Exchange with a former member of the Spartacus Youth League
The following is a recent exchange between a former member of the Spartacus Youth League (SYL–the youth group of the Spartacist League/U.S. [SL]) and Tom Riley of the BT.
I have been reading some of your articles lately. Of particular interest to me are your pieces on Jimstown. I was a member of the SYL for a while around 1975 in Madison WI [Wisconsin]. I was 20 years old and had initially seen the SL at public meeting called by some left/liberals on the Madison campus about the Chilean coup. I was impressed by their intervention during the question period. Later they sent an organizer called Rick Gold to build an SYL branch. Rick Gold, (Gold was his party name) fairly quickly built a pretty good local group.
The branch attracted some trade unionists as well as young workers and students. The SYL developed roots in the Madison left and was respected by many, but of course hated by the Maoists. In Madison at the time the RSB [Revolutionary Student Brigade—youth group of Bob Avakian’s Revolutionary Communist Party] was the largest of the left groups on campus and we politically skirmished with them frequently.
All seemed to be going pretty well until the Chicago branch and probably the national org decided to step in. I am not sure of the details of their “investigation” but they determined that the Madison branch had turned into a “Menshevik Clot.” Madison branch members were brought to Chicago and dressed down by the Chicago comrades. Most of us Madison folks had no idea about what was going on, but of course confessed and apologized for our weaknesses. Outside of Rick Gold, the rest of us lacked any substantial political experience in party politics.
The national leadership then decided to break up the Madison local. I’m not sure what became of Rick Gold…but I presume he either got kicked out or resigned. I don’t know if this was an event that had anything to do the “clone purge” that was to come. I recall that the Chicago local invited us to come along with them and “do an intervention” at an RSL [Revolutionary Socialist League] forum. The Chicago local showed us how to intervene. The result was a scream fest between the RSL and the Chicago comrades. Small wonder that non-aligned attendees were completely alienated by this event.
Sometime after the dressing down of the Madison comrades, the comrades were shipped out to do trade-union work or otherwise they were sent to other locals to be absorbed in other party work or a few stayed behind and continued to be supporters. Most quit within a year or two, although there were several that stayed active members for a long time. Jim [S.] and Bill [R.] were two that stuck it out for decades.
I parted company with the SYL during the early period when they decided to ship me out to Cleveland to get a job in a steel mill. I guess I just didn’t have what it took to turn professional revolutionary. In retrospect I think I definitely made the right choice to part company with the SL although I remained supportive of their politics for a good number of years. Now, I find it embarrassing to admit to my former affiliation with the SL. As your articles on Jimstown helped to reveal the SL had turned into a political cult and a personal cult.
Unlike you guys, I don’t think that there is much politically left to salvage. I look into this stuff more from curiosity. I find it interesting that you guys have clung to the SL’s legacy. How is clinging to their tainted legacy and program that much different than the SEP’s [Socialist Equality Party] clinging to the legacy that [Gerry] Healy left the International Committee?
I owe most of my educational introduction to Marxism and Trotskyism to the SYL and particularly to Rick Gold. My interest in Marxism has continued throughout my adult life. I had the good fortune of having access to the massive UW [University of Wisconsin] library and the WI Historical Society collections. I continue to check out the literature available on the web by your group and [Jan] Norden’s [Internationalist] group. I read the WSWS [World Socialist Web Site published by the SEP] daily and find that they do a pretty good job of reporting important events going on in the world. I do not support the SEP on a number of positions. I don’t consider myself a Trotskyist anymore. There are many reasons for my change of perspective on Trotskyism. I would consider myself more of a council communist than anything else these days but with some caveats. I could go on and elaborate but you might not be that interested.
Thanks for getting in touch. We have been contacted by a number of former Spartacists recently. Many, like you, share what we see as a tendency to lose sight of the historical importance of the RT [Revolutionary Tendency] and the SL of the 1960s and 70s. We consider that the RT was important because, among other things, it was the only group that correctly understood the character of the Cuban Revolution at the time—it rejected Pablo/Mandel/Hansen’s claim that Castro’s guerrillas had carried out a workers’ revolution qualitatively identical to the Russian Revolution of October 1917 and also repudiated the Healy/Wohlforth nonsense about Cuba remaining capitalist.
We do not see our commitment to that tradition as equivalent to “clinging to the legacy that Healy left the International Committee,” because Healy was wrong and Robertson was right. The Spartacist tendency was also correct on every other programmatic difference they had with Healy. We consider that the SL’s program provided revolutionary answers to virtually every major political issue they addressed during the 1960s and 70s, in contrast to their competitors. This is why we regard the tradition of the Spartacist tendency in its prime to be worth trying to “politically salvage” as you put it.
I do not recall having any significant contact with members of the SL’s Madison organizing committee and do not recognize the names of any of the comrades you mention. I do vaguely remember internal reports, or perhaps they were published accounts, that were very positive about developments in Madison. I also recall that before long this estimate was reversed and the operation was subsequently wound up, as you describe. I think that Mark Lance, one of the best writers for Workers Vanguard at the time, may have been involved in the Madison work.
Paul Collins, who I suspect was the Chicago organizer when the branch decided to “step in,” was reputed to have run one of the SL’s most abusive local regimes. I have no personal knowledge, but it seems plausible that the treatment of a Madison “Menshevik Clot” would have been excessively heavy-handed. To my knowledge there was no connection between events in Madison and the 1978 Clone Purge.
The Canadian Spartacist group was launched in April 1974 and, like Madison, we initially grew very rapidly. Within a year we had almost 50 people. Many of our recruits came from the Mandelite Revolutionary Marxist Group, or its periphery, including several postal workers. The SL leadership was unable to send an experienced cadre to Toronto, so we were largely left to run things ourselves. Before long a “Menshevik/New Left” bulge was diagnosed and two political bureau members (Reuben Samuels and George Crawford) were dispatched to lance the boil. The members of the Toronto branch were subjected to the sort of severe “dressing down” you described in Madison which also produced a great deal of confusion and contrition. In hindsight it was pretty ham-fisted; the SL leadership (doubtless Robertson) had presumed the existence of more or less fully developed alien political appetites, when in fact the real problem was a failure to assimilate the Spartacist version of Leninist functioning. Left to our own devices it was hardly surprising that we tended to act on the basis of previous experience as Maoid New Leftists and left-Pabloists. We were doing the best we could, but there was a real problem with Menshevik functioning which needed to be addressed. I rather suspect that this may have also been the case in Madison. While the Toronto intervention was not conducted as pedagogically as it ideally might have been, the objective was to correct errors and salvage as many people as possible (in fact no one was driven out). It was this episode I had in mind in when I described [in “Jimstown as we knew it” https://bolsheviktendency.org/2022/02/01/jimstown-as-we-knew-it/] how the Robertson regime operated in the mid-1970s:
“When political disputes did arise, or the leadership criticized individual members, the intent was to correct and educate. Although sometimes carried out in an insensitive and heavy-handed manner, these interventions were not designed to crush or drive out supposed miscreants.”
Your account of the intervention at a Chicago RSL meeting recalls a similar experience I had as an SL contact in New York in the autumn of 1973. Helene Brosius headed a team of SLers whose remarks during the discussion round at an RSL meeting immediately turned the event into exactly the sort of “scream fest” you describe. The SL initiated it and the RSL responded in kind. I did not much like it—particularly because I was somewhat sympathetic to the RSL’s position that the Soviet Union was state capitalist and had hoped to hear some serious discussion of that issue. I recall thinking that this approach did not seem to make much sense, but I was sufficiently impressed with the SL’s political acumen and seriousness that I continued to move closer and I subsequently witnessed SL cadres intervening far more effectively.
As the SL degenerated politically, the quality of its polemics declined along with its ability to persuade serious people of its positions. But even at its best, in the mid-1970s, some things could have been done better. It is important to recall that perhaps two-thirds or three-quarters of the membership in 1973 had only been in the group for a year or two, so the fact that there were rough edges is hardly surprising. I had moved to New York in September 1973 to investigate the variety of different Trotskyist tendencies and within a matter of weeks the qualitative superiority of the SL began to become clear to me.
I have never closely studied council communism, but I suspect that it may be open to some of the criticisms that Engels, Trotsky and Cannon made of anarchism. In the First Ten Year of American Communism Cannon, a former Wobbly, wrote:
“In my young days I was very friendly to the anarchists, and was an anarchist myself by nature. ….But my impulse to go all the way with them was blocked by recognition that the transformation of society, which alone can make real freedom possible, cannot be achieved without organization, and that organization signifies discipline and the subordination of the individual to the majority.”
I think that the history of the 20th Century validates that proposition, i.e., that the masses of humanity can only free themselves from capitalist exploitation through the agency of a Leninist/Trotskyist vanguard party. For a couple of decades the SL, unlike all its competitors, acted to advance that historical possibility. That is why we consider that its history—both its rise and decline—is worth studying.