On the Logan Show Trial – Appendix B (ii)
The Case of John E.
Paranoid bureaucratism in a small international propaganda group
Notes to introduce a discussion in the Permanent Revolution Group, 4 December 1989 by Bill Logan
1974 was the hardest year in the SL/ANZ, and it is a useful historical point of reference, more or less irrespective of the John E. case. In 1974 the SL/ANZ was a very new, and a very young group.
It was about the same size as the PRG [in New Zealand] is now, and had been going about as long. I was called the national chairman. Adaire was called national secretary. We had joined the SL/NZ in 1970, but the SL/NZ of 1970 was not exactly a well-oiled bolshevik machine. In fact the SL/NZ of 1970 would make the Communist Left in Auckland today look like a crack unit in the Red Army. Our real training in bolshevik politics didn’t really begin until the latter half of 1971 when we spent a few weeks in the Spartacist League of the United States, so at the beginning of 1974 we had been exposed to some form of bolshevik organisational practice over a period of about two and a half years.
The Problems of Youth
I turned twenty-six years old during 1974, and the Australian recruits were mostly considerably younger. Many had never lived away from home before joining the organisation. The first layer of recruits were work-ing-class kids with inadequate formal education but from CP and left ALP families. Very good potential. And they developed a sharp sense of the formal programme and a dedicated commitment to the organisation. But it was potential, rather than achieved capacity.
Not only was the membership young, but so was the leadership. Joel [Salant] and John Sheridan from the Spartacist League of the United States were a bit older than Adaire and I, but not so very much older. Joel, I think, was in his late twenties, and John in his early thirties.
One of the things that Jim Robertson used to say which as a very young man I didn’t much like, was that young political leaders are not only generally simply rather ineffective, but also dangerous. He was right of course. Older people have their problems, too. We—no they—can get stodgy and over careful. But experience has its advantages.
Some aspects of politics are a bit like playing Trivial Pursuit year after year. You get to know the questions and the answers fairly well. The difficulty comes when you’re faced with a new edition of the game. An inexperienced player doesn’t actually notice much difference, but the kind of question changes, and it can be quite confusing.
A change in the political conditions is like getting a new edition of Trivial Pursuit—new questions, new answers. But if you’ve been around long enough to play with a few different editions of this political Trivial Pursuit game you should at least be able to sense the importance of a change in the edition, a change in the period. And, of course, precisely because politics is not about trivia, not about matters which are of socially marginal significance but about the central concerns of social and historical experience, each edition of our game, each period we live through actually helps build a general methodological education which provides the basis for generating answers to the new questions which will be thrown up.
So experience counts. But nobody, I think, has ever been thoroughly convinced of this proposition except through experience. Indeed the main problem with young political leaders is probably not nearly so much their lack of political experience as their failure to appreciate the significance of their lack of political experience.
So in 1974 we had a very young and inexperienced organisation of fourteen comrades. And with this organisation we had two locals, a monthly newspaper, a campus fraction, and a metal workers fraction. It was simply insanely hard work.
Why Were We Driving So Hard?
Well, we had a pretty apocalyptic view of things. A sense that the new world was about to be ushered in. We believed that the setting up of a real bolshevik organisation in Australia would lead fairly rapidly to a solution to the crisis of proletarian leadership. More importantly, perhaps, we believed that the final opportunities for the world proletarian revolution were imminent. You’ve got to remember the context. We were the children of sixty-eight. The reality which woke us to political consciousness was the reality of a profound historical discontinuity. The years of our childhood and youth were the fifties and the early sixties—conservative years, each one much like the last. The early sixties were in fact relatively more conservative in Australasia than in America.
And then in 1968 it all exploded: student power, the May events in Paris, the Prague Spring, the Tet offensive. In Wellington on 26 June 1968 I helped lead the student component of a demonstration at the opening of Parliament, in which the Federation of Labour led a huge workers’ contingent. The Governor General had to go in a side entrance. The Australian High Commissioner had not been as wise and had gone to the front entrance. His car was trampled in. We smashed through the lines of troops, with their ceremonial uniforms and bayonets, and were probably only stopped by police at the top of the steps through a sudden falling off of will—what the hell would we do if we got inside?
To people recruited to revolutionary politics in the early 1970s international revolution was not just something read about and understood from books. It seemed a palpable, felt reality. But we also had a sense of the danger of things falling back into the rut of the fifties, or if we had more historical imagination the more pessimistic sense of the imminence of barbarism. In any case we believed that if the opportunities of the day were not fully exploited then revolution might be put off the agenda indefinitely.
Nixon’s New Economic Policy, 13 August 1971
One of my most profound memories was Nixon’s new economic policy, announced in 1971 on the same day Adaire and I arrived in the United States. It was discussed at the expanded Central Committee Plenum which took place shortly afterwards, the biggest gathering of the Spartacist tendency which had ever taken place up to that point, and, of course the biggest communist meeting I had ever been at. This was the Plenum at which the Communist Workers Collective fused with the SL/U.S., and at which the transformation of the Spartacist League was initiated, with the institution of a monthly Workers Vanguard and the implementation of a serious plan of industrialisation.
Nixon’s new economic policy marked, and we knew it marked, the beginning of the end of American hegemony over the capitalist world. It laid the basis for a drift into trade war and posed the spectre of inter-imperialist world war. We knew this, and we were in a world where over the last few years most events had moved very rapidly. We expected the events foreshadowed by Nixon’s new policy to unfold with great rapidity. I remember Jim Robertson and Marv Treiger winding the organisation up for the transformation with talk about how we didn’t have much time—a few years and we’d have our final shot at it.
The expectation was that huge class battles were looming, battles in which we would have our last chance.
The problem was that even those amongst us who had been around long enough to have played with more than one edition of the game had not seen the possibility of a gradual lowering of the level of radicalisation through a series of minor capitalist crises and minor working-class victories and defeats.
So the tiny Spartacist League of Australia and New Zealand was shaped by an extraordinary sense of urgency. It was also shaped by an extraordinary revolutionary optimism, and so we worked like maniacs, and willingly suffered some quite amazing personal privations. The organisation moved its centre from Wellington to Melbourne at the beginning of 1973, and from Melbourne to Sydney and the end of that year. Everyone in the Sydney local, the largest unit in the organisation, was a transplant. We had two American comrades who were unable to work. We had a low financial base and a low skill base, so for about a year most of us lived in a highly organised commune we called the barracks.
In retrospect, the key thing about John E., irrespective of the rights and wrongs in the dispute, was that in his consciousness and his mode of functioning he represented an inarticulate and mostly unconscious challenge to our urgency, our style of work and our perspectives.
John had arrived in Australia as an eight-year-old refugee from Polish Stalinist anti-Semitism. He was rather consciously a Deutscherite. He had been in Pabloite organisations for perhaps four years, and had been a member of the National Committees of both the Hansenite Socialist Workers League and more recently the Mandelite Communist League. He had been won to the politics of the Spartacist tendency and was formally a member of the Revolutionary Internationalist Tendency, which was essentially a Spartacist fiction with a couple of members in the American SWP and hoping for other breakthroughs elsewhere.
John’s history and consciousness did not lend itself to the level of commitment and urgency demanded by the SL/ANZ. But he did not have the consciousness to fight against the organisation’s perspectives, at least until later on when he was put under great pressure. Even then, of course the fight he put up was not terribly clarifying, nor was it persisted in. However, he did, from the very first, try to get around the demands our perspective placed on him. You can imagine how infuriating our little band of zealots found someone who in his activities seemed to cast doubt on the importance and value of our extreme dedication, and even sometimes seemed to be undermining us through what looked like laziness and thoughtless acts of petty sabotage.
The Importance of Membership Status
John was a crypto-member of the organisation, not only attending local meetings, but also being appointed to various official positions in the local, and acting fully under the discipline of the organisation. One of the lessons of the John E. case is the importance of clarity about the membership status of comrades. At a certain point when it was necessary to resolve the unclarity in his status there was a division on the Political Bureau between those who emphasised his perceived unfitness for membership, and others—most particularly myself—who emphasised the fact that he had, de facto, been a member. I believed that it would be improper to remove the membership rights of a comrade on the basis of what might be considered the legal fiction of his non-membership. [I was not motivated by a desire to use the granting of candidate membership status as a tool to extract confessions or retractions through possible threats of expulsion, nor to obtain compliance with organisational pressure. (BL, 11 December 1989)]
The problem of my position was that it is demeans the importance of admitting comrades to membership if you allow someone in of whom it is the most widely held view in the organisation that they do not deserve membership.
Nobody thought of the obvious way to deal with this. A good Political Bureau resolution would have registered the ambiguity of the objective status of the comrade and the impropriety of the process which had allowed that ambiguity to develop, would have made the decision not to give him any less rights than he would have had were he unambiguously a member in regard to political debate in the organisation and to the control commission and appeal provisions of the rules, and would have passed the matter of his membership, together with the reservations comrades had about his membership and any disciplinary charges, to a control commission for report.
Leaving aside that question, however, it is clear from the record that there was a certain amount of conscious deceit and other formal infractions of discipline…. Whether or not it would have been the wise and appropriate thing to in fact expel a comrade in all the circumstances, however, is another matter. As Adaire remarked in a discussion the other day, re-reading these documents today leaves an impression of a great deal of fuss about very little. A great deal of the heat was generated by two letters from John Sharpe of the International Secretariat in New York and Helene B. who was the IS representative in Europe, complaining about John E.’s behaviour while he was under their jurisdiction….
Privacy of Correspondence
Those letters together with the Australian organisation’s reaction to his failure to abide by the decisions on the timing of his return to Australia conditioned his inability to integrate in the organisation when he got back.
There was a fair bit of hostility to him which he reacted to by a kind of passive resistance to the organisation, and by secret organisational griping to [Susi] in Germany.
Now the organisation had very firm rules about the necessity of putting the political sections of all correspondence at the disposal of the leadership of the organisation. The only exception to that was correspondence within a faction. Those rules were quite simply bad. Of course it is desirable that comrades feel able to put the political sections of correspondence at the disposal of the organisation, but the use of any organisational measures to that end causes immeasurably more harm than benefits.
The right to secret factional correspondence is necessary to the existence of factions, and is and was unquestioned. The rights to factions are necessary to the life of a bolshevik organisation. But if there is to be any meaningful right to factions there must also be a right to the transitional measures necessary to establish a faction. That means the right to secret pre-factional and non-factional correspondence. John E. and [Susi] at one stage argued for that right. The argument presented against them was developed in terms of a cut and dried distinction between a healthy organisation in which it would be incorrect to mount a faction, and an unhealthy one in which it is necessary to mount a faction. If the organisation is unhealthy a good bolshevik knows clearly the manner in which it is unhealthy, is prepared to argue that it is unhealthy, and declares a faction. Otherwise there can, it was argued, be no right of factional secrecy. Now that, of course, allows for no dialectical moment of transition between the health and ill-health of the organisation, nor of transitional moments in comrades’ consciousness of that change in the organisation.
It is sufficient to say that the Permanent Revolution Group is for the simple right of comrades to secrecy of correspondence with other members of the organisation. We hope that comrades generally hand over the political sections of their letters to the leadership of the organisation. But there is no rule about it, and no organisational measures may be taken against any comrade who does not wish to hand over such materials. The only exception to this is when there is specific cause to believe the presence of a clear danger to the security of the organisation.
This rule of the inviolability of secret correspondence among members of the organisation can, of course, cause problems. Sometimes correspondence which was meant to be secret or pretends to be secret is in fact not secret at all, but targeted selectively.
A comrade might complain in a letter about their organiser without telling the organiser or anyone else in their local. That might give rise to critical discussion in another local. If that situation is deliberately engineered it is clearly deeply unprincipled and will give rise to the political discrediting of the comrade responsible. But there are no guarantees which can prevent the development of such problems. We can only hope that in general a good local leadership will be sensitive to such possibilities and make whatever contact with other locals or the central body that is necessary in the circumstances.
The point is that no rules regarding the revealing of correspondence in order to overcome the problems are worth the political costs they necessarily incur.
[My long document of 4 August 1974 justifying taking John E.’s letters without his permission shows that at the time I was not aware of the necessity to secure the rights of pre-factional correspondence. I did not see the danger of an atmosphere of intimidation created by a developing bureaucratism in an otherwise programmatically revolutionary organisation. (BL, 11 December 1989)]
The Dangers of Extrapolation
Finally, I’d like to say something about one aspect of the method of argument in my long document of 4 August 1974. In a number of different matters various things that John E. said or did are analysed to death. Little bits and pieces are put together to make a case that what John E. is really saying is rather more than he ever said himself. It is possible to damn anyone through this method.
It is a matter of extrapolation. Extrapolation is a necessary political tool. We often look at an argument or a set of behaviours and say of it that if taken to its necessary conclusion it has certain important implications. However, extrapolation can be dangerous. The world is a complicated thing, and often the implications which can be drawn from an argument about the world do not flow with the iron necessity which might seem to have such crystalline clarity to the commentator. Furthermore most people have very mixed consciousness, so even if certain conclusions are derived with absolute necessity from an argument, that in no way proves that the comrade putting forward the argument was conscious of those conclusions or should be held to have an absolute responsibility for them. It is one thing to point out to a comrade the probable consequences of his or her line of reasoning. It is a quite different thing to attribute consciousness or blame for those conclusions if they have not been drawn.
It is clear that in this long document on John E. I indulge in unjustifiable extrapolationism. Some of us were discussing the case of Keith O. the other day, and you can see me using the same method in that case. Not so good.