Marxist Bulletin No. 4
Expulsion from the Socialist Workers Party
Report on Internal Party Situation to the Plenum of the National Committee
By Farrell Dobbs
28 December 1963
The suspension from membership of Comrades Robertson, Mage, White, Harper and Ireland involves a major question of vital concern to the party: Shall the party demand unconditional loyalty from all its members; or will a disloyal faction be allowed to conduct internal war against the party, acting under cover of alleged “minority rights?”
Criticisms of the suspensions, which have been advanced by some comrades, have raised an even more basic question concerning the character of the party itself: Shall we remain a Leninist-type party, founded on the concept of basic political homogeneity, guided by the principles of democratic centralism, and operating as a disciplined whole through the principle of majority rule; or shall the party degenerate into a loose all-inclusive formation of autonomous factions? Shall it be derailed from its basic political homogeneity, stripped of its democratic centralist principles, rendered incapable of acting in a disciplined way as a united body with a single fundamental purpose?
Our answers to those questions will be vital to the party’s future. The Political Committee has taken its stand in keeping with our understanding of the established principles of the party, and it’s now up to the Plenum to make its decision for the guidance of the party membership. For the information of the plenum in reaching its decision, I will undertake to recapitulate the facts in the case and motivate the disciplinary action taken by the Political Committee.
The suspensions hinge on the Robertson-Ireland and Harper documents, which were appended to the Control Commission report of October 24 and with which you’re all familiar. We first learned of the existence of these documents on the eve of the last party convention. Wohlforth exposed them in an article he submitted to the discussion bulletin (Vol 24, No. 27). He said of the Robertson-Mage-White faction: Theirs is a split perspective. They reject party discipline and party building. They seek to sneak people into the party. They function in part as an independent entity carrying on an organizational faction war within the party. They are a faction that includes non-party members and have become so deeply alienated from the party that as a faction they have already split in content–those were the characterizations of the document by Wohlforth at the time he made reference to them in the bulletin.
As National Secretary, I at that time, on the eve of the convention, requested copies of the documents from Robertson. He refused to make them available and said the proper procedure would be to convene a Control Commission inquiry. I then asked Wohlforth for copies of the documents to which he had referred, and he denied my request saying the documents were what he called “private political material.” For the moment I will leave aside the handling of the matter at the convention and focus at this point on the steps taken after the convention.
On August 2, the subject was brought before the Political Committee. A motion was adopted noting that the Wohlforth accusations raised grave questions involving a hostile attitude toward the party, double recruiting and a split perspective. The Control Commission was asked to conduct an investigation of the matter. The Control Commission held a series of hearings in New York. It obtained copies of the documents in question from Robertson, Ireland and Harper. Mage and some others of the faction appeared at the hearings. All of them were given ample opportunity at that time to disavow the documents. Not a single one of them did so.
On October 24 the Control Commission submitted a report of its investigation. Now the comrades are already familiar with the split line in the Robertson-Ireland and Harper documents that were appended to the Commission report — and on the basis of that report the Political Committee took disciplinary action on November 1, suspending the five from membership. I want to read to you the characterization of the disloyal conduct of the faction as set forth in the Political Committee motion:
“Assuming the guise of a ‘study circle’ the group leadership projects a discussion policy that disregards convention decisions to close discussion on disputed issues and goes ahead factionally on a business-as-usual basis. In external activity they propose to function as ‘united blocs’ seeking to work as free-lancers in areas where they are unhindered by the presence of comrades loyal to the party. They undertake the recruitment of outside contacts into the group on the basis of the group’s program, methods and practices. New people recruited into the group are considered ready to apply for party membership only after they have first been indoctrinated against the program, convention decisions and organizational principles of the party. Group discipline is put before party discipline. Group work within the party is cynically projected as ‘the best possible opportunity for building our tendency and not through any mistaken concepts of loyalty to a diseased shell.’ Such are the concepts, methods and practices with which the Robertson-Mage-White group is indoctrinated by its central leaders and by the Harper-Ireland propagators of the leadership policy. Those concepts, methods and practices are alien to our party, wholly disloyal and utterly intolerable.”
That was the characterization in the Political Committee motion that suspended the five from membership in the party. Since the suspensions, various comrades have raised criticisms of the Political Committee action. The texts of the criticisms as they have been received up to this time are in your folders and you’ve had an opportunity to familiarize yourself with them.
I will not undertake a reply to each specific statement of criticism, I will seek instead to deal with the general categories involved.
A feeling is expressed that the party was not given sufficient information about the case. Insofar as the comrades have felt handicapped concerning full knowledge of all the facts, we must recognize there has been an oversight and steps must be taken to correct it. That can be quickly accomplished. We propose that all the material pertaining to the case be published internally for the information of the party membership. All of the material submitted to the plenum can in fact be ready within a few days after the plenum for distribution to the membership. And that information can be supplemented reasonably soon thereafter by publication of the pertinent details concerning the plenum action on the case. In that way we can quickly have all the facts before the entire party membership.
It is claimed that the suspension procedure violated Article VIII, Section 3 of the party constitution. The assertion is made that charges should have been presented in advance and that the accused should have had a chance to answer the charges at a trial.
Those criticisms reflect a misunderstanding of the constitutional procedures involved in this case, and they reflect a confusing of branch methods of discipline with the exercise of the national powers of the Control Commission. The Control Commission is an extraordinary body constitutionally invested with special powers as provided under Article VI of the constitution. When the Control Commission acts in any case, Article VI supersedes Article VIII, Section 3. Article VI establishes the Control Commission as a permanent national body, elected by the party convention. It is given wide latitude in acting to safeguard the integrity of the party and to enforce its basic principles. The Control Commission has constitutional authority to investigate any individual or circumstance within the party, and it acted entirely within its power in demanding from the Robertson-Mage-White group the documents in question. Moreover, the Control Commission is authorized by the Constitution to delegate any of its authority to representatives in the exercise of that power, a provision intended to meet practical problems as was the case in this situation. Comrade A. Chester of the Control Commission and Comrade Taber, designated as a representative of the Control Commission, conducted the investigation here in New York.
A charge is made that the Control Commission acted as an agent of the Political Committee and that the Political Committee went beyond the Control Commission findings. That charge again simply misconstrues the constitutional provisions involved. Article VI specifically provides that the Control Commission shall present its findings and recommendations to the Political Committee for action. It further provides that the Political Committee may take immediate action, or it may refer the matter to the National Committee, if it so chooses. The case before us was handled exactly as the constitution provides and there are no grounds whatever for criticism on that score.
A criticism is made that White was not called before the Control Commission. It is also pointed out that White and Mage did not sign the documents in question, and the Political Committee is accused of convicting them through guilt by association.
Those allegations merely fog up the central point of the case. The documents involved constitute a declaration of war on the party. They define the party as a right centrist formation. They speak of irreconcilable internal divisions between “reformists and revolutionaries.” They call for planned and united group action within the party. They state the aim to pick and choose their battles, to detect times when it is most advantageous to attack and when it is best to maintain silence. They do this within the framework of a proscription against any “mistaken concepts of loyalty to a diseased shell.”
Some critics of the suspension would dismiss these documents as the product of what they call “individual stupidity.” The Political Committee holds otherwise. It’s a declaration of war on the party. It’s a disloyal course that cannot and will not be tolerated. All leaders of the Robertson-Mage-White faction must bear the responsibility for their collective position. It’s immaterial whether one or another faction leader signed the documents or not. Let us note in passing, however, that in their replies to the suspensions neither Mage nor White disavowed the documents. They actually reaffirmed them, but they did it of course with their customary double talk. All the leaders of the Robertson-Mage-White faction must face the consequences of everything the faction does. That just happens to be the way political life works out, and people who can’t face up to that fact of political life should stay out of leading positions.
It’s somewhat different in the case of the ranks of the group. Some of them may have gotten sucked into the attack on the party without realizing what they were doing, what they were getting into. If any of them want to turn around they should be given a chance to do so. But the leaders of the group knew exactly what they were doing and now they must face the consequences.
Critics of the suspensions attack the Political Committee on the grounds that it is exercising alleged thought control. The assertion is made that the charges are based solely on the opinions of the suspended comrades. It is demanded that the Political Committee must produce concrete evidence of disloyal acts. And some of the critics have likened the Political Committee action to capitalist use of the Smith Act.
Here again, several basic facts are overlooked by the critics. The party is a voluntary organization. People can belong to the party or not, as they may choose. But there’s nothing voluntary whatever about the acceptance of governmental authority. It’s exercised over everyone, whether they like it or not. And that’s why governmental attempts to proscribe views are anti-democratic. People who disagree with the views of the governing party are not simply told they’ll have to organize a rival party; they’re threatened with jail. The difference is qualitative.
As a voluntary organization, the party has the right to define the basis of its existence. That’s traditional to the whole history of organized political action. Now we, obviously, won’t allow fascists or terrorists or white supremacists in our ranks. Of course, those political categories are extreme examples which do not apply in the case before us. But those categories do serve to illustrate in an immediately perceptible way the fact that the party does put distinct limits on the right of advocacy within its ranks. In addition to that, the party exercises its right to define all its basic beliefs programmatically in setting down the conditions for membership, and the party has an equal right to define the organizational principles with which all members must comply. Those who don’t subscribe to the party’s basic beliefs have the democratic right to withdraw from the organization. On our part, we can’t allow them to remain in the party and advocate anything they please, especially under the circumstances in which we must operate within the main fortress of imperialism.
We not only can’t let disloyal people advocate anything they please within the party, we can’t let them do so behind the back of the party, as the Robertson-Mage -White faction has done and is still doing. If the documents in question are only a harmless expression of views and opinions as they hypocritically pretend, why didn’t they submit those views and opinions openly for party discussion? Why did we have to pry the documents out of them? The answer is plain for all to see. The documents characterize the party as a right centrist formation and project a split perspective. The leadership of the Robertson-Mage-White faction advocates rejection and violation of the most elementary condition of membership in this organization: loyalty to the party. For them, obligations to the party are subordinated to and superseded by their own factional aims. They’re conducting a wrecking operation inside the party, and that’s why they tried to keep the documents a secret, because party wreckers are not popular in our ranks.
We face a declaration of war, and it is the duty of the leadership to defend the party against the would-be wreckers. We don’t have to await formal proof of specific hostile acts, nor do we have to let concrete evidence pile up, one fact upon another, until the sheer weight of their attack on the party makes their patent disloyalty obvious even to the most blind. Disloyalty requires corrective measures, right here and now. We recognize the right of the Robertson-Mage-White faction leaders to oppose the Socialist Workers Party. We’ll defend their democratic right to form a rival party on their own to combat us. But they won’t be allowed to act as wreckers within the SWP.
Our critics argue that disciplinary action against the Robertsonite leaders is an attempt to settle political differences by organizational means. They contend that disciplinary action signifies in practice suppression of the right to organize dissenting groups within the party.
Those charges are false. The party convention settled the political issues in dispute by a decisive majority. All minority viewpoints within the party had a full opportunity to be heard. There was no restriction of legitimate minority rights. In fact, the situation was just the opposite. The leadership bent over as far as it possibly could to assure full freedom of expression and just a little bit better than 100 per cent of what were the legitimate rights of the minorities. When we came to the convention and the vote was taken, it was proven that the minorities had simply lost the political argument within the party.
The actions of the convention represented, comrades, a compelling expression of the will of the party membership in its overwhelming majority. The political line was clearly defined by the convention and the comrades now want to get on with responsible, disciplined, loyal party building work. That requires party unity on the basis of democratic centralism. That means subordination of the minority to the majority; that means the unconditional right of the majority to decide and the unconditional duty of every party member to accept the decision and help carry it out. That’s what democratic centralism means.
No one, comrades, is asked to surrender dissident political views. There is no impairment whatever of the normal rights of a minority. There is no prohibition of the right to organize dissenting groups, of the right to organize factions within the party. But a minority must loyally submit to majority decisions and wait for a new opportunity to advance its dissident views when internal party discussion is again in order. Meantime, comrades holding minority views should pitch in and help build the party.
So far as the party leadership is concerned, the efforts of all loyal comrades are valued, without a single exception. Political differences do not in any way disqualify any comrade from having a full opportunity to serve the party. The demand for loyalty is not to individual leaders, and there isn’t a scintilla of truth in any contention to the contrary. The demand is for loyalty to the party program and to the organizational principles of the party. That demand in no way disqualifies loyal party builders who may hold dissident views on one or another point. But in the case before us we are dealing with a disloyal group of faction leaders who are out to wreck the party, and that’s a horse of a different color.
Some of our critics contend that we can’t do anything about these wreckers because they have minority rights. We’re told that a faction has an unqualified right to its own internal life and we are instructed that official party bodies have no right to pry into the written or oral work of a minority.
It is necessary to remind comrades who hold that view that this party is not a loose federation of autonomous factions. The party’s thoroughly established principles reject the spurious concept of so-called “all-inclusiveness.” That concept would paralyze the party internally and render it impotent in its external work. Historically we have striven for homogeneity in our organization on the basis of the party’s principles. Our programmatic aim is a struggle for power to transform society. All our activities, our methods, the internal party regime are designed to serve that aim. And our great historic task requires complete discipline and centralized direction within the party. The party must assert its right to control its public activity and to regulate its internal life. The party cannot sanctify an atmosphere of uninterrupted conflict internally. No minority can be allowed to run wild inside the party. The part must be subordinated to the whole, the minority to the majority, in any democratic and disciplined organization. A disciplined party must regulate the conduct of organized groups in its ranks; as well as the conduct of every individual member. Its official bodies must determine what is correct procedure, based on the party’s principles and statutes.
The 1953 Resolution on Party Organization, which you find in your folders, sets forth the party’s organizational principles. I should note in passing that some parts of the resolution deal with a given political conjuncture. For example, the references in the 1940 section to the proletarianization campaign. But these specific conjunctural features are secondary to the basic line of the documents, and our principles are very clearly delineated in those documents. There is other fundamental material on the party’s organizational principles available in other documents. One of these is The Struggle for a Proletarian Party, by Comrade Cannon, which served as a guide to our cadres in the 1939-40 internal struggle. We propose that a commission be established to codify all of this material in a single document for the purpose of educating and re-educating the cadres of the party in democratic centralism, to inspire party patriotism as part of revolutionary consciousness, and to show the vital interrelation of principled politics and organizational principles. Those needs are more urgent than ever in the current political situation with which Comrade Halstead dealt yesterday in his report which I won’t attempt to repeat here.
We are told by the critics of the suspensions that the leadership should present an assessment of the history and development of the Robertson-Mage-White faction. In reply I would point out that their articulateness in the long internal discussion has made their political history reasonably well known to the party generally. Not so fully understood, however, except in the branches where they exist, is their long record of disloyalty to the party. Well, let’s take a look at the record.
In the fall of 1962, Wohlforth and Philips announced what they called a “re-organization” of the minority as it had previously existed during their cohabitation as a group with Robertson-Mage-White. Wohlforth and Philips issued a declaration of loyalty to the party, you remember it was published in the bulletin prior to the convention. Robertson, Mage and White kept mum. The party wondered who is loyal, who is disloyal, why the split? Next came the Robertsonite provocation of the New York “study group,” which was a concrete act. They set up this little factional tea party for minority supporters and what they called “sympathizers,” and they organized it behind the back of the party branch. When the Political Committee called them to order, Robertson, Mage and White issued a joint declaration to the National Committee, you’ll recall, in which they denounced the Political Committee as “bureaucratic.” They said they would abide by “normal” discipline; they said they would not as a faction surrender the “necessary and essential” functions of the group. They left the meaning of “normal, necessary and essential” to their own definition in the name of their so-called rights as an “organized group”.
Next came the Wohlforth accusations on the eve of the convention. He revealed the existence of the documents in question and described them. This threw considerable light on the cause of the minority split in the fall of 1962. Those who opposed the line of the Robertson-Ireland and Harper documents went, with Wohlforth and Philips in the minority split. Those who agreed with, accepted, supported the line of the documents stayed with the Robertson-Mage-White faction. And I should say, by the way, that once that split took place a vote was no longer necessary on the documents. Those opposed voted with their feet, and that’s why it’s a fraud for the Robertson-Mage-White faction leadership to advance the claim that the documents aren’t official because they allegedly weren’t voted on.
At the time of the Wohlforth article in the bulletin exposing the Robertson-Ireland and Harper documents, Robertson, Mage and White rushed to the bulletin in a jointly signed article in which they called Wohlforth a liar. But in that article they made no affirmation of loyalty to the party. Instead they submitted as an appendix to their article in the bulletin a copy of a letter that Robertson had written to White a bit earlier. In that letter Robertson called the Robertson-Ireland document a reflex of the need for struggle when “Trotskyists and centrists” co-exist in one party.
At the convention the facts then known were reported to the Nominating Commission. Among some critics of the suspensions it is now contended that the Nominating Commission transformed itself into a virtual control commission and exacted punishment against minorities without any hearing or trial on the charges. Nothing could be further from the actual facts of the situation. The Nominating Commission simply excluded the Robertson-Mage-White and Wohlforth-Philips groups from the slate it brought into the convention as its recommendations for the incoming National Committee. The Nominating Commission explained to the convention why representation was not included for those groups. It said their loyalty to the party was in question and took the view that loyalty must be a prerequisite to the usual practice of giving minorities representation on the party National Committee.
Robertson was nominated from the convention floor. A secret ballot vote was taken and Robertson got 7 votes out of a total of 61 delegates voting. Wohlforth was not nominated. Neither group got representation on the National Committee in the democratically conducted convention elections which took place by secret ballot. Now this clearly meant that the convention agreed their loyalty was in question, and remind yourselves, comrades, that the convention just happens to be the highest body in this party. When it is in session, the convention has absolute power, up to and including changing any part of the constitution and basic programmatic and organizational positions of the party that it chooses, and that was its opinion.
A parenthetic question arises: Where does the Wohlforth-Philips group stand today? In the split with Robertson, Mage and White, they declared their loyalty to the party. But they waited several months, right up to the eve of the convention, before informing the party of the Robertson-Mage-White split perspective. Wohlforth refused my request for copies of the Robertson-Ireland and Harper documents. And now the Wohlforth-Philips group has denounced the Political Committee for its action in suspending the leaders of the Robertson-Mage-White faction because of their disloyalty to the party. Clearly, the Wohlforth-Philips group still has some things to explain to the party.
To get back to the case of the suspended Robertson-Mage-White faction leaders, those who appeared before the Control Commission refused to disavow the documents in question. They failed to give any assurance of their loyalty to the party. Since then you’ve seen their written protests and you’ve heard Robertson and Ireland here before the plenum today. They remain dishonest to the party from beginning to end. They deny double recruitment “of the type” claimed. They say they will not flout “legitimate” discipline. In each instance they’ll fill in the definition according to what serves their factional aims, not in accordance with the basic organizational principles and the fundamental good and welfare of the party. They accuse the Political Committee of taking factional reprisals against them. What was Ireland’s usage today — “the leadership faction?” Everything in the party is reduced down to a game of factions in their view. Robertson says, “You guys.” There’s a lot of meaning comes through in these small usages of one or another kind, particularly before the plenum of the National Committee.
They predict the bureaucratic degeneration of the party, inventing nothing new, but just repeating what Robertson, Mage and the others learned from their study of Shachtman’s past attacks on the organizational principles and the program of the Socialist Workers Party. They predict the descent of the party into Stalinism, the usual claim of a disloyal faction that is conducting a split attack on the party. They ridicule the idea of party patriotism. They sneer at the concept of party loyalty as a “religion.” And to this day, they are carrying on as usual in their war against the party, showing letters and documents around on the sly, peddling scandal and petty gossip, fishing for new suckers in the party.
I have here a note from Comrade Dave, the Chicago organizer, who writes: “Tonight it was brought to my attention that the enclosed documents and testimonials were sent to Chicago c/o SWP, 302 S. Canal. I am returning them to you together with the covering letter which accompanied them.” Now the accompanying letter is signed by Al [Nelson] of the Robertson-Mage-White faction. It says in part, “Enclosed for your information are copies of motions, letters and statements representing a number of comrades calling for the lifting of the suspensions. I urge you to give this material your closest attention, and request that, if you are so moved, you add your voice to those of the comrades who have so protested. Would you kindly forward me a copy of any material you may submit to the National Office.” Attached to [Nelson’s] letter is Wohlforth’s statement in protest of the suspensions, Wendell Phillips’ letter in protest of the suspensions, the motion adopted in New Haven in protest of the suspensions, the statement by Arne Swabeck in protest of the suspensions and the motion submitted by Myra to the Political Committee on the night that the suspensions were voted.
How this material came into the hands of the Robertsonites, we don’t know, but their aim in using it is obvious on the face of it. They haven’t changed their methods one iota. If they were in any way, shape or form serious about wanting to be loyal, disciplined members of this party, at this time of all times, particularly under circumstances where they were given an opportunity to address the plenum, wouldn’t they be meticulously careful not to be violating party procedures? Instead they practice factionalism as usual, fishing for new suckers. And the practice doesn’t end up nationally; it goes abroad.
We have here a copy of a letter that Healy wrote to Germain under date of November 8. He says, “We have just learned of the following developments within the SWP. Five members of the Robertson group, including Robertson, have been suspended from membership of the SWP by the Political Committee upon the recommendation of a report made by a Control Commission investigation. This report consists of quotations from documents written by members of the Robertson group over a year ago.” Now listen to this next part: “It is the first time in the entire history of our movement that I have ever heard of people being suspended for having written things in an internal bulletin.”
Whether the Robertson-Mage-White faction leaders gave erroneous information to Healy or if Healy added his own interpretation, or whether it’s a mutual effort in which they both put their considerable talents in this direction at work, we don’t know. But it’s a blatant falsehood. We’re accused of taking action for an article allegedly written in the internal bulletin, when it actually took a Control Commission proceeding to pry this article out of these disloyal faction leaders. The false charge is made in order to try to deceive people abroad–and if there are some branches within the party that haven’t caught the full score because they didn’t have to live with this faction within the branch, how much more difficult must it be for groups elsewhere in the world to understand the true situation.
Now the December 10 joint statement of those suspended, which they have submitted to the plenum, adds up simply to a renewed declaration of war on the party. They would have the comrades believe that their war is against the party leadership, not the party itself. But as their documents show, that’s not true. Their fight is against the program of the party which they term “right centrist”. Their fight is against the party’s organizational principles which they call “bureaucratic”. They’re at war with the party leadership simply because the leadership is determined to enforce the program and the principles of the party. In short, they don’t consider the SWP their party; they consider it a right centrist hunting ground for factional raiders. You’ll find the basic intent of the Robertson-Mage-White line echoed in recent issues of the “Newsletter” in which Healy purports to read the whole SWP out of the Trotskyist movement.
Must we stand like sheep while all this is going on? Must we tolerate their factional raiding tactics until the splitters themselves decide the most propitious time to make their split? Is that what we’re reduced to? What a commentary that would be on the party leadership and on the party itself. But that’s not the case.
This party knows how to recognize disloyalty on the part of people who are conducting a wrecking operation, and it knows how to deal with them. It’s the duty of this plenum to deal firmly and in no uncertain terms with these factional raiders. We consider it the duty of the plenum to expel them for their disloyalty. We consider that firm disciplinary action is imperative to preserve the program, organizational principles and integrity of the party. We consider that decisive action by this plenum is vital to the good and welfare of the loyal, young reinforcements who are beginning to pour their energy and devotion into our movement and who represent the future of our movement.
In closing I want to present a motion to the Plenum on behalf of the Presiding Committee. The motion reads as follows: “The Plenum of the National Committee concurs with the characterization of the leaders of the Robertson-Mage-White group as set forth in the Political Committee’s motion of November 1, 1963, and approves the Political Committee action in suspending five of the group’s leaders from membership in the party.
Because of their disloyal conduct, the plenum hereby expels from the party Comrades Robertson, Mage, White, Harper and Ireland. All material pertinent to the case shall be published forthwith in the internal bulletin for the information of the party membership. The plenum hereby creates a special commission to prepare a draft codifying in a single document a full reaffirmation of the party’s organizational principles as they have been set down in various official party documents at earlier times. The commission shall be composed of Comrades Cannon, Dobbs and Warde. Upon its completion, the draft shall be submitted for consideration at a forthcoming plenum of the National Committee.”
28 December 1963