim Who?

James Robertson’s missing obituary

There is something a bit odd going on with the Spartacist League (SL), a group I joined at the tender age of 22 and have since maintained an interest in. In the 1960s and 70s, the Spartacist tendency represented the living continuity of authentic Trotskyism and made some important original extensions of that tradition. As a founding member of the External Tendency of the international Spartacist tendency, and its successor groups, I participated in the production of a number of critical articles documenting the decline of the once-revolutionary SL into an obedience cult with increasingly revisionist politics.[1]

One constant in the history of the rise and fall of the Spartacist tendency was the pivotal role played by James M. Robertson, the group’s founder/leader who had a major influence in every important political and organizational decision for over 40 years. On 14 April, a week after Robertson’s long-anticipated demise, we (the Bolshevik Tendency) published our assessment of his role in the history of the Spartacist tendency: James M. Robertson: A Balance Sheet

While it was hardly surprising that most contemporary leftists who have little interest in the SL, or its history, have ignored Robertson’s passing, thus far even those who claim to uphold the best elements of its tradition have treated his departure essentially as a non-event. Our former comrades in the IBT released a three sentence statement on 24 April, a few days after a similarly brief announcement of Robertson’s death had appeared in Workers Vanguard (WV), the SL’s newspaper.

The Internationalist Group (IG), headed by Jan Norden (who edited WV from 1973 until his ouster in 1996), has yet to comment on the passing of their longtime chieftain. The IG leaders have not historically suffered from writers’ block. Nor are they averse to writing assessments of the contributions of former revolutionaries. In 1998 they produced a valuable salute to Myra Tanner Weiss, the veteran Trotskyist cadre who denounced the bureaucratic expulsion of the Revolutionary Tendency (the precursor to the Spartacist League) from the Socialist Workers Party (U.S.) in 1963.

Norden and the other ex-SL cadres leading the IG have carefully avoided any serious critical evaluation of their experiences during the period they had leading roles in the Spartacist tendency. They have generally tended to present their 1996 purge as an essentially unprecedented event and either defended or refused to comment on the SL’s erratic political record over the decade and a half preceding their departure. The few observations they have offered never involved any criticism of Robertson—perhaps because Norden et al preferred to remember him as a well-intentioned revolutionary misled by unscrupulous advisers.

The IG’s failure to offer any evaluation of Robertson’s record probably also reflects a desire to avoid opening up sensitive historical issues about various events, policies and political positions that they endorsed or acquiesced to at the time but would now prefer to forget. We raised some of these in a lengthy letter to them in December 1996, but received no response (TB #6: Polemics with the Internationalist Group Document No. 3). Of course it is still possible that Norden et al will offer an assessment of the SL’s el supremo. Perhaps, for some reason, they want to first see what the SL says.

The 19 April issue of WV promised a “thorough appreciation of Jim’s life and work, as well as notices for memorials” in an upcoming issue, but thus far nothing has appeared. We hear that there is no plan to publish anything for another couple of months. This delay seems rather peculiar as the founder/leader’s declining health and mental capacity was well known to everyone in and around the SL for years, and therefore his passing could hardly have come as a surprise. The extended delay in celebrating his “life and work,” given the ample opportunity for advance preparation, therefore suggests that perhaps certain differences of interpretation have arisen during the course of preparing the documentation. It seems likely that any such differences could be linked to tensions generated from the internal maneuvering that is doubtless underway to establish a new pecking order in the group.

Or perhaps problems have arisen with aspects of the previous crude rewrite of Robertson’s political biography which was pretty clearly intended to align it with the group’s recent wholesale embrace of petty-bourgeois nationalism in Quebec and elsewhere (see: From Trotskyism to Neo-Pabloism). Might the delay be the result of requests by comrades (perhaps those of Albanian, Greek or Kurdish heritage, if there are any) for including aspects of Robertson in the forthcoming “appreciation” that his hagiographers would prefer to gloss over? Unlikely, but presumably everything will become clear in time.

Tom Riley (Bolshevik Tendency), 14 July 2019

1 These articles include “The Road to Jimstown” (1985), “The Robertson School of Party-Building” (1986), “Whatever Happened to the Spartacist League?” (2005), “Sclerotic Spartacists Unravel” (2010) and, most recently, “From Trotskyism to Neo-Pabloism” (2018).