On the Current Situation of the Revolutionary Left
The following are excerpts from a 23 January letter sent by a former Spartacist League cadre to Tom Riley of the Bolshevik Tendency:
I must admit…my worries about what is happening to the revolutionary (including the self-defined revolutionary) left in this period… kind of like a candle that is going out after having burned down to its base. It might be different in Europe to some slight extent, I don’t know, but in the US, it seems like the death knell of Marxist-Leninism is upon us. The Spartacist League, since mid 2020, is now like the wizard of Oz hiding behind a curtain: is it really there or not? This is the group that saved Trotskyism from the degenerating SWP, and now has nothing to say for itself, except for one leaflet condemning support for the Democrats, issued very late in the pre-election period last year, and, I think, only in response to an article in the Internationalist attacking them. Since then…nothing.
The SL’s demise is to be blamed in part on its drastic shift toward nationalism and other errors, but is not its demise a certain sign of the times as well. Where are the alternatives[?].…Again, looking at the big picture, and thinking about the future, how can we not worry about the survival of revolutionary Marxist-Leninism?
This has been long in coming, and is not the fault of any one existing revolutionary organization. It clearly extends the long and treacherous decline of the influence of the Russian Revolution, first sold out by Stalinism, and then the long decline into reformism. But the remaining revolutionary left doesn’t have much of an end game, apparently.
On the same day Riley responded:
Yes we are well aware of the predicament of the far left you point to. The left has been trending down pretty steeply. Barnes turned the SWP into a Stalinoid cult years ago which no one ever sees, the ISO imploded into the DSA, the SL imploded period—it was like something, as you say, out of the Wizard of Oz, but more like the witch having water tossed on her than the guy behind the curtain, I think. The LRP called, explicitly, to vote Biden this year (exceptional situation, etc.) They are finished obviously. The SWP UK had a major schism five years ago, the CWI, the second biggest Brit group has shattered into about four or five pieces internationally a year or two ago. https://bolsheviktendency.org/2019/11/23/cwi-implodes/ also https://bolsheviktendency.org/2020/12/01/socialist-party-on-china/
We have produced polemical programmatic analyses on most of this, and especially on the IG which is as you point out still claiming the RT/SL legacy. We reached out to them in 1996 with a very sensible letter suggesting that they look critically at the SL’s history so as to avoid repeating it (and to open discussions with us). It is Document No. 3 (pp 7-23) in this bulletin. https://bolsheviktendency.org/2019/03/17/tb-6-polemics-with-the-internationalist-group/ No go. Instead we got brainless “scab” baiting which…. is not a serious difference—just a means of avoiding discussion.
Their position of support to President Dilma vs impeachment is indicative: unfortunately their hard Trotskyist posture does not always find application in life. I presume you have read our critical analysis of that, On the IG’s 2016 Capitulation in Brazil: – Bolshevik Tendency. I think it stands up well and the IG cannot of course respond. The IG refuses to talk to us. Norden often acts as if he thinks that PL, not the SL, had the right formula for building a viable revolutionary party—”mass action,” fakery and left-posturing while refusing to answer pointy headed “Trotskyite” criticisms or openly acknowledge mistakes.
Not just IG of course. Socialist Action completely flipped its position on Syria, from military support to the “revolution” against Assad to supporting him WITHOUT ACKNOWLEDGEMENT—as we pointed out (I think we were the first and perhaps still the only ones to do so). https://bolsheviktendency.org/2020/02/18/correcting-a-serious-misrepresentation/ No ripple. Their members are interested in building “mass movements” not hairsplitting about which side of the barricade to be on, nor are they concerned, or perhaps they just don’t notice, when the[ir] leadership switches sides.
[W]e challenged the IG on their idiotic repetition of the degenerate SL’s rejection of demanding jail for individual cops. They have sought to slide around. https://bolsheviktendency.org/2020/11/16/once-more-on-the-ig-jailing-killer-cops/. They are not stupid. They took that position to avoid political differentiation from the SL which was baiting them as BT-ophiles on the issue. The IG took the same approach to the 1999 Seattle protests—agreeing with SL’s denouncing of them as pro-imperialist China bashing, etc. When you take positions on the basis of short-term tactical advantage you are not on a Trotskyist course. Tragic in the case of the IG, but after a quarter century perhaps not likely to soon change.
They have yet to dissociate themselves from such classic Robertsonian stupidities as carrying the Salvadoran pop-front flag , defending the  “Marines Alive” position in Beirut, marching around as the “Yuri Andropov Brigade” in DC , or trying to wreck the  Longshore boycott. Nor have they acknowledged what everyone else in the world well knows, that the Soviet Union was broken and capitalist restoration triumphed when Boris Yeltsin defeated Yanayev and the coup [in August 1991], not at some unspecified point in 1992 when [James] Robertson changed his mind.
We are in a period characterized by a great deal of turmoil—it is obvious that the “normalcy” of the American Century simply cannot be sustained. And it is POSSIBLE that the forces of rational, conscious Trotskyism (which is what the RT/SL represented from 1960-80 or so) can grow and become a factor, if there is leftward motion in society that finds serious political reflection in the existing left….
I think that if our central proposition is correct: that the RT/SL tradition is uniquely the continuity of Trotskyism, then we have done not a bad job in attempting to defend it, and even to advance it. While we have, on the whole, been successful programmatically, in my humble opinion we have obviously failed in our attempt to construct an organization that has any immediate prospect of becoming a potential factor in the class struggle on the scale of, for example, the SL in 1976 or the CLA in 1933.
Our correspondent replied on 6 February 2021: “Thanks for such a detailed and thoughtful response to my admittedly rather pessimistic view of the prospects today for truly revolutionary communism, i.e., Trotskyism. I certainly hope my pessimism will turn out to be misplaced.” After expressing agreement on the slogan “Jail the Killer Cops!”, the comrade challenged our position on the 2016 impeachment of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff. Riley responded:
15 February 2021
I want to respond to some of the substantive political points in your recent (6 February) letter. You wrote:
“Next, I will take up the admittedly difficult question of the IG’s support of opposition to the impeachment trial of Dilma in Brazil. I tend to lean toward the IG’s position on this, so I hope you will bear with me for a moment. Of course this is not exactly like the Bolshevik’s opposition to Kornilov; nothing is an exact comparison. But while the Kornilov attack was openly military in nature, the Brazil case involved such an extreme example of corruption, and such an obvious attempt to return to the rule of the military in Brazil which was not that long ago, and despite the blatantly unjustified imprisonment of Lula, and the blatantly false accusations of corruption against Dilma, that it seems to me that a mobilization of the working class to oppose this impeachment would have had a similar effect of moving toward development of a revolutionary movement.”
We consider it very important to distinguish between attempts at removing a political leadership via:
1. legal/parliamentary activities (non-confidence motions, recall petitions, court suits or electoral maneuvers), and:
2. extra-legal/military action (Pinochet’s 1973 coup, Kornilov’s in 1917, Franco’s in Spain in 1936 or the one against HugoChávez in Venezuela in 2002)
What is remarkable about the Venezuelan case was that after failing to overthrow Chávez with a military coup, his rightist opponents began pursuing the same objective through legal, constitutional channels and initiating the 2004 recall referendum. While we of course opposed the CIA-backed coup in 2002, we took a different attitude toward the referendum:
“The 2004 recall campaign in Venezuela is certainly an example of ‘democratic,’ low-intensity imperialist meddling in neo-colonies. Though the Venezuelan referendum was not directly organized by the U.S., the imperialists certainly supported those behind it. Some leftists argue that it was necessary to vote against removing Chávez because of the reactionary character of his opponents. But a ‘no’ vote on the question of holding a new presidential election amounts to support for the existing bourgeois government.
“There is no question that a victory by the right could have set the stage for ‘legalizing’ wholesale attacks on working people….
“Ideally, there would have been a way to vote against the imperialist-backed right wingers without politically supporting Chávez, but the format of the referendum made this impossible, just as it was impossible to simply vote ‘against’ Le Pen in the second round of the 2002 French election. The Venezuelan referendum was not an extra-legal assault by the right, but rather a parliamentary maneuver sanctioned by the ‘Bolivarian’ constitution. This makes it rather different than the coups that deposed Chile’s Allende in 1973 or Haiti’s Aristide in 2004.”
—1917 No. 28
The 2004 Venezuelan recall referendum posed essentially the same issue as Dilma’s 2016 impeachment. In that instance the SL and IG took the same position as we did. Two years earlier, in 2002, we all similarly refused to call for votes for Jacques Chirac (the corrupt conservative incumbent) in his second-round presidential run-off with the fascist Jean-Marie LePen (leader of the Front National).
As the fascist FN was obviously in no way preferable to Dilma’s rightist opponents, it is obvious that the IG changed its criterion for the 2016 impeachment. Despite their attempts to conceal this shift behind headlines about offering “no political support” to Dilma, they were doing just that by opposing her impeachment. The IG’s stance in Brazil was essentially similar to all the pseudo-revolutionary groups in France in 2002 who called for a “vote against fascism” (i.e., for Chirac) in the second round. In both cases they took a side in a parliamentary dispute between rival bourgeois candidates.
You suggested that the IG’s position on Brazil has a parallel with Petrograd in 1917:
“when the Kornilov attack threatened, the working class immediately began to mobilize, and the Bolsheviks along with it. But many, possibly most, of the workers at that moment were Mensheviks, or SRs, or just individuals who sought to defend the Provisional government, which, after all, had been called into existence by the Soviets after the overthrow of the Czar. These workers were in the majority of the Soviets at that moment, while Bolsheviks were a minority. But the Bolsheviks waited not a minute to move in and lead the mobilization against Kornilov.
“This despite the fact that the bulk of the workers had illusions about the Provisional Government, or at least sought to defend it against Kornilov. Meanwhile, Kerensky, the head of the government, had been trying to work a deal with Kornilov in order to curb the revolutionary workers movement in Petrograd. He soon had to back off from that (what a worm he was!). Despite whatever the mass of the workers were thinking about defending the Provisional government, the Bolsheviks moved in against Kornilov without the slightest hesitation, and won over the proletariat in the process.”
This overlooks a critical distinction—Kornilov was not running a petition campaign, filing a lawsuit, or putting forward a non-confidence motion; he was organizing a military coup to seize power, just as Pinochet and Franco did in subsequent decades. Had Kornilov succeeded he would have acted as they did and brutally crushed the left and workers’ movement.
In Brazil the situation was fundamentally different: Dilma’s impeachment did not violate the façade of bourgeois democracy and did not therefore pose a life and death issue for the workers’ movement. The IG has acknowledged as much. Serious revolutionists must be able to distinguish situations which pose the threat of the imminent bloody destruction of all working-class organizations (e.g., Pinochet, Franco, Kornilov) with those involving rightists seeking to use legal, constitutional mechanisms to replace an elected official (e.g., Dilma 2016).
As the IG itself acknowledged, the reason that Dilma was in trouble was because roughly half of those who had voted for her were so disgusted by her actions that they were indifferent to whether she stayed in office or not. The IG also reported that Dilma’s government was continuing to push new anti-working class measures even during the impeachment drive. We suggested that, rather than siding with a bourgeois lesser evil, revolutionaries should have advocated organized resistance to the ongoing assaults in an attempt to help unite the badly divided workers’ movement and prepare the ground for a counter-offensive.
You raised another historical analogy:
“Then there is the opposite example, that of the Communist Party in Bulgaria in 1923, which failed to rise up to oppose a fascist threat to the democratic government of that country when it needed to. The Communist International, though weakened in the late stage of the Fourth Congress, nevertheless supported/advised action by the Bulgarian CP in this. The CP failed to act, and Bulgaria was a fascist mess for years afterwards. This, as I understand it, was not a military threat such as Kornilov, but nevertheless was a threat to a fake ‘democracy’ which the CP could have turned into a revolutionary movement.”
I think you are in error here, as the Bulgarian coup in 1923 was identical to Kornilov’s 1917 attempt. While Lenin and the Bolsheviks understood that a rightist military assault on Kerensky’s government represented a deadly threat to the entire workers’ movement, the Bulgarian CP treated the armed rightist coup against the capitalist government as an intra-bourgeois quarrel in which workers had no side. Comintern historian John Riddell provides the following outline:
“On the eve of the [Comintern’s] June 1923 Enlarged Plenum, a right-wing coup in Bulgaria overthrew the government headed by radical Peasant Party leader Aleksandar Stamboliyski, sparking armed resistance by Peasant Party supporters.
“The Communist Party of Bulgaria had the support of the overwhelming majority of the working class of the country, dwarfing the Social-Democratic party, with dominance in the trade unions and among working-class deputies in parliament. Within the Comintern, the Bulgarian CP had often been pointed to as a model party.
“But during the coup, the party failed the test. Rather than opposing the rightwing governmental seizure and seeing it as an attack on the working class and peasantry as a whole, the CP took a neutral stance, presenting the coup as an internecine struggle within the bourgeoisie that workers had no stake in. During the days of the coup, the Bulgarian party repeatedly defended this stance of neutrality.
“The coup and the CP’s failure was the subject of a report by Radek given to the last session of the Third Enlarged Plenum. Radek’s report subjected the Bulgarian CP and its leadership to withering criticism….
“In contrast to the approach of the Bulgarian Communist Party, Radek cited the example of the Bolsheviks in 1917 during the attempted coup by General Lavr Kornilov against the Provisional Government led by Alexander Kerensky. Although the Bolsheviks were opponents of Kerensky, who had persecuted them fiercely, they nevertheless helped organise the successful resistance to Kornilov.”
—Part 2: Introduction to ‘The Communist International at a Crossroads’, John Riddell, June 2018
The Wikipedia entry on the 1923 events adds graphic detail:
“On the morning of June 9, 1923, before dawn, the order was given for the garrisons in Sofia to block roads, cut telephone lines, and take control of key objectives such as police stations, post offices and train stations. After three hours, the coup was successful….
“[Prime Minister] Aleksandar Stamboliyski was away from the capital on the day of the coup. He was arrested five days later and handed over to [right-wing] Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO) fighters in his home town of Slavovitsa who brutally tortured him for hours, and cut off his hand, before finally murdering him.”
“Despite the initial success, the new government was still in danger. In several places, the coup met with the opposition of agrarian activists and communist activists, an event known in Bulgarian historiography as the June Uprising. The uprising was largely unorganized in its essence, lacking a common leadership… Despite large-scale activity by the rebels…it was quickly crushed by the new government. Crucial was the inactivity of the Bulgarian Communist Party.”
I am sure you will agree that the events in Bulgaria in 1923 had a fundamentally different character to those in Brazil in 2016.
You also raised the 6 January riot at the U.S. Capitol:
“Another example could be the recent coup attempt by hard right supporters of Trump against the Congress in the US. If there had been a revolutionary party with sufficient forces in DC, what should they have done? A mobilization to oppose this attack on Congress could have been misinterpreted as a defence of the government, of which the head was Trump! But of course, that is not the point. The attempt of Trump to overturn an honest election, and continue his rule as a dictator, of which this 06 January attack was just the final gasping, incompetent episode, was an idiotic farce, perhaps, but was also a life-threatening attack on elected officials (of both capitalist parties!). The intervention of a revolutionary party, big enough and prepared for combat action, might have sent the message that only a working class revolution can set this straight for workers. Of course, for that to happen, a revolutionary party prepared to deal with such a situation would assume a very different situation in the nation as a whole.”
As we explained in our 14 January statement, we do not consider that 6 January events were a coup. The IG and most of the left share this view. If a “revolutionary party with sufficient forces” existed in the U.S. today, Trump would never have been able to sign up so many of the disenfranchised, ground-down white workers who compose his core support. Bernie Sanders (whose mild reformist notions of medicare and tuition cuts were too much for Wall Street and the Democrats) was projected by almost every pollster as easily defeating Trump whereas Biden had much less support. This is because Sanders appealed to a section of those tossed aside by the U.S. bourgeoisie who mistakenly identified Trump as someone who might stand up for them. The existence of a mass revolutionary party would have undercut Trump’s plebeian appeal and changed the whole equation.
Finally, you raised the issue of the IG’s attitude to its own history, i.e., that of the Spartacist League:
“The other thing I want to say is that I find the IG’s clinging to everything the SL did prior to their exit there from to be disturbing. Maybe this is in part an over-reaction to the BT’s condemnation of the Robertson regime as the over-all explanation of the decline of the SL into … what, centrism, or into something not that well described in political terms.”
In “The Road to Jimstown,” our 1985 description of the SL’s devolution, there are passages which are uncannily similar to the IG’s descriptions of their experiences in 1996. We characterized the once-revolutionary SL as having degenerated into “political banditry” (as the SL had aptly observed of Gerry Healy’s operation) with an internal regime that, on many levels, operated as an “obedience cult.” Thirty-five years later we think our analysis stands up well.
Cults, including political cults, frequently tend to have rather short half-lives after their founder/leaders depart. The collapse of the SL a little over a year after Robertson’s demise conforms to this pattern. While we marked the SL lider maximo’s passing with a balance sheet assessing his record, the leaders of the IG who, as you point out, have always avoided any serious examination of their own political history, chose to treat it as a non-event. In July 2019 we observed:
“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….”
Given the importance that Marx, Lenin and Trotsky placed on the history of the socialist movement and the struggle for revolutionary continuity, the IG’s attitude indicates that despite their energetic activism and often insightful propaganda, at their core there is a brittleness. Their willingness to politically support Dilma’s struggle to remain Brazil’s bourgeois president, and their attempt to disguise this policy with noisy denials of what it in fact represented, signaled an unwillingness to put “program first” when doing so would impede the pursuit of apparent short-term opportunity. The SL, when it was a revolutionary organization, operated on an entirely different basis. It is this heritage that we defend.