Marxist Bulletin No. 3 – Part I
1962 Split in the SWP Revolutionary Tendency
Letter from J Robertson to G White
October 7, 1962
An enormous amount of urgent matters have accumulated since I returned from the Bay Area. On 9-27 and continued on 9-30 I wrote you an uncompleted letter which I’m appending to this present one. Then I fell sick for a week with influenza and at the same time Wohlforth then openly launched his splitting attack, orally in the NYC tendency meeting, and in writing in his ‘Toward the Working Class.’
In order to finish writing you tonight, I want first to make a few basic observations about Comrade Wohlforth’s current tack and then conclude with some points for your consideration and action.
1. The proletarian core/working class backbone of the SWP is doubly a straw man in this discussion. First because in the main it is only since Tim’s document of this May that he discovered this proletarian core to fuse with. Yet having ‘found’ it, he also finds that those who know that this core is for some years no longer real are themselves petty bourgeois incipient renegades. The witch hunt and related attrition wiped out all the party’s significant working trade union fractions. Left are scattered individuals in factories and pro trade-union oriented fragments in the party, such as the grouping around T. Kerry in the leadership. By no stretch of the imagination are these a party ‘backbone’ or ‘core’–wish fulfillment to the contrary notwithstanding. Secondly, if the party with its centrist program did have an important TU base we’d have to place and/or win over supporters inside the factory fractions and give battle over relevant issues to the line of the party majority as we sought to win ascendancy fraction by fraction. Even in this hypothetical case, the way to proceed is at variance with Tim’s line. But to play with the hypothetical case is to blunt the point of the relation between the loss of a working class base and proletarian orientation to the party and the winning out of centrism and degeneration of the core of the party cadre.
2. There is no principled way for Tim to avoid basing his case on the nature of this party. He can and does twist and turn, threaten and bluster, obscure and invent, etc. etc. But if the party is centrist, and it is, the basic line of the Robertson-Ireland document is, as an elementary reflex, correct.
Good Christ, with a pompousness and fraud that border on the mentally aberrant, he writes (to paraphrase since my copy of TW’s document has not arrived, and I’m citing from memory the reading of another comrade’s copy) that with his line (?) the minority has in this past year fused with the proletarian core of the party in Detroit, Philly, San Francisco, and is on the way in New Haven! Obviously this is written for foreign consumption. What a ‘flattering’ way to describe Art and wife and child in Detroit, five longtime party members in Philly and S.F., and a person in New Haven who recently came back to the movement after being out 18 years. The comrades who were won solidly this past year were won to and signed a political document that is our joint ‘property’ and which was essentially a declaration of support to the IC world resolution.
3. It is painful to try to grapple seriously with Tim’s position because it has switched on and off so much. In NYC two months ago we were told by Tim that perspectives differences were a fraud for purposes of empty factionalism. (But in May he said they were critical and that every comrade had to stand up and be counted.) Now again they are so paramount that Tim declares he is closer to the ‘proletarian core’ of the party majority than to his own petty-bourgeois co-thinkers–i.e., the NYC tendency majority. We have consistently declared the party to be centrist in character and have systematically and methodically sought to draw the proper tactical and perspective conclusions—while Tim has leaped around from one extreme posture to another. Now he’s landed in a very bad position indeed. While he doubtless doesn’t now mean all of the reconcillationist line he’s preaching toward the Majority, it opens the road back for any of his followers who are uncomfortable with the episodes of struggle which are mandatory when Trotskyists and centrists coexist within one party. To assume even as a tactic a mask of conciliationism risks losing comrades when the disguise fuses with the face.
4. Tim gives every evidence of ardently desiring the Robertson-Ireland wing of the tendency out of the Minority and out of the party, and the sooner the better–as witness his concluding remarks at the last NYC tendency meeting: “Robertson’s covertly for a split within a few months. If Jim goes, good riddance!” And of course there is the “break all ties, deepen the breach” tone and language of his document. Cannon wrote more mildly of Shachtman in 1940, though Tim obviously believes he and I are the exact reincarnations of those two then. So driven is he to create a panic mood of hate to consummate a split of the tendency that to add to the compound picture of a petty bourgeois grouping of the upper West Side’s middle-class 103 St. fleeing the proletarian factory quarters at 101 St. that poor old Tim snarls and foams at any decent comrade daring to call the Shachtmanites of 1941-46 a left-centrist grouping. To cite Tim Wohlforth against Tim Wohlforth, however:
“We can now get an accurate picture of the political development of the Shachtman tendency. It was born in 1940 as a petty bourgeois opposition within the Trotskyist movement. It went through a “second split” with the mass exodus of those who rode the opposition bloc out of the movement altogether. It then launched a party and attempted to compete with the SWP to be the Trotskyist party in this country. It contained at this time divergent tendencies which pushed it in different directions. It had within it tendencies which wished a reconciliation with the SWP by building a united Trotskyist party. It had other tendencies which forced it to the right–to a definitive break with Trotskyism in 1946. We can characterize the WP of this period as a left centrist grouping of unstable composition which couldn’t quite decide exactly where it was going. Then following the 1946 WP-SWP unity affair and with the opening of the cold-war witch hunt, it began to move to the right at an accelerated pace, transforming itself from a competing tendency within the Trotskyist movement into a centrist ‘third camp’ tendency which felt itself antagonistic to Trotskyism as well as to reformism. It stayed only for a relatively short time in this centrist limbo as it soon struck out in an open reformist direction, seeking today to become the loyal left wing of the social democracy.”
(page 22, What Makes Shachtman Run?, Tim Wohlforth, August, 1957.)
The characterizing of the WP is a small matter as it relates to our needs, but it is very big for one thing which is easily obscured by charges and accusations–who is serious toward our history and theory and who has bent and twisted them for petty factional gain and to try to make a wrong line look good?
5. So, my concluding observation is that Tim has entirely lost his head just now and is in a political sense deranged. He has managed to reproduce a set of charges toward some of his own Tendency comrades that are of the same kind as the accusations of the Majority against the Minority as a whole. But Tim is much harsher and more urgently split-oriented than Hansen has managed to be to date.
What I want you to consider and/or act on are the following;
(1) In any sharp flare-up of factionalism harsh tone and characterizations are inevitable, and I’ve no complaint. However, there are two limits that have been passed which must be reestablished, and I want your help in stamping out transgressions:
(a) to combat most urgently accusations in writing which give the party majority a basis for charges against minority comrades. Tim wrote that Robertson-Ireland deny party discipline; are for breaking party statutes, and want to bring non-party members into intra-party factional meetings. These accusations I state for the record and for reasons of fact are false. You and I discussed and later I carefully singled out and repeated in the NYC tendency meeting my view that the position of our tendency had to be one of abiding by the discipline and statutes of the party. For Tim to continue writing in this vein would be to commit a provocation against our party membership, (b) to create an intolerant attitude toward use of words and phrases which are only justified for creating a split atmosphere, such as the remark about “good riddance”.
(2) While no one can stop Tim from a criminal split in the tendency if he’s really hell bent for one, yet intervention by Bay Area comrades can make it difficult to carry off and give the time for clarification and proper discussion (i.e., to let the minimal fact sink in that after 2-3 months Larry and I are still in the party!). For our part, we have and do declare our willingness to function. If we lose, as a responsible minority in the national Tendency, but Tim shows no trace of a similar attitude.
(3) Closely related to the possibility of the Bay Area moderating what has exploded into a threatening situation is where you and other Bay Area comrades stand on the substantive matters of perspective. If the bulk of our Bay Area comrades (who are 40% of the Tendency) do opt for Tim’s line–and he’s doing his best to get a frightened stampede going–then that’s that, he’ll just freeze out the NYC Tendency majority and try to write us off. Likewise if you comrades adopt an ‘isolationist’ line of a curse on both your houses, Wohlforth will feel free to act, on the assumption that his connections and PC role will bring you around later.
So if you are in basic agreement with our analysis of the party and resulting perspective, you’d better let it be known, soon and in a nice, mild, not anti-Wohlforthian way. This combined approach will cool off Tim more surely than anything else. I could raise the question of an amending process to create a final draft of our document, but I’d rather wait to find out whether you intend to be involved in it.
So that’s the way things look from here. Feel free to show this letter to any tendency comrades in the area that you think it worthwhile.
Appended letter to Geoff White
September 27, 1962
Last night I had a meeting with Tim which will have far-reaching consequences. It was called upon my initiative to tell him of the just concluded trip by Lynne and me to the West Coast. After giving a brief run-down on developments in the Bay Area and Seattle, I referred to the several proposals that I’ve been raising in connection with perspectives of the tendency. In addition to those I presented while on the Coast, and as a result of additional reflection and in light of inquiries raised by you and by Danny, I’d made more precise the proposal that one of the implementations of our perspectives be the creation of a resident technical bureau. In particular I proposed that should we find a basic agreement on the tasks of the tendency, then the personnel composition of the projected bureau should initially have a parity character so as to remove the irritations of questions of ‘power’ or ‘regime’ from a possible process of healing the then apparently not very weighty differences. But should we find that a serious and objective division exists over the nature of the party, tendency, and our tasks, then we must have recourse to establishing majorities and minorities or else be plunged into either paralysis, arbitrary direction, or rupture. With this I concluded my initial remarks.
Tim then stated that he was in fundamental opposition to the line of the Robertson-Ireland document; considered the issues of the nature of the movement and our tactical approach of great importance; was himself drawing up a counter-statement; and would insist on a thorough and well-organized discussion leading to a decision as soon as possible, consistent with full treatment of the issues. He further stated that even any consideration of tendency organizational proposals was out of order until the discussion was concluded (when presumably the victorious majority would set up what bodies it saw fit); and that the only general technical or organizational matter that needed handling even informally in the meantime between us was to insure that enough copies of documents got around. Finally it should be noted that Tim said literally not a single word about the substance of his fundamental opposition, although it is doubtless related to his earlier views.
We spent another half hour or so dealing with lesser matters and then adjourned–a declaration of war having been politely given and politely acknowledged. The questions that are raised are what does it mean:
(1) Basically Tim is moving finally in a formally responsible manner, now seeking to consolidate his leadership on the basis of acceptance by a majority of a perspective and position. Previously he’d relied mainly on the application of evasive maneuver backed up by initiative and energy, which combination has brought him most of the forms of power and levers of control.
(2) Had I time three days ago to continue writing the next sentences, I was going to suggest that despite his recent ambiguous voiding of his earlier differences and/or of their importance, Tim would have to launch a renewed attack from more-or-less the same quarter as before. I expected him to launch an attack ‘fighting the anti-party attitudes’, together with more emphasis on the ‘non-proletarian character and orientation’ of his opposition. In a word, I surmised that he would bring the same flavor or attack against supporters of the Robertson-Ireland document that the Majority levels against the tendency as a whole. But now 3 days later these observations are not conjecture; rather they are the core of the accusation Arnold, Mazelis, and Wohlforth himself have been spreading privately and which will doubtless turn up in a document soon and in tomorrow night’s tendency meeting.
(3) Although I’ve not yet heard anything about the role of Gerry, it seems likely that he has come down on Tim’s side, and I’ll bet is the one who has brought Tim’s 180 degree turn in now seeking to fight it out sharply and openly on perspectives. We sent Gerry a copy of our document shortly after it came out, inviting him to comment on it if he cared. In three weeks we’ve heard nothing in reply, but Tim now moves to propound techniques and tactics of organizational work which are an exact replica of the SLL’s, and belligerently announces that they are damn well going to be carried out.
The most serious thing about Gerry’s intervention apparently taking place is not its siding with Tim, but its form of non-recognition of our existence, which coming from the comrade who is also secretary of the IC has a downright sinister quality. We must build a genuine section in this country. Even if some of us may seem mistaken about something in the eyes of a non-infallible fraternal section or international leader, interventions should be calculated with an eye toward minimizing destructiveness. Moreover, where are our international ties then left, should, as may well happen, our Robertson-Ireland document win a majority of the tendency to it? I would be cheerfully prepared to be proved wrong in these apprehensions, especially since the way in which the IC functions in instances such as the present will have a lot to do with its ability to give substance to our aim of rebuilding a functioning Fourth International (what I’ve been saying diplomatically is that if Healy intervenes roughly and using authority to try to shove a puppet regime down our throats, it opens up a lousy vista of the future of the IC).
(4) What this means to you comrades in the Bay Area is that you will unavoidably be drawn pretty fully into this controversy, probably with some local polarization. While there are large ‘regime’ or ‘power’ aspects to this dispute, there are real differences of substance involved. While I’ll have to hold off in giving any details at all until we’ve seen something in writing by Tim, in broad outline he charges verbally that while he is loyal to the party, our document is a split document, and that in fact we’ve already split in our own minds from the party. While this is false as you personally know from my extended discussions with you recently, something is meant by Tim’s charge and it is this: he feels a kind of continuum between himself and forces to the right of us in the party majority. We (R-I) not merely feel, but in our perspectives document, define the political gulf between us and the party majority (which also recognizes and acts on that gulf!).
Tim has a whole set of tactical ideas on his ‘as if we’re all party members together’ approach, all of which try to wish away the division rather than act to strengthen us in the light of its existence. Since in some ways he doesn’t really mean it–i.e., the incongruity that the tendency should be under tight centralized discipline to him–I characterize his line as a kind of pseudo-conciliationism.